The Process of Racialization in The Fifth Season- Stella Kahnis

By using the process of racialization, Jemisin is able to create a world of science fiction with an oppressive social system comparable to our own world. Jemisin uses the fictional world in the Fifth Season in order to magnify the corruption and prejudice that has become so normalized and unnoticed in our society. Although the fictional aspects in The Fifth Season such as the powers of orogenes, stone eaters, and guardians are obviously not a reflection of our world, Jemisin uses these embellishments as a way to entertain the reader while stressing the correlation to racism, social classes, and corruption in governmental powers in our society. According to “The Sociology of Racism”, from Scholars at Harvard, the process of racialization uses “perceived patterns of physical difference” in order to distinguish people into groups, thus classifying each group as a “race”. This description goes on to detail the difference between racialization and racism, explaining how exactly racism develops. “Racialization becomes racism when it involves the hierarchical and socially consequential valuation of racial groups.” (The Sociology of Racism). I believe that this definition directly correlates to The Fifth Season. There is a hierarchy established in this society, and there are severe consequences from valuing each “race” differently. Jemison uses the process of racialization in The Fifth Season by distinguishing each “race” clearly, showing the effects of this distinction and describing the hate and violence that it causes, and creating a governmental system that uses its power in order to control society. Jemisin unfolds a deeply layered plotline that unveils a social system with a corrupt imbalance of power and uses the process of racialization to create a prejudiced and divided society.

Jemison introduces the world where the story takes place as “The Stillness”. It is a world full of environmental chaos such as “quakes” and “seasons”, but the theme of chaos continues as the social constructs that are in place develop. Jemisin combines myth, science, and racialization in order to stress the idea of racism in our own society. She does this by first introducing and distinguishing each “race”. In this society, there are many different groups, such as leaderships, guardians, orogenes, and stone eaters. The orogenes are an essential part of this story seeing as they are constantly discriminated against and controlled. Orogenes have the power to harness energy from the earth which can help them perform certain tasks such as calming the quakes which can have catastrophic effects on the towns that exist throughout this world. This is the reason why orogenes are crucial to the survival of the human race. Their powers can also be unpredictable and deadly, which is one explanation as to why orogenes are so feared, hated, and disrepected. When we meet the character Damaya, an orogene who was born from nonorogenic parents, we learn more about what orogenes are and how they are treated. “Damaya had hidden it from them, Mother said, hidden everything, pretended to be a child when she was really a monster, that was what monsters did, she had always know there was something wrong with Damaya, she’d always been such a little liar” (Jemisin, 31)”. This quote shows Damaya’s mother’s reaction to her being an orogene. This quote only begins to explain how hated and misunderstood orogenes are, and how that hatred translates to orogenes’ perceptions of themselves. 

After distinguishing each “race”, Jemisin takes the process of racialization further by describing the complexity of the valuation of orogenes. The Leadership, Guardians, and the institution of the Fulcrum all work together in order to control orogenes. I believe that their need for control comes from their deep rooted fear of orogenes and the power that they hold, which is not completely known by anyone. The first instance we see of violence towards an Orogene happens almost immediately in the book when we meet Essun, an orogenic mother who has hid her orogeny from the town she lives in, including her husband. Her baby is killed by her husband when he finds out that the child is an orogene. When imagining the scene of her child’s death, she explains that she had “seen the imprint of Jija’s fist, a bruise with four parallel marks, on Uche’s belly and face” (Jemisin, 19). This description shows the extremely violent nature of the death of her son, Uche, and successfully introduces the dynamic between orogenes and the rest of the world. This is the first instance in the book where we see extreme discrimination against orogenes, to the point of violence.  This horrific event in Essun’s life causes her to leave her town in order to track down her husband. When she is aggressively confronted about leaving, her emotions take hold of her, and her powers become out of control. “These people killed Uche. Their hate, their fear, their unprovoked violence… People run out into the streets, screaming and wondering why there was no warning, and you kill any of them who are stupid or panicked enough to come near” (Jemisin, 59).  I believe this quote is extremely important because it describes the effect that discrimination has on orogenes directly from an orogene’s point of view. It also describes the immense power and destruction that orogenes are capable of.

The final aspect of racialization that Jemisin uses to fully develop a hierarchical society is creating a governmental system that uses its power in order to control society. The Fulcrum does train orogenes on how to use their power, but the teaching methods they use specifically cater to the needs of society. When we first meet Damaya, we learn more about what the Fulcrum is, and what it aims to do. When a Guardian comes to bring her to the Fulcrum, he tells Damaya that, “The orogenes of the Fulcrum serve the world… Within a comm or without one, you are orogene. With training, however, and with the guidance of other skilled orogenes at the Fulcrum, you can be useful not merely to a single comm, but all the Stillness” (Jemisin, 34). This quote shows how orogenes are used for their power in order to service the world and the comms that they work for. Although this aspect of control over orogenes doesn’t seem too severe, we later learn how much worse this control becomes. When Syenite, another orogene introduced later in the book, realizes that Alabaster, the man she is working with, is settling the small quakes around them, she claims that it is the job of the node maintainers to settle the quakes. Alabaster then decides to show her how the node maintainers accomplish this job. “The body in the node maintainer’s chair is small, and naked. Thin, its limbs atrophied. Hairless. There are things–tubes and pipes and things, she has no words for them–going into the stick-arms, down the goggle-throat, across the narrow crotch” (Jemisin, 139). This quote depicts a child orogene attached to a chair that controls their power in order to perform the job of the node maintainer. This horrific image signifies to Damaya and to the reader that the Fulcrum and the guardians take control of orogenes more forcefully and violently than the world seems to understand. 

Jemisin flawlessly creates a dangerous and chaotic world out of environmental disasters, fictional geological ideas, and humans with extreme power. I believe that the underlying intention in creating this dangerous world is to create a need for power so desperate that the only solution is force. In this world, it seems as though there is a common conception that a corrupt system of power is the only solution for survival. This conception leads even the most powerful beings to fall under this system. Jemisin works to aid the reader in asking the question: Why do these extremely powerful beings continue to allow themselves to be controlled? I believe that this is a point that Jemisin strives to imply throughout the book, and it seems there is potential for her to continue to develop this idea throughout the trilogy. As we discussed in our mini-collaboration in class, “The Fifth Season works to reverse the false assumption that societal power is an inherently dominant force by exaggerating the idea that people instinctively condemn themselves to systems of power in society.” I hope that throughout this trilogy, we are able to see more clearly why the orogenes feel so stuck under this system of power. Perhaps if they are able to overcome it, we as readers will understand more about the systems of power in our society and how we can overcome that control.

-Stella Kahnis


Sociology of Racism | Matthew Clair | Scholars at Harvard, Accessed 23 Feb. 2024. 

N.K Jemisin, The Fifth Season English 111, Mini-Collaboration 1,