Why I Think RaceFail Was The Bestest Thing Evar for SFF

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.

91 thoughts on “Why I Think RaceFail Was The Bestest Thing Evar for SFF”

  1. 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.


  2. — Seriously, it’s encouraging — as someone who hasn’t been to a con since RaceFail went down — to hear that it’s produced, is continuing to produce, something concrete and positive. It’s just a shame (I feel ashamed, personally and on behalf of SF) it’s taken this long to break the ice.

  3. I agree that RaceFail was a good thing for SFF, on the whole. I think it’s true that things sometimes need to be destablized before they can reach a better equilibrium. I have been delighted to see, and become aware of, the many black and other fans of color who have come forth through these discussions, and I look forward to engaging with more efforts to make cons (and the field) more inclusive.

    I don’t think the ‘Fail was that it happened at all, but rather people on a number of different sides displaying their inability to discuss these topics without falling into certain disfunctional roles – some of them power roles, some of them political roles, some of them the ones you have discussed here, of only wanting to discuss these things in certain ways that denied the over-arching realities of the situation. I think as a community a lot of us have started to examine those patterns of failure and try to find ways through and arround them, so that everyone in the discussions can actually see the other people in the discussion – as people, often with common goals, even as they are having huge process disagreements or whatever. I think taking the discussion from the internet and into face-to-face conversations could complement the ongoing learning process, and make the more horrible parts of the ‘Fail, like people receiving death threats, less likely in the future. I think we will discover new challenges, but SFF will be better for dealing with those, too.

    In the meantime, I really enjoyed seeing the great pictures of you and Nisi and Nalo and Namen and Alaya and Nnedi in Locus recently. Thank you all for your patience as we stumble along this way.

  4. 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.

    Was going to say how ONTD that is, except that on reflection it’s probably natural. Systems unthaw slowly and there are always people trying to push them back to their previous inertia. Or fighting rearguard actions, whichever. (Seem to recall there’s a stance that ‘suffragettes actually harmed the cause of emancipation by their antics; it was in the process already and would have happened sooner without them.’)

    That there are a *lot* of people doing RaceFailFail! means, I suppose, that previous race fails were only the first (and second and third) blasts of the trumpet in what will probably turn into a complete voluntary over time. This is disheartening and infuriating, but if you see that it’s produced good results even in the short run, I’m glad.

  5. As far as I could tell, the anger didn’t start with the PoCs–it started with a few white people going insane because their friends were accused writing unconsciously racist stuff.

    (White people going insane when accused of racism are _nothing_ compared to white people going insane when their friends are accused of racism.)

  6. I dunno.

    I’m seeing a lot of the same (white) people reacting exactly the same way concerning the epic catastrophe of Haiti, talking just like megadweeb brooks, vilimbaugh, robertson et al. when one points out the history of Haiti, long past and contemporary, and the failures of dealing with the dead, the rescue (nearly 2000 rescue and relief orgs in Port-au-Prince and they’ve managed to rescue 70 — YES SEVENTY — victims from the rubble so far). They insist that Defense Sec Gates is being unfairly interpreted when quoted as saying he refuses to allow air drops of food and water because possible rioting might ensue(by desperate people dying of injury, thirst and hunger after 7 days w/o help, water or food) — and that he isn’t allowing Doctors Without Borders to land at the Port-au-Prince airport for reasons of “security” while bringing in ever more thousands of U.S. troops to re-inforce the ongoing U.S. occupation, etc.

    I’m glad you feel so sanguine about the progress, but I feel, that like lobbyists, currently, due to the new laws, are not halting activity, just going further underground.

    In other words, I’m deeply depressed on MLK’s Day. I also have very many close Haitian friends, all of whom have lost many, many, many family members. The survivors now? Squatting in a parking lot.

    Love, C.

  7. You’re so right, N.K.! What a wonderful post. As a white writer, poet and editor RaceFail ’09 completely changed how I saw the field and made me realize some very ugly things that I had not noticed about it. It’s made me a much better writer and editor and, I hope, a better person.

  8. Ack. Hit send too soon!

    I WAS going to add that I hope the next *Fail involves how fandom sigmatizes (and flat out ignores) mental illness. Bring it on!

  9. A few random thoughts…

    Ditto on the stuff about Haiti. But I think part of the problem there is that it’s attached to the US self-image of being the Noble Rescuer. Our policy towards Haiti (and a lot of other places) has been in direct contradiction to that, but people are really attached to that self-image, so it adds another (albeit related) layer of resistance.

    There are a lot of PoC at DragonCon, especially in comparison to other large cons. Come on down some time.

    I agree with you about the general positive nature of RaceFail, but I have to say that it has made me personally less inclined to discuss the topic with people I don’t already know. That is because all I had to do in some instances was admit to being from Georgia to get a bunch of people who felt they needed to school the ignorant redneck…even though I have a grad certificate in Women’s Studies from a program very much focused on womanist/black feminist critiques, and I am used to having those conversations all the time. I note in passing that the people who gave me the most trouble turned out to be not actually PoC, but white people anxious to prove they were “allies.”

    I also note that I assumed a much higher level of…education? discourse? something…than what I got. I know that’s not news to you, and it shouldn’t have been news to me. That’s possibly my personal identification issue, in that I want to believe that SF fans are more perceptive and together and progressive than they actually are, sometimes in spite of direct evidence to the contrary.

