The Unconventional Conceptions of Race in the Works of N.K. Jemisin

Some months ago, I wrote about the various ways in which the inherent social construction of race and the lived realities of race interplay in The Fifth Season. I dubbed this phenomenon the existential paradox of race, and defined it as the “conflict between the fundamental nonexistence of race [and] the salient effects of race in function”, arguing that race in Jemisin’s story deliberately differed from race in the real world in order to encourage readers to reflect on their own conceptions about race. Somewhat inspired by the critical race theory texts I was reading for another class at this time, I found myself understanding more about how race was manufactured in our world, and saw similar patterns within The Fifth Season. In brief, I argued that Jemisin presented the racialization of orogenes (humans with the ability to manipulate seismic events) by non-orogenic humans with three key distinctions to traditional conceptions of race in the real world: the lack of genetic basis for inheriting orogeny, the absence of any homogenous culture within orogene populations, and the outward discrimination towards orogenes, a much more clear-cut discriminatory culture than the subtle subjugation in our reality. In differentiating her created race from our modern conceptions of race as geographically & genetically relevant and more or less determinable by appearance, Jemisin’s world communicates that there is no reality or truth in how races are created and determined, but that they are a product of arbitrary classification criteria. Our world chose to care about skin color and – to a lesser extent – geography when creating the races in our zeitgeist, the world of The Fifth Season chose orogeneity. Neither of these classifications are accurate or necessary ways to group people, as both are just as absurd and arbitrary as the other.

As I have read the other works in this trilogy, my opinions on the central method Jemisin demands the reader introspect on the existential paradox of race has remained, but it has been applied in different ways to different groups within the world she has created. This expansion of the strategy she uses follows the central strategy of separating racialized traits in the book from racialized traits in real life, but the specific traits may change based on the group being racialized. Whereas orogenes do not share any specific features or genealogy, and this is the vector through which the arbitrary classification of race is elucidated for this group, the stone eaters are, in part, grouped by their behavior and elusive origins. The stone eaters are a group of sapient statues entirely made of various kinds of stone, and are few in number. While the appearances of stone eaters are, of course, very distinct from those of any other peoples in the world, the ways other characters within the text speak of stone eaters indicates that this difference in appearance is not the primary trait that leads stone eaters to be othered. When characters describe stone eaters, their behavior, speech, and mystique come up quite often. The way stone eaters speak without moving their mouths, their inscrutability of expression, and their movement are all reasons they are described as “uncanny” and “so like humanity and yet so wildly different” (The Stone Sky, p. 27). In distinguishing stone eaters from other peoples through their atypical behaviors and the lack of general knowledge about them from the public, it seems to me as though Jemisin is exploring how culture and behavior can be used to judge personhood, and thus racialize. When Hoa – a stone eater – and Essun – and orogene human – encounter a stranger who seems as though he “maybe didn’t quite believe” in the existence of stone eaters, the man addresses Essun with a “hi” and Hoa with a nervous “uh, hi I guess?” (The Stone Sky, p. 162). This interaction stuck out to me, as the man seemed to not know if he should address a stone eater as he would another person, even one he knew nothing about. Stone eaters seemingly fall so far outside traditional conceptions of humanity that interacting with them is a challenge to non-stone-eaters, which can only serve to widen the divide between them.

Another group to which Jemisin implores the reader to introspect is the Niess, a group designation for peoples of the Niess kingdom millennia before the events of the novel. In The Stone Sky, the narration often offers a glimpse of a world back before there were orogenes or stone eaters, but far from an unracialized world. These sections are told from the perspective of a tuner, an artificially created group of sapient humanoids with the ability to “tune” to esoteric obelisks to provide power to their kingdom of Syl Anagist. Tuners hold many human traits, superficially and internally, but are also intended to lack emotion and human experience (The Stone Sky, p. 211). While these facts are themselves reflective of a gross denial of personhood from Syl Anagist, to understand Jemisin’s correlation to racialization requires a look at the history of this society. Syl Anagist was a growing superpower before this time, and eventually came to control all but one land that housed the Thniess people (whose name was bastardized to Niess due to mispronunciation). The Niess could be described as hedonistic, and in their love for life and art, they were able to create technology far more efficient to those of Syl Anagist. Syl Anagist, in their belief that their society was inherently superior, saw this technology far exceeding their capabilities being used simply for art, and in an effort to reaffirm their superiority, killed nearly all of the Niess (The Stone Sky, p. 209-211). Now, the Niess were a short-statured, kinky-haired people with nearly colorless white skin, and when Syl Anagist turned against them, even as the few remaining Niess were scattered and assimilated into various cultures, these traits were reviled by those who saw the Niess as an undesirable race of people. When describing the appearance of the tuners, however, these features of the Niess are described, and seeing as the appearance of these artificially created humans cannot be anything but intentional, the tuners were clearly intended to be perceived as part of the subjugated and discriminated race of the Niess. Despite being artificially created, with no relation to the Niess in origin, the tuners come to understand how the world perceives them despite this: “to them, we are [Niess]” (The Stone Sky, p. 257). Again, Jemisin separates the racialized peoples in her text from traditional conceptions of how race operates. The question then is raised: what is the purpose of appearance-based race categorization in a world where such features may have no connection to any peoples or groups to which a race typically refers? In Syl Anagist, there is an answer – to justify the subjugation of the tuners and the genocide of the Niess – but how the subjugation of the tuners works when they do not and cannot have a race ties back to the existential paradox of race. Syl Anagist’s manufactured race of tuners almost embodies this thought, a group that cannot be related to any existing race, but still – very intentionally – feel the effects of their racialization by society.

