I’m going to start this off with a quote from Chip Delany, writing in the essay “Racism and Science Fiction” which was published in NYRSF in 1998. It’s online, you can look it up.
Since I began to publish in 1962, I have often been asked, by people of all colors, what my experience of racial prejudice in the science fiction field has been. Has it been nonexistent? By no means: It was definitely there. A child of the political protests of the ’50s and ’60s, I’ve frequently said to people who asked that question: 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.
We are still a long way away from such statistics.
But we are certainly moving closer.
I’m tempted to just stop there, drop the mic, and walk offstage, point made. Chip’s a hard act to follow.
But it has been almost twenty years since his prophetic announcement, and in that time all of society — not just the microcosm of SFF — has racheted toward that critical, threatening mass in which people who are not white and not male achieve positions of note. And indeed we have seen science fiction and fantasy authors and editors and film directors and game developers become much, much more explicit and hostile in their bigotry. We’ve seen that bigotry directed not just toward black authors but authors of all races other than white; not just along the racial continuum but the axes of gender, sexual orientation, nationality, class, and so on. We’ve seen it aimed by publishers and book buyers and reviewers and con organizers toward readers, in the form of every whitewashed book cover, every “those people don’t matter” statement, and every all-white, mostly-male BookCon presenters’ slate. Like Chip said, this stuff has always been here. It’s just more intense, and more violent, now that the bigots feel threatened.
And it is still here. I’ve come to realize just how premature I was in calling for a reconciliation in the SFF genres last year, when I gave my Guest of Honor speech at the 9th Continuum convention in Australia.
For those of you who don’t stay on top of the latest news in the genre, let me recap what happened after that speech: I was textually assaulted by a bigot who decided to call me a “half-savage” among other things. (Whoops, sorry; he calls himself an “anti-equalitarian”, because why use a twelve-cent word when you can come up with a $2 word for the same thing? Anyway.) He did this via the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s official Twitter feed, which meant that he was using the organization as the tool for a personalized, racist, sexist attack; because of this he was later expelled from the organization. He was just the inciting incident, though; the really interesting thing is what surrounded this whole affair. I got the expected rape and death threats from this man’s supporters and others, which I duly reported to various authorities, for whatever good that did. During the month or so that it took SFWA to figure out what it wanted to do with this guy, a SFWA officer sat on the formal complaint I’d submitted because she thought I had “sent it in anger” and that I might not be aware of the consequences of sending something like that to the Board. A SFWA affiliate member posted a call for civility on his website; in the process he called me “an Omarosa” and a “drama queen”, but of course he didn’t mean those in a racialized or gendered way. In a semi-secret unofficial SFWA forum there was intense debate — involving former SFWA presidents and officers, and people who weren’t members at all — about why it was desperately important that SFWA retain its harassers and assaulters, no matter how many members they drove off, because their ability to say whatever they wanted was more important than everyone’s ability to function in genre workspaces, and SFWA’s ability to exist as a professional association.
Let me be clear: all of these were racist and sexist attacks, not just one on the SFWA Twitter feed. And let me emphasize that I am by no means the only woman or person of color who’s been targeted by threats, slurs, and the intentional effort to create a hostile environment in our most public spaces. People notice what happens to me because for better or worse I’ve achieved a high-enough profile to make the attacks more visible. But I suspect every person in this room who isn’t a straight white male has been on the receiving end of something like this — aggressions micro and macro. Concerted campaigns of “you don’t belong here”.
This is why I say I was premature in calling for a reconciliation. Reconciliations are for after the violence has ended. In South Africa the Truth & Reconciliation Commission came after apartheid’s end; in Rwanda it started after the genocide stopped; in Australia reconciliation began after its indigenous people stopped being classified as “fauna” by its government. Reconciliation is a part of the healing process, but how can there be healing when the wounds are still being inflicted? How can we begin to talk about healing when all the perpetrators have to do is toss out dogwhistles and disclaimers of evil intent to pretend they’ve done no harm?
(Incidentally: Mr. Various Diseases, Mr. Civility, and Misters and Misses Free Speech At All Costs, if you represent the civilization to which I’m supposed to aspire then I am all savage, and damned proud of it. You may collectively kiss my black ass.)