    But you know, omelettes, eggs, whatever. I can afford to decide I’m not going to have those conversations on the Internet any more, because I know that the conversations will happen anyway. And I do have them in person; you could say that the introductory essay for my thesis was one such conversation, because I brought up the multiracial/multicultural nature of the future society I was depicting in my novel, and the logic behind it (and it was partially RaceFail that prompted me to emphasize that). Additionally I was party to a discussion about Arisia wherein people were talking about their efforts to attract more PoC to the con, and how it made them realize how socially segregated Boston is. So, good things are happening, many of which aren’t even visible but do have impact.

  10. Anne,

    I’d actually rather not have these conversations face to face. That’s partly personal preference; I’m much better at expressing myself textually than verbally. Just a quirk of nerves and the way my brain works. But also, that’s what I meant when I pointed out that some white people keep insisting the way RaceFail happened was not the way to have this conversation. Many of them insist it should’ve happened in person.

    No. It shouldn’t have. RaceFail happened exactly the way it needed to happen.

    I’ve seen people attempt to have these conversations in person for years before RaceFail, and they almost never worked. This is mostly, IMO, because it’s easier to have a flat group dynamic on the internet. (Particularly in non-linear thread formats, a la LJ’s.) In person, unless conditions are carefully controlled (e.g., a roundtable with communication-style ground rules, a workshop with a facilitator to keep the peace), it’s far too easy for human animal dynamics to intrude on the conversation. The largest/loudest/oldest/highest-status people in the room inevitably start to dominate, because (as Octavia said) we’re hierarchical and this affects how we speak to each other. I think one of the reasons RaceFail happened is not because PoC weren’t around before the internet (as some have stupidly assumed), but because PoC usually got shouted down (or snarked down, or “statused” down, or whatever) whenever they tried to raise the issue in person. IMO, in-person conversations give far too much power/control to the majority in the room, or the people used to holding societal power, and diminish the capacity of the minority/disempowered to speak their mind.

    Of course this dynamic happens online too, but not as easily, and it’s easier to fight. Frankly, without all our animal bits — loud voices, disdainful facial expressions, threatening body language, etc. — getting in the way, I think it was easier for the words to be heard.

  11. Ah, crap, my comment-threading plugin seems to have gone kersplooie. Let me see if I can fix it.

    ETA: ARGH. Here I am lauding the merits of threaded comments, and mine dies. -_-

    Anyway, apologies folks. I’m not sure what’s happening; the threaded-comments plugin that I installed is active, but just isn’t working for some reason. I don’t know enough to attempt fixing it in confidence; don’t want to break anything. I’ll speak to the folks who revamped my site and see if I can get them to fix this sometime this week, or at the very least add a numbering system so that people can cite which number/comment they’re responding to. In the meantime, if you’re responding to someone else, please mention their name in your address.

    Question for anyone who’s tried it — can you guys tell me if the “subscribe to comments” plugin is working? Or is it futzed too?

  12. Sara A.

    Yes, I’ve been planning to check out DragonCon for awhile, but it takes place on Labor Day weekend and I work in academia (when I’m working); that time of year is basically like tax season is for accountants — we don’t get to take vacations then. If I don’t end up going back to full time work this summer, I’ll try to attend this year.

    And yeah, I get the Southern thing. -_- I don’t have an accent, mostly because I’ve spent my whole life shuttling between Brooklyn and Alabama and the two accents seem to cancel each other out, but trust me, I’ve noticed the tendency of northerners/westerners/midwesterners (and even people from beyond the US) to assume that Southern = racist and stupid. I always find that ironic, because most Southerners I know have more daily contact with PoC than people in the rest of the country, and tend to know more about what to say/what not to say in polite company.

  13. I want to be clear that I don’t mean that I think other people shouldn’t have those conversations online. I’m just making a statement about my own tolerance for it. But I have those conversations regularly in my daily life. Which is academia, so not quite the real world, but still…I have no reason to think that the people I know in that context won’t challenge me if they think I’m saying something stupid. Especially since most of the ones I am thinking of are professors.

  14. I’m not saying RaceFail should have happened differently, I’m saying I think next steps should include continuing to pull it offline in addition to the online continuation.

    I think both in-person and online communication forums have their benefits, and their downfalls. One we saw in RaceFail, for instance, that in some way amplified previously unheard voices yet also tended to increase the chaos and distress for some participants (and some people’s tendency to speak in a place or way that got them attacked by others) was that it was very easy to follow a link deep into a conversation without hearing/seeing the rest of the context, and sometimes thus derail it.

    This is true in person, too, but in a moderated forum could be reduced. As we try to have follow-on discussions of RaceFail in person, in fact, I think we’re learning that within an event those discussions need to be tiered so that everyone has shared context – we spent a ton of time at the meeting for Allies at Wiscon covering 101 stuff and RaceFail review and defining terms and had only a few minutes after that to try to delve into what it means to be allies and what more we can do. What we learned online, that not everyone can jump into a graduate-level discussion feet-first, is true in person also.

