So Tom left a comment on our open thread yesterday:
You should have a mission statement, or some kind of definition of what TC is for. Since you don’t have one, i can’t wave it in your face as evidence that coverage of Failgate 2099 is outside your bailiwick. Curse you!
I don’t know why i’m so exercised about this. Obviously, i hate black people, but it’s also that it seems like diverting any more eyeballs or brain cells to a phenomenon which has already consumed so many of them for absolutely no positive result seems futile.
As this implies, Tom is aware that Liz and I have been mulling over how and what to post here about the evolving situation. For those who don’t know, what is being called Racefail has been rolling along for two months now, mostly but far from exclusively on livejournal. It has been, at various times, a discussion about race and culture as explored in science fiction and fantasy, a discussion about racial and cultural diversity in fandom, and a discussion about the terms on which discussions of race and culture as explored in science fiction and fantasy should take place within fandom; and it has included numerous exchanges on, primarily, the latter of those topics that couldn’t be described as anything so polite as a discussion. Well-known writers and editors have behaved in ways that hundreds of fans have found beyond the pale. One livejournaller, rydra_wong, has been providing regular round-ups of relevant links; again, there are hundreds, so what I link in this post is only going to scratch the surface of the scope and extent of what’s been said. But there’s a summary of what I think of as phases one and two of Racefail here (and a Guardian blog on roughly the same period here), and similarly for phases two and three here, which should give you the broad outline of what’s been happening.
I’ve phrased all of the above in neutral terms, but of course I’m not neutral. By and large, I count myself with the hundreds of fans who are disappointed and/or offended by the behaviour of professionals they previously respected. Charles Stross, for example, has suggested that the whole situation is the result of trolling. He subsequently retracted the suggestion, thankfully. Teresa Nielsen Hayden has made much the same suggestion and, so far as I am aware, not retracted it. Kathryn Cramer has made accusations of libel and defamation against the authors of posts such as this and this, which point out earlier bad behaviour on her part. None of this is acceptable. Roz Kaveney has a good post on why Cramer’s actions, in particular, are unacceptable here. On a personal level, I have sometimes been uncomfortable with the tactics with and terms in which these actions have in turn been criticised. In addition, two people have reported receiving abusive emails, and one has reported her employer receiving calls which attacked her as homophobic and racist. These, obviously, are also unacceptable. But to the extent that there are sides, the scales are clearly weighted more in one direction than the other. Put it this way: if I could retract my Hugo nomination for NYRSF at this point, I would; I am also not sure that I want to write for NYRSF again in the future.
What I do want is for the science fiction and fantasy field, and for science fiction and fantasy fandom, to be welcoming to and accepting of diversity in all its aspects; and in the meantime for both the field and fandom to be more aware of their limitations and shortcomings in this area, and less defensive when discussing issues relevant to this topic.
Saying all of this out loud strikes me as justification enough for posting here; but there are other reasons, too. One is the issue of relevance. Racefail has been happening at the intersection of multiple sf-related communities — which fact, I don’t doubt, has contributed to some of the frustration and miscommunication — and it’s true that the majority of participants have been US-based. But I’ve now bumped up against the idea that essentially it’s none of British fandom’s business a couple of times. In the comments to one (friendslocked) post yesterday, I found myself arguing against the perceptions that Racefail involved only a small subset of fans, or that it was a debate within a clique, or that it’s not as though there are people clamouring at the gates of UK fandom and feeling not included. (To be fair, in the same discussion there was also the perception, or more accurately the despair, that fandom was tearing itself slowly and painfully to pieces.) I think all of these perceptions are mistaken; I think this discussion is an elephant in the room relevant to all fans, writers, and readers of science fiction. You only have to look at the submissions for this year’s Clarke Award to see that British sf publishing isn’t the most diverse field in the world. You only have to look around you at an Eastercon. You only have to read a post like this, from one UK-based fan involved in the discussion:
Congratulations, SF/F. If I had ever wanted to be an author, an editor, or in any way take part in the larger SF/F community, that desire would be dead by now. You know what would be ‘nice’? If more white people found the silence of so many PoC in SF/F more uncomfortable than hearing their criticism.
Or this, from another UK-based fan:
I’m done with them and I’m pretty much done with SF/F fandom, their professional writers, their supporters and their toxic environment. As [info]shewhohashope said to me yesterday: Some people will never move on from this, so we need to move on from them. I’m moving on from this and I’m moving on from anyone like this.
