At Nine Worlds GeekFest, I sat on a panel called RaceFail 101 where in the space of 75 minutes we tried to unpack the question of whether we have progressed in light of issues that came to light after the many RaceFail discussions that we have had online.
Talking about race and representation is always a slippery thing, and I found myself wondering what it is that we hope to achieve when we have yet another discussion on this subject. I think that if we are truly interested in progressing as a genre, it's essential for us as readers, writers, and fans to understand the genre's history. We need to read or at least be aware of to some extent not only the classics and the things that were published in the past, but also to read commentaries and criticisms.
I know it may sound unreasonable to demand this of readers and writers who are newly come into genre, but if we want to be involved in a conversation about inequities, we need to be willing to take on this burden of becoming versed so we have some insight into what we're talking about.
Certainly, personal insight and experience and our own takeaways from the books we've read are important, but if we only think about ourselves, we fail to consider the overall impact that genre has had and continues to have on readers who engage with it.
As my fellow panelist and Mothership ToC-mate Tade Thompson said regarding the excuse of SF being an escapist genre: There is no such thing as an escapist genre, because the moment you think something is escapist, you let your guard down and that is the moment when your self becomes most vulnerable. That is also the point where escapism becomes dangerous.
Looking at things in light of these words, I find myself trembling when I think of the many misrepresentations of culture and race and gender in the field. I find myself wondering how much of our perceptions are shaped by the escapist literature we've read. How much of our attitudes have been influenced by this most dangerous of literatures.
I think then of the insightful among us who see the inequities and who understand why it's important to bring more women of color, more queer writers, and more writers talking from the perspectives of the colonized into the conversation.
I know that we have incredibly talented and clueful writers who are not of color, but I think we need to understand that in this genre, the field continues to be dominated by white cisgendered males, and often when we speak about inclusivity and diversity, the interpretation has been skewed to mean the inclusion of white cisgendered women, with a handful of writers of color or a handful of writers writing from a queer perspective.
Here then is where the heart of the matter lies. When we wish to engage in conversation, we want to be able to converse from a place of equal footing. Compare it to a chorus. If you have ten sopranos and one alto, and if they are all singing at the same volume, one needs to strain one's ears in order to hear the alto strain. In terms of reading, instead of exerting the effort to find the text that alto singer is singing, it's much easier to just listen to the text the sopranos are singing and say: Oh that's what the whole thing was about.
I've opted for the chorus illustration in the hopes that it will help us understand just how uneven the field still is and how we still need to draw in and encourage more voices coming from the margins. It's at this point where we want the sopranos to sing a little softer so we can bring out the beautiful resonance of that alto singer—or better yet, it's at this point where we want to recruit more altos into the choir so we have more of a harmonious and pleasing sound.
But, we say, the field is improving. We are seeing more people of color being published. Certainly, we have funded and supported projects like the upcoming and much awaited Long Hidden anthology. We have funded and supported We See a Different Frontier which offers us perspectives from the colonized, and we have writers of color appearing and being invited to submit work for consideration.
These are all positive moves and these are things that prove to us that genre is working towards becoming more inclusive and progressive. But, it's still not enough.
As in the conversation that took place on the RaceFail Panel, I still find myself worrying. Writers Tricia Sullivan and Kari Sperring have pointed out to me that there is still a lack of people of color being published in the UK, and there is still a question being raised on how many writers of color the UK publishing scene has produced and brought to the forefront.
It still continues to be an uphill struggle, and while I appreciate the conversations we continue to carry on around this subject, I find myself thinking that we can only speak of progress when the playing field becomes more even and when we have more than a handful of writers representing us in the genre.
These issues of race, gender, and sexuality in genre intersect and walk hand in hand with each other, and I feel that there is perhaps something there that will help us to break through the false ceiling. I certainly hope that ten years from now, we will be having more equal conversations and instead of a RaceFail panel, we'll have one where white writers and writers of color exchange thoughts and ideas on how to write SF that's humorous, funny, and incisive, and where no one is the butt of the joke.
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