Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Thoughts on Racism and Speculative Fiction

While browsing around today, I came across this old article. It's full of fascinating ideas, and disturbing anecdotes, and I want to discuss bits of it in some detail.

"Racism and Science Fiction" by Samuel R. Delany
Racism for me has always appeared to be first and foremost a system, largely supported by material and economic conditions at work in a field of social traditions. Thus, though racism is always made manifest through individuals’ decisions, actions, words, and feelings, when we have the luxury of looking at it with the longer view (and we don’t, always), usually I don’t see much point in blaming people personally, white or black, for their feelings or even for their specific actions—as long as they remain this side of the criminal. These are not what stabilize the system. These are not what promote and reproduce the system. These are not the points where the most lasting changes can be introduced to alter the system.

It articulated some very useful ideas that I've been nosing around forever but hadn't framed so precisely myself. Right above are sound and solid reasons why blame-flinging is not helpful, chiefly that there are more effective ways to fight racism. And it's full of some other interesting ups and downs...

Campbell rejected it, with a note and phone call to my agent explaining that he didn’t feel his readership would be able to relate to a black main character.

I've heard that a similar protest was lodged against S.M. Stirling's black Lesbian character in Island in the Sea of Time; Stirling stood firm and won. I've also had that sort of thing happen to some of my stories, not just with dark-skinned characters -- I've had editors quibble over characters that were female, queer, or Pagan. Gosh, then I guess those readers aren't the target audience, time to send the piece elsewhere. It's a rotten way for an editor to cover up personal prejudice, but it's certainly no reason to change the story. I hope that cyberfunded creativity will help batter down some barriers by making it easier to authors and audiences to connect.

It’s an odd experience, I must tell you, to accept an award from a hall full of people in tuxedos and evening gowns and then, from the same podium at which you accepted it, hear a half-hour jeremiad from an eminence gris declaring that award to be worthless and the people who voted it to you duped fools.

Things like this are why I try to avoid fancy affairs like award banquets. When someone pulls stuff like this, I'm inclined to say, "Wow, what an asshole!" People don't like that. As much criticism as I've gotten for my behavior over the years, sometimes I wonder what high ground people think they have to stand on. I do admire the author's own far more debonair response.

If that was the first time you were aware of direct racism, when is the last time?</span></p>

To live in the United States as a black man or woman, the fact is the answer to that question is rarely other than: A few hours ago, a few days, a few weeks . ..

I do sometimes ask that question, but I usually say "the most recent" instead of "the last." It's a way of tracking the manifestations of racism over time, because they shift. As a panel discussion or private conversation, it can be very illuminating. Sometimes things get very subtle, but the really garish examples are still around too. Sure, I can watch for incidents that happen around me, but there are other folks with access to a denser field of data; it's helpful to compare notes with those who choose to talk about it. (Not everyone is.)

Now let's explore one of the sticky bits:

Understand, on a personal level, I could not be more delighted to be signing with Nalo. She is charming, talented, and I think of her as a friend. We both enjoyed our hour together. That is not in question. After our hour was up, however, and we went and had some lunch together with her friend David, we both found ourselves more amused than not that the two black American sf writers at Readercon, out of nearly eighty professionals, had ended up at the autograph table in the same hour. Let me repeat: I don’t think you can have racism as a positive system until you have that socio-economic support suggested by that (rather arbitrary) twenty percent/eighty percent proportion. But what racism as a system does is isolate and segregate the people of one race, or group, or ethnos from another. As a system it can be fueled by chance as much as by hostility or by the best of intentions. (“I thought they would be more comfortable together. I thought they would want to be with each other . . .”) And certainly one of its strongest manifestations is as a socio-visual system in which people become used to always seeing blacks with other blacks and so—because people are used to it—being uncomfortable whenever they see blacks mixed in, at whatever proportion, with whites.

I can see this as a valid complaint if the focus is segregation. One problem is, the opposite condition -- people of color appearing separately from each other, mixed in with lighter-skinned folks -- is also something that draws complaints. In that case the criticism has to do with splitting up black folks so they can't support each other, isolating them. There's no unmarked case; either answer can be wrong. And the workaround for it -- asking the people which they would prefer -- falls into yet another trap: treating people differently because of their color.

This is usually where I shrug, stop worrying what people think, and follow my own inclinations. I tend to prefer mixed groups to homogenous groups. Sometimes I'll sort people by particular markers -- panels are a good example where that sometimes makes sense, as there are panels for queer writers, women writers, elderly or youthful writers, and so on across many flavors of life experience -- but in general, it's not a habit of mine. On the other hoof, it's useful to think about the different facets of the matching/mixing issue, because just being aware of them improves that chance that, in a given situation where racism is hard at play, knowledgable people are more likely to spot it and choose the countervailing option. It also means, if someone makes the point as a complaint, you're less likely to take it personally because all the options can be framed that way.

