Continuum GoH Speech | Epiphany 2.0: Warning for profanity.
My father was afraid for me to come to Australia.
He mostly made jokes about it — “Good, you’ve got dredlocks, maybe they won’t think you’re Chinese”, stuff like that. But I know my father, and I know when the jokes have a serious undercurrent. Now, mind you, I travel alone all the time, and I’m not always traveling to places that are friendly to Americans, or women, or black people. I’ve walked past trucks in Japan blaring “Gaijin go home” on loudspeakers, underneath billboards featuring a black man in an ape costume who was somehow selling breakfast cereal. I’ve sat on a public bus in Italy while a Somali woman was refused entry. I don’t speak Italian so I couldn’t be sure why, but the fact that everyone turned to look at me as soon as the bus pulled off was kind of a hint. And mind you — I live in New York. In Brooklyn, in a rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood called Crown Heights, which is internationally famous for a series of racial clashes between white Hasidic Jews and black Carribbeans; nowadays both groups have largely been driven out, replaced by wealthy young hipsters. But the cause celebre in New York right now is a police policy called Stop-and-Frisk, which gives the cops pretty much the right to search anyone they deem “suspicious” for any reason — and which in practice has resulted in a tremendously disproportionate targeting of black and Latino people for basically the crime of walking around while black or Latino. 95% of those stopped have been found to have committed no crime.
And both my father and I grew up in Alabama — he in Birmingham, dodging dogs and fire hoses turned on him and other Civil Rights protestors by infamous police Chief Bull Connor; me in Mobile in the 1980s, when the Michael Donald lynching — the last “traditional” lynching of a black man in the United States, with a noose and a tree and everything — occurred around the corner from my grandmother’s house. I remember my grandmother sitting in her den with a shotgun across her knees while I cracked pecans at her feet; I was maybe nine years old, had no idea what was going on. She told me the gun was just an old replica; she’d brought it out to clean it. I said “OK, Grandma,” and asked whether she’d make me a pie when I was done.
I say all this so you will understand the context of my father’s fear, when I told him I was going to Australia.
See, I just have a typical American education. When I took “World History” in high school, I think we spent three days on Australia — which, all things considered, is three times more than we spent on the entire continent of Africa. And though I’ve made an effort to educate myself further in the years since in a number of areas, I will admit that Australian history hasn’t been very high on the list. But my father has studied civil rights struggles everywhere in the world. He understood that a nation which classified its indigeous people as animals less than fifty years ago might not be the safest place for a woman like me… with brown skin and a big nose and a tendency to tell people to fuck off when they get on my nerves. Even in the depths of the Jim Crow era in the US, black people were people. Inferior ones… but people.
And now that I’m here I have spent the past three days — coupled with the three days in school, that’s twice as much as the average American! — visiting your museums and talking to your fellow citizens and just walking around observing your city streets, and I know now that Dad was right to worry. This is not a safe country for people of color. It’s better than it was, certainly, but when the first news story I saw on turning on my first Australian TV channel was about your One Nation party’s Pauline Hanson… well. Still got a ways to go.
Now. Before you tar and feather me, let me tell you something else I’ve come to understand in the past three days. Australia may not be the safest place for someone who looks like me… but it’s trying to become safer. And Australia may have classified the peoples of the Koorie and other nations as “fauna” until very recently, but Australia has also made tremendous strides lately in rectifying this error. I’ve listened in fascination to the Acknowledgements of Country made at nearly every public event I’ve attended since I’ve been here. I’ve marveled that indigenous languages are offered as courses for study at some local universities. I am awed that you don’t shove all of your indigenous history into a single museum, where it’s easy for people not of that culture to avoid or ignore, because that’s what happens in the US. So as horrified as I am by the nastier details of Australian history… I am also heartened, astonished, inspired, by the Australian present. You’ve still got a long way to go before Reconciliation is complete, but then again, you’ve started down that path. You’re trying.
I want you to understand: what you’ve done? It will never happen in my country. Not in my lifetime, at least. Right now American politicians are doing their best to roll back voting rights won during our own Civil Rights movement. They are putting in place educational “reforms” which disproportionately have a negative impact on black and brown and poor white kids, and will essentially help to solidify a permanent underclass. Right now there are laws in places like Florida and Texas which are intended to make it essentially legal for white people to just shoot people like me, without consequence, as long as they feel threatened by my presence. So: admitting that the land we live on was stolen from hundreds of other nations and peoples? Acknowledging that the prosperity the United States enjoys was bought with blood? That’s a pipe dream.
I want you to understand that what you’ve done makes me want to weep with envy, and bitterness, and hope.
So: segue time. Let’s scale down. Let’s talk about the community — the microcosmic nation — of science fiction and fantasy.
For the past few days I’ve also been observing a “kerfuffle”, as some call it, in reaction to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ of America’s latest professional journal, the Bulletin. Some of you may also have been following the discussion; hopefully not all of you. To summarize: two of the genre’s most venerable white male writers made some comments in a series of recent articles which have been decried as sexist and racist by most of the organization’s membership. Now, to put this in context: the membership of SFWA also recently voted in a new president. There were two candidates — one of whom was a self-described misogynist, racist, anti-Semite, and a few other flavors of asshole. In this election he lost by a landslide… but he still earned ten percent of the vote. SFWA is small; only about 500 people voted in total, so we’re talking less than 50 people. But scale up again. Imagine if ten percent of this country’s population was busy making active efforts to take away not mere privileges, not even dignity, but your most basic rights. Imagine if ten percent of the people you interacted with, on a daily basis, did not regard you as human.
