Reasons to care about Racefail

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.

FURTHER UPDATE: Another round of discussion, about a different book and related issues, with the originating post here.