This is not what I want.
But I also need an answer to Tom’s implicit question: what positives have come out of this discussion? Here are some posts or actions worth the time it takes to read them and think about them.
- “I Didn’t Dream of Dragons” by Deepa D; one of the earliest contributions to the discussion and still one of the best, about one Indian reader’s experience with science fiction and fantasy.
- “A Tale of Layers“, by one writer of colour about her experience breaking into the field, and her reactions to Racefail (and an update).
- “This hurts us all“, by Oyceter, about silence and advocacy.
- “The only neat thing to do“, by Rose Fox, about speaking up
- Perhaps most excitingly for me, Verb_noire, a small press being established to “celebrate the works of talented, underrepresented authors and deliver them to a readership that demands more.” You can donate to help with startup costs here, and read their submission guidelines here.
- A roundup of recommended reading lists, including a link to the writers of colour 50 book challenge, as well as potential efforts for outreach at Anticipation; more in this vein at a community established to focus and support conversations about cultural appropriation, racial diversity and multiculturalism in SFF fiction and fandom.
(And I should hope that I’ve never given anyone any reason to think otherwise, but I suppose it can’t hurt to say: Vector welcomes submissions from fans and critics of colour, and/or about sf and fantasy work by writers of colour; and the same goes for the Strange Horizons reviews department and submissions of reviews.)
UPDATE: Since this post is still getting a fair bit of traffic, a few more links.
- Mary Anne Mohanraj on the basics of cultural appropriation and racism: for everyone and for writers
- Susan Marie Groppi on things we say and don’t say and frames of reference
- Tablesaw’s notes on reading an internet conflict
- Dolphin Girl on yelling class
FURTHER UPDATE: Another round of discussion, about a different book and related issues, with the originating post here.
59 thoughts on “Reasons to care about Racefail”
I’m very glad that you’ve added your voice to this.
Niall wrote this because he is better with the words, but I agree with all of it.
At the heart of racefial 2009 is one very serious question: for a genre/fandom that prides itself on diversity and openness, why is it still so overwhelmingly whitebread?
The discussion itself however has been largely intended on showing that the worst of Usenet can be replicated on Livejournal, for the worse. Participating in it doesn’t solve anything or will lead to a better fandom or whatever.
Well done, raising this in such a reasoned and reasonable manner.
I came very late to the RaceFail imbroglio, via Roz Kaveney, and I think it’s raised all kinds of important issues that absolutely need to be discussed by the SF community here. I spent an evening backtracking through postings, and IMHO there’s a lot of justified and often eloquently and cogently expressed anger on the side of the fans, while most of the professionals involved haven’t come out of this smelling of roses (and no, I don’t know how I would have reacted if I’d been in their situation – it’s quite possible I would have started out being defensive too). I’ve learned a lot, and I’m certainly not done thinking about what I’ve learned.
Racist mindsets have only ever been successfully challenged by consciousness-raising. The attitudes of the hundreds of PoCs and allies who have participated in this discussion has been that ‘putting up and shutting up’ allows racism to go unchallenged, and so reinforces racism. Certainly, this has angered certain individuals with power in the industry, but others seem to have learned something from it. And Niall has already pointed out verb_noire as a concrete achievement born from the discussion.
Thank you for posting this.
I wasn’t at all aware that this was going on as I’ve radically cut down my reading of SF blogs. However, I can’t say that it comes as much of a surprise.
Fandom is incredibly tribal and cliquey and there are huge inequalities in social capital which, for historical reasons, echo wider social inequalities in matters of race, sexuality, nationality, gender and age. Apart from the odd moment of shared cultural space like award ceremonies, the different tribes need not interact directly with each other.
When the fates conspired to construct an issue in which older white people with loads of social capital tried to silence younger people with less social capital then that tribal structure was always going to assert itself in incredibly ugly ways.
Particularly regrettable are Kathryn Cramer and Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s decision to delete their old posts. This is a piece of historical vandalism that risks making this whole thing much worse because it looks like fandom’s upper class is pulling up the drawbridge.
I salute you for posting this!
Really glad to see this post – I’ve also been coming across the meme from some European bloggers that all this is just some crazy Americans getting overexcited on the Internet, and it was bothering me a lot.
You’re spot-on about Eastercon. I wonder if there would be any interest in doing something like creating a UK division of the Carl Brandon society, for the purpose of promoting outreach activities at British cons?