    The heirarchical nature of discussion is also true in both situations. I had a very interesting conversation with communication facilitation theorist Brenda Dervin about this, actually. She asserted that it is in spontaneous discussions that we are most likely to act heirarchical, and she was unsuprized to hear about certain patterns that arose online in RaceFail – she thought some of that might be somewhat intrinsic to the way the discussions happened. But we don’t necessarily have genius discussion facilitators like Brenda on hand, so we’ll need to strategize, and no doubt we will suffer mistakes and setbacks. But still, putting faces and people behind names ultimately I think helps bring the reality of effect into the greater community.

    Both online and in person, I think it behooves us to flip around the all-too-familiar patterns – to bring white people, for instance, into situations (possibly facilitated discussions) where they are the minority in the room, listening to PoCs. Some of us have been seeking out those situations on our own, but I’d like to see us make them happen at cons too, for others, and not in a “come visit the zoo” way like some people felt creeping into situations at Wiscon, but as opportunities for cross-group personal connection and collaboration. I haven’t done as much toward this this past year as I meant to, and I really appreciate taking this day to consider what has been learned, what has been done, and how far we have to go.

    A majority of the fiction and non-fiction I read this year was by authors of color, and that took me to a different place than I’ve ever been before. I want to keep going, and to change the spaces I have previously occupied.

  15. Great post, I learned a lot from it! (Had no idea WEB DuBois wrote SF… I’m going to have to track that down.)

  16. This is really good to hear and it’s been my feeling about it, too, so I’m glad you feel the same.

    And yes thank you internet, and especially the danga platform of LJ, DW, IJ, and JF for allowing a broader, yet still immediate conversation than could be had in limited face-to face space and kept the voices of FOC from being isolated, and that also afforded a platform to any of us who are less empowered in the face-to-face space where these conversations happen.

    And I’m so looking forward to reading THTK!

  17. Working for me too :)

    Did Du Bois write any SF short stories by chance? Ones I could, say, assign to my students? :D I looked at a bibliography for him but wasn’t able to figure out what was what.

    Any other recommendations for speculative fiction that I could slip into a Multicultural Lit syllabus would be appreciated :)

  18. Sara, re Dubois:

    Yes, there’s a story of his in the first Dark Matter, which is why I linked it. =) (It might be the only SF story he wrote, I dunno; it’s the only one I’ve read.) Frankly, both volumes of that belong on a multi-lit syllabus, IMO. And also Nalo Hopkinson’s postcolonial anth with Uppinder Meehan, SO LONG BEEN DREAMING.

  19. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this.

    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.

    The “tone” argument makes even less sense when applied to a group of conversations than it does to a single one.

    There were calm, carefully reasoned posts with no expressed outrage. They weren’t the attention-grabbers; they weren’t where the discussions boiled over. Whether or not we “need” drama and confrontation to fix social ills, we get a lot more mileage out of it than we do from polite conversation. Or mileage in a different direction–there are places calm discussion just can’t take us, and we needed them visited.

  20. I have to say, RaceFail was a revelation for me. I ended up taking a college course and completely changing my minor as a result of it, because I realized that I didn’t even know enough to enter into the conversation as it was happening.

    So yeah, it was nice to see it happen, and it ended up being very significant for me. :) There looks to be another *Fail starting up. We’ll see where it goes. (LGBTQ representation in fiction.)

  21. Holy *crap* that’s cool. =) I ask the aether, and the aether responds! Thank you! (And working on a holiday, too — I was going to wait ’til tomorrow to ask about it. Overtime thanks!)

  22. Thanks to all the reading I did during RaceFail, I was able to correctly identify an instance of “white woman’s tears” during the call-in portion of an NPR program on the idea of the “post-racial America” this afternoon. So count me as another pasty white chick who walked away from it more educated than she was beforehand.

  23. One thing that was both a reason for and a problem with the whole series of discussions, was a lot of misunderstanding of each other. I think that a lot of white people who want to be allies – me included – are under the impression that Racefail was considered a failure by the PoC who participated. I can think of a lot of reasons for this, and I guess it’s probable that a good chunk of them probably boil down to not listening well enough. But for those of us who *aren’t* good at listening even when we’re really trying, it can be confusing to tell the difference between “furious at the need for this conversation”, “furious at the direction this conversation is taking” and “convinced this whole thing is a failure”.

    I don’t think you have any obligation at all to offer remedial education or explanations. But I’m glad you did in this case, and glad to hear of the good consequences you see, even while I wish it all hadn’t had to happen (in the sense of both “was never needed because we were all better at each other” and “wish so many people I like hadn’t had to suffer pain to fight this battle”).

  24. I’m well aware of how dysfunctional the South can be about race, but then…I’m often shocked by how people from other parts of the country will say and do things that I knew better than when I was twelve. Eventually I realized that part of it is that at no point in my life have I not gone to school with, lived near, gone to church with, and worked with people of multiple races. It does make a difference.

    In academia it also makes a difference when there are enough PoC on the faculty to have something of a coalition, rather than being the Lone Embattled Token. We still don’t have parity, not even among the undergrads…but in a state with 30-40% African American population, “not parity” is still more, know what I mean? It leads to things like there being not one straight white guy on my committee; not by design, but because that’s how it worked out based on my interests.

  25. WEB DuBois also wrote The Twenty-One Balloons, which I think qualifies as SF, since it deals with advanced technology (hot air balloons) and utopian society. It’s considered a children’s book.

  26. As a white girl, a would-be writer, and a SFF fan, I could not be more grateful for RaceFail ’09. It picked me up, gave my self-satisfied ears a solid and much-needed boxing, and pried off the blinders that I hadn’t even realized were blocking my view of the SFF world.

