I’m trying to write a post that may or may not be possible to write, or which is at least hovering around the ragged edge of my capabilities. Bear with me, this shit will get a little disjointed. Also, this is all staying above the cut. Sorry.
Over the last two months, I’ve been nursing an obsession with RaceFail 2009, a massive conversation/volcano hybrid going on in online science fiction and fantasy fandom (primarily on LJ).
Last part first:
Why this matters
People of color are being systematically made to feel unwelcome and unsafe in science fiction and fantasy, whether it be as authors, as editors, or as fans. This is a major problem! It is a major problem for me and you. :D
What it is
I currently have no less than 83 RaceFail-related tabs open in an attempt to find appropriate introductory links. That’s not a number I chose because it’s funny, I actually stopped to count. So there’s the first thing you need to know about RF09: it is big. (No, please don’t run away.)
Furthermore, it is an honest-to-God hypertext. (Follow that link, please, because it’s actually one of the best primers I’ve seen so far on how to read this thing.) There are a great many conversations happening at once, about such topics as:
- How to write diverse characters in fiction
- How to read and critique fictional depictions of characters of color
- Who gets to set the terms and rules of conversations such as this one (recursion,** yay)
- HOLY SHIT HE/SHE DID WHAT
- Issues of community structure and outreach
- The function and value of pseudonymity in online communities
- The nature of the commercial arm of the storymaking racket
- And more!
…and all of these conversations overlap with each other, comment on each other, and share significant subsets of their participants.
You don’t have to take a week straight to read all these posts. You don’t have to read all of them period. But I think you should take notice, learn about the events that kicked the whole thing off, learn about the simmering discontent and anger that forms the context for everything going on lately (i.e., about racism), and keep track of where it goes from here.
It is almost certain that several people reading this know significantly more about all above than I do, especially about racism in general. Apologies in advance for my missteps.
rydra_wong has the whole story, no goddamn foolin’. Various people have written summaries of events, many of which are available in the previous link, and the most concise of which is:
- Bear writes a post about how to write the Other
- Avalon’s Willow critiques one of her books on racial tropes
- Bear agrees unequivocally in writing
- Commenters defend Bear in increasingly racist language.
- Massive fail all over the internets.
- Bear says that she was lying in 3. in order to model appropriate conversation.
Here’s another summary focused on the meta-discussion and a particularly odious instance of real-world retaliation against a participant in it..
Every summary has its own bias. Nature of the beast, sorry.
** Actually, I would guess that RaceFail is at least 40% a conversation about itself. Probably because RaceFail itself is a legitimately fascinating topic of conversation.
Why are you seeing this here?
I’ve been following RaceFail ’09 pretty closely since the start—the whole thing really got rolling in SF/F writer Elizabeth Bear’s LJ, which was on my friendspage at the time—and I’m still incredibly freaked out to be posting about it in a fashion visible to friends who haven’t yet encountered RF09 or one of its sub-conversations in their own online spaces. Hell, I’m freaked out to be talking about it period. I’m not doing this lightly.
When you start reading some of the more recent posts under the RaceFail ’09 umbrella, you’ll see a widespread perception that there’s been a call to choose sides and speak up.* That is not what this is about. Mostly because, who the fuck am I in the first place? I’m not a published author (WORKING ON IT), an editor, or even active in fandom (I read author blogs and review books once a month; seriously, I’ve never even been to a con or anything), so it’s not like me speaking up or not speaking up can be argued to make that much of a difference.
Here’s what me speaking up is about:
RaceFail is fucking important. You should be aware of it, and I encourage you read as much of it as you are able to. It matters.
That’s right: This is the I ♥ RaceFail post. Some of my friends who’re aware of RaceFail ’09 have told me they’re avoiding reading about it, and I think that’s a mistake.
John Scalzi is completely wrong. (EDIT: He's also got friends who help him be less wrong.) Elizabeth Bear was wrong, uh, several times, but especially when she tried to grab the reins and say “whoa.” Because having read this thing somewhat obsessively for the last two months, and having had the top of my head opened up too many times to count, I’m pretty sure that this actually is the conversation that needs to happen about race in SF/F (and, what the hell, everywhere). Yes, it’s messy. There is no moderator. Tensions have been high pretty much nonstop (and my first introductions to a lot of the people I now consider to be brilliant and sensible voices was when I saw them saying something I found (at the time) to be over the top). It’s hard to follow. It’s about several dozen things at once. But I don’t see how we’re supposed to have a more calm and orderly conversation about race without having this one first, anger and all.
* Which is sort of the case, and sort of not; there has been a lot of conversation about types of silence that wreck harm, but I’m not seeing any call-out that isn’t leavened with acknowledgement that not everyone can or should engage in the same ways.
In which we get back to a delayed promise
The “Fail” in RaceFail is a synecdoche.
So I told a friend a little while ago that I would try and point them to some posts within RaceFail that inspire hope and/or joy instead of inspiring “HOLY FUCK SHE SAID WHAT as;dfjkakls;fjals;da.” On further consideration, there are a whole raft of reasons why that may have been a problematic thing for me to say, not least of which being that this whole business is really not about white folk and their self-improvement or catharsis in the first place, and certainly “WHITE EDUCATION COMES AT A FIGGING TOO HIGH PRICE.” Even better, as a white boy with very little actual flesh in the game, the accuracy and value of my judgement about which posts and elements are properly inspiring of hope is extremely suspect to begin with.
Nevertheless. I did say I want you to go and read more, and knowing where your carrots are is as important as having a good grip on your stick.