Niall, you rock! Thanks for your summary and round up.
In around 1991 I wrote a Vector editorial about race in SF and fandom. Inspired at the time, I think, by Terry Bisson’s Fire On The Mountain I wondered both why there were so few non-white major characters in SF/F and so few authors and fans. I’m not writing this to claim any credit here, because I really didn’t do anything to follow this up.
What I want to say is that one fan, well-known at the time, replied by suggesting I was racist for noticing this, and asserted that the reason there were no black faces at cons was the same reason there were none at the stamp collecting event he went to: Black people just aren’t interested in our interests.
Of course this was rubbish, I think I knew that then, but Racefail09 has surely proved the lie once and for all. It has also done something else for me, it has made me realise that actually there are plenty of PoC out there writing SF/F and either I just wasn’t aware of their existence (damning the community) or I had just assumed to the extent that i thought about it at all that they were white (damning me.)
So for all the nastiness, some good has come of this. What next? Helen’s idea is a good one, and I’d get involved in that somehow.
Really useful, Niall – thanks. I certainly would not have been aware of this discussion without your post.
The “resounding silence” from SF&F professionals mentioned elsewhere certainly shouldn’t necessarily be construed as blanket indifference; many, I suspect, are only now becoming aware of Racefail and still trying to pick through it in a cool-headed manner.
Niall, thank you so much for this. It means a lot.
I’d also like to suggest people read Vito Excalibur’s post here, where she points out that fans of color have always been with you. The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao is not, in fact, fantasy.
I think to be fair, that it’s a more general ‘resounding silence’. I don’t think that people can be criticised for simply being out of the loop on a recent blogstorm. I think the point is more that people have been resoundingly silent about the question down through the years.
Every time an awards shortlist is put out or an anthology released with no female names attached to it people are pretty good about harrumphing. But how about anthologies with nothing but white people? or awards shortlists that have been white for decades? people are so used to it that they say nothing and that’s a tacit acceptance of the status quo.
Having said that, I agree with the spirit of Al’s post. There’s lots of stuff in there to think about and a failure to wade in immediately does not necessarily imply indifference or disagreement (though I must say I’m not too sure about this sanctity of online pseudonyms thing, even if it was used as the basis for silencing dissent).
Thank you for this post. It is obviously helping to bring these issues to the attention of the wider SF/F community, and that’s a very good thing.
I arrived here the via Feminist – SF link.
Thank you so much for posting this.
It has gone some way toward cleaning up the bad taste left by Charlie Stross’s LJ entry today which insists again this is only a problem of crazy Americans who don’t get race and crazy American poc fandom who wank academically.
(At the same time, much of this current mess was CAUSED by pro writers claiming that the poc critics weren’t academically well trained to think and analyze, unlike name pro writers – editors; in other words poc critics can’t win for losing.) Brit SF/F fandom has not got these crazinesses. He says.
It must be good to be so privileged as to be superior to everything, and know another country better than the people who are its citizens know it. Stross frequently claims this for himself, which demonstrates exactly what the criticisms of poc and others are founded in, when calling out cultural appropriation — you are pronouncing and using a culture that you really aren’t understanding.
Again thank you.
As the person who mentioned the “resounding silence”, I’d just like to mention that I know (and have said) that many people probably haven’t heard what’s going on yet.
(Or are currently staring at three billion links and wondering if someone can give them the Cliff’s Notes before they get a migraine.)
I’ve been heartened by the number of people who’ve spoke up as word does begin to circulate more widely.
I have been following this from early on, and have posted on LJ a day or so ago (under ‘mevennen’), as I have been trying to sift through information and gain some clarification.
What has become clear to me is that this is a debate that has been going for some years, in various forms, with some very patient people becoming increasingly frustrated that their (quite reasonable points, IMO) have not been listened to.
Yes, there’s been a lot of shit flung around, but it’s not just a bunch of crazy Americans: it’s a real issue. I think it does affect the British writing scene (though I do not want to talk for anyone else, elsewhere) and anyone who writes from the point of view of the other (which I try to do) needs to take a look at what people are saying, and try to learn from it.
Just to say that your post, Rose’s, and Jo Walton’s pretty much mark out where I am on this. As you say, the next question is what (individually and collectively) we do as a result of it. I at least need to go away and do some thinking, reading, & listening before I reach any conclusions for myself, but verb_noire seems an especially cool idea right now.