Upon reflection, my take on the way this trilogy has handled racialization has not changed significantly. From the beginning, I felt that Jemisin was encouraging readers to understand that the racialization of a people is only ever a reductive classification based on arbitrary traits. Race is not something that exists and thus can’t be reduced to any number of traits a person has, but race is absolutely something one can experience in a racialized society, regardless of the traits a society chooses to associate with a group of people. The existential paradox of race will always exist as long as society chooses to racialize people. In fact, in my sameness of thought as the trilogy progressed, I don’t believe that it was too terribly important for my opinions to change on this matter, especially when the way Jemisin’s handling of racialization in the first text was so inspired. The way Jemisin portrayed the racialization of orogenes in The Fifth Season was incredibly poignant, especially in her separation of skin color and genetic factors from the orogenes. Showing how people who, in every sense other than an innately bestowed ability, are just like everyone else in the story in their diversity of culture, ancestry, and appearance but were subjugated so intensely for a trait which society deemed undesirable was immensely affecting for me as a reader. I wrote about how when orogenes are forced into a group, there is no cohesive identity, as orogenes can be just as culturally and socially distinct from one another as orogenes and non-orogenes. Reminiscent of the ways in which the slave trade served to group people across the African continent who all had unique cultures and identities under a single banner because of their skin color, the orogenes likewise were never one people, but various peoples who happened to share a trait their society chose to essentialize. While the analysis of the stone eaters as a manufactured race does merit discussion, as with the purposeful likening of the tuners to an undesirable race, the cultural dissonance present between orogenes communicated to me that a single trait does not and cannot embody or define a people. Despite orogenes having no collectivity, no meaningful commonalities except being victims of prejudice and intense reprehension, they are grouped into one people, one race by larger society, and this assumption of a collective “other” allows people to hate collectively. This is the foundation of racialization, and is embodied so clearly and poetically in just the first text of this trilogy that Jemisin was able to capture my curiosity and command introspection with how well the racialization of orogenes provoked reflection on the existential paradox of race.

The Existential Paradox of Race

Race is imagined. Race is real. These two statements are not, as many believe, contradictory. In fact, they are both true and inextricably causally linked. This is an ostensible paradox that Jemisin seeks to unravel in the world and narrative of The Fifth Season. To understand the basis of this stance, one must first understand the social construction of race and its systemic salience in the world of The Fifth Season. In brief, the inhabitants of the text live on a single, tectonically hyperactive continent wherein there lies a single primary political power concentrated at the very center. The peoples of this land deemed “The Stillness” are analogous to humans in all but one sense – their sensitivity to seismic activity. Few of these peoples are born with the ability to manipulate this seismic activity, and are deemed “orogenes” politely and “roggas” crudely but generally. These orogenes are feared due to their powers, which can be unwieldy and dangerous in the wrong or untrained hands. Orogenes are the central racial focus of the book, as their race is the root of the narrative in this story. Historically, orogenes have been subjugated, robbed of autonomy, lynched, and the lucky ones shunted off to be raised and trained to be a profitable tool for the powers that be. Understanding these key elements to the narrative is essential to follow Jemisin’s creative address of the aforementioned existential paradox of race. For the purposes of this analysis, I will be delving into the unreality and artificial creation of race within The Fifth Season, the ways in which race is salient, systemic, and real to the inhabitants of the world, and the effects of these points within the text as well as its implications for our world. I will also draw on real-world examples and analogues to highlight certain points of the text in order to demonstrate and corroborate these points when necessary.  