Maybe you think I’m using hyperbole here, when I describe the bigotry of the SFF genres as “violence”. Maybe I am using hyperbole — but I don’t know what else to call it. SFF are dedicated to the exploration of the future and myth and history. Dreams, if you want to frame it that way. Yet the enforced SWM dominance of these genres means that the dreams of whole groups of people have been obliterated from the Zeitgeist. And it’s not as if those dreams don’t exist. They’re out there, in spades; everyone who dreams is capable of participating in these genres. But many have been forcibly barred from entry, tormented and reeducated until they serve the status quo. Their interests have been confined within creative ghettos, allowed out only in proscribed circumstances and limited numbers. When they do appear, they are expected to show their pass and wear their badge: “Look, this is an anthology of NATIVE AMERICAN ANCIENT WISDOM from back when they existed! Put a kachina on the cover or it can’t be published. No, no, don’t put an actual Navajo on the cover, what, are you crazy? We want the book to sell. That person looks too white, anyway, are you sure they aren’t lying about being an Indian? What the hell is a Diné? What do you mean you’re Inuit?”
But the violence that has been done is more than metaphysical or thematic. Careers have been strangled at birth. Identities have been raped — and I use that word intentionally, not metaphorically. What else to call it when a fan’s real name is stripped of its pseudonym, her life probed for data and details until she gets phone calls at her home and workplace threatening her career, her body, and her family? (I don’t even need to name a specific example of this; it’s happened too often, to too many people.) Whole subgenres like magic realism and YA have been racially and sexually profiled, with discrimination based on that profiling so normalized as to be nearly invisible. How many of you have heard that epic fantasy or video games set in medieval Europe need not include people of color because there weren’t any? I love the Medieval PoC blog for introducing simple visual evidence of how people like me were systematically and literally excised from history. The result is a fantasy readership that will defend to the death the idea that dragons belong and Those People don’t.
Incidentally, the person who runs the Medieval PoC blog estimates she has received something on the order of 30 death threats in recent months.
And let’s talk about the threats — including the ones I’m likely to get for this speech. The harassment. The rapes. The child abuse. Let’s talk about how many conventions have been forced to use disturbingly careful language to basically say, Don’t assault people. Let’s talk about how much pushback statements like that have gotten from people whining, “Aw, c’mon, can’t I assult someone just a little?”
Worst of all, the violence has at this point become self-perpetuating. I can’t tell you how many times I was told, with great vehemence and hostility, that there was no chance of me having a career in SFF — by other people of color. Yeine, the protagonist of THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS, was almost a white man because I listened to some of what these people were saying. (Imagine if I’d listened to all of it.)
I have no idea what to do about all this. Just keep doing what I’ve been doing, I guess — just write, and try to improve my writing, and publish, and try to stay published. Every few months, pause to deal with some bigot’s bullshit. Then get back to writing. For the first time in my life I was diagnosed with high blood pressure earlier this year. It’s back down to normal, now, but bigotry kills, you know. Gotta be more careful of my physical and psychological health. Gotta survive. Because that’s all anyone can do, if we’re ever to make it to the point that reconciliation is possible. We aren’t there yet.
There are some signs of hope, I guess: SFWA did throw that one bigot out, though plenty more remain. Chip Delany’s been honored as a SFWA Grandmaster some fifty years after one of his novels was rejected for serialization in ANALOG because its editors didn’t think anyone could relate to a black protagonist. WisCon invited me here to be one of its Guests of Honor, five years after I ragequit the Concom over the Elizabeth Moon affair. We are talking about what’s happening. We are fighting back. But I am desperately afraid that Delany’s prediction will continue to prove true, and that the violence will escalate as more of us step up and demand that our contributions be recognized, our personhood respected, our presence acknowledged. If that’s the case, then we haven’t seen the worst of it yet. And we need to prepare.
So. If they think we are a threat? Let’s give them a threat. They want to call us savages? Let’s show them exactly what that means.
Arm yourselves. Go to panels at Wiscon and claim the knowledge and language that will be your weapons. Go to sources of additional knowledge for fresh ammunition — histories and analyses of the genre by people who see beyond the status quo, our genre elders, new sources of knowledge like “revisionist” scholarship instead of the bullshit we all learned in school. Find support groups of like-minded souls; these are your comrades-in-arms, and you will need their strength. Don’t try to do this alone. When you’re injured, seek help; I’ve got a great list of CBT therapists, for any of you in the New York area. Exercise to stay strong, if you can; defend what health you have, if you can’t. And from here on, wherever you see bigotry in the genre? Attack it. Don’t wait for it to come directly at you; attack it even if it’s hitting another group. If you won’t ride or die for anyone else, how can you expect them to ride or die for you? Understand that there are people in this genre who hate you, and who do not want you here, and who will hurt you if they can. Do not tolerate their intolerance. Don’t be “fair and balanced.” Tell them they’re unwelcome. Make them uncomfortable. Shout them down. Kick them out. Fucking fight.
And maybe one day, when the fighting’s done, then we can heal. On that day, all of us will dream freely, at last.
Thank you again.