As the person who mentioned the “resounding silence”, I’d just like to mention that I know (and have said) that many people probably haven’t heard what’s going on yet.
(Or are currently staring at three billion links and wondering if someone can give them the Cliff’s Notes before they get a migraine.)
That’s me! I just heard about this today (actually Tim Pratt’s post beat TC to my eyes by about 20 minutes). Now that I’ve surfed some links I’m a) pretty sure I agree with Niall/Liz’s post, b) confused about what I can do to help (aside from publicizing and donating to Verb Noire–done!) and c) *Really* glad I’m not on LiveJournal.
Re: American-centrism: I think that a lot of people have been assuming Avalon’s Willow, who wrote the Open Letter to Elizabeth Bear critiquing Blood and Iron, is American, but she’s a Black woman from a former British colony (not naming country names because I don’t know how much information she gives out about herself online).
is there a link to stross’ latest comments of today? google finds me nothing
Very good post, Niall.
Thanks for saying this (and for linking to my post! very flattering). I’m really looking forward to seeing what positive things come out of this, starting with Verb Noire and the Wiscon scholarship for POC that Kate Nepveu is organizing on LJ in the ‘fight_derailing’ community.
Thanks for posting this. I was totally unaware that this was going on and have just started scratching the surface on everything that’s been posted. I’m quite shocked at what certain professionals in the field have said, making me rethink my stance on the current state of the field – especially fandom. Hopefully some good will come of this because all lot of what I’ve seen so far is really ugly.
This is a very thorough-yet-compact summary of the thing to date, and that alone is a great service to the rest of us. Thank you for posting it.
I spent a frenzied hour flicking through posts last night and then couldn’t sleep about this … I did set up on lj a year ago but have never used it and I don’t think this is the moment to start (in any case can’t get in; can’t even get into my domestic email account at moment because I am congenitally technically inept). As a minor aside, I do now know what trolling is and, more to the point, what is not trolling.
But at the risk of opening a related can of worms, and sounding like the academic I am, I wonder if all this can be usefully related back to the TC discussion of ‘Theory’ and ‘liberal humanism’. Issues entailed by ‘racefail’ impact exactly on the faultlines of liberal humanism. The rational, liberal ‘self’ is a construct of a hierarchical symbolic order that underwrites hierarchies of race, gender, sexuality (& class). For a long time I have contested the class base of the symbolic order, for a pretty long time I have contested the gender basis of the symbolic order, i.e. patriarchy. (the patriarchal order suppresses me – not as much as it does most women but it still completely distorts my life and hence I’m a feminist and so when i writie academic criticism, I try to attack patriarchal assumptions, institutions and practices), for a few years I have contested the sexuality basis of the symbolic order (again, compulsory heterosexuality does damage to everyone regardless of individual ‘object choice’). But now I can see that what I haven’t really ever done is contest ‘Whiteness’ in the same way – which is not to say that I haven’t been involved in anti-racist (and way back in time, anti-apartheid) campaigns etc etc , but simply that I haven’t contested whiteness in the same way as patriarchy, compulsory masculinity, compulsoty heterosexuality etc. Yet I can see now that I don’t want to be ‘compulsorily white- – who would?
This is not to deny anything, I’m still at ease being a fair skinned european – rather as I’m still at ease being a biological male despite being against compulsory masculinity – but i can see i need to contest ‘whiteness’ in the same way I try and contest those other forms of oprression. In practice, of course, this is often difficult – because the dominant order is not dominant for nothing; everything is distorted by the hierarchcies of whiteness, gender, sexuality, class. However, in academia this struggle has been conducted in theory (which is not to say that theory is free of these hierarchies – a lot of theory is reactionary let alone complicit) and has entailed a move away from ‘liberal humanism’
There, this is not really entirely lucid – but I’m trying to ‘comment’ rather than write a position paper. Hopefully, readers will take that into account – but I shall try not to retreat behind that as a defence if people want to criticise.
To those who have said thanks: you’re welcome, and thanks in turn.
Other stuff: Helen, like kev, I’d be happy to get involved (if I was wanted) in a UK-based project of that kind. I’m not sure I’d have much of a clue as to how to kick-start it, though. Does anyone have suggestions?
Graham, Cofax: thanks for those links. Mely: thanks for the clarification.
Jonathan: there is a whole discussion to be had about the role of different iterations of fannish culture colliding in the evolution of Racefail. I by no means agree with the argument set out here and here, for instance, but it certainly bears thinking about.