    RaceFail woke up my sense of outrage and my sense of justice. It confronted me with my own failings in my friendships with POCs. It spurred an eye-opening and humbling conversation with a longtime Chinese-American friend of mine, and smacked the sense into me to stop messing with my black friends’ hair–and to be ashamed that I’d ever done so. It broke my heart when it pulled off the veils on stories and authors I love: “Firefly”, “The Last Airbender”, Patricia C. Wrede. It led me to new fandom pastures (and islands: see, Earthsea) and expanded my horizons.

    I’ve come out of it more aware of the world around me and of my own prejudices, more determined to fight those prejudices in myself and in others, to ask questions and listen with an open mind, to respond to accusations of racism with not “how can you say that?”, but “how should I improve?”, and to paint a full spectrum of people in anything I write in the future. I think I’m a better person than I was a year ago. I know I have plenty of room to keep changing. And I thank God for that knowledge.

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  28. RaceFail was not a comfortable time. But since when was change ever comfortable? Why should it be supposed to be comfortable?

    I learned a lot, have at least two projects on the go whose shape has been changed by RaceFail, and will be continuing to assimilate the dicussion for sometime to come. A win as far as I’m concerned.

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  30. I am one of the white people who wish that had been a less painful way to do Racefail than Racefail, mainly because I wish my friends didn’t have to be hurt and exhausted by Round 10,457, Same As The First.

    However, it has made me more cognizant of race, of my own privilege (I’m white), and made me more inclined to buy books by people of color and about characters of color. I am grateful for all the work that people of color and anti-racist allies did during Racefail – especially one of my friends, who carefully applied a Cluebat until I understood this was important. It’s improved both my writing and my taste, and although I wish my friends hadn’t been hurt, I think that there have enough white people who have learned at least something that hopefully my friends will be hurt less in the future by the genre they love. On the other hand, it’s too late for some – they’ve disengaged with the genre completely, tired of being erased and ignored, and we have to keep track of the losses as well as the gains.

    (To be honest, I’d never heard of you pre-Racefail. I preordered your book a month or so ago.)

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  32. Hell, I’m one of the _black_ people who thought at first that the Internet was proving to be a bad place for this discussion to happen. But I changed my mind. Having it via the Internet gave us (people of colour and allies in SF/F community) gave us numbers. It let us see each other. For the first time in this community, we weren’t isolated voices which could easily be shouted down. For the first time, we got to do some shouting back. In a couple of months I’ll be an author guest at the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts. The conference theme this year is Race in the Fantastic, and I’ll have to give some kind of address. I’ve written and discarded a million notes, trying to come up with something useful. Now I wish I could just read them this post of yours. Thank you so much for it.

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  36. Maybe one reason race isn’t discussed openly or without drama in this context is that it’s not obvious. I wouldn’t know you were a “writer of color” if you hadn’t said so in your text. (And now all I know is you’re not primarily of northern-European ancestry – I still don’t know if your family is from Armenia or Peru or Samoa or what. For that matter I don’t know your gender either; I got here by following a Reddit article link.)

    I read the first sample chapter of your book and liked it enough to pre-order it (though I won’t start to read the trilogy till Book 3 is in my hands; I hate cliffhangers.) Since you mentioned the protagonist is a person of color, I looked for that – but at least in chapter 1 there’s no indication of her eye shape, her nose or lips, or her hair color. Does that part get disclosed in a later chapter?

    About race among writers: I don’t know of any Asian or Black SF writers; the only Hispanic one I can think of is R. Garcia y Robertson. Most novels published recently don’t display an author picture so there’s no way to know. But as a reader I can’t think of any reason I’d care; I don’t buy novels because of anything personal about the author; I buy novels because the author puts out good work. (Which makes me wonder how a publisher could make a race-prejudiced decision; do SF writers’ agents actually say e.g. “My client is Hispanic” when pitching a book?)

    Color me ignorant I guess.

  37. Hi Silouan,

    If you’re looking for examples of the ways in which racism affects everyone in the SFF community, all you need to do is browse some of the RaceFail articles, or the more recent whitewashing debate. It’s rarely as blatant as an editor consciously choosing not to publish PoC, or making bigoted remarks — though that does happen too. The kind of racism that caused RaceFail was mostly of the subtle-yet-dangerous, often unconscious, kind.

    And while I agree that many readers could care less about the race or gender of an author when they’re just trying to find a good read, and most editors could care less when they’re looking for a good acquisition… some people do care — quite a lot, and in ways that can impact my career positively or negatively. (And yes, some agents do say it. Some editors ask. Again, this can be positive or negative — but it does matter.) So I have to consider these issues, even if readers are free not to.

    Re: Yeine in chapter 1, no, there’s no mention of her eye shape or nose/lips. Some things I prefer to leave up to the reader; in chapter 1 she merely states that she is “often mistaken for a boy,” and what that looks like is different for different people. However, she also states that she is “brown as forestwood”, and she describes her hair as black, short, and curly. She doesn’t really fit any clear racial classification in Earth terms, but that’s because a) she’s not on Earth, and the racial classifications of her world are slightly different from ours, and b) she’s biracial in any case, and has some features from both parents. But the text should make it clear that she considers herself Darre, and she looks mostly Darre, and Darre are generally brown-skinned and short in stature, with straight black hair and brown eyes. Darren women are usually “curvy”, though Yeine is not. Her mother’s people, the Amn, are taller and pale, with curly light-colored hair and light-colored eyes. The women are flatter-chested. There are other differences — for example, the Amn have longer average lifespans, which Yeine also mentions.

