It's vital for any author to be aware of Unfortunate Implications. The last thing you want is someone accusing you of being racist or sexist and having no idea why. That's not to say that any time you spot something you didn't intend you have to change it. If a particular scene or character is important, you as the author has a right to include it and defend your choice.
But that's what you must be able to do. Defend your choice.
When you see something that others could misinterpret, you have to make a choice. You can either change what you've written or leave it there. But that choice is yours and you need to own that. So if someone thinks you're representing women poorly because you created a setting where they're traded like property, you have to be ready to take that backlash and consider how you're going to respond to criticism for it.
If you've cast a person of colour as your villain, is this the only POC in the book? Or worse, have all POC been portrayed negatively and only white people been the heroes?
Have you cast a single member of a minority group in the book, but relegated them to a background role? Tokenism can be just as damning as having no minorities at all.
Examples of poorly-considered scenes crop up all the time, and it can be tempting to shrug it off. However, "everybody does it" or "that's just how it is" are terrible excuses for poor writing. As writers, we're in a great position to challenge stereotypes and common assumptions. It can take so little effort, but have such a positive effect, to make sure we avoid situations like these (spoilers follow for Sky High, Pandorum, Friends, Supernatural, Buffy and Angel, and Star Trek: Into Darkness):
- In Sky High, less than 10 minutes into the movie, a black student is told to sit at the back of the schoolbus so the protagonist (a white male) can sit at the front.
- Pandorum has two non-white castmembers. While the white characters are technical and scientific experts who work out plans to solve their problems intelligently, one of the POC, whose name is simply "Manh," is a farmer who wanders off, eager to hunt and fight, and the other is an insane cannibal. To top it off, while every other character can speak English, Manh cannot, reducing him to speaking only his native language while the others make no attempt to understand or communicate with him outside of repeating themselves slowly.
- Throughout the entire run of Friends, Ross' ex-wife Carol and her partner (later wife) Susan make life pretty hard for Ross. Susan in particular takes every chance she can get to make snide comments and make it clear that she can't stand Ross. This despite the fact that it's heavily suggested that Carol had an affair with Susan before she and Ross split up. Carol and Susan just happen to be the only prominent homosexual characters in the show.
- Throughout Supernatural, the majority of characters are white. Of the African American characters, all but one are misinformed antagonists, corrupted by an outside influence, or outright evil.
- In Star Trek: Into Darkness, as discussed here, they cast Benedict Cumberbatch as the new Kahn (in the worst-kept movie secret in recent years). Originally, Kahn was a genetically-engineered human, a combination of the DNA of various exemplary individuals, and intentionally racially ambiguous. He was a character of colour, clearly. Charismatic, physically formidable, and possessed of genius intellect and ferocious cunning. Rodenberry was saying, at a time when black people couldn't legally marry white people, and lynchings were still commonplace, that if we took the best of humanity and put it in one man, that man would not be white. With Kahn re-cast by JJ Abrams, the movie reverses this and says that the very best that humanity can offer comes from white people.
- Even writers known for challenging stereotypes can fall prey to this. In the series finale of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, it's not Buffy's plan, her leadership, her bravery, or her skill as a warrior that saves the day. It's a magic amulet worn by Spike, her former nemesis (and lover), which was provided by the villains from Angel (the spinoff show for Buffy's other former nemesis and lover). In fact, the small group of heroes were on the verge of losing the fight against the First's forces before the amulet kicked in. Essentially, Buffy, the hero of the show, couldn't win in her own series finale, so one of her two vampiric ex-boyfriends had to do it instead.
Do these instances mean you can't enjoy the story? Of course not. Nor am I saying these stories are inherently bad because of them. These are just factors to be aware of, reasons why a person might read something into them that the creator didn't intend. If possible, try to avoid leaving such things behind to be picked out. But if you can't, or you simply decide to go ahead with them anyway, accept that there may be consequences, and be prepared to face criticism as a result.
Can you guys think of any more examples like the ones I've listed here?