Karen: well, the obvious actions for me to take here are (1) read more work by writers of colour; (2) review more work by writers of colour; (3) commission more reviews of and essays about the work of writers of colour; and (4) commission more reviews and essays by critics and fans of colour. I know you can help out on at least two of those, and they don’t seem to me particularly onerous!
Nick, despite not being an academic, I think I’m broadly in agreement with the principles of what you’re saying. Though as to whether I can get on board with all of Theory because of it … well, the jury’s still out on that one. ;-)
Thank you for this.
I don’t know what the regional breakdown is of this discussion; it’s gotten so huge that I can’t even begin to estimate the numbers. One thing I would like to point out, though, is that it is simply the latest iteration of the greater dialogue of racism, of silencing, and of the many reactions of PoC to being hurt. This particular conversation may have started amongst the SF/F community, but I hope that everyone reading will keep in mind that it is one of many conversations in a broader intergenerational discourse, and that this dialogue touches all of us.
After reading this I think I will have to write something on my own blog as well. I’m one of those who have just watched in horror and disbelief, and also learned a lot. Really, I have never thought very deeply about these issues before and it’s certainly time that I do (speak about privilege and being blind and all that).
Anyway, I’m not sure what to say and where to start. Maybe I will post something when I have digested some thoughts. Again: I really agree that this is important. And I really care about fandom, and really want it to be a good environment.
Regarding making UK cons more welcoming: Well, I have to admit that I’m not a regular con-goer myself – I’ve been to one Fantasycon, two Eastercons, and the Glasgow Worldcon. Plus Wiscon in the States (which was, incidentally, where I felt most welcome, although I suspect that was because I already ‘knew’ a large number of people there through LJ. Which does make me wonder, why do I not see many UK con-going fen active on LJ? Am I just looking in the wrong places?).
Anyway, that said, I _do_ know that I _don’t_ think it would be useful to try to get panels on RaceFail going at this year’s cons. This just does not seem to work – you can’t do Systematic Privilege 101 in under an hour and expect to convince anyone. I think we need something which is more communal and tailored to individuals. A Web 2.0 approach, if you like, rather than the traditional broadcast method.
I guess the simplest thing to do would be to put out a call for UK-based fans who take RaceFail seriously and support the work and discussions that have come out of it (man, this is a convoluted way to avoid saying ‘the antiracist side’, isn’t it?) to meet up at a con. Not for an official panel or anything embedded in the existing structure of the con, but maybe just dinner. Or a Wiscon-style room party. An unofficial gathering of like-minded people, giving a safe space within the larger con.
In more longer-term activities, I found this RaceFail post to be very thought-provoking: http://raqs.livejournal.com/838007.html (sorry, unsure how to embed links at wordpress). It’s good to be personally welcoming to individual outsiders, but if the majority was educated there would be no need for such things! Here I can only think once more of the Carl Brandon Society, and wonder about setting up a table with flyers and information in the Dealer’s Room of a con. It would need some tough-as-nails volunteers to staff, mind, but it _would_ bring this out into the offline world.
But, like I said, I’m really not ‘in’ UK fandom (because, er, _I_ find it intimidating to go to cons filled with cliques of people who’ve known each other forever, and _I’m_ a nondescript white middle-class woman), so I’d be very curious to hear ideas from regular con-goers. I’m sure various concoms must have tried things like this before? What were the results?
Ah, and I just found the “email me follow-up comments” tickbox at the bottom… *ticks*
I’m one of the people behind Verb Noire. I am so pleased to have attention pointed our way. We did not make the decision to start solely because of Race Fail, but I have to say it has given us a much needed kick in the pants to really boost the signal for all of the talented writers who are currently feeling like there is no room for them in the mainstream. Please encourage your readers to submit their work so that we can make Race Fail an obsolete issue.
Helen: you know, when you put it that way, I haven’t been to that many more cons than you — I was in Glasgow, I’ve been to five (I think?) Eastercons, plus a few others here and there. No Fantasycons, though I do also have one Wiscon. I’m not going to Eastercon this year, which is now a bit frustrating in terms of doing anything in the near future; though as you suggest, best to make sure whatever is done is thought through properly.
I’m hoping longer-term members of con-going fandom (for I know some are reading!) will see this and weigh in about what else has or hasn’t been done in the past. I’ve seen a few focused panels, and they’ve been (as I recall them now) mixed successes. There are plenty of con-going fans on livejournal; most of the members of this community, for instance, though it’s been a bit quiet recently.
