And a lot of the posts have been uncomfortable and eye-opening reading for me. As a white person I have had the luxury of not really paying attention to the way that different races have been and are portrayed in science fiction. I also am very uncomfortable with confrontation and anger and find myself wishing that arguers would just be "more polite". I'm more at home with a sort of academic "civil" feuding in which attacking your opponent with bon mots, literary allusions, and aspersions on intelligence and credentials are acceptable, but simply saying "shut up" is not, even when that's what's meant. But that only works when everybody involved agrees to play that way. And I shouldn't be surprised that people told to shut up - even civilly - take offense, particularly when their intelligence is insulted besides. But I found myself taken aback when it happened, and that's my fail.
I've also been the clueless white person who wished I had an "ethnicity" or a more "exotic" culture. I've been that person who claims she "doesn't see color". The failure to notice the culture that's all around me and that I'm part of is a pretty clear demonstration of white privilege, as is my ability to ignore the issue of race when I choose. I've gotten better, I'd like to think, but I know I still have many blind spots. And so, while some people have characterized this current discussion and others like it on fan and feminist blogs as mere wank, it's actually been the source of a number of thought-provoking posts that have helped me better understand my own privilege and highlighted the problem with simply trying to discuss race in SF.
One of the very troubling aspects of the RaceFail09 discussion - people on the "anti-racist" side have been characterized as stupid and trolls and criminally anonymous by some of the white fans and members of the SF publishing world who contributed to the fail. That seems bizarre to me, because I recognize many of the names, pseudonymous and not, from other discussions about race and SF going back several years. But the old guard of science fiction book fandom seems to have kept itself largely separate from media fandom, which has more of a focus on TV, comic books and video games than printed SF. So that's been part of the conflict too.
And even though I'm more of a reader than a TV watcher or video game player, I find myself feeling alienated from those old-school SF book fans. I've never been to a convention, in part because the whole point seems to be to socialize and I'm not good at socializing with complete strangers, particularly at events that aren't particularly friendly to women. And yes, WisCon is explicitly feminist (and I should mention that WisCon or Bust: Fans of Color Assistance Project), but I don't feel like it would be worth the money to travel halfway across the country to attend ba con by myself. That's of course my own hang up, but in the SF book fandom world "real" science fiction fen attend cons1, which means that I'm not really a fan, or at least not a Fan. Add to that the arrogance of many Fen, who assume they are smarter and more open to new ideas than the mundane masses who aren't science fiction readers. And that leads to denial of any problems with racism or sexism, since they can insist that the SF future is "race blind" or that it "transcends" race2, which ignores that the default color of SF characters is white. I've even seen the argument that hard science fiction is about science (Science!), so the characters don't matter, which I find to be a silly argument. If SF was only about the science it would be indistinguishable from a textbook; it's that fiction part, the characters and their actions, that makes reading it enjoyable most of us (or at least to me). Maybe I'll attend a con someday and have a blast, but, at the moment, I don't feel like there's any real upside to being a "real" science fiction fan.
So if you've read this far, you are probably wondering what this has to do with biology. Well, I look around me, and I'd have to be blind not to notice that the U.S. is made up of people of many different colors and ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. Our descendants - the future people that populate science fiction - should reflect that. That the future will be multi-hued is a matter of genetics. That the future human race will be made up people with different backgrounds and life experiences that are influenced by the color of their skin and ancestry is very likely, at least based on the past few thousand years of human history.
Here are the some of the posts about race and science fiction I've read in the past couple of weeks that I think are particularly interesting and thought-provoking (I've included a snippet from each post, but I recommend following the links):
Deepa D: I Didn't Dream of Dragons
I grew up with half a tongue.(and see her follow-up post: White people, its not all about you, but for this post it is)
Do not tell me, or the people like me who have grown up hearing Arabic around them, or singing in Swahili, or dreaming in Bengali—but reading only (or even mostly) in English (or French, or Dutch)—that this colonial rape of our language has not infected our ability to narrate, has not crippled our imagination. When I was in class 7, our English teacher gave us the rare creative writing assignment, and three of my classmates wrote adventure stories about characters named Julian and Peggy and Tom. Do not tell me that this cultural fracture does not affect the odds required to produce enough healthy imaginations that can chrysalis into writers. When we call ourselves Oreos or Coconuts or Bananas (Black/Brown/Yellow on the outside, White on the inside)—understand the ruptures and bafflement that accompanies our consumption of your media while we resent and critique it.
