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Editor's note: Stephi has done a good job of writing and expressing the need for safer spaces in SFF as a person-of-colour. This is a huge complex topic which cannot be easily verbalised, expressed or written in 3,000 words. We have not even touched on issues like harassment and toxic culture wars also endangering the lives of many marginalised folk and people-of-colour.
Additional notes: We are also using “person/people-of-colour” as this is more in an USian context. For UK folk, it is “BAME” (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic). For the rest of the non-Anglophonic world, it's “non-white----. All, though, have experienced various degrees of racism and discrimination in white spaces, including SFFnal spaces and places.
More additional notes: This essay is uncanny and the more important when we demand the need for safer spaces online as the world faces an unpredecented crisis in the form of COVID-19. As countries go into lockdown, spaces online need to be safer for minority groups. Likewise, even as we practise physical distancing in our own social spaces, let's remember safety for our loved ones and friends.
What is a safe space?
In recent years, the phrase “safe space” has somehow become one that creates division as soon as it is mentioned. Why has the concept of a place in which people can feel free of discrimination, prejudice, and bigotry become contentious? In this article we will examine what exactly a safe space entails, the current state of safe spaces within the science fiction & fantasy (SFF) scene and community, the functionality and possibility of SFF as an eventual safe space itself, the need for a safer overall space in SFF, and some basic steps we can continue taking to successfully establish SFF as a safe physical and online place.
The concept of a safe space is often misunderstood by those who are not involved in one (and sometimes even by those who already have access to safe spaces and are unaware of it). Safe spaces are sometimes seen by critics as abstract spaces where anything can be said with no consequences or, conversely, where words are censored with extreme strictness or prejudice. The truth lies somewhere between the two: safe spaces are often where difficult or divulging conversations are held within a community that commits to protecting its members. It is a space created by and composed of a group of people where those within the space can feel accepted for who they are—because of and not despite their differences. These spaces exist in physical gatherings and on the Internet, and with today’s world where people live online and offline, safe places are crucial in both realms.
A type of commonly discussed safe space, and the one most relevant to this article, consists of a community designated for people belonging to certain identities or cultures. However, most safe spaces are organically created and maintained every day, like groups of close friends gathering every week or nightly family dinners. While the phrase “safe space” became popular relatively recently (around the 60s, with the rise in popularity and prevalence of gay and lesbian bars), popular and recognised safe spaces have always existed, going as far back to gatherings of philosophers in ancient Greece to feminist groups of early 1900s America. What is it, then, about the formal establishment of safe spaces that is simultaneously so contentious and so difficult?
Scene versus community
In seeking to understand this issue, we might benefit from examining safe spaces within the SFF community and, with that, the possibility of SFF itself as a safe space.
One important element of this conversation is the difference between the SFF scene and its accompanying community. Author Anthony Venn-Brown describes the difference between scene and community in his article comparing the gay scene to the gay community as the tip of the proverbial iceberg versus the rest of the iceberg, respectively. The scene is what is visible to the general public, usually both easier to market and to discover. The much larger portion—the community—contains multiple groups of people, different networks, and communities within communities.
While the SFF scene itself largely revolves around certain elements and promotes certain voices, the community encompasses a diverse array of people that are not necessarily well-represented nor considered with enough respect and consideration by the larger voices of the SFF scene—that is, the most well-known creators and authors. There is no area of the scene nor community that is not heavily impacted by racism, ableism, homophobia, or other forms of discrimination. For many reasons, marginalised writers often do not and cannot feel safe, even in spaces supposedly designated as safe.
One of these reasons that we simply cannot ignore is our collective community’s history of how we have dealt with such issues and our level of success (or lack thereof).
Writers of colour sometimes find that they are held to much higher standards than their white counterparts are. While white, straight writers tend to get away with writing all-white casts, creating characters based on harmful stereotypes, and writing characters from cultures of which they know very little, writers of colour are called out more quickly when they make mistakes.
For instance, see how quickly action was taken regarding racist plot lines in Blood Heir by author Amélie Wen Zhao compared to how vehemently people still defend Orson Scott Card, the outspoken and unapologetic homophobe who wrote Ender’s Game, which was turned into a movie in 2013—well into his years-long anti-gay crusade. Although the right action was taken regarding Blood Heir (and would have been prevented had more diverse folks been employed along the way, given the many eyes that saw the manuscript earlier), the same thing was not done for many other problematic books. It is also telling that, once Zhao and her team took down the book, she received even MORE backlash—this time from people who accused her of pandering to the masses and compromising her artistic vision.
Authors Ellen Oh and L.L. McKinney, two of the most prominent and earliest authors of colour to point out the harmful elements of Blood Heir, received daily harassment, including death threats, from fans who had never read anything from Zhao. The outrage revealed how deeply and willingly many people value the elusive idea of artistic freedom over respect toward people of colour, along with their belief in the idea that the two concepts must be mutually exclusive.