I’m going to be offline for most of tomorrow, but hope to come back to this part of the discussion later in the week.
(Oh, and it’s just regular HTML for the links.)
Karnythia: as I said in the post, Verb Noire looks really exciting to me. I mentioned your submission guidelines at the top of the post after this one, and I’m sure I’ll find an excuse to post a reminder sometime. [g]
A slightly belated thanks for your informative and measured summary of Racefail. It prompted me to post on the subject — and that’s a good thing.
I hope that Vector will interview the people who have set up the Verb_noire small press. They deserve our support. Better still, I’d like to see them guest edit a future issue of Vector. Whether that would truly represent progress in the UK is not for me to say, but if it opened some minds, that would surely be a start.
maevele: I think the comments Foxessa refers to are friends-locked, so there is no link available. I hadn’t realised that at the time, so I will let the comment stand, but in general I would prefer that we confine discussion to what has been said in public in the future, and respect that what people say in a non-public space should stay there.
Niall: Six Eastercons, innit? (2003 through 2008 inclusive, and yes I am bothered that I know this better than Niall.)
Helen-keeble: I find the best way to find con-going fandom is to write a post-con report, post it on Livejournal, and then when it gets linked you will acquire a whole host of friends :)
Like Niall, I haven’t been going to cons for long enough to know what has been tried before. I tend to agree that formal panels on this are not the way to go, and it’s too late to get one together for Eastercon anyway, but I will be there. I think the suggestion of an informal gathering for interested parties to come and discuss this is a good starting point, and I am happy to take charge of picking a time and place and spreading the word.
I came late to RaceFail ’09, but am glad wordpress linked to this post on my dashboard. If only this discussion could be had in the romance genre, which is just as “white” as sf/f and more resistant to the “coloring” of it since writers of color either “write white,” are marginalized, or are silent because they’ve grown so accustomed to the dominant voice they don’t “see” anything else (used to be one of them).
Some of us have not been silent. I have been reading, listening, agreeing and writing for two months.
But since I was not in 100% agreement and I did not advocate heaping insults on people and seeing things in black and white, nor do I think that emotional battering is a good way to raise consciousness, I have been variously told that I should go away from the discussion, that I am only sucking up to my Powerful Friends, and that I should shut up. Plus various other nice things from the more intemperate fringes.
So I did go away, I did shut up, but this has made me a much worse person and much less useful in the cause of social justice.
I’m glad not everybody has had the same experience. But since, as Liz has noticed, this is not the first time this has gone around, it might just be that other people have been burned out as I have been on previous occasions. It used to be that I was horrified and disturbed at people who told me “I am SO staying out of that.” I would eagerly tell them, “No! you have to read this! honestly! It’s important!”
Now I understand how they felt. More importantly, even if I felt like going on and engaging, I have been effectively silenced because any useful contribution I might have to offer has been labeled variously as offensive, privileged, hypocritical, or irrelevant. The one thing I have definitely learned is that you cannot have a communication with somebody who doesn’t want to communicate with you, no matter how apologetic, respectful, eager, humble you are. At which point the angry calls for participation only mean that what is required is supine agreement with the consensus.
I remain committed to speaking up, but I am afraid right now I don’t really want much speaking with.
Here is a good link too: http://rozk.livejournal.com/247861.html
Personally, I think that this kind of debate would be a lot more useful to everybody if it happened in a different way. The fact that we are at the nth iteration would seem to indicate that the way it has been done so far doesn’t work very well.
I say this only by way of information – I will not be engaging in a dialogue here or elsewhere, for reasons that are known to my friends and unimportant to others.
I think Anna raises an important point about constructivity and the nature of online debate as well as the moral intricacies of the different positions.
Looking back over the various posts, it strikes me that the issue of outing was a complete red herring used by both sides in order to gain tactical advantage over the other. One side used online anonymity as a reason for attacking the other side rather than engaging with what they said and then the other side (as demonstrated in the posts linked to by Niall in his last comment) used that breach of online etiquette as a stick with which to beat their opposition and as a lightening rod for outrage.
It’s noticeably the case that as the debate rumbles on, the original issue completely drops off the radar and the debate becomes fueled not by a clear set of issues but rather the perceived misbehaviour on both sides DURING the argument.
