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Editor's Note: A timely commentary on the conversation we need to have in SFF. Cat's article reminds us that there is more (global) SFF beyond the Anglosphere. Diversity encompasses the entire world/planet and is not just limited to ethnicity. Likewise, the essay serves as a stirring wake-up call to examine the privileges inherent in SFFnal communities, specifically physical/geographical privilege, which bars access to non-United States/United Kingdom voices and talent. Privilege is power. Writers who write in their home countries and in their own languages often slip under the radar and are not featured on the review pages of prominent (read: US/UK) magazines. These writers too form their own networks outside the US and UK.
In recent decades, the word “diversity” has increasingly become part of the conversation around fantasy and science fiction fandom, and one of the places that has showcased the need for that conversation to take place are conventions. Like others who hold a measure of power in the F&SF community, convention runners have been called to address diversity: in participants, in programming, in attendees, and in multiple other aspects of those spaces.
This is not a need that is going to go away within my lifetime. Being able to ignore it is only possible to those in privileged positions and they shortchange themselves by doing so. And like most valid needs, it requires work to be fulfilled, more than words of acknowledgment or changing one’s Twitter handle. Diversity takes effort, labour expended to encourage and strengthen it. This work includes changing social structures – like those conventions—that control access to resources and limit that access to a subgroup. Those resources take many different forms, ranging from employment in traditional publishing, critical acknowledgment in the shape of reviews or essays, organisations like the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), Romance Writers of America (RWA), and Horror Writers Association (HWA), chances to read publicly at bookstores, etc. And all of these tend to be strongly US-centric, while the readership for fantasy and science fiction is global.
A phrase oft invoked when criticising diversity efforts is “checking boxes.” It is pejorative, claiming that the sole purpose of the process is ticking off “Black,” “Latinx,” “disabled,” or any of the other labels that a human being, an intersection of identities, can wear, with bonus points for people who can append multiple tags drawn from the "other" box.
It's worth examining the implications of the checking-boxes metaphor. When one dismantles it, the things built into it reveal themselves, including:
- This is a bureaucratic task and thereby probably meaningless and of minor importance. Note that it's checking boxes, not a checklist, which would imply more meaning and/or a sense of preparation.
- It doesn't matter who fills the slot.
- Not much thought has gone into the process.
- The matter can be reduced to a yes/no.
- Most importantly, it's about being able to check the box, and not about the results of doing so.
This dismissive metaphor is very much at odds with the actuality. To demonstrate, I turn to a moment when I saw the fruits of genuine and thoughtful consideration of diversity made manifest:
Last October, in the Before Times when one traveled around to conventions and conferences and the like, I had the great joy of being part of the inauguration of an extraordinary one based in Atlanta: Multiverse Con. It was a brand-new convention and it was a privilege to be their first Industry Guest of Honor, along with Writer GoH Seanan McGuire and Artist GoH John Picacio. Being a GoH means you meet a lot more of the convention volunteers than you might as an attendee, and the MV volunteers were a group that had produced one of the most impressive live events I've been at.
During the opening ceremonies, I noticed most of the programming track heads were people of colour, as well as that MV had taken an interesting tack with those tracks rather than go with the usual divisions. The tracks and their heads included CREATE (Lanie Barmore), GEEK: Fantasy (Gerald L. Coleman), GEEK: HORROR (L. Marie Wood) and GEEK: SCI-FI (K. Ceres Wright), LEARN (R.J.H. Joseph), MEET (Gigi Eng), PLAY (Sean Hillman), and WRITE (Venessa Giunta). That opening ceremony included a joyous celebration of the tracks where each volunteer came onstage to their own theme song and explained what the track involved.
It set the tone for one for the best convention experiences I've ever had. Part of this might be the evening where Richard Fife took Seanan and I through one of the nation's largest haunted house attractions, which came with running commentary from Seanan on the quality of the narrative as well as accessibility-related issues, but the major way the convention shone was the programming.
Not just because I was on panels with smart, interesting, and funny people. Not just because time and thought had gone into interesting and relevant topics. But because there were multiple panels where I was the only white participant. And they weren't panels about diversity. They were panels that had been assembled with diversity in mind, and each one was extraordinary as a result. My notes from the panels I was on are full of titles, podcasts, web resources, and other information that helped expand my understanding of and appreciation for fantasy and science fiction.