    It’s not hidden, but it’s presented quickly, so it’s easy to miss if you’re skimming. Most of the description is in the scene where Yeine first meets Dekarta face-to-face, if you decide to go back and take a look at it again. =)

  38. Well, one thing that can happen is that the reader (editor, agent) just “doesn’t identify” with the main characters or the situations depicted. This can be because they don’t identify with the characters as described (rare), or the issues raised make them uncomfortable, or they just don’t grok the life experience of the author which infuses the work. The latter probably happens a lot, and is possibly one reason for the observed sorting effect that happens. Interestingly, because Middle-Class White Guy is the cultural default, the sorting effect often occurs regardless of who is making the readership or editing decisions. We all are raised to think that the thoughts and concerns of MCWG’s are both important and of universal relevance, and act accordingly.

    This also explains why an awful lot of mainstream “important” literature seem to be both written by and about the same kind of people. Or, as I put it after suffering through a particularly awful writer’s conference* where an editor for a major publishing house got up and read an excerpt from her would-be modern appropriation of Anna Karenina:

    “Every time someone writes another novel about middle-aged middle-class white people fucking up their relationships, God kills a kitten.”

    *That same weekend, I described an experimental hypertext narrative project I was working on to Robert Olen Butler, and he informed me, “I’m sorry to say this, but no art can come from that.”

  39. Hi Silouan

    One of the reasons you may not be aware of the colour of the writer, is because the publisher chooses not to put their picture on the back of the book. This is particularly noticeable with hard backs. It’s very clearly a decision about what the publisher thinks matters.

    One of the things the internet has done is to take control over the presentation of writers, away from publishers.


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  41. I’m a white male who grew up in a rural area with just one black person at my school, but I always thought I was OK about race, that I wasn’t consciously prejudiced but that had a few ingrained issues I was gradually becoming aware of. The RaceFail made me realise that a) there were more subconscious areas to adress than I ever dreamed of, and b) that it’s not just about being neutral but that there are things I could be proactive about in making POC feel more welcome in my communities.
    What i want to ask though is, whilst i understand what you say about anger being appropriate and necessary, do you think that if it had only been anger, without the quiet reasoning posts that somebody referred to above, would it have been as useful or as positive? There is always the danger of alienating people with good intentions, people who ‘think’ they are on your side. Of course without the angry posts the quiet reasoning would have been missed too, so all aspects need to come together in a debate like this for results to be effective. (Bit like society really…)

  42. Hi Kev,

    Yes, I think the “quiet reasoning” would’ve been missed without the “angry” posts. But I’m putting scare quotes around these for two reasons a) because the “quiet reasoning” posts were angry too; very likely every cogent and persuasive post you saw was written by someone trembling with fury and struggling to be coherent. And b) because I don’t recall seeing a single “angry” post that didn’t make a reasonable point. People normally don’t get needlessly, randomly angry. The point might have been expressed with frothing rage and in between curses heaped upon the target’s ancestors, but it was always there. And in a lot of cases those angry posts linked not just to quiet reasoning posts being made at the same time, but also to quiet reasoning arguments that had been made years before, by Samuel Delany and Audrey Lorde and so forth as mentioned in the OP. So it wasn’t possible for RaceFail to be only anger. The reasoning was always out there; it just got ignored beforehand (for decades in some cases). The anger made people pay attention.

    As for the danger of alienating people with good intentions — well, one of the things that I learned from RaceFail (and also from general experience) was that people with good intentions are the ones to fear most. The overt racists are easy to deal with. You can spot them coming a mile away. But the well-intentioned people are scarier. They might not intend harm, but in most cases they haven’t thought about all the racist (and other “-ist”) messages they’ve absorbed from society. They haven’t done the basic groundwork necessary to purge themselves of that passively-absorbed “-ism”. So they say the most incredibly hurtful, self-absorbed, and utterly useless things, then compound the problem by getting upset when they’re called on it. I liken these people to sleeper agents — they seem OK at first, but then they suddenly “activate” and stab you in the back, and then they come out of their fugue and freak because there’s blood on their hands and they don’t know how it got there and they refuse to accept that they’re the ones who put it there, OMG, OMG. Meanwhile, you’re on the floor bleeding out, unnoticed because of their histrionics.

    The rage of RaceFail made many of these well-intentioned sleeper agents wake up. So while yes, I think the anger risked alienating some of them, I’m fine with that. They were always dangerous; I haven’t lost anything by their alienation. The ones who wake up are a gain (or they will be, once they shift from “not causing harm” anymore to “actually trying to help”).

  43. I was going to say “not necessarily” because I felt pretty alienated by some people, even though I am used to these conversations in my daily life.

    But then I realized you’re really talking about something different. I was put off, as I said above, from trying to talk about it with people I don’t know on the Internet.

    But put off from reading, learning, conversing on the subject? Alienated that way? Er, NO. I don’t harbor the delusion that I can afford that.