This is not a constructive basis for moving forward because it gives members of the status quo every reason to dismiss the unhappy people as trolls and malcontents whilst simultaneously creating a culture whereby people of colour decide to not engage with the people in positions of power in established fandom.
Ultimately, it strikes me that there’s fork in the road ahead. Either the existing fandom infrastructure has to make the right moves quickly and bring more people of colour into mainstream fandom or PoC fandom has to go off and do its own thing. Set up its own cons and its own imprints and its own blogs and find its own identity and voices.
I would be interested in hearing what old school feminist SF fans have to say on this matter as that second path strikes me as a very similar one to the one taken by feminist SF. Does fandom need a PoC Wiscon?
Clearly I as a white male can’t be sure that Cons are welcoming to PoC, but with 20 years of con-going I would say that they aren’t actively unwelcoming.
It’s the same problem that new blood always has: walking into a room where you know nobody but they all know each other, amplified by being the only PoC amidst a sea of white faces. I would hope that once a few PoC start to appear that issue will fade away.
So, the real question at this stage is how do you get people through the door in the first place? What marketing needs to be done? This year Eastercon is in Bradford, with its large Asian population, has anything been done to reach out to those communities, to pique their curiosity at all?
I’m not throwing stones here, LX Con is just the nearest example. Nor do I have immediate answers to ‘how’ or ‘what’.
I wonder though, are there particular authors of colour that could be invited along to cons, to the BSFA, etc. They are out there, I just don’t know about them, and I’m sure that’s true for many reading this blog.
Vaughan: an interview is a good idea. Guest-editing an issue of Vector I’m less sure would be a good match, if only because (so far as I can see) they’re geared towards fiction and Vector publishes criticism. But I’ve pointed the editor of Focus at this discussion, and he’s also interested in doing something.
Jonathan: you go further than I would (but when is that not the case?), in that I think the elements of this discussion that are about how to have the discussion are in themselves important, and not necessarily a side-track. It ties in with what I said in the original post about learning to be less defensive. My initial reactions to some of the theses about what should or shouldn’t (or, more strongly, can and can’t) be said are defensive; I disagree, often quite strongly or viscerally. On examining those responses, I find some positions I still disagree with, but others I now broadly agree with; and either way I’m better for that examination.
I am an active con-going fan. I am trying hard to be educated by this discussion, and would be very happy to get involved with efforts to make fandom and sf in all their manifestations friendlier to people of all races than it is at the moment.
My sense is that whilst all this is clearly very important to SF fandom as a community, we’re kidding ourselves if we think it’s something wholly new in the world. More, I’d say, the lesson of history is that it is worth putting in the hard work in terms of broadening dialogue, and diversity (and it is hard work, no question). The lesson is that this work can yield positive results. So, for example, we could compare the state of the trades unions and the Labour Party in the 60s and 70s: groups that similarly flattered themselves about their commitment to the marginal and the dispossessed (although, obviously, in a more politically instrumental way), yet groups that were mired (in that era) in an almost overwhelming Whiteness and Maleness. It would be foolish to suggest that everything is perfect now in either organisation, but things are a lot better than they used to be. and that’s been achieved by pressing unflinchingly forward with as many positive diversity strategies as possible, and not letting up. This has meant both strategies that were criticised in the day as ‘positive discrimination’, selecting more female and ethnic minority parliamentary candidates say, or encouraging speciifc groups like the Black Socialist Society, or the TUC’s annual Black Workers Conference; but also, and without fear of contradiction, working in lots of ways towards integration and colour-blindness. God knows I’m far from being the Labour party’s biggest fan right at this moment, but at the very least this seems to me to offer some indication that it’s worth persevering with strategies that, mutatis mutandi, could work equally well for SF as a community.
Quite a lot of the heat, otherwise, in these multifarious discussions seems to me to procede from cruxes that are actually nobrainers (eg: respect people’s choice to blog or comment anon/pseudonymously if they want to … duh). Otherwise, on the subject of Cons, well: I’m white, middle class and male, and I don’t suppose I’d be pegged as somebody on the distant margins of the genre, what with having genre novels published under my name and all. Nor am I shyer than the average bear, I think. But my experience of Cons has really not been a good experience (the Blackpool Eastercon some years ago was a plain horrible, one I personally found consistently unwelcoming and forbidding). That can’t be good, in more general terms.