Racism is a system. As such, it is fueled as much by chance as by hostile intentions and equally the best intentions as well. It is whatever systematically acclimates people, of all colors, to become comfortable with the isolation and segregation of the races, on a visual, social, or economic level—which in turn supports and is supported by socio-economic discrimination. Because it is a system, however, I believe personal guilt is almost never the proper response in such a situation. Certainly, personal guilt will never replace a bit of well-founded systems analysis.

I am a cultural claustrophobe: box me in and I can't breathe. I'm generally opposed to separation by types, unless the types have different needs or they simply hate each other so much that they prefer to avoid each other; and neither of those factors condone giving one group the short end of the stick. Forcing people together can do more harm than good; they can bounce apart. One of the most effective ways to pour sugar in the gas tank of racism is to teach people the benefits of mingling so they want to do it and can do it safely.

Always be alert for places where a bad system is weak and can be damaged. Look at it with the eye of an engineer ... and then a saboteur.

And one does not have to be a particularly inventive science fiction writer to see a time, when we are much closer to that 20 percent division, where we black writers all hang out together, sign our books together, have our separate tracks of programming, if we don’t have our own segregated conventions, till we just never bother to show up at yours because we make you uncomfortable and you don’t really want us; and you make us feel the same way . . .

How boring. I've already bailed out of one con because of diversity implosion; race wasn't the prevailing factor there, but I'll count it as part because that's where some of my experiences of interracial dysfunction came from. Group-to-group tension is just not my idea of a good time. Because let's be serious, how long is it going to be before the stuffy people find something about me to dislike, and I tell them where they can cram it? Or not about me, about one of my friends, which leads to the same end.

The fact is, while it is always a personal pleasure to appear with her, Butler and I are very different writers, interested in very different things. And because I am the one who benefits by this highly artificial generalization of the literary interest in Butler’s work into this in-many-ways-artificial interest in African-American science fiction (I’m not the one who won the MacArthur, after all), I think it’s incumbent upon me to be the one publicly to question it.

I've read a fair bit of ethnic fiction, though not all the pieces mentioned in this article. There is ... an aspect of common ground in what I would consider African-American SF, even among authors who explore different themes. I've been over the same ground with Pagan fiction, actually; what defines it? Is it anything written by a Pagan, or does it chiefly concern material dealing with Pagan issues? Somewhere between. Who you are always impacts what you write, to some degree. It influences what ideas catch your attention enough to write them down; it influences how you view the world. To me as a scholar, the collective works by people of a certain group are thus informative about that group's culture. Any two authors might seem to have great differences, but the whole canon tends to have common elements, an overall flavor if you will. The stories told by black authors are often things that I suspect would not occur to anyone else, the same way there are stories written by women authors that would just not occur to men. That kind of difference isn't a bad thing; the wider our range of perspectives, the more depth our field of vision gains.

But as long a racism functions as a system, it is still fueled from aspects of the perfectly laudable desires of interested whites to observe this thing, however dubious its reality, that exists largely by means of its having been named: African-American science fiction.

I think ... this itself includes the idea of segregation, because it implies that the interested whites are on the outside looking in. But we're all inside the same system, even though we may experience it very differently. And a fair-skinned person with experience of prejudice, whether based on skin color or something else, may observe it differently than one who has no such experience and/or who does not believe that racism still exists.

Throughout all of cyberpunk’s active history, I only recall being asked to sit on one cyberpunk panel with Bill, and that was largely a media-focused event at the Kennedy Center. In the last ten years, however, I have been invited to appear with Octavia at least six times, with another appearance scheduled in a few months and a joint interview with the both of us scheduled for a national magazine. All the comparison points out is the pure and unmitigated strength of the discourse of race in our country vis-à-vis any other.

This illuminates that a key problem with racism isn't so much using ethnicity to sort people, as using it for the predominant sorting mode to the near or total exclusion of everything else. That gives it unfair weight, when there are many other factors that can be interesting and relevant to explore in batches. If I'd been tracking cyberpunk, I would probably have thought to put those authors together, because genre and subgenre distinctions are also useful ones. Focusing too much on one thing lets other things get missed, which is not good.

Editors and writers need to be alerted to the socio-economic pressure on such gathering social groups to reproduce inside a new system by the virtue of “outside pressures.” Because we still live in a racist society, the only way to combat it in any systematic way is to establish—and repeatedly revamp—anti-racist institutions and traditions. That means actively encouraging the attendance of nonwhite readers and writers at conventions. It means actively presenting nonwhite writers with a forum to discuss precisely these problems in the con programming. (It seems absurd to have to point out that racism is by no means exhausted simply by black/white differences: indeed, one might argue that it is only touched on here.) And it means encouraging dialogue among, and encouraging intermixing with, the many sorts of writers who make up the sf community.

The conclusion is full of many good ideas. Many of them just boil down to, "Never stop stirring the pot." That, in the end, is one of the things science fiction itself is for.
Tags: ethnic studies, networking, reading, science fiction, writing

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