Nojojo: We worry about it too
A lot of the people talking in all these comment threads -- clarification; a lot of the white people talking in these threads -- keep complaining that all this scary appropriation stuff means they're damned if they do and damned if they don't, they can never write people of color to the satisfaction of PoC so they're not going to bother, I guess this means white men should only write white men, o woe, o melodrama. That this is a false woe motivated in most cases by narcissism, spite, and no genuine interest in change is a given. But a few of the people voicing this complaint are sincere, because for various reasons they haven't yet realized something very basic: that racism infects the thinking of everyone, in a racist society. Everyone, including PoC themselves. White people are the most frequent perpetrators of stereotyping and "inappropriate appropriation", largely due to history and the power structure of Western society. But it's never been solely a unidirectional thing, however it might seem to those poor, confuzzled, put-upon white men (and others who think like them). PoC can stereotype and inappropriately appropriate other PoC. Hell, PoC can stereotype and inappropriately appropriate themselves. This is not some kind of intellectual-property race war, nor is it a game with winners and losers. It never has been, and the sooner everybody realizes that and gets on the same page, the sooner we can make some progress.(also read her follow-up post Operating in hostile territory)
ciderpress: ven ve voke up, ve had zese wodies
I know that many white fans consider fandom as their "safe" space or at least, they think it *should* be their safe space. The subtext of that in regards to race and white privilege is that fandom is supposed to be a safe place for people not be challenged about their white privilege. For me, a safe space in regards to race is that no one gets to call me racist epithets or treat me or people who look like me with less respect, as accessories or dehumanise me because of my race. Those two models are incompatible and I'm not sure how to reconcile them or whether they can be at all.Yuki-Onna: Let Me Tell You a Story
Fandom isn't a safe place for anyone. I had already known that fandom wasn't a safe place for me. I hadn't, though, realised quite *how* unsafe it is. As more of these discussions keep happening, I am weary and am wondering if it will ever end. I find myself pulling further away from fandom and am much more wary of people. Which isn't very fun because it means that I have limited fandom interaction with people in my *own* fandom.
Stories teach us how to survive. They tell us that our lives can be transcendent, that we can overcome almost anything, no matter how strange, that we can go into the black wood and come out again, that the witch can be burned up in her own oven, that we can find someone who fits a shoe, that the youngest, unloved child will find their way in the world, that those who suffer can become strong, can escape, can find their way into comfort and joy again. That there are secrets, and they are always worth discovering, that there are more and different creatures in the world than we can ever imagine, and not all want to eat us. Stories teach us how to win through, how to perservere, how to live.Coffeeandink: The elephant in the room
And when we see story after story that has no one like us in it, a book entirely without women, a TV show where white people speak Chinese but there are no Asians visible, a movie set in California without Hispanics, image after image of a world where everyone is straight, and when we are told that it's no big deal, really, there is no race in future societies, that it's not anyone's fault if all the characters are white, that's just how they are, in the pure authorial mind, that we have no sense of humor, that we are ganging up on people because we speak our minds, this is what we hear:
You do not have a right to live. There are no stories for you, to teach you how to survive, because the world would prefer you didn't. You don't get to be human, to understand your suffering or move beyond it. In the perfect future society, you do not exist. We who are colorblind, genderblind, sexualityblind would prefer not to see you even now. In the world we make in our heads, you have been obliterated--even better, you never were. You are incapable of transcendance. You are not worthy of the most essential of human behavior. If you are lucky, we will let you into our stories, and you can learn to be a whore, or someone's mother, or someone's slave, or someone's prey. That is all you are, so pay attention: this is what we want to teach you to be.
Dear my fellow white people in sf/f fandom, of the bookish or media type:(see also: Kate Nepveu: An open letter to white people in SFF fandom)
We have a problem. That problem is racism. That problem is that the vast majority of books in our field are written by, edited by, and published by white people. The vast majority of TV shows in our genre are written by, directed by, and produced by white people. Most of these books, movies, and TV shows star white people and feature people of color only in secondary and stereotypical positions, if at all. Cons are attended largely by white people. [Public] sf/f discussions online take place largely in white spaces. Attempts to discuss race, cultural appropriation, racism, or racially inflected power disparities, whether American or global, invariably end up discussions of the hurt feelings of white people.
The few fans of color who are willing to engage with white people end up having to create strictly defined spaces for the discussion of white issues, which are already the predominant issues discussed, in order to attempt a public discussion of race. Most fans of color end up abandoning the genre or the public conversation for semi-private safe spaces, because the public spaces are simply too hostile to sustain conversation. Several of the most articulate and activist white fans, writers, and editors in our field can engage in a discussion of racism and come out of it feeling like the most significant problem in the discussion is that someone criticized a white person's action as racist.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: On Writing Identity and the Need Thereof
When I was teaching at Clarion last summer, I spent a good portion of my week trying to convince my students that they needed to start writing identity into their stories. Now, by 'writing identity' I don't mean just 'add a person of color' to the story. What I wanted them to get away from was the generic white character (who was still, so often, also automatically male, and straight). I wanted them to think about how every white person they know has a specific ethnic identity. Maybe they're first-generation Polish-American. Maybe their ancestors came over on the Mayflower. Maybe they're some kind of European mongrel in descent -- a bit of Scottish, a bit of Irish, a whole lot of German, and a few other unidentified bits.