Orogeneity is seemingly quite different from race in our world. For one, there is only a loose genetic correlation to orogeny. Two orogenic parents can sire offspring without any orogenic qualities while two stills – a term for non-orogenic people – can have orogenic children. These occurrences are rare, and orogeny is inherited more often than not, but this nonetheless acts as a very different form of race classification than is traditionally considered in reality, as the orogenic race is not reducible to any one nation, culture, or phenotype. This, however, is not actually a departure from reality, but a reflection of it. Consider the ways in which our world has classified and determined race, and how these definitions have evolved over time due to shifting values and opinions. Take the hypodescent framework of racial classification adopted by the Jim Crow-era U.S. where one’s race was simply and elegantly defined as Black if any modicum of Black ancestry was present. This, of course, was a flawed plan, as stories of white-skinned people who had gone their whole lives believing themselves white suddenly were forced to use colored facilities and identify as such due to an estranged Black great-great-great-great-grandparent (Ray, p. 13). The “one drop rule” fell apart quite quickly and revealed that race was about more than just genetics. So much more, in fact, that it revealed a fundamental lack of reasoning for any meaningful form of classification. In Jemisin’s world, this could be seen as distinct from the orogenes, as classification is as simple as the presence of orogeny. This stance is a result of conflation of classification with racialization. Classification of orogenes is easy and natural, much like blonds or blue-eyed people. A race, however, requires a shared culture, nationality, or lineage – none of which orogenes have. Orogeny is a quality imparted to a person, but it does not denote a people. 

Once the unreality of race is confronted, one must contend with the reality of its presence. Orogenes are persecuted, subjugated, and othered by virtue of their orogeny. These systemic injustices are real and have meaningful effects on orogenes. Orogenes must live in a world that has racialized them and oppressed them as a group without discretion. This is the only culture all orogenes have in common. In this sense, race is very real and salient to the characters within The Fifth Season. An example of this reality being acknowledged by orogenes themselves takes the form of the orogene community, Castrima, led in part by Ykka Rogga Castrima. Ykka’s community contains a great many orogenes from all over the continent, in which “all the buildings are in wildly varied styles… Uniformity sends a message… This [community’s] visual message is… confused.” (Jemisin, p. 265). This conflict of culture in a community that largely harbors outcasted orogenes is a great example of both the lack of a true unified race of orogenes and that the racialization of orogenic people is an ever-present reality for all orogenes. In our world, this has, perhaps most vividly, manifested in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Black people across Africa, a gargantuan continent with incredibly diverse communities, cultures, and peoples, were bought and sold like cattle in huge quantities. Slave traders and buyers paid no mind to the culture and origin of these people, as they were now no longer a member of a tribe or community or a people but were now just Black. People born across the Sahara from an enslaved peer were now seen as one and the same, forced into unity and a shared community as a result of their racialization by a foreign power that deemed it so. 

The effects of this absurd state of simultaneous race reality and unreality have a profound effect on the characters within the text. Some are more aware of the dichotomy while others possess a lingering sense of confusion surrounding racial affairs within the world. Essun, an older orogenic woman and a main character of the text, falls under the latter category. She is the one who ventured into Castrima and expressed a confusion as to the state of unity present, not realizing it is a product of the inherent nonexistence of cultural unity among orogenes. Throughout her story, she is shown to be grappling with the idea of orogenes as a race, not a classification. Once claiming orogenes “aren’t human” then internally acknowledging this as a falsehood “all roggas know” (Jemisin, p. 354). This confusion is related to her turbulent history with her own identity, being able to identify as an orogene as dictated by larger society, identifying with her orogeny independently from this society, and being forced to hide her orogeny to avoid being racialized. A character more confident in their outlook on race in the world is Alabaster, an exceedingly powerful orogene trained and owned by the central governance of Yumenes. His actions in the book come from an understanding of the paradoxical nature of orogene racialization, most clearly is his destruction of the continent that threatens the lives of all the world’s inhabitants. The justification for this action comes from a belief that the racialization of orogenes has crossed a Rubicon, and that to dismantle the oppression and racialization orogenes face in this world, the world must be dismantled (Jemisin, p. 6-7).  

The existential paradox of race is a conflict between the fundamental nonexistence of race in form but the salient effects of race in function. Jemisin encourages readers to think about racialization in novel ways by detaching the orogenes from any genetic or physical characteristics that are traditionally used to classify race. This is a powerful method of subverting the traditional definition of race for a group that is very clearly suffering from systemic racism in her works, and show the reader that race is an artifice of society, made real only by the consequences it has for those deemed to be members of that race. The unifying struggle of oppression all orogenes must face in their cultural, genetic, and physical dissonance is a reminder of how the manufacturing of a Black race has had lasting consequences for black-skinned people in society centuries after its conception. Many people believe race has been an issue all throughout human history, but Jemisin takes us very close to the beginning of the creation of a race to show that this is not the case. Race can mean whatever we choose for it to mean, as long as it is enforced and believed by larger society. Race is only as real as we allow it to be.  


Jemisin, N. K. The Fifth Season. Orbit, 2015. 

Ray, Victor. On Critical Race Theory: Why It Matters & Why You Should Care. Random House, 2018