A note on my Wiscon speech

Some friends asked me about a part of the speech that bothered them — namely the quote that I included from Delany’s 1998 essay, this line in particular:

As long as there are only one, two, or a handful of us, however, I presume in a field such as science fiction, where many of its writers come out of the liberal-Jewish tradition, prejudice will most likely remain a slight force—until, say, black writers start to number thirteen, fifteen, twenty percent of the total. At that point, where the competition might be perceived as having some economic heft, chances are we will have as much racism and prejudice here as in any other field.

Since other folks may have the same questions, let me address them here. I can’t speak to what Mr. Delany meant, and wouldn’t presume to try. He’s perfectly capable of speaking for himself, if he wants to do so re a 16-year-old essay quoted by some woman he met once and probably doesn’t remember. I can only speak to why I chose this passage, and what it meant for me. To me it seemed a straightforward description of the SFF genre of the 50s and 60s, especially from the perspective of an outsider trying to break in: that is, mostly white liberals — by the standards of the time, however we might describe them today — and people who were at least Jewish if not liberal, and thus theoretically accepting of black writers because they got the concept of discrimination. (Delany’s essay details how accepted he actually was in those days. Might want to go read it, for context.)

But I’m not Jewish, and I don’t have a radar that pings whenever “Jewish” and words like “economic” are mentioned in close proximity. It didn’t even occur to me that the statement could be read as an allusion to the stereotype of Jewish people being parsimonious. That’s certainly not how I read it, obviously — but I get that this is one possible interpretation of the passage, and that my own privilege as a non-Jewish person is why I didn’t notice that. And especially in light of (TW for anti-Semitism and general bigotry) ongoing bullshit happening both here and overseas — I also get why some of the folks who heard those lines were… concerned.

Sooooo not my intention, ya’ll. Really sorry for that. And from here forth I’ll try to keep a closer lookout for those kinds of “stereotype keyword” combinations, to avoid confusion/alarm.

[ETA: fixed broken link.]

18 Responses »

  1. I had the same feelings and questions about the quote as the people you mention, but I thought your response was probably the case, because anything else would have been absurd in the context of your speech. Thanks for the followup.

  2. As a Jewish person, I didn’t read that passage that way either.

  3. I’m Jewish and I didn’t even make that connection until you pointed it out. I even had to reread it to see what you were talking about.

    A quick question about your trigger warning for anti-semitism: why? I certainly can’t speak for all, or even many Jews on this one, but for most other Jews I know we take the Southern Poverty Law Center approach to it: find unity and resilience in the face of descrimination, and let it wither and die in the light of knowledge and education. I can understand TW in the case of reference to traumatic events: no one should have to relive a scarring event in their lives. But it seems odd in the case of general descrimination, where the usual solution is discussion and public recrimination. Honestly curious to hear your thoughts on when TWs are beneficial vs potentially stifling.

    That aside, since I couldn’t comment on the last one, great speech as always. One of these days maybe Ill even manage to hear one in person(any shot at Gen Con?)

  4. Benjamin, because a) not just Jewish people might be triggered by anti-Semitism, and because b) everyone is different and I don’t assume everyone has the same willingness and/or ability to engage with painful events, and because c) if you followed the links they actually included several traumatic, recent, probably-scarring incidents.

    I apply the same reasoning to “general discrimination,” with the added reasoning of d) trigger warnings aren’t about solutions; they’re about survival. To paraphrase my Wiscon speech, you can’t heal — or work toward change — if you’re still being damaged. Different people will be at different places on this, and I think trigger warnings are a way to recognize this.

    Gen Con’s unlikely, sorry; it’s nowhere near me, and it’s not in the usual circuit of cons I like to go to (not much into that kind of gaming, sorry).

  5. I really appreciate you posting this. Thank you so much. Like Robert, I knew intellectually that you couldn’t have meant it that way, but I definitely needed/wanted the reassurance. Like so many other manifestations of bigoted hatred, anti-semitism is so often thought of as something of the past that happened somewhere else, but the EU elections (and the other things you note) have made me…jittery.

  6. Thank you, Nora. I think this is an important discussion to be having, and I appreciate your prompt and sensitive response. It’s sort of lovely that you didn’t even know what a HUGE trigger the “they only care about money” thing is for Jews. I cannot imagine Delany meant it that way – his best friend in his 20s was the Jewish American poet Marilyn Hacker, and they chose to have a child together – and, another, of course, was Joanna Russ…. But he’s a friend, and I will ask him. Because it’s not hard to parse that sequence of sentences to mean that lefty Jews were willing to throw African Americans under the bus when it came to making money. It gave me chills to hear it said aloud at Wiscon.

    For those curious, some background in the mid-20th century Jewish-American publishing experience is found in Cynthia Ozick’s recent NYTimes review.* The parallels are startling:

    ‘Who were these upstarts, these pushy intruders (as Gore Vidal had it), who were ravishing readers and seizing public space? Surveying American publishing, Truman Capote railed that “the Jewish mafia has systematically frozen” gentiles “out of the literary scene.” In a 1968 essay, “On Not Being a Jew,” Edward Hoagland complained that he was “being told in print and occasionally in person that I and my heritage lacked vitality . . . because I could field no ancestor who had hawked copper pots in a Polish shtetl.” Katherine Anne Porter, describing herself as “in the direct, legitimate line” of the English language, accused Jewish writers of “trying to destroy it and all other living things they touch.’

