Racefail??? Are you kidding???

I am peripherally associated with the science fiction community and have been most of my life. As a teenage I was a typical “fan,” going to conventions and subscribing to the magazines and idolizing people like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and Harlan Ellison. But people like that began to look a lot less admirable as I got older, and while I certainly retain some of the values I learned from them, I outgrew more of them. I still respect learning and science and wit, but I have long since outgrown Libertarianism, infantile put-downs, and the need to have an apocalyptic rant about everything.

As an adult, I have friends who are writers or editors or otherwise involved in the field. So I still spend time in that community, although it’s been years since I’ve gone to a convention (the last one was the Night of the U Turns heading to Lunacon with bobhowe and I think that was nearly 20 years ago) or subscribed to any of the magazines. Bob and shunn are the main reasons I came back to the field; by reading magazine issues or anthologies they were published in, and reading the work of writers they recommended or knew, I discovered a new generation of great writers in the field.

But I’ve felt no desire to get more involved. Partially, things have changed since I was going to cons; in those days conventions were about writers and books and there were annoying “media conventions” for comic and movie fans. Now it seems that most conventions are what I would have called “media cons” and they actually have cons devoted to books and reading. I don’t have time for gaming anymore, I can’t keep a straight face in groups of people who took the Lord Of the Rings films seriously, and aside from Art Spiegelman, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and Marjane Satrapi, I’ve never had the patience for comics or “graphic novels.”

It’s also disturbing that some things haven’t changed. SF was founded by white men. There were very few women in field and more than one of them, in the twentieth century, wrote under male names or ambiguous names, in order to be published. Alice Sheldon, for instance, was one of the best writers in the field in the 1970s and 1980s, but it was years before anyone knew she was the real person behind “James Tiptree Jr.”

The field is also, for all intents and purposes, racially segregated. I didn’t recognize it as a teenager; I lived in an apartheid society and accepted it as normal that my neighborhood and my schools were all white, that the music I heard on the radio was all white, that the characters on TV were either white or comical. (This was, by the way, in New York City, not South Africa or Alabama.) When I was young I believe there was only one nonwhite SF author in the field: Samuel R. Delany. When I was in high school a few others came along and somewhere after I stopped paying attention folks like Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson started writing. The field is clearly more diverse now than it was 20 or 30 years ago, but its progress has been incremental and hard-fought, as progress in this area has been generally.

I’m writing all this because there’s ben a huge ruckus in the community over something called “Racefail.” I don’t really understand what happened because I haven’t had the stomach to read through all the links in that post; after one or two I gave up in disgust. I’m even disturbed by the term “racefail.” Mostly it seems like the kind of white-on-white racial conversation that makes me want to bang my head against the wall. Angry self-righteous white liberals lob accusations at angry white conservatives, everyone calls each other racist, everyone presumes to speak for other people, and mostly people just harden their positions and congratulate themselves on them.

As a straight white guy I have spent lots of time in self-justifying straight white male communities that get angrily defensive when anyone questions their straight white maleness. I’ve also spent lots of time in self-righteous white liberal communities where we all congratulated ourselves on how nonracist we were. Mostly I try nowadays to avoid these communities altogether and instead associate with and support communities that behave in accordance with my values. I find that more effective than trying to be an angry change agent in communities that behave unpleasantly. It’s more effective, and I’m happier.

As a straight white man I have the privilege of deciding when to engage with problems like this, and when to ignore them. If I were, say, a speculative fiction writer of color, I would have to choose between having to be an angry change agent in order to follow the vocation I’d chosen, or giving up something I loved because of the resistance I was meeting. That’s an unfair choice for anyone to have to make.

Everyone in the community is responsible for how the community behaves and the way it is excluding people. And make no bones about it. People are being excluded, or the community would not look the way it does. I’m responsible too. I’m choosing to not engage in what to me is aggravating nonsense. But that POC SF writer has no choice but to engage in it, because to him or her, it is a challenge to his or her very existence.

We all have to choose our battles and I’ve obviously chosen otherwise. I am fully aware of the privilege that allows me to make that choice. Everyone in the community should be aware of the privileges they have, and how they are exercising them, because you are always exercising your privileges. Even just by choosing to live your life and do what you do the way you want to, without worrying about these kinds of issues, you are exercising privilege. Be aware of how you are exercising it, and don’t deny that you are, every minute of your life.

I’m a straight white guy. It’s not that I have no dog in this fight, because I do; there are writers I’d love to be reading, and people I’d love to hear from, who are being suppressed by racism and other forms of bigotry. I am more likely to buy books, attend readings, or otherwise support writers who come from outside the mainstream. I do that because I like that kind of work and because I want to support their efforts to be heard. I will not buy books by people whose views I find offensive (sorry, Orson, but all those books of yours on my shelf were bought used). As much as I love Tolkien or CS Lewis, I won’t let anyone discuss their books without questioning the disgusting passages in them.

But I’m not going to try to speak for people who are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves. If there are communities of writers working to change the composition of the field or to broaden what’s discussable within it or challenging the sick stereotypes still so prevalent in SF, I’d like to know who they are, so I can buy their work and pay more attention. Again, I’d rather do that than yell at a bunch of people who clearly don’t want to listen anyway. I would be grateful for any pointers to SF communities that I would enjoy supporting.

(Edit: I am grateful for the thoughtful posts and links to non-bicker reading, but at this point, the boorish commenters have sufficiently confirmed my lack of interest in getting too involved with this community or this debate. So comments are now screened. I will unscreen anything that’s not rude.)

(Another Edit: Thanks to those who have suggested some good reading. I’ve unscreened the comments that were not rude, and corrected one serious error in my original post.)

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