In a recent conversation with newer writers, I realised sufficient time had passed that The Young™ did not know what RaceFail is. RaceFail was a trial by whiteness, a discourse created upon a backdrop of white supremacy, necessitated by ongoing calls for equality. This column will discuss RaceFail, whiteness in the acts of writing, and whiteness in the global Anglophone publishing industry.
There are multiple descriptions of the event—the most useful one is on Fanlore.org—which presents a bit of an oral history of that series of conversations happening across LiveJournal and blogs. Over the course of several months, fans of science fiction and fantasy across multiple blogging platforms organised as communities of fans of different texts, writing personal essays on the emotional effects of not seeing themselves reflected in the texts they consumed. They addressed not only representation within the texts themselves, but representation within the processes by which these texts were created and processed through the industries that produced them for mass consumption, most notably the publishing or film industries.
RaceFail was a unique event, because it took place on the burgeoning social media in 2009; since then, there have been more dissenting voices against the status quo of science fiction publishing. RaceFail demanded an engagement with creative media that forced questions about race, representation, and the consequences of not reflecting the reality of people of colour on a level that had rarely been reached before when fans and creators were limited to fanzines, fan columns in magazines, fan conventions, and mailing lists. I wasn’t even in fandom at the time, and saw it referenced in pop culture blogs like Racialicious. (I tried to not wade in; I failed, but for the better, and so now I pass this knowledge on to you.)
Lots of good things came from this messy gnarl. Through RaceFail, fans learned a language with which to express their alienation within their own fandoms. It opened a conversation on racial biases and ways that tacit racism in fandom and industry discourages minority engagement, such as the lack of first readers in most major publishing venues who are non-white. In this way, fans and even casual consumers of popular media gained a way to theorise their experiences on race and racism and respond to white supremacy. RaceFail prompted the creation of more networks of cooperation between minorities, such as the Con or Bust fund, which sends fans of colour to science fiction conventions in order to represent their communities, participate on panels, and make potential connections with industry professionals.
Suddenly, we could talk about race. Perhaps we were clumsy about it, perhaps our tongues stumbled and fingers slipped in searching for those right words, perhaps we hitherto tried to cleave to the status quo that promised us some reward if we didn’t say anything—but RaceFail made space to openly discuss racism, and unveiled the unbearable whiteness of fans and professionals in science fiction and fantasy fandom and publishing.
Whiteness is defined by Ruth Frankenburg in her iconic White Women, Race Matters as “a location of structural advantage, of race privilege,” by which white people benefit, both on an institutional level and on an everyday level, from better treatment, in visible and invisible ways. It is also a “standpoint,” from which “white people look at [themselves], at others, and at society,” and which informs the way that white people speak about themselves and others. Whiteness can refer to “a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed,” largely because they are considered default behaviours, so normal it is not worth remarking upon. There are multiple ways of talking about whiteness, just as there are multiple ways of talking about racism.
In 2015, Lee and Low Books, a publisher of multicultural children’s books, performed a baseline survey of diversity in the back end of the U.S. American publishing industry. They received “responses from 8 review journals and 34 publishers of all sizes from across North America” in the categories of: 1) Board Members and Executive Positions, 2) Editorial, 3) Marketing, 4) Sales, 5) Reviewers. They were done through anonymous surveys, requesting identification on the basis of race, gender, orientation, and disability.
The study is flawed, being unable to account for the finer nuances of self-identification, but it provides a good baseline from which to start looking at the industry and consider the implications for the cultural products that they generate. Upon the axis of race alone, the numbers of industry workers who identify as White/Caucasian dominate across all departments: in the industry overall, 79 percent; at the Executive level, 86 percent in Editorial, 82 percent; in Sales, 83 percent; in marketing and publicity, 77 percent; and among book reviewers, 89 percent. These numbers are both symptomatic and explanatory: publishing is a culture industry, and culture industries both shape the mediascapes and values of their consumers, as well as profit from these mediascapes and values.
Arjun Appadurai, while discussing globalisation in Modernity at Large, coined the term “mediascape” to refer to the distribution, production, and dissemination of information shaped by mode (whether of documentation or entertainment), hardware, audience, and interests of the owners. Thus, mediascapes disseminate scripts for potential imaginaries. Like any other culture industry, publishing survives by producing consumable products to as wide an audience as possible—more accurately, they produce products which their staff assume will be consumed by as wide an audience as possible. The echelons of their staff are dominated by a particular identitarian group, and this group affects the type of product that is pushed out, and the kind of content that the consumer will be allowed to choose from in the market. Without active questioning of the tendencies that will inevitably result, the processes of producing genre literature will acquire what Helen Young calls “the shape of the white bodies that have habitually occupied [genre literature] for decades” in her book, Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness. This shape extends even to works that claim to move away from the white, Eurocentric norm.
Eurocentrism is a form of discourse that centres Europe, or “the West,” as the site of linear historical progress. As a mode of thought, Ella Shohat and Robert Stam explain in their seminal work, Unthinking Eurocentrism, Eurocentrism situates the West as the source of democracy, while ignoring how the democracy of the West has been built on subverting non-European democratic traditions. In Eurocentric discourse, racism, colonialism, imperialism, and slavery are “contingent, accidental, exceptional,” not “fundamental catalysts of the West’s disproportionate power.” In narrative media, particularly film, Eurocentrism is expressed through racist stereotypes and tropes that justify the colonialism of Western empires, as well as through the exclusion of minority narratives. It is then reinforced by a film distribution industry in which media exports from the West, specifically America and Europe, have a wider global reach than media exports from anywhere else.
Social media platforms that serve as broadcast platforms have begun a process of mitigating this unevenness—where once we might have been completely ignorant of science fictional and fantastic films from outside of Hollywood, we witness a growing awareness of media made by people outside of it. Their platforms are smaller, their distribution networks limited, but there is much cause for optimism. There is also, weirdly, more cause for anxiety, especially for non-white peoples who are jockeying to be seen amid the noise and chatter of social media.
Eurocentrism and whiteness are mutually reinforcing mechanisms: where Eurocentrism is a larger discourse in which the superiority of Europe and its descendants is enshrined and justified, whiteness is the mechanism through which this enshrining and justification occur. Where whiteness is the standard default position by which to orient the aesthetic priorities of commercial science fiction and fantasy, Eurocentrism is the discourse that provides the historical background for this orientation. They are embedded in the many emotional logics underlying claims like “historically, there wouldn’t have been any Black people in Europe” or “women didn’t do [insert stereotypically modern male activity of your choice here],” which reasonably critical people know are bunk.
These form the background for trials by whiteness, those many obstacles and challenges that people of colour face in day-to-day life, carried into the landscapes of imagination, even the science fictional imagination. Ensconced as I am in a country relatively unaffected by the global pandemic, in a country where the majority of the country are brown, trials by whiteness are still worth thinking through in an industry where representations of the future and the fantastic are still dominated by whiteness.
I did not want to write this column. Whiteness is a tiring, tiresome topic (and was the subject of my dissertation, which makes it even more exhausting), which invites responses of white fragility and performances of white liberalism. And yet here we are, ten years after RaceFail, watching the same conversations happen again, tilting our heads at the same defences of racism in publishing, internally screaming at racist representations of people of colour in SFF literature.
Since whiteness will be with us a while yet, and will continue to be a trial for us, it is always a good time to identify its parameters and significance, to question its presence, to force it to justify itself into oblivion. Because ultimately, the worlds ahead and in our heads have space for more imaginaries than the limited ones that whiteness and Eurocentrism offer to us.