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Diversity in Fandom: Lessons from Worldcon

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

OMG!!! This fan is different than me! Panic!!!

OMG!!! This fan is different than me! Panic!!!

This post is for whites only.

If you aren’t white, go away. Even if you are white but aren’t straight, I don’t want you reading my post. White women probably don’t need to read it either. And if you’re Muslim, get out of here.

You already know this stuff, so you’d be wasting your time.

OK, now that there are only white, straight guys in the room, I’m feeling much more comfortable.

As I mentioned in my Worldcon report, the theme for this year’s convention was diversity. The organizers made a point of running lots of programming about fandom in different parts of the world, as well as the experiences of women, minorities, and LGBT fans and writers. There were talks on everything from representing indigenous cultures in fiction to queerbaiting in fandom, as well as panels about f/sf in Southeast Asia, the Arab world, and China.

Diversity is a battleground in the f/sf community these days. There was the recent controversy over a cheesecake SFWA Bulletin cover, which led to complaints, a predictable backlash, and the eventual resignation of the editor. It got uglier when Sean P. Fodera of Macmillan launched a personal attack on one of the more vocal critics, Mary Robinette Kowal. In an astonishing display of unprofessionalism, Fodera sank to criticizing her appearance.

Of course, this is only a reflection of society at large. In the UK, a female activist who succeeded in getting Jane Austen put on the £10 note got threatened with rape and murder.

Having celebrated my 45th birthday at this year’s Worldcon, I’m old enough to have seen a lot of these controversies, and they seem to be getting uglier. As women, gays, and ethnic minorities ask for real equality instead of just window dressing, the pushback is getting more venomous. A lot of white guys who claim they’re all for equality get downright nasty when they’re told to actually treat people as equals.

This is only making the activists more committed. They say that as female, gay, or black fans, it’s up to them to make the community more equitable.

They’re wrong. It’s up to us — straight white men like you and me. We’re the problem, so we need to be the solution.

Oh, most of us are nice enough. We’d never grope a woman in a bar or use hate speech on a black man or a lesbian. We’re not like the guys in Mad Men. That’s good; that’s a step forward. It’s not enough, though.

The truth is, we still pretty much run things. We’re brought up to think that we know best, and we talk over people a lot. We always have to be experts at everything. This leads to exhausting one-upmanship contests with other white men, while drowning out everyone else. We see this in our day-to-day lives and we see this in fandom.

For example, I was having lunch with a female writer friend and complaining how, at a panel, one guy kept interrupting the female moderator. Classic case of a man talking over a woman. Just then, her husband showed up. He had a question for both of us and he and I started gabbling at each other. It was only later that I realized we totally edged her out of the conversation and never actually heard her answer to the question.

Oops.

This happens more than you think. It’s unconscious. Start paying attention and you’ll discover you do it frequently, even if you’re liberal and well-meaning and say all the right things about women and minorities. White guys like you and me are raised thinking it’s all about us, because for a very long time it has been. We need to unlearn that.

Now here’s the good news — unlearning this is to our advantage.

Chances are, you, like me, enjoy speculative fiction because you like exploring other worlds. We’re attracted to the unfamiliar because it makes us see our own world in a different light. But why are we comfortable exploring Barsoom or Ambergris, but not certain neighborhoods in New York or London? Why do we spend more time with ghosts or aliens than we do with real human beings who are radically different than us?

That padding of fiction makes the difference more comfortable, but it’s got one major problem–it ain’t real. If you really want to see your world in a new light, hang out with different people who share that world with you. It isn’t always comfortable, but it sure is educational.

My favorite Worldcon panel was about representations of minorities in media and literature. While some time was wasted complaining about Hollywood (way too easy), there were some interesting personal anecdotes from the panelists. A Mexican-American writer talked about how the only cartoon character he could identify with growing up was Speedy Gonzales. That got a lot of uncomfortable smiles from the audience. He let us off the hook by admitting it was funny as well as sad.