The need for safe spaces in SFF
This isn’t a new occurrence but is instead just one of the widely publicised events indicative of the same pattern happening daily on a larger scale. In the SFF community, audiences and creators have generally been quick to defend those called out for potentially harmful material, and they are often punished via threats, boycotts, and unwarranted negative reviews by outspoken defendants of the “traditional way” for their message. As audiences and writers of colour call for more diversity in SFF, they inevitably face backlash as well. They are accused of suppressing natural creativity, of trying to push a so-called SJW (social justice warrior) agenda.
In reality, people in marginalised communities just want to see ourselves represented respectfully and accurately. The world is diverse, full of multiple cultures and types of people; why shouldn’t SFF represent that? Why continue enforcing only a very specific type of person in such a large field? Because of the nature of creativity, of the constant output from writers, SFF will never run out of material. Allowing our fictional spaces to showcase diversity in a respectful light sends a message: it tells audiences and fellow creators that yes, they are accepted, and they are welcome. When these spaces that are often lauded as ideal, “better” worlds fail to reflect the diversity of our world, the message conveyed is much colder. It tells marginalised people that we are the Other, that a better world would not involve us. It effectively alienates many of us who wish so ardently to participate in and contribute to a community that wants to push us out.
In 2013, author David Barnett wrote a blog post in The Guardian about discrimination in science fiction. He wrote, “How can a genre that dreams up alien cultures and mythic races in such minute detail seemingly ignore the ethnic, religious, gender and sexual diversity right here on the home planet, here in the real world?” Just before Barnett’s article, the World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) had garnered significant attention when author Jim C. Hines posted a picture of present and upcoming WorldCon chairs—notably, all white people. This demographic wasn’t far off from that of the WorldCon attendees. Thus began the popular use of the hashtag #DiversityinSFF on Twitter, as more people recognised the need for more diversity in the SFF world. Fast-forward to 2018, when people came forward with their experiences regarding WorldCon’s mishandling of accessibility concerns, the LGBTQ+ community, and racial diversity. It took multiple authors withdrawing from WorldCon programming entirely for WorldCon to issue a public apology and a pledge to do better.
But we note the date: why were these issues still so prominent five years after #DiversityinSFF was a trending hashtag?
The pattern is not surprising if we look back further. In 2009, there was Racefail, incited when SFF author Elizabeth Bear wrote a blog post on writing characters of colour, sparking similar conversations on works including but not limited to fanfiction and currently existing novels. These spiraled into a series of different events, back-and-forth attacks, and derailed arguments that led to multiple white SFF authors digging in their heels to defend and deny racism in their writing and in the SFF community. Though many authors now avoid mentioning the events of Racefail, its effects linger. It is frequently used as justification for avoiding criticism involving racism, cultural appropriation, or prejudice, rooted in the conclusion of many white authors then that race discussions simply cannot occur in a “civil” manner.
It is clear, then, that by 2013, the issue surrounding the lack of diversity and of the barriers to entry for marginalised communities was already a widely discussed topic. Does it take marginalised people being harmed, prominent voices speaking out about it, and a worldwide audience joining in for things to change a little bit? That marginalised people must suffer first for change to be effected after the fact does not bode well for the future or for any real, sustainable growth. (Today, the #DiversityinSFF hashtag is mostly quiet. Other hashtags such as WeNeedDiverseBooks and #ownvoices remain popular and widely referenced. Though they are not specific to SFF, many writers who actively engage with these tags are SFF creators or readers).
Obstacles to safe spaces in SFF
One of the obstacles standing in the way of creating safe spaces for marginalised communities—writers of colour, for example—is that people who are not marginalised are often against the establishment of spaces like these. They want in, and the establishment of a space for a culture they are not a part of makes them feel excluded.
To those who may not agree with this argument, I invite you to consider the following two points: 1) the SFF scene itself has often been exclusionary in a much less respectful way toward people who would belong in the very community seeking establishment, and 2) there are multiple other spaces that do include everyone and integrate both marginalised people and their allies to some degree.
As a Taiwanese-American person, I’ve found that I am often much less at ease in all-white spaces, even when the space is full of people who proclaim themselves to be anti-racist. I am constantly aware of being the only POC in the room, and I know my actions may be taken by some to be representative of all people of “my” culture. Compare that to when I am in Taiwan; there is no self-consciousness, no second-guessing the way I act, no automatic self-censure in relation to fear of judgment or discrimination. Just like how people still benefit from privilege passed down from ancestors, so too do people inherit their predecessors’ power dynamics.
So when these people enter spaces—like the SFF scene— meant for those who have historically been on the other end of the proverbial silver spoon, they inevitably bring those power dynamics with them. It is impossible to avoid generational trauma, and though people can use their privileges for good by being allies, using that privilege for good also means knowing when to step back—when to let communities grow together without interference, without fear, without having to self-defend against or educate anyone. These spaces must be created by and for the people they are meant to protect—no one else.