    The people who would use the dynamics of an Internet hullabaloo to flounce off and declare they TRIED but obviously just CAN’T UNDERSTAND (boo hoo!)…Yeah, I think you can probably do without them.

  44. Thanks, that has clarified some muddy thinking I had going on.
    What is interesting for me is that I read posts like yours and occasionally want to disagree, but I have started to catch myself and say ‘hang on wtf do I know about how this person’s life has made them feel like this?’ That disagreement is actually ‘i don’t understand’ and this is how it breaks down.
    As far as strangers on the net go, you don’t owe me any explanation or help with my failure to understand, but I do appreciate the time you took to respond.
    I am going to disagree slightly though, just to say that whilst I get what you say about reason and anger, there were also lots of blind abusive comments on all sides largely of the ‘X is my friend how dare you call her racist’ and ‘Ys friends attacked me so Y is a racist.’ This is the usual comments board crap but it became part of the tone for a while.

  45. Kev,

    Well, yes, there are always peanut galleries (friends of X chiming in on behalf of X) involved in any internet controversy. What I find interesting about RaceFail, though, is how many people wanted to dismiss it, despite all the hundreds of substantive comments and posts involved, because of that peanut gallery. These same people have no problem with the gallery in any other debate — case in point: the current discussion about Amazon vs. Macmillan going on all over the place. It’s chock full of people getting up in arms about topics they don’t understand, and having absolutely no clue what they’re talking about but talking about it very vehemently anyway. Yet no one dismisses that whole conversation as a waste of time, as I repeatedly heard (and still hear) with RaceFail.

    Here’s what’s happening with RaceFail, IMO: cognitive dissonance. Race is an uncomfortable topic; it gets right at the heart of people’s sense of self and others and place in society. A lot of people really don’t want to talk about it, and probably shouldn’t because they don’t know how. Yet they think they should, because it’s obviously an important issue, and they think of themselves as intelligent and enlightened enough to comment on Important Issues, and the fact that they’re uncomfortable with this one makes them wonder if they’re really intelligent and enlightened after all. The conversation’s very existence, therefore, and their unwillingness to participate in it, threatens their sense of self; this is the dissonance. To resolve this discomfort, they try to find an intelligent and enlightened way to deal with it — and so they dismiss it, so as to seem detached and Above It All rather than clueless and anxious. They look for something, anything, that will give them sufficient justification to dismiss the conversation, and they latch onto its tone. (Could be anything, really, but tone is convenient.) “It’s too angry”, they say, when really it’s no more angry than, as you say, “the usual comments board crap”. And in fact RaceFail was much more higher on signal-to-noise than the usual comments board crap. But there’s a little noise, and that’s the handle they need. They’ve therefore found an excuse to avoid a discussion they really didn’t want to have anyway. Dissonance resolved.

    Which, again, is why I consider those people no loss to the conversation. They’re not ready, fine, no problem. They’ll come to the table when they are ready, if that ever happens. But in the meantime I just wish they’d say nothing, rather than chime in to say that they don’t care, it’s unimportant, it’s too angry, they don’t see any reason why they should care when the people involved are being so rude, nothing of substance, doesn’t matter, load of BS, it’s just wankery, honestly it’s not worth commenting on but watch me comment on it at great and profound length anyway.

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  47. Just want to agree with those who say they learned a lot from RaceFail. For the record, I’m white and used to be extremely naive when it came to things like race. I was never actively involved in the discussions, but at some point I think I will try to sum what I learned from watching.

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  49. Wrong race discussion, Luke. And as a known troll from several such discussions, you’re on moderation here, just as a warning.

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  51. I think I may want to quote you, or possibly paraphrase; someone pulled a similar rhetorical stratagem on me wrt a discussion of sexism. Did you know that if I just wouldn’t use gendered epithets like “mansplaining” that everything would be fine? And that I am Upsetting People and alienating them by using said handy term for a common sexist behavior? *snort*

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  53. Thanks for mentioning this story by Du Bois… I’m just catching up on blogs lately, since I couldn’t read much when I was in Indonesia (still have nightmares about the low connectivity!) and I just ran across this reference — maybe you linked back to it or something? Dark Matter (the first volume, anyway) was sitting among the many books I plan to read when I have some time, and I pulled it off the shelf and checked out the story last night before dropping off to sleep — now considering giving it to my students in a American Pop Culture class, since we’ve been focused on African-American figures and influences on mainstream popular culture in the US, and issues of race explored in terms of the depiction of African-Americans (by themselves and by the white majority).

    (It’s a particularly interesting story, and now I really want to see what kinds of critical (ie. academic) responses have been made to it… and it’s also interesting to me that Du Bois wrote SF. I wonder whether he’s responding in some way to the HG Wells novel In the Days of the Comet, from only fifteen years before, in which the vapor trails of a comet that near-misses the Earth transforms humanity — turning them suddenly very rational and “sane” but somehow, quite incongruously, without wiping out their deep-seated racism or sexism; Wells manages to use the “N” word quite uncritically (in the mouth of an “enlightened” proto-posthuman) and have a proto-posthuman Jewish character accept collective guilt for what amounts to a stereotypical of putative Semitic avarice; this, in a setting where humanity is supposedly cleansed of hate, viciousness, and too-emotional judgments and actions.)

