This post is for MLK Day. It’s also prompted by the coincidental approximate anniversary of RaceFail, which began in January of last year. (Missed the fun? Google is your friend. But here is a good place to start.) For those who want the Twitter version, RaceFail was a several-months-long conversation about race in the context of science fiction and fantasy that sprawled across the blogosphere. It involved several thousand participants and spawned several hundred essays — and it hasn’t really ended yet, just slowed down. But the initial outburst was very frank, and frequently very heated, and over the course of the whole thing a number of well-known or influential personalities in the field said things that revealed problematic assumptions/thinking about people of color, or race issues in general. Hence the “fail” suffix.
Since then I’ve been to lots of conventions and readings, chatted with other authors/editors/publishers on mailing lists and in person, and I’ve started to notice changes that I attribute to RaceFail fallout. First the personal: I suspect the increased awareness of the SFF zeitgeist re race issues has helped The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms get more attention, since it’s an epic fantasy written by a writer of color, with a protagonist of color. Can’t complain about that. Also, I’ve seen a number of conventions dedicate panels and programming tracks (or in some cases the whole con) to discussing race, and trying to attract more fans of color. People are quicker to raise objections now when anthologies and awards purporting to survey the field underrepresent women and people of color; and the usual silly defenses (e.g., “Maybe there just aren’t any [insert group] writing good SFF!”) don’t fly as far. Writers are thinking more about what they write, and the unexamined assumptions that might be in their work. Readers are thinking more about why their bookshelves might contain an overabundance of white male authors and protagonists.
And back to the personal: I feel more comfortable being myself now than ever before, after more than 20 years as a fan and aspiring writer in this field. Used to be I was the only brown face in the room at most SFF events and gatherings; used to be even I thought this was normal, and that I was some kind of rarity — even though practically every other person of color I know, including family and significant others, was a fan of SFF in some form. (One of the most powerful moments for me in RaceFail was when the participating fans of color decided to do a very informal roll call, and illustrated just how non-rare we were.) Used to be I ground my teeth but kept silent when hearing fellow fans say asinine, bigoted things, because the whole room seemed to agree with them and I didn’t feel safe or brave enough to raise an objection. Used to be I fended off half a dozen hands reaching out to touch my hair on my way through every dealers’ room. Used to be I considered SFF events work — necessary for the sake of my writing career, something to be grimly endured, not enjoyed. For fun I went elsewhere.
And it used to be very noticeable that I could at least broach the subject of race in every other aspect of my life — academia, the counseling psych field, political activism of course, literature/art in general — but not in SFF. The conversations would simply shut down, often thanks to respected personages/fans who would emphatically declare that there was no racism in the genre outside of a few unimportant loudmouths, and no need to discuss race since there was no racism, so let’s move on to something interesting like quantum physics.
Now, suddenly, everyone’s talking about race, and I cannot tell you how happy that makes me.
But here’s the thing. A lot of people I’ve met in the past year — clarification; a lot of white people — seem to think the “fail” part of RaceFail lay in the fact that it occurred at all. It was too angry for anything productive to happen, they say; there’s a time and a place for such conversations but not now; there’s a way to have such conversations but not this. The gist of the objections seem to lie in the belief that SFF could have, would have begun the changes that I’ve experienced this year, even if RaceFail had never occurred. The people involved could’ve raised their objections in a calm and reasoned manner, at which point respectful conversations would have taken place, and the genre would’ve listened. We’re all smart, progressive people. We didn’t need RaceFail to make us change.
To which I say: bullshit. If we didn’t need RaceFail, then why did it occur? The angry questions that it raised didn’t emerge from a vacuum; they’ve been here all along, and had in many cases been expressed already. W. E. B. DuBois was one of the first black SFF writers, and his stories — written over a hundred years ago (and one of which can be found now in the Dark Matter anthology) asked these questions then. I’ve seen essays from Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, Joanna Russ, and many others which directly addressed all of it, often in calm, reasoned language using the most delicate of tones. These conversations have been taking place since long before I was born (I’m 37). So why have I not seen the SFF culture change significantly until 2009 — the year before we maybe make contact? Come on, we’re supposed to be talking to aliens by now, and instead we’ve only just started really talking to each other. If reasoned conversation was all it took to trigger change, the transformations of RaceFail would’ve happened a long time ago.
So here’s what I think. RaceFail was a good thing. In fact, I think it was a necessary thing — not just for me and other writers/fans of color, but for the SFF field as a whole. Bear with me; I’m going to have to put on my psychologist hat to explain this.
Some of you may have heard of Lewin’s classic theory of change. Paraphrasing broadly, Lewin posited that stable organizations/systems inherently resist significant change, mostly due to inertia. They’re frozen in place by the weight of their own history, the comfort of tradition, participants who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and so on. So the only way to enact change in such a system is to destabilize it — unfreeze it. Then quickly push through changes before a new state of stable equilibrium is reached and the system freezes again.
The way I see it, RaceFail was the big thaw for the SFF field. Fans of color, and white fans who were tired of the old ways, literally heated things up with an outpouring of long-pent rage. That fury was utterly necessary, because it shocked the whole genre enough to make it pay attention. Without that, SFF would have remained resistant — frozen — against such radical ideas as why are all these futuristic stories full of white people, when they’re already a minority on the planet now? and y’know, maybe erasing the brown people from your fantasy continent, or making them allegorical orcs, is a bad idea.
Like I said, these issues are not new. Apropos of the US holiday today, in the 1960s Martin Luther King, Jr. understood full well how much power SFF has to influence the public consciousness, and how important it therefore was to fix the field’s problems with race. But that’s how solidly frozen SFF has been: eyes locked on the stars, face turned resolutely forward, neck too stiff and eyes too glazed over to take even the briefest of self-assessing glances down at itself. For fifty years. Until RaceFail turned up the heat.
We’re still in that warming period for now — still realizing the extent of the problem, cataloging the damage done, starting up preventative therapy for the future. When the inevitable refreezing occurs, I have no idea what the new SFF will look like. Browner, definitely. A little more reflective and humble, hopefully. I suspect it will both resemble other literary fields to a greater degree, and yet continue to subvert them as it should — because this is still the literature of ideas and myths, the subconscious made concrete. We cannot be “normal” and thrive. But neither can we be as unique as the mastodon — another long-frozen creature that thawed out too late, and ended up as somebody’s funky-tasting dinner. Because that’s the thing Lewin realized over the course of his research: cultures that don’t go through this periodic unfreezing process? Die.
So I say, bring on the next *Fail. I know, I know, it’s painful — but so was the old system, and it’s going to take a lot of work to fix that. We’ll know the system is ready to stabilize again when the *Fail debates stop happening. This isn’t something we have to work toward; it will happen organically, a natural part of the change process. I, for one, can’t wait to see the result.
ETA: D’oh. Fixed Delany’s name. Thanks, Jed Hartman.