Helen Keeble said, and Niall asked for a comment on the point: “I’m not a regular con-goer myself – I’ve been to one Fantasycon, two Eastercons, and the Glasgow Worldcon. Plus Wiscon in the States […] so I’d be very curious to hear ideas from regular con-goers. I’m sure various concoms must have tried things like this before? What were the results?”
Concoms typically advertise to people interested in sf. They advertise in fannish and other conventions’ publications, and in sf magazines, and put posters and fliers in bookshops and libraries. Nowadays they have more-or-less-useful websites. Some concoms are more energetic and/or imaginative and/or better connected, and get mentions in local media (radio and press) and/or active support from local arts organisations. When advertising to people who are not already involved, response tends to be very low whatever you do. It seems, in particular, that it’s hard to get past perceptions already held: for example, newspapers talk about nerds and geeks and people ‘beaming in’ for conventions. It has also historically been hard to persuade local arts establishments who don’t rate or haven’t heard of sf writers (including Octavia Butler and Samuel R Delany to mention two past guests at British cons) to support fannish events, though this is changing as everybody gets more used to the various ideas entailed.
On a more personal note, I have been giving fliers for cons to acquaintances, some of whom are PoC (as an aside, I suppose the conversation needs a short-hand term, but it makes my teeth ache), for over 20 years, but in my experience it is hard to persuade people to come to a strange place to hang out with strangers, no matter how interested they are in the sf, and no matter what their race. Or in other words, you can invite people to parties, but you can’t make them come.
And amid all the social observations I could make, there is one I will, which is that whereas white Londoners of my acquaintance tend to say (more or less bluntly) that they don’t fancy it or can’t make it because they are doing something else that’s fun, people of Asian and African family heritage say they have family and/or religious commitments that take their non-work time. I’m really not sure how you address that one.
Given that one of the accusations laid at the feet of certain PoC was that they weren’t proper fans because they didn’t attend cons, I’m not sure that the correct focus is to ask “how do we get more PoC to attend cons?”
If the charge is that fandom is institutionally racist (and that is what we’re talking about isn’t it?) then a different way of looking at it might be to think about the areas in which PoC feel more comfortable and affording them more attention and trying to integrate better with those areas.
To reach for a dodgy analogy : if there are no senior black police officers because the top brass are all free masons then the way to reform the police is not to ask ‘how do we get more black people to join the masons?’ but rather ‘how do we change the culture of the police so that recruitment processes are not intrinsically linked to membership in masonic lodges?’
Adam mentions positive discrimination. One easy area in which to implement this would be at the level of something like selection of judges for the Clarke award. Given that different bodies put forward candidates, there could be some agreement to include at least one person of colour on the Clarke jury every year.
Thank you for this very thoughtful and thorough post, Niall. It has been a pleasure to make your acquaintance online.
I am the editor of Expanded Horizons webzine. Our mission is to increase diversity in speculative fiction and to create a venue for the authentic expression of under-represented voices in the genre. We’ve been around for six months, and we continue to grow! Please add us to the list of markets which seek to publish authors of color and stories which authentically and respectfully portray protagonists of color. Help us spread the word — speculative fiction both can and should be a genre for all of us, and we’re not afraid to kick down a few walls if that’s what it takes!
I came to this very late, via the link at Ansible, and have taken a couple days to read and think about it before commenting. What I see so far looks like WWI: people jumping in because they see their friends being beaten up, to defend them against people whose own friends will in turn jump in to defend *them*, resulting in battle lines which are not always drawn real ideology, but just whose friends were attacked (or perceived to be attacked) by who.
It seems odd to me that no one has referenced the “proud and lonely thing to be a fan” aspect of fandom– that experience of belonging to a minority group that the mainstream still finds it perfectly reasonable to display blatant prejudice about, and, in some cases, having taken many years to connect with fandom and finally have someone to share one’s interest with. I think this may help to explain why the sentiment “Now *you’re* part of the oppressive, unenlightened mainstream, and *I’m* the marooned minority”, no matter how well-meant or carefully phrased, elicits a certain level of knee-jerk denial.
I also think, though, that if someone braver than me were to try to make a fresh start on the topic, invoking that shared experience could partially defuse that reaction.
I have posted Samuel R. Delany’s 1998 essay “Racism and Science Fiction” to the NYRSF site at the request of a NYRSF subscriber.
Not sure what was going on with the HTML, but I’ve fixed it and deleted the duplicate comment. Thanks for the heads-up.