True allies, then, know when to support people by being there and by not being there. Safe spaces provide community, openness, and respite.
Furthermore, marginalised people often do the bulk of advocating for their community. They are frequently called upon by others to notice and draw attention to issues, and when they do so, the pressure is often on them to provide education regarding what the issue is, why it is problematic, and how authors could have handled the situation better. While marginalised people are the experts on their own experiences, the burden adds up. To combat situations like these, there is now a greater push toward hiring sensitivity readers. However, most sensitivity readers are hired and paid by authors privately rather than by their publishers, giving authors another obstacle to go through to avoid doing harm. Moreover, many problematic elements require larger content edits, and sensitivity readers are often hired too infrequently and too late in the editing process.
Some publishers and authors have resisted the push for sensitivity readers, decrying sensitivity edits as censorship rather than edits to improve their content. But we have seen the harm books can do when they never go through a diverse lens or through trained sensitivity readers. Until writers see mistakes related to culture, disability, or queerness as unacceptable as those related to other plot elements, these consequences will continue hurting a large number of their (very diverse) audience.
What has been done so far
Realistically, we have a long road ahead before we can truly establish the SFF community as a safe space for everyone. Until the idea of embracing diversity is no longer a controversial concept, the community will continue to perpetuate harmful elements. Marginalised people are the only ones who can adequately incorporate ways to help marginalised people feel respected and welcomed; no amount of research can compensate for lived experiences. Thus, as we move forward, our best step toward safer spaces is uplifting and supporting marginalised creators and marginalised readers/audiences.
We need diversity at every level, especially in the “higher” levels—those with the most loyal audiences and the largest followings as well as publishing houses and presses. Publishers and organisations like Tor and Speculative Literature Foundation have begun implementing more diversity into their leadership by hiring more people of colour, queer people, and disabled people. Conventions like Wiscon also have specific POC spaces. Even then, is it enough? The responsibilities of advocating for inclusion and representation shouldn’t lie only on the shoulders of a minority of people or organisations.
Many organisations, agents, and editors have taken steps to include more works from diverse authors by creating stipulations for certain events or opportunities that POC, disabled, neurodivergent, and/or LGBTQ+ authors are preferred. The hashtag #ownvoices (created in 2015 by author Corinne Duyvis) has become an entire book category and movement, comprising books that are written by people who have the same identity or experience as that of the character.
While steps like these have been integral in bringing to light many works showcasing authentic works and have helped connect people to authors to whom they can relate, it has created a new phenomenon of people equating authenticity with transparency. In seeking to establish spaces and publicise works by marginalised people through movements like #ownvoices, the effort has led to an effect that most people did not expect: marginalised people having to prove they were marginalised in order for their work to be accepted. Some writers are forced to prove that they are indeed part of the community they’re writing. This has led to authors being outed as LGBTQ+ or being pressured into disclosing or discussing their personal experiences., SFF/horror author Tamsyn Muir spoke in an interview about bullying she endured that resulted in her having to discuss traumatic experiences. Within hours after the interview was released, SFF fans and writers weighed in on social media, with many arguing that writers did not owe others proof of their experiences.
Likewise, there are diversity-centered movements or events like #DVPit (an event created by agent Beth Phelan in which marginalised authors pitch their manuscripts via Twitter) and #ownvoices are largely based on the “honour system.” Most people are sensitive and respectful and are keen on uplifting these authors. In fact, when questions are raised regarding specific requirements of #ownvoices and what they entail, the people asking these questions are usually marginalised writers who want confirmation that they indeed belong to marginalised communities at all. Only a few protest the requirements or disguise their identity in an attempt to participate in these events, but these few are the ones who often speak loudest (or are the most toxic) or receive the most attention, causing uncertainty and frustration for everyone involved. Incidents like these are unavoidable, especially in a site as public as Twitter, which is far from a safe space in itself. While it may be too much, for now, to hope these few incidents stop happening, we may help by not joining in and by uplifting only those who seek to uplift others and those whose voices we still need to hear.
How and where can we start?
As individuals, we can start small.
We can, with conscious intention and respect, create safe spaces within the SFF community to turn its overall scene into a safer space.
We start by creating safe physical and online spaces for the people around us—reaching out to people who identify with us and people who do not.
We can seek to approach everything with an attitude of respect and appreciation, and we can do everything possible to understand those whose experiences differ from ours.
There are voices we know, and we can continue to support them by listening.
SFF is all about discovery, not about remaining in the same place forever, metaphorically or figuratively.
It is time for us to uplift perspectives we have not yet seen much of in the SFF canon in order to discover our own world. SFF is seen as an escapist genre to many; if so, perhaps it can be an escape to a better world and a safer place.