1. Not writing identity makes for bad fiction.
This one seems self-evident to me, and yet the more I read (especially work by my students, or work off slush piles), the more it becomes clear that many writers haven't figured this out yet. Fiction is a reflection of the real world. (Often, in the case of sf/f, a deliberately wildly distorted mirror, but still.) If you have human beings (or human analogues) in your stories, and they don't reflect the identity realities of people in the real world, then as a reader, that breaks the fictive illusion for me. I just re-read some Heinlein, and while I still have a terrible fondness for the old man, his women are so painfully unrealistic, so lacking in identity, that I can't read them as real people. Which means I can't care about them, which means that on a deep and profound level, the story has failed.3
(Mary Anne also has two posts on John Scalzi's blog on race, science fiction and fantasy: Part 1 and Part 2.)
Puella Nerdii: RaceFail '09; or Art Does Not Exist in a Vacuum
Art does not exist in a vacuum. When we write, we have to be conscious not only of the world we're writing about, but the world we're writing in, and the people we're writing for. And again, our cultural context doesn't dictate what we produce, but it sure as hell informs it, and I think good artists should be both conscious of this and in dialogue with it. If I as a white person write a novel where the villain is a large, muscular, menacing black man (for example), that carries meaning with it beyond the words I put on the page. It calls to mind decades and centuries of degrading stereotypes, and it creates associations with those stereotypes in the minds of my readers, who have also been bombarded with those images and patterns and have their own responses to them. If I as a white person get into a debate with a fan of color and chide them for becoming too emotional, or basing their arguments on emotional response rather than rational analysis, that carries with it cultural connotations. I might not intend to make ignorant or offensive remarks. I don't think most of the people involved in this meant to attack fans of color or make them feel unwelcome. But regardless of what they intended, they did.Oyceter @ Ambling Along the Aqueduct: Racefail'09 This hurts us all
What SF book fandom is telling me—a woman, a person of color, and a long-time fan of SF books and a con-goer—what you are telling me is that you don't care. That these are, in fact, your community norms, that you are all right with people who have more power in your community (by virtue of profession, race, and gender) using that power to harm other, less powerful, members of your community. That you are fine with the erasure of women, of people of color, of those without the same professional privileges you enjoy, and that you are willing to stand by silently and let people be hurt. This is how it affects us. This. And this. Your silence speaks volumes.And a few comments on how the depiction of race dovetails with the way science fiction depicts science:
Well, plus white people are logical and scientific and non-white people are magical and have cults! I remember in the first season of the X-Files (and I LOVED that show) you could tell whether the big reveal would be magic/paranormal or government/aliens based on, no joke, the race of the subjects of the case. White people? Government conspiracy. Asian? Magic mushrooms. Romany? Magical twin-birth psychic powers. Etc.I never noticed that. Yup, I'm oblivious.
And several people pointed out that SF writers are willing to go to great lengths to get the science right, while resisting research that would help the depiction of characters.
And then things exploded and various PoC online learned that professional SF&F was not ready to have people who are not white, telling them where they're messing up. It's ok for doctors and physicists and engineers to point out fallacies and problems and myths that have been accepted as fact but really have no scientific basis what so ever and have actually been refuted. It is not ok when someone who experiences life differently due to the colour of their skin, due to their background and heritage (of slavery, of colonization, of fights for independence that happened within the past 70 - 100 years) - when they point out fallacies and tropes and pitfalls into myths and stereotypes which have been refuted and yet continue...It is an appearance of THE HORDE.And that's why my commenting on the science in science fiction is a much safer activity than talking about race (or gender or sexuality) in the genre.
The thing that kills me about SF writers is that many of them will jump through all kinds of hoops in order to get the science right in their stories. Especially hard SF writers — they’ll research, confer with physicists, even go back to grad school and get themselves a nice shiny Ph.D. in their chosen area of obsession, and then angst over every reader nitpick if they get even the tiniest detail wrong. Yet so many of these same writers won’t put forth even a tenth of this effort to get people right. There’s something wrong with that, I think.Mythago:
Bar exam training classes talk about how all you really need to pass is a "glib understanding" of particular areas of law; not enough to appear before the Supreme Court on the topic, but at least enough to get by. Writers often get this kind of fluency to be able to talk about advanced physics or biology, and there are ways to get the same level of "I can manage at a cocktail party and not piss people off" in culture and language.Tal:
Writers really do have to be jacks of all trades, and that always necessitates research. I think most good writers would, as a matter of course, research something about beet farming if they were going to write a beet farming character. Researching things about race, class, ethnicity, religion, etc. should be an automatic part of that process, too.I personally think the characters are at least as important as the science in a well-crafted science fiction story. Unless the story is very short, cool scientific ideas aren't enough to hold my interest, while interesting characters can easily make me overlook deficits in the science.