A Malaysian writer reminded us that the concept of white domination was irrelevant in many countries where there are different power dynamics in place and each panelist had such a rich background that enough labels could be applied to them to make labels pretty much useless.

An agonizing moment came when a white woman from the audience stood up and in a quavering voice told how she was from Wales and her country was horribly oppressed by the English and it has more castles than anywhere else on Earth in order to keep the Welsh down and blah blah blah. Whatever. My Scottish ancestors were packed off to the cane fields of the West Indies as bonded labor after the Argyll Rebellion, but that doesn’t make me part of the club either. The poker faces on the panel told me they were equally unimpressed.

Listen. Stop pretending you’ve suffered just as much or that you know all about their experience. Just listen. You’ll learn more. George Orwell, one of the smartest straight white guys ever, once said that he pretended to know less about the subject of conversation because that encouraged people to talk more and he ended up learning things he didn’t know.

The coolest interaction I had was on the final day, that sad time when the stalls are packing up, the art expo is closed, and people are beginning to trickle out the door. I started chatting with a Persian-British woman. After we both raved about the beauties of Isfahan (it really is half the world), debated the Hugo winners, and agonized about Worldcon ending, she told me how Western anthologies often label Muslim fiction as fantasy if it includes djinn. Since djinn appear in the Koran, Muslims don’t think of them as fantasy creatures. A story by a Christian writer about angels would generally be labeled Christian fiction, not fantasy. I never thought about that, and I never would have if I hadn’t listened to what a Muslim fan had to say. Being scared off by her headscarf would have kept me in ignorance.

She also told me how she had discovered Persian science fiction. It turns out there’s an active fan community in Iran and a Farsi online magazine with a female editor and plenty of female writers.

How cool is that? Having grown up in Britain, this woman is immersed in Anglo f/sf and loves it, but she’s also found a whole new world of writing in her family’s country of origin. I encouraged her to pitch Black Gate a guest post on Persian speculative fiction. Hopefully she’ll take me up on it.

That’s a different world that sounds fun to explore.

Vive la différence!

Vive la différence!

Sean McLachlan is a freelance travel and history writer. He is the author of the historical fantasy novel A Fine Likeness, set in Civil War Missouri, and the post-apocalyptic thriller Radio Hope. His historical fantasy novella The Quintessence of Absence, was published by Black Gate. Find out more about him on his blog and Amazon author’s page.

Photos courtesy Jerome Finn.

10 Comments »

  1. A belated happy 45th, Sean, and I hope your post gets the respect it deserves. I would suspect that most of us straight white guys over 45 (I’ll be 64 in November) who are regular readers of SF got started because it was mostly people like us who wrote it, and they did so mostly for the people like us who read it. And we read it because we could perhaps more closely identify with the characters who were geeks and outsiders and armchair adventurers whose only real opportunity for thrills and excitement came from the pages of “Amazing Stories” and “Thrilling Wonder” and “Astounding/Analog” and those wonderful little Ace S and D and F paperbacks. One of my very early favorites was “The Stars Are Ours” by Andre Norton. I’d read a good dozen of her books before discovering that she was really Alice Mary North. I was devastated – for all of maybe a day. Then I read another of her books – and realized that I didn’t care what her gender was: I loved her work. Not long after I found out about Leigh Brackett, and C. L. Moore (would she have been published under her full first name?), and Ursula Le Guin, and many, many more. For me, gender doesn’t matter; believable characters and a good story DO matter. I’ll have to admit that it isn’t easy for me to put myself in the place of the occasional gay male character; one of this year’s Hugo-nominated short stories had two gay men as the focal point of the story, and I was surprised that my hesitation in getting past my feelings was quickly banished when the narrator’s sister bawled her brother out for failing to fulfill parental expectations by putting himself in a position NOT to provide them with grandchildren. And certainly, a writer’s gender preferences have never prevented me from enjoying his or her work; the early Ace paperbacks by Samuel Delany remain very dear to my heart. However – I think many of your points are extremely valid: particularly, that we feel quite comfy exploring Barsoom or some other hostile planet, but balk at visiting the people who live on the other side of the center of town from us. As a college English teacher, I can’t allow myself to see color or gender or even degrees of intellectual development in my students; I have to treat everyone as equals. That isn’t always easy to do. Nor will it be easy to take on the challenge you provide in encouraging the SF community to be as accommodating as possible for the entire world community, regardless of color, gender, economic background, religious beliefs, political stance, etc. But think of the potential riches all those others outside of the stereotypical SF demographic could bring to the field. It numbs the mind – and that could be a very, very good thing.

    Comment by smitty59 - August 27, 2014 10:11 pm

  2. Wow! This was fantastic! And I totally agree, people (myself included) tend to focus on the good side of sf and fantasy, whilst turning a blind eye to the deep issues that you mentioned, issues that keep the genre back from becoming even more.
    I, however, think this is an issue in almost every facet of nerdery so we’re far from the only people who have to adress it. But, then who’s to say we shouldnt be the first.
    P.s, sorry for any typos, I really can’t type on touchsreens

    Comment by Connor Gormley - August 28, 2014 8:10 am

  3. Hmm. . .I think your assertions re: angels and djinn are simply false. Christian faith (in the main) teaches that angels, demons, Heaven, and Hell are literal realities, and many churches (particularly the Roman Church) also hold belief in various miracles and apparitions, signs and wonders. But I could go on all day listing fiction from the Dresden Files to Dungeons and Dragons which use these elements in a clearly fantastic way. I can even think of avowedly Christian writers who do it–Tim Powers comes to mind, particularly in DECLARE.

    And I suspect that if a Christian writer wrote realistic fiction that included the presence of angels and demons, any non-Christian editor would classify it as some species of fantasy, horror, or magical realism. I don’t see how that’s different with a non-Muslim editor/reader responding to works by an Islamic writer. To push the question a little father, should vampire novels be considered realistic fiction if the author sincerely believes in vampirism? Other vampire enthusiasts might so consider it, but I won’t.

    I’m also troubled by the idea that one can only identify with characters who share your label (re: Speedy Gonzales). The converse of that would be that white men can only empathize and identify with other white men, which is ridiculous.

    Comment by jalazar88 - August 28, 2014 11:49 am

  4. Jalazar88,

    I didn’t make an assertion about angels and djinn, I was repeating someone else’s assertion. I can see how believers could come down on both sides of this issue. Some may shrug and not care what editors do, but I’ve often heard nonChristians living in the West complain that their beliefs are called “myths”. I’ve spent a lot of time working in the Middle East and done a bit of reading on Islam, so I can tell you that religion is often misrepresented in the Western media. If I were a Muslim, it would make me a wee bit sensitive.
    As for identifying with characters that “share your label”, I think what the panelist was trying to express was the alienation that made him feel as a kid. For white dudes having grown up with mostly white dude heroes, we come from a comfort zone that may make it easier to put our heads in a different character. For minorities and women growing up, heroes like them are few and far between.
    I divide my time between Spain and the UK, and thanks to my kid I’ve seen a fair amount of childrens programming in both countries. Even in 2014, the majority of main characters are little white dudes. Girls and nonwhite characters are generally sidekicks if they appear at all. This must be discouraging for a little black girl living in the UK, or a Moroccan boy living in Spain.
    I also worry about the effect it may have on my own little white dude. Luckily he has role models in a diverse group of friends and a mum who is a successful scientist, but media representations are pervasive and insidious. It would be dangerous to assume they don’t have an effect on our thinking.

    Comment by Sean McLachlan - August 29, 2014 3:58 am

  5. Jalazar88,

    In response to your comment above “I’m also troubled by the idea that one can only identify with characters who share your label… The converse of that would be that white men can only empathize and identify with other white men, which is ridiculous.”

    It seems to me that this is exactly the unwritten or unspoken argument, since an overwhelming amount of characters are and remain white. If characters of other races and labels are so easy to identify with for writers and readers alike, why don’t we see more diverse characters? Where are the abundance of diverse lead characters that drive and are the focus of the story, and not the usual racial stereotype, canon fodder, or the strategically placed minority there to sacrifice themselves for the white main character? I think that women are far more present and have been treated far better as characters lately, but female characters are perpetually white, diversity among female characters is far worse than it is for male characters.

    Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly agree with your statement, that readers should be able to identify with characters regardless of race, but this is not the message that native americans, blacks, latinos, and gays get most of the time we pick up a book, go to a movie, or turn on the tv. Where whites may see a magnificent, engaging story, minorities see yet another story we’ve spent hard earned money on only to be subliminally told we don’t matter with representations that are disrespectful, disposable, or completely absent.

    If you’re saying everyone should be able to empathize and identify with any character, then what’s the reason for the stark imbalance?

    Comment by RKnave - August 29, 2014 7:08 am

  6. RKnave, my feeling is that authors/creators, unless their intention is to write a story specifically about ethnic or cultural identity, will usually write heroes more or less like themselves and/or their presumed majority audience. The English speaking world remains a majority white, and so the majority of characters created by that world are also white, for pretty much the same reason that the majority of heroes in Japanese cinema are Japanese, and Hong Kong movies usually include a white Westerner only as a swaggering villain. I’d be very surprised if Bollywood had a problem with predominantly white casts ;).

    And Sean, I’m not surprised the Western media tends to misrepresent Islam–they certainly do a smashing job of misrepresenting Christianity!

    Comment by jalazar88 - August 29, 2014 12:40 pm

  7. smitty59,

    The story you mentioned is “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” by John Chu. He’s a great author and was able to make me understand what coming out of the closet to your family must be like. It was never an issue with me so he gave me a look into another life. That’s fiction at its finest.
    I did have problems with the story, though. I felt the speculative element was sort of thrown in. It didn’t add anything to the story and could have been done away with completely.
    I felt the same with Hugo-nominated “Wakulla Springs” by Duncan and Klages. It was a moving period piece about race, class, and stardom, and then almost at the end a pointless bit of magic pops up and jarred me right out of the story. Hopefully this is not a new trend in speculative fiction.

    Comment by Sean McLachlan - August 29, 2014 1:05 pm

  8. Jalazar88,

    I see what you mean, and I agree that in certain fictional worlds (created by writers/authors) this is totally acceptable, and it follows that when the overwhelming majority of people around you share your identity that your stories will reflect this. As you said, Bollywood movies feature 99.9% Indians, movies made in China will feature overwhelming percentages of Chinese (although, in Japanese anime, at least, white characters are the norm, and are frequently significant and respected characters, where black or gay characters are routinely disrespected the overwhelming majority of the time, and latin, indian, or arab characters are virtually absent.) The US is diverse, however, and not one of those places.

    And should the audience, in fact, be predominantly white, are we saying that whites are only interested in themselves as characters and will not be interested in, empathize or identify with, or consume stories about minorities? Minorities in this country regularly consume stories where they are often completely absent or in the background (or shown to have achieved only through the kindness, tutelage, or overall presence of magical whites). So if minorities can be interested in and regularly consume stories that are not about them, why are whites not expected to do the same if race shouldn’t factor into storytelling?

    Comment by RKnave - August 29, 2014 8:51 pm

  9. Sean, you’re right on target with the reason I voted Mr. Chu’s story low for the Hugo award: the speculative element was weak and didn’t truly figure as much as I’d have wanted. But the family dynamic gave the story its strength, and that was something I COULD identify with. I didn’t read the Duncan & Klages story because I didn’t have enough for the supporting membership fee until early July, so I didn’t vote for the novellas at all. I DID find, overall, the shorter work was weaker than I would have expected, and in my opinion, some of the better material from 2013 never even made it