That's because diversity efforts enrich programming. They keep programming up to date and draw new fans of a wide variety into our efforts. And it helps address the situation where people complain about the greying of fandom while simultaneously letting the current structures shut out younger arrivals, by making them know their needs are being considered, with things like quiet rooms, pronoun badges, and gender neutral bathrooms.
I've been around fandom for over two decades now and I know there is good programming and there is bad programming. Sometimes it's a result of the moderator, sometimes it's the result of a toxic panelist or a combination of all of the above, other times there may be outside factors involved. But I know another factor is the programming descriptions, because they shape the conversation as well as the expectations about that conversation.
Recent convulsions around some of the programming descriptions at World Fantasy Convention underscore the need to think about programming. Programming is core to a convention. It is a major point of the convention. Conventions usually bring in guests in order to provide that programming. Professionals usually want to be on programming; it's something that can sell books and build brand. Most participants have come for that programming.
Others have covered the controversy over the programming elsewhere so I won't rehearse it (see links below), but when I wrote in asking about it, one excuse made for the state of things was that it had been crowd-sourced, drawn entirely from the suggestions of past and present participants. And my feeling about that answer was that to leave that essential task up to happenstance and the equivalent of a suggestion box that you have to pay $200 to approach is … haphazard and foolish at best.
No convention will become more diverse by drawing only from its own regular attendees. Those panels are shaped by expectations and conventions created by earlier panels. To think outside the box requires moving outside the established structures.
Diversity is about getting the most differently informed points of view on a panel because that is a valuable thing. Because it means we all get a chance to learn new and interesting aspects to a topic. And sometimes it is about making sure that the voices that have not been able to contribute in the past for one reason or another get a chance to take part in the conversation by reaching out to them.
We need to rethink the ways we create programming. Consider this art form, the quilt. A practical item made beautiful, and often a way to use up excess fabric or recycled rags. One variant is the “crazy quilt,” which uses up odds and ends in irregularly shaped patches, sometimes with embroidered details. Crazy quilts can be beautiful, but not by nature. When they are it is the result of serendipitous accident or the creation of someone experienced and talented at putting those scraps together. Programming should not be a crazy quilt made up of the varied scraps of material different participants pull out of their pockets.
Quilts with deliberately created patterns can be extraordinarily beautiful, and this is where our programming metaphor comes in. The Multiverse was such a quilt, pulling from those eight tracks and interspersing them in a rhythm that made the convention's quilt far greater than the sum of its yardage. Partially because they realized the world is not binary—a thing that's hard to do sometimes in America in a political scene which doesn't acknowledge that people can agree on one thing and not another.
The democratisation of conventions created by the move online has been heartening, because conventions have previously been limited to the people of means and those who the first group was willing to club together and help. The Hugos are voted on by people who have the money to afford the membership fee; the Nebulas, while voted on by F&SF writers, are still limited to those writers with the money for a membership fee. (One reason why I worked to find ways to reduce or ameliorate that fee when holding SFWA office.) One of the things that has come out of 2020, in fact, has been this democratisation, which has made the conventions available to people who historically and geographically were barred from them due to factors over which they had no control.
Among the groups benefiting from this move:
- People with work/time/family demands. Women, traditionally the ones who caretake, are particularly at risk for the last.
- People with chronic illnesses or whose bodies won't cooperate with things like the demands of three days in a hotel or the stress of being in a situation that requires a high degree of interaction.
- People lacking economic means, who can’t afford to fly across the world and stay at the local Marriott, let alone afford a pricey membership fee. Or attend Clarion West. That matters very much to me, because these are the groups that have been the most historically underrepresented, and yet the ones with the most at stake in something writing has tried to do: change the world. Because intersectionality is a thing, barring those groups often means barring a disproportionate number of other groups, such as writers of colour (due to racial gap in wages), transgender individuals (who face a similar wage gap), and so forth.
Here's the thing to keep in mind. Again, programming will reflect the structure that is producing it, and that structure will continue to reflect the society creating it in turn. We exist, whether we like it or not, in a deeply flawed system that has been co-opted by corporations bent on funneling wealth into the pockets of a few. Those few have been given a disproportionate voice in the system, as well as being deeply advantaged by it, and they have a vested interest—whether they consciously acknowledge it or not—in perpetuating the system.