A few more posts and essays, old and new:
- If you are in SoCal, you might be interested in the upcoming UC Riverside science fiction lecture series, which includes a talk on April 30th by De Witt Douglas Kilgore on “Aliens, Robots and Other Racial Matters in the History of Science Fiction.”
- Pam Noles at The Infinite Matrix: Shame
- Nisi Shawl at The Internet Review of Science Fiction: Appropriate Cultural Appropriation
- NK Jemisin @ The Angry Black Woman: No more lily-white futures and monochrome myths
- "What is Cultural Appropriation?" at Angry Black Woman (a discussion in the comments)
- Niall Harrison (editor at Vector): Reasons to care about Racefail
- Moonrat @ Editorial Ass: Publishing by Omission (or, Fighting Racism for Your Very Own Nightstand!)
- K. Tempest Bradford posting at Whatever: Taking One for the Team
- Naomi Novik: What Ought to Go Without Saying But Doesn't
- Benjamin Rosenbaum: Identity and othering in "The Ant King and Other Stories"
- Miriam Heddy: Some thoughts on the impossibility of opting out of the economy of privilege
- inalsahl: Because there aren't enough spoons on the planet
- Susan Groppi (editor-in-chief of Strange Horizons): Things we say and don't say
- coffeeandink: How to Suppress Discussions of Racism
- yeloson: The Art of Defending Racism
- Racism 101 Livejournal Community
- The most recent edition of the People of Colour SF Carnival at The Hathor Legacy has a number of relevant links.
- RaceFail09 and Star Trek
- Racialicious Review of Heroes
- Seeing Red is a LiveJournal community that discusses racism and Doctor Who (via Asim)
- Joss Whedon and Race
- Writers of Color 50 Book Challenge: SF and Fantasy recommendations
- The Carl Brandon Society reading lists
- Expanded Horizons webzine which is free online. Their mission:
Our specific objectives include (but are not limited to):
- Increasing the number of authentically portrayed people of color in speculative fiction
- Increasing authentic ethnic diversity in speculative fiction
- Increasing the number of strong, authentically portrayed women in speculative fiction
- Increasing the number of authentically portrayed gay, lesbian, bisexual and asexual people in speculative fiction
- Increasing the number of authentically portrayed transgender, transsexual, intersex and genderqueer⁄fluid people in speculative fiction
- Increasing the number of authentically portrayed people with disabilities in speculative fiction
- Publishing essays and reflections on speculative fiction and fandom which challenge the established biases of the field ⁄ genre
- Challenging all forms of stereotypes and cliches in speculative fiction
- Creating a venue so that those whose points of view tend to be represented unrealistically or negatively in most speculative fiction may speak out in their own voice
- Humanizing the "other" by telling the story from a non-traditional point of view and⁄or reversing who is the insider and who is the outsider in speculative fiction
And if you are looking to publish, you should also check out the newly formed Verb Noire press. According to their submission guidelines "We are looking for original works of genre fiction (science fiction/fantasy/mystery/romance) that feature a person of color and/or LGBT as the central character." They are also taking donations.
1. Of course it's only convention-goers (or people willing to pay the convention fee) who are allowed to vote on the Hugo Awards, so in that sense it's people who attend cons who help define which novels are the "important" ones in the genre.
2. I don't know how people of color feel about the idea of "transcending" their race, but I personally loathe the concept of transcending my gender. That assumes that being a woman is something lesser - less intelligent, less capable, less worthy of interest or consideration than a man - and I must move away from my femaleness to be considered something more. No thanks. (And I wish I could find the comment thread where it was claimed that SF had transcended - I believe there was also the claim that the discussion of race in SF had already been done because Delaney was on a panel at the local con 15 years ago or something.)
3. In the comments to MAM's post, a guy claims "most women [he's talked to] with a scientific of technical training at or above the graduate level say they never had no trouble at all [identifying with Heinlein's women]", which I had to restrain myself from responding to since it wasn't the point of the post. But, for the record, this scientifically trained woman does indeed have trouble identifying with most of Heinlein's female characters.
Tags:science fiction, race