    I suspect the two stories could be held side by side for fruitful comparison, since Du Bois seems to point at the very impossibility of the kind of utopian change that Wells demonstrates (to a critical reader) he himself couldn’t imagine; I also wonder if somewhere in Du Bois’ papers there might be some hint at whether he was indeed responding directly to Wells or only more generally to ideas of transformation, utopia, and so on. (Du Bois wrote his comet story a decade after Halley’s Comet had come and gone, while Wells was writing a few years before; it’s possible Halley’s more recent pass and the interest it generated was an independent inspiration for Du Bois to use a comet as the catalyst for a major social disruption and for the discussion of utopian possibilties; but Wells was famous in the US by 1920, and well-regarded as an intellectual, and it seems they did meet (or at least correspond) in 1923 when Du Bois was in England — and that Wells was also aware of Du Bois, or wanted to appear thus in his letter to him — so one wonders whether Du Bois was indeed responding to and critiquing Wells’ earlier text.) Sadly, I can’t find much online that suggests anything more definite either way…

    As for Racefail… I’ll save my comments on that for my own blog, though I’ll likely link here, if you don’t mind.

  54. “… it’s not just about being neutral but that there are things I could be proactive about in making POC feel more welcome in my communities.”

    Unfortunately, according to some of the people in the whole RaceFail thing, doing that is patronizingly racist.

  55. Ah. In other words, because people of colour don’t have a single unified response to what the right thing to do is, we deserve continued racism?

  56. I’m still trying to figure out who Density Duck is responding to. Density, there’s seventy-some comments here, and yours isn’t linked to anyone in particular. Rather than force me to re-read all of them, could you attribute the quote you’ve mentioned? I can’t figure out what you’re trying to say.

  57. Part of the problem is the threading, but the quotation is from the Kev McVeigh comment at the start of this series of subthreads.

    And Nalo, a permutation of your question resonates discomfitingly with a whole political dilemma bouncing around in my head now since the insanity in Toronto the other week. (Well, what I saw of it online, that is.)

    Not in the question of deserving of course — nobody deserves racism, continued or otherwise — but in terms of strategy.

    The political analogy is:

    The Right (let’s simplify) tends to STFU and become a monolith, because it’s strategically useful. Neoliberal economic policies are good! Globalization as we’re pursuing it is good! (etc.)

    The Left tends to be more diverse by nature, which is important — there needs to be room for a great diversity of opinions — but this also makes a concerted, unified response difficult.

    Obviously I don’t think the Left deserves to be ignored; but does the Left need to find a way to develop a consensus in order to convince the Right of that? I worry that until it does, the Right will find it much easier to dismiss the diverse things that they say.

    But I also worry that if the Left does develop consensus the way the Right does, similar disenfranchisement will follow for some who currently do fit into the broad and semi-unified opposition to the Right.

    Can any consensus reached be inclusive, decisive, and succinct? (I fear we can have at most two out of those three, because of the nature of the left, and that weakens the consensus approach from the outset… but at the same time, I don’t see a viable alternative to consensus, either.)

    Is it wrong to imagine there might be an analogy to Racefail in all this?

    One reason I mention succinct is because while Google is my friend, time is not. That link you provide, Nora, is to three pages of links… which is a lot of links, and all the postsI clicked through to today — and on a number of past days — have loads comments, some pertinent and some puzzled.

    I was vaguely aware of Racefail at the outset, tried to pay attention, got busy, came back to catch up, and found a kind of ocean of material out there. There was just sooooooooo much, it was dizzying.

    I surely can’t be the only person who can’t imagine a time when he’ll have gotten through all that.

    Honestly, I don’t long for a single consensus, but maybe something a little concise: a collection of essays on the topic summarizing different arguments and issues that came up, epitomizing different views across a range, and so on? I have a post I want to make on Ian McDonald’s books set in India, and would love to be able to refer to this set of discussions, but it’s so damned much! (And some percentage of it seems to be in a foreign language — lots of fandom vocab and acronyms for which I have no idea of the meanings.)

    (And so, maybe, on some level, I’m wondering whether the debate was the destabilization, and now we’re in the stage pf pushing changes through — in a more coherent, coarse-grained, and generalized form?)

    Huh, actually, I betcha the whole discussion would make a fascinating PhD thesis topic. Especially on the question of why (if your observations are broadly shared, Nora) SF/F is so far behind the rest of the world on this subject. (Especially when we fancy ourselves ahead of the world in other areas, and probably did so in this one too until RaceFail.)

    One wonders to what degree Geek Social Fallacies play into it. The first two or three seem prime ways of shutting down discussion of anything of a political nature, for example.

  58. About race and SFF all I have to say is It does not matter what faces of the authors are to me, I just want to experience good storytelling and artwork. Race is not important to me and it will anger me if the SFF community forces race as an issue when marketing or attracting new talent. It should purely be on talent alone. Just a thought, maybe many believed blacks and other races were not interested in SFF in large enough numbers. But I say if someone has the right talent black or not they will find a market for their work. Again, I do not spend any time thinking about race in SFF. To me SFF was one of the few escapes I can go and rid myself of any such issue of the world and I don’t want to see it in SFF, it has no place.

  59. I’m surprised there’s been no response, but, er, Mr. Howard, I think it’s worth considering that in SF, race always has had a place. People have implicitly made race, sex, and culture a part of SF from its earliest days, and all too often the assumption was that we’d be living in a white, male-dominated, hetero-only, American or Western-European-dominated future. It’s not even hard work to read that into much of the SF canon.

