Sunday, June 16, 2013

Surprise! Racism and SFWA

Right upfront I’m going to tell you, I’m not a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). While I do write speculative fiction, and even released a SFF novel last year, I’m a bit of an outsider. But if you are active in social media and at all interested in the workings of science fiction and fantasy writers, editors and publishers in the U.S., it is inevitable that at some point you’ll stumble upon postings about SFWA. Increasingly those postings are in response to controversy.

One recent controversy, pretty extensively covered, was prompted by the organization’s official bulletin and its publication of a cover and three articles that were troubling because of the sexism they expressed. As a result of the outcry surrounding the Bulletin, members resigned; members and non-members wrote scathing blog posts; the editor of the publication resigned. The publication was put on a temporary hiatus; the leadership formed an advisory task force, and revised the guidelines regarding supervision of the content.

The second controversy — even more recent — involves a screed filled with unabashed racism written by one of SFWA’s members that was, inconceivably, signal boosted on the organization’s twitter feed. I haven’t read about an official organizational response, though the outgoing president of the organization called for people to make donations to the Carl Brandon Society (which fosters and supports SFF writers of color) and Con or Bust (which offers grants so that writers and readers of color can attend a SFF convention). From all accounts the call elicited a wide response and a good amount of money was raised.

This controversy, too, has generated some blog posts (though not as many as the first) including at least one that has called for the writer’s expulsion from the organization. The originating post is an unapologetic, in fact gleefully, racist tract. It attacks on both personal and universal level. It flaunts the blog writer’s assumed intellectual superiority to the novelist it excoriates and dismisses every point raised by the speech it seeks to ridicule (I’m linking to that speech here, because I happen to think it is fantastic and deserves to be widely read).

Here’s the thing: I am not surprised by the racist rant, I am surprised by how startled many SFF writers have been by it.

Sebastien de la Cruz
I work for a Latino newspaper. Not a day goes by without examples of similarly hateful screeds about Latinos (our countries of origin; our immigration status; every aspect of our culture; our language and accents) popping up in public comment sections, in public tweets, in my mail box. In fact, at the same time as the SFWA racism wake-up call was taking place, Latino social media was abuzz with the story of a young Mexican-American mariachi singer who performed the national anthem at a pro basketball game and the huge number of anti-Mexican tweets his performance prompted.

Like me, the vast majority of SFF writers of color — no matter their dayjobs — are used to noticing the systemic and endemic racism and ethnic prejudice expressed in our society at large on a daily basis. In the choice of which schools to close in Chicago and Philadelphia; in the efforts to institute voter ID and national biometric IDs; in challenges to affirmative action; in national and state budget cuts that kill food programs or make college educations even less affordable to the children of lower-income people of color; in instance after instance of violence against Latinos like Marcelo Lucero and Luis Ramirez, and African-Americans like Trayvon Martin, just because they were walking on streets where they were perceived not to belong.

I’m fairly confident that, also like me, those other SFF writers of color were unsurprised by the language, the vitriol and disgusting sentiments Theodore Beale expressed about NK Jemisin because the SFF world isn’t different than society at large. We walk the streets of a gated community, even in SFF. Maybe — on bad days — particularly in SFF.

So the shock, the stunned disbelief that has been expressed in wake of Beale’s screed? It is a good thing, I think. Good that people are articulating how abhorrent they find expressions of racism. Good that they feel strongly enough to sign on to efforts to curtail it from within the membership of SFWA.

But it’s also easy. It is one instance to be decried; one kook that can be dismissed and hopefully expelled from SFWA; one push to raise money for the Carl Brandon Society.

The hard stuff comes with opening our eyes and seeing that we are blind to, or complicit in, less obvious forms of racism — the everyday kind. The harder stuff is in recognizing the circumstances and instances when we let racism pass unremarked and unfought. The hardest stuff is in understanding that this isn't the work of one blog post or a hundred, but of a lifetime.


  1. I have not been paying attention / have been away from the internet, so this is the first I've heard of this. Thank you for the post - a casual glance at the source material for both of these controversies downright frightening. The scary thing about Beale isn't his foaming at the mouth rascism, rather that he isn't alone in thinking the way he does, just a little more "out there" with how he puts it.

  2. What I find particularly frustrating about dealing with "isms" of all kinds is the attitude that those who point out instances of them are making something out of nothing, finding fault where none lies. How often we hear someone who doesn't recognize institutionalized acts of prejudice against Latinas and Latinos say, "You're just LOOKING for racism." As frustrating as statements like that can be, they do underscore the depth of the problems pointed out. Our responses must continue to be, "I don't have to look for racism. I just have to keep trying to get people to open their eyes to it."

  3. Excellent post. Thank you for writing this.



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