    Everything old is new again.

    * of Bernard Malamud’s Library of America collection:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/books/review/library-of-americas-bernard-malamud-collections.html

  7. I had clicked through the links. I guess I just hadn’t thought of that in the same terms. Its a perspective I hadn’t considered, and that was a mistake. I will say though, that damage doesn’t stop without pushback with speeches like yours. Without awareness and discussion there cant be empathy or catharsis, and without either it’s easy to dismiss anothers experience. I’ve heard, applied to myself, to women I know, to other minorities, too many “well maybe you’re taking it wrong” or “they probably meant x” or any of a million other ways of making an experience invalid. As far as I’m aware, theres only 2 ways to stop a bully while they’re attacking you: hope for crowd intervention, or hit them back. I realize that not everyone is in a place to do that, and even more so with the shield of anonymity some of the scum out there hide behind, but I would think that makes it doubly our responsibility to get them there.

    To each there own on what you enjoy game-wise in your free time. Guess this just means I’ll have to expand the con circuit I attend :)

  8. Nora, this AM I tweeted my sorrow re writing/riding this past weekend, not being at WisCon.

    Odd story. On self same weekend, at a long table with maybe sixteen, eighteen horse people, I called someone on bullshit for claiming it was “dangerous” to the well being of her horses, were she to protest horse abuse which she had witnessed. Sitting at that same table, a family of four Jews. I didn’t even think about that, I was so GD pissed about the gutlessness. I pointed at her, saying that’s bloody well the same damn thing as the Germans did, excusing themselves when their “government” did what they did. SOAB and all this happening in WI, at a table of mostly German descent.

    When did the world get so gutless? I’m a “60’s” chick and often find the wimp of the entitled more than I can bear.

    I hope I get where your grit comes from. After this exchange I silently dedicated a passage in my MS to this same wimp. Like she’ll ever know, LOL.

  9. I also feel I need to go on record as a Jew who does get triggered by anti-Semitism who doesn’t see anti-Semitism in any reasonable reading of the Delaney quote.

  10. FWIW I assumed Delaney was referring to the idea of tipping point & a long history of strife developing around finances between marginalized groups because opportunities are so limited. Admittedly I am coming at this from a historian’s perspective on the things that have shaped American racial relations. Money is a factor for everybody.

  11. I’ve read Delany’s piece a few times over the last six months – it’s my go to whenever I read something from the other side asking why representation matters and why aren’t people “over” race – and I had never linked the line about Jewishness to the line about economic power. Which is, I guess, my nominally-Christian privilege.

  12. Hi folks,

    I appreciate the different perspectives, but please note that there’s no need to state whether you saw the possible linkage or not. It’s enough for me that some did. When it comes to the stress and trauma inflicted by bigotry, everybody’s got different flashpoints.

  13. I have always understood the essay of Delaney’s that you quoted in the sense that Mikki gives it. That said, yeah, I find it’s a lot easier to do the pushing back if I’m not (however momentarily) paralyzed by the shock of being attacked without warning. It says something interesting about the human mind that for many people (including me) just having a TW there can mitigate the effect of otherwise disturbing content that follows.

  14. Oh, and I meant to say, thanks for putting the speech up for us to read. It was a good one.

  15. That Delaney essay was quite interesting, I’d not seen it before. The bellyaching about how ‘real SF’ is in decline goes back further than I’d realized, and I’ve been hearing it as long as I was old enough to read reviews. That, and the notion that somehow or other voters only vote for The People Ruining Everything out of some sense of guilt. I’ve always found that notion extremely puzzling, like it simply must be impossible that we actually enjoy work of more than one kind.

  16. As a Jew who has dealt with my share of antisemitic attacks, I think Delaney was crediting the amount of Jews in sf for being in sf, and not making the antisemitic economic connection, but I didn’t feel completely comfortable with the statement and where he was putting actual Jews as standing in relation to racism or white identification. It’s definitely a statement that needed unpacking in light of ongoing antisemitism everywhere, and the complicated relationship between antisemitism and racism. I suspect and hope he would say that Jews in sff are not a monolith, not all white, and vary in relation to fostering or fighting racism in the field.

    Your response here is a wonderful unpacking of the statement in regards to your use of it and call for solidarity against discrimination. Thank you for this to go along with your spot on speech. And congratulations on being guest of honor! I wish I could have been there to hear you and cheer you on. And please take good care of you. (-:

  17. Just wanted to chime in on the thanks for posting this (I am not Jewish but can see the problematic interpretation and its potential for harm).

  18. I did miss the possible inference, but then, I also read the reference to the “liberal-Jewish tradition” as being about a sum of two sets (liberal and Jewish) and not just the intersection of the two, so that it would include non-Jewish liberals as well as non-liberal Jews. (Otherwise, why the hyphen?) As a result, I wasn’t predisposed to make that connection especially since the passage was also making clear that while “many” writers had come out of the tradition, it didn’t account for the entire sf field, thus diffusing (but not defusing) any imputation of avariciousness.

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