    I don’t think you need to worry about the SFF community “forcing race as an issue” in a way that will hurt whites, to be honest. Rather, you should worry about the poverty the genre and those who love it have suffered by constructing SF as a genre where whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, and Westernness are privileged and everything else is marginalized. In such conditions, the argument that “talent” should matter more than anything can be clouded by the eye of a beholder who prefers to see the talent of those he feels are like himself. Which is not to say I think there should be official quotas on tables of contents, but rather than it’s not so hard to build a diverse one if one wants to badly enough.

    Just a thought, maybe many believed blacks and other races were not interested in SFF in large enough numbers.

    … or believed (as you seem implicitly to do) that the only people who’d read a story about characters who are “blacks” or from “other races” are people who are black or other-raced themselves?

    That is to say, that some seem to have believed that white SF fans are so dumb, blind, and wrapped up in themselves they couldn’t get interested in stories about characters who were not white? Because how else do you explain the use of white people on covers of books about nonwhite people?

    I don’t know, I tend to feel insulted when someone assumes I, as a white SF reader, am that pathetic.

    But I say if someone has the right talent black or not they will find a market for their work.

    To which the author of this site, and several of the commenters above, are a testament. Yet surely this doesn’t mean they should shut up and not talk about race in the context of the publishing business, the fan community, or the genre’s canon, and so on? Surely they have the right to talk about these issues, not just because it affects the marketing (and reception) of their work, but also because it’s an issue for them personally as SF fans? Because they, and more white authors than you might imagine, realize that this has profound effects on the quality, depth, and scope of the genre, on whether we are welcoming or alienating most of the planet (which is nonwhite, if you’ve forgotten), on whether it is ethical to persist in older attitudes to take up the challenge for change? After all, there are all kinds of conversations going on in the SF fan/author/publisher communities all the time. I see no reason why this discussion should be truncated because you feel uncomfortable with it. If you don’t want to participate, fine, but why tell others they shouldn’t even discuss it? Especially when so many commenters have stated above that it was a meaningful discussion for them?

    Again, I do not spend any time thinking about race in SFF. To me SFF was one of the few escapes I can go and rid myself of any such issue of the world and I don’t want to see it in SFF, it has no place.

    As I said above, you seem to be missing the point: the issues of the world are always there, and if they’re invisible to you in the novel where the all-white starship crew adventures about the stellar wonders of the future, it definitely will not be absent to a lot of other readers — and not just non-white ones. That’s an escapism I think we have grown enough to do without.

    It’s one thing if there’s a reason in-story, or if the issue is explored; it’s another when it’s Just Another White Future. The latter, I’d argue, is as much a failure of imagination as when someone gets the science so badly wrong that it’s insulting.

  60. Discussing race (or gender, or sexuality, or class) inequities in SF does not create them. Just because you were studiously ignoring the pachyderm in the parlor doesn’t mean it wasn’t there the whole time. And just because someone points out said elephant, it doesn’t mean they rode in on it.

  61. If ‘race’ (an artificial, non scientific term and construct) matters not at all to you, and you believe it matters not at all to sf and Fantasy, why are you commenting about these matters in September to a post that went up way back at the start of 2010?

  62. Gord, you’re a patient soul. I suspect no-one rushed to answer because these questions are so basic, are classic derailment tactics, and have been responded to so many times. If this person is really interested in the issue, the answers are right there in front of them and easy to find.

  63. Me, patient? Hahahaha!

    I imagine you’re right: one gets tired explaining the same basic stuff again and again. Especially when one has a sense that the ill-informed commenter is “Simply Explaining How It Is” to the original poster, and likely won’t read responses.

    On the other hand, I don’t know that the answers to these questions actually are out there in a really accessible form. I’m still waiting for the book of essays that summarizes the scope and content of the discussion in a way that takes a day or a week to read, rather than three months.

    I’m starting to wonder if maybe some kind of blog carnivale is in order? Or perhaps an actual book of essays… hm.

  64. I was considering replying, but now I think I’ll just applaud.

    Thank you for such a well-phrased and civil response to a post so full of possibly well-meant, but nevertheless frustrating blind privilege.

    I’m not sure I could have put it as well, let alone better, myself.

  65. Sorry to chime in on a post that’s most of a year old, but I just stumbled across it now, and just wanted to say I very much agree with what you’ve written.

    Any time you’ve got a problem that a lot of people would prefer to stay in denial about, just being calm and “reasonable” and politely saying “Oh excuse me, I believe may have a problem over here, if it’s not too much trouble…” is likely to be ignored. More often that not, it takes someone (or many someones, as the case may be), saying something more like “HEY! YOU! YES, YOU! GET OFF YOUR ASS AND TAKE A LOOK AT THIS ***ING PROBLEM!” before the oblivious masses start paying attention. And then of course, they’re terribly upset that OMG, someone was mean to them, but at least they’re paying some degree of attention, which means that, just possibly, the calm-and-reasoned approach might then stand a chance of being heard.

    Also, I really liked your “sleeper agents” analogy in your reply to Kev McVeigh. I’ve run into that with regard to other oppressions as well – sexism, homophobia, etc. And yes, it hits a lot harder when the horrifically clueless comments come from a totally unexpected source. :-/

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