Just ten percent. But such a ten percent.
And beyond that ten percent are the silent majority — the great unmeasured mass of enablers. These are the folks who don’t object to the treatment of women as human beings, and who may even have the odd black or gay friend that they genuinely like. However, when the ten percent starts up in their frothing rage, these are the people who say nothing in response. When women and other marginalized groups respond with anger to the hatred of the ten percent, these are the people who do not support them, and in fact suggest that maybe they’re overreacting. When they read a novel set in a human society which contains only one or two female characters, these are the people who don’t decry this as implausible. Or worse, they simply don’t notice. These are the people who successfully campaigned for Star Trek to return to television after 25 years, but have no intention of campaigning for Roddenberry’s vision to be complete, with gay characters joining the rainbow brigade on the bridge. These are the people who gleefully nitpick the scientific plausibility of stopping a volcano with “cold fusion”, yet who fail to notice that an author has written a future earth in which somehow seventeen percent of the human race dominates ninety percent of the characterization.
Unlike the ten percent, these people do not overtly hate me, or people like me. But they are not our friends, either. And after all: what is hatred, really, but supreme indifference to the suffering of another?
And here’s the thing: women have been in SFF from the very beginning. We might not always have been visible, hidden away behind initials and masculine-sounding pseudonyms, quietly running the conventions at which men ran around pinching women’s bottoms, but we were there. And people of color have been in SFF from the very beginning, hiding behind the racial anonymity of names and pseudonyms — and sometimes forcibly prevented from publishing our work by well-meaning editors, lest SFF audiences be troubled by the sight of a brown person in the protagonist’s role. Or a lesbian, or a poor person, or an old person, or a trans woman, or a person in a wheelchair. SFF has always been the literature of the human imagination, not just the imagination of a single demographic. Every culture on this planet produces it in some way, shape, or form. It thrives in video games and films and TV shows, and before that it lived in the oral histories kept by the griots, and the story circles of the Navajo, and the Dreamings of this country’s first peoples. People from every walk of life consume SFF, with relish, and that is because we have all, on some level, contributed to its inception and growth.
We tread upon the mythic ground of religions and civilizations that far predate “Western” nations and Christianity; we dream of traveling amid stars that were named by Arab astronomers, using the numbers they devised to help us find our way; we retell the colonization stories that were life and death for the Irish and the English and the Inka and the Inuit; we find drama in the struggles of the marginalized and not-quite-assimilated of every society. Speculative fiction is at its core syncretic; this stuff doesn’t come out of nowhere. And it certainly didn’t spring solely from the imaginations of a bunch of beardy old middle-class middle-American guys in the 1950s.
Sadly what the SFWA kerfuffle reveals — and MammothFail before that, and MoonFail, and RaceFail and the Great Cultural Appropriation Debates of Dooooom, and Slushbomb before that, and so on — what this reveals is that memories in SFF are short, and the misconceptions vast and deep.
So I propose a solution — which I would like to appropriate, if you will allow, from Australia’s history and present. It is time for a Reconciliation within SFF.
It is time that we all recognized the real history of this genre, and acknowledged the breadth and diversity of its contributors. It’s time we acknowledged the debt we owe to those who got us here — all of them. It’s time we made note of what ground we’ve trodden upon, and the wrongs we’ve done to those who trod it first. And it’s time we took steps — some symbolic, some substantive — to try and correct those errors. I do not mean a simple removal of the barriers that currently exist within the genre and its fandom, though doing that’s certainly the first step. I mean we must now make an active, conscious effort to establish a literature of the imagination which truly belongs to everyone.
I think to some degree this process has already begun. Discussions like the one that’s been happening in SFWA for the past week are the proof of it; not so very long ago, there would have been no response at all to that kind of casual sexism or racism. All this anger, all this sturm und drang — these are good things. Signs of progress. What I am proposing, however, is that we take things to the next level. Maybe it’s time for a Truth in Reconciliation commission, in which authors and fans speak out about their misconceptions and mistakes, and make a commitment to doing better. Maybe we need practical reconciliation efforts such as encouraging more markets to accept blind submissions, demanding that more publishers depict diverse characters on book covers. At the same time, let’s have some self-deterministic reconciliation, since women and people of color and disabled folks and the like certainly haven’t been shy about offering their own suggestions for change. Incidentally, if you did not follow RaceFail when it occurred or if you dismissed it as too much to handle, try. It’s all still there; just Google it. Hundreds of people poured millions of words into articulating what’s wrong with this genre, and how those wrongs can be made right. You owe it to yourself to read some of what they wrote.
I’ve been in this country three days, and I love it. The things that have happened here are in many ways far more horrific than what happened in my own country — but you as a people have shown a stunning willingness to progress beyond those wrongs, and to transform and improve yourselves in the process. Now, I do not mean to belittle what has happened here by the comparison; no one has died in SFF for its failure to acknowledge and embrace its own diversity. No lands have been stolen, no children kidnapped. But careers have ended, in some cases before they began. Opportunities have been stolen, dreams kept segregated. A potential richness of content has been hoarded and hidden from the SFF readership. So I am asking you, Australian fans, to share what you have learned about how to be a multicultural society, with the world. We can learn from your mistakes and your successes. This is what science fiction and fantasy need to do, if they are ever to truly become the literature of the world’s imagination.