Here are some things which brought me some joy—or some hope—or which just turned my head inside-out in a way I badly needed—in the midst of RaceFail 2009:
The sheer bigness. Okay, that takes some explaining, but…
The reason it’s called RaceFail ’09 is to distinguish it from the one last year, the one in ’06, and the smaller blow-ups that have happened in-between. Something that you’ll see a lot in the earlier posts this go-round is some variation on the Cylon Clause: All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again. All of this will happen again—do please lift a hand if that doesn’t fill you with horror.
If the Fail is happening anyway—if havoc is already being wrecked in the hearts of authors and fans of color, if people who shouldn’t be driven out are already being driven out (or at least too damn close to out)—then I kind of want it to impinge on the space of as many white fans and authors as is humanly possible. Yes, it IS too high a price for mere education, but if the price is being paid regardless, let’s goddamn GET something for it. The more clueless-but-well-meaning white folk (I firmly include myself in this category) see the hurt being caused and start reading, thinking, and trying to understand the things being said by the myriad brilliant fans/authors/theorists of color (and allies!) involved here, the more likely it is that something will have changed by the time the next high-profile racial screw-up rolls ‘round.
(Of course, it’s always possible for the white SF/F fans who’re unwittingly plunged into the conversation to take away entirely the wrong lesson, but maybe that’s where posts like this one come in. If I’m lucky, and if I’m doing my damn job correctly.)
And also… maybe the more unavoidable the conversation becomes, the sooner new fans of color will discover the writings of all these brilliant people and the communities that have built up around challenging racism in entertainment. Maybe the bigness of RaceFail ’09 will help people feel less alone.
I cannot help but feel as though this is a gorgeous moment, right here. We’re having conversations. We’re going to keep having them. There’s a whole big internet out here for us to finally talk.
Every friend who says: “I have listened. I am listening. I want to listen more” lifts a stone.
- deepad: I Didn’t Dream of Dragons. “I distrust universalising statements proclaiming our inherent mutual humanity because they are uni-directional—they do not make everyone more like me, they make everyone more like you. And I do not want that.” … “Dragons are not universal. If I am defensive, it is because I have had to learn how to love Tolkein while trying to find myself in the unmapped lands in the East where the Green and Blue wizards disappeared to.” If the Devil walked in and told me he’d make me worthy of readers like Deepa D., I’d cut that deal; do not think I would even hesitate.
And if you’ve read her post, you know why the Devil knows better than to make that offer in the first place—the millions of girls like she once was don’t need just the existing white authors writing “the other” better, they need stories it wouldn’t even occur to a white author to write; they need more and better from everywhere.
verb_noire is a brand new small press imprint. Their mission is “to celebrate the works of talented, underrepresented authors and deliver them to a readership that demands more.” They raised 300% of their modest startup goal in a matter of days. (Again, I believe bigness to be one of RaceFail’s virtues.)
- Also organized as a response to RaceFail is the Remyth Project. It is what it says on the box.
- RaceFail is where I learned about 50books_poc, a challenge to read more books by authors of color—to consciously control where your attention goes, in other words. I’ll be doing it, I invite you to do it too. (I’ll likely not finish within the year, and I’ll be dealing with my existing to-read shelf and other sidetracks besides, but I’ll keep track up through—and maybe beyond—the 50-count. Check out the community page for a ton of book recommendations.)
- nojojojo’s “We Worry About it Too” is pretty much the opposite of a “Hey writers, relax and don’t take it so seriously” post, but damned if it didn’t make me feel a lot more comfortable with the idea of thinking critically about race in the creative process. This may well be perverse of me; go read the post anyway, ‘cause it’s great. Also, her upcoming novel is on my get-list.
- In a comment thread in spiralsheep’s journal: An extremely frank, tab-a in slot-b style thought about where white freakouts in conversations about racism come from. I love shit like this, because at its best, it explains things I have seen, explains things I have felt (AAAAAAAARRG), and provides concrete pointers on how to avoid wrecking havoc out in the world.
- Dep’t of Reprints From 2007: zvi_likes_tv explains the Department of Licensing’s application process for Ghetto Passes. Again, I love me a good de-mystification. (Also, I have another old link from zvi_likes_tv that I want to share, but it deserves its own post, so it’ll have to wait a bit.)
“What are you doing here?!” — “I’ll hold them off! You attack the core!”
Okay, so there’s this recurring theme I’ve seen, related to the Cylon Clause. It’s there in I Am Not the Moderator, in Being an Imaginary Conversation, in the last few paragraphs of this, in other places around and about. It reminds me of nothing so much as that trope in video games and anime where the big bad from the last season jumps in heroically at the last minute to help the heroes fight the current big bad.
The reason this brings me hope is, at least in part, transparently selfish, but man, seriously: there but for the grace of god go any of us, and when the stress of thinking critically about race gets you down, I think it’s worth reminding ourselves that screwing up doesn’t corrupt you for life. We can get better at this, within this lifetime, and people don’t necessarily stay angry forever.
There’s more, but I think I’ve hit my limit for now, so you’ll have to find it the usual way.
I’m going to keep all comments to this post screened—you’re free to post invisibly here; consider it the same as an email. (Unless you have something critical to say and explicitly tell me I can unscreen it!) Properly hosting a public sub-discussion in this particular hyper-conversation requires chops that I don’t think I possess yet, and so it seems polite to play it safe on that score. Go forth and read people who have spent more time and sweat and blood on this than me—and if I’m allowed to make a suggestion about what you do in places other than my own: please consider treading lightly, and maybe even switch into read-only mode. ‘Specially if you’re white. My own mental state regarding race in SF and America and elsewhere has mutated pretty drastically since January; I’m honestly not sure what I would have ended up saying if I had jumped in back then. Probably not this.