While the overall goal of creating a world that is more just is worthwhile and what we should be working towards, up until the moment when it is reached we must continue to put work into making sure we create programming that reflects that future world, rather than our current one. And that moment where it is reached may not even be possible.
To abandon thoughts of diversity is to abandon one way of trying to do better, of trying to remember there are people outside the solipsistic castles of our selves. I do not find that a good thing. We write stories about problems, not static narcissistic celebrations. We try, each of us in our own way, to walk away from Omelas or come to some sort of reconciliation with our citizenry therein. And the same holds true not just for conventions, but for all the various manifestations that fantasy and science fiction take.
Going back to World Fantasy—less to pick on them than to pull from the most recent incident—the flaw did not lie in making the starting point the suggestions of participants. That's definitely one starting point, but only if you've got follow-up mechanisms in place for evaluating those suggestions and making sure they are a collection of strengths, rather than weaknesses. Programming needs informed eyes and a way of perceiving the programming through filters that help find the gaps and remove the things that inadvertently hurt people. We employ sensitivity readers for manuscripts; does programming deserve less attention?
What are the gaps? Perspectives that I try to make sure there's a range of when working with a project: race/nationality/economic means/degree of education/age/gender/sexuality/disability/neurodiversity. It's only in recent years that I've learned to specifically look for the last. I suspect it won't be the last addition as humanity continues to change. First and foremost, though, I look at economic status, because more than anything else that's what marks who is holding the power that money represents.
Our fantasy and science fiction structure exists in a system that tries to convince its inhabitants that the world is binary, that everything is the group that is Us, and everything else, which is Them. This is a world founded on fear of the other, of anything that is not like us, of fight or flight. This system resists diversity because diversity challenges that Us vs. Them argument, because it suggests that a person can be Us in one way and Them in another, and yet they can co-exist with all the other people made up of Us and Them.
This acknowledgment of the diverse nature of reality is, I think, part of becoming a decent human being, and what I mean by “decent” I'm just not even sure anymore. A responsible human being, who understands that there is something beyond ourselves, who thinks in terms of humanity's long game, and how the world gets better for everyone, rather than an elite handful. Someone who realises sometimes one is wrong, and that it is exchange with other human beings that teaches you how to find your own flaws and the internalised things that make you unhappy.
There's been at least a decade of representatives of that system and its resistance screaming things like “SJWs!”, to name one of the least objectionable pejoratives, at the people trying to advance diversity because they know that it's a goal that helps make the world a bit more balanced and representative as well as one that makes things stronger, better, more interesting and informed. And the unfortunate result of that has been to force conservative voices to either join in with the screamers, hop over to the other side to mingle with those socialists and anarchists and hippies and feminists and assorted riff-raff, or else sit on the sidelines wondering how all of this happened.
Patience and teaching has a place, and sometimes those conservative voices have useful stuff to throw into the mix, things that need to considered, not in the least because they're part of society too, and we're all in this together. If someone chooses to opt out of society—to act as though one part, usually the one they belong to, should be privileged over the rest rather than treated as part of the whole—then they are removing themselves from the discourse, in my opinion. I'm interested in listening to the voices that don't remove themselves. Here in America, I have cousins, in-laws, and a scattering of friends who are conservative, but conservatives who held their noses and voted Democratic this election, because they understood that promoting hate, racism, and violence hurts the world.
And they have come to understand that diversity strengthens it. So can we think of moving past it? Not at the moment, not any time soon, I would suspect. Because social structures protect themselves by washing away efforts to change them, by eroding the sandcastles that we build. If we cease to build them, nothing will change. But if we keep working at it, bit by bit we begin to reshape the coastline and create things as yet undreamed of. Move beyond diversity? No, it's diversity that helps us move beyond other, more troublesome things.
Bradford, K. Tempest. “World Fantasy Con: The Convention that Keeps on Failing”: https://tempest.fluidartist.com/world-fantasy-the-convention-that-keeps-on-failing/
Kircher, Madison Malone. George R.R. Martin Accused of Racism and Just Generally Sucking After Hugo Awards. Vulture.com, August 3, 2020: https://www.vulture.com/2020/08/what-happened-with-george-r-r-martin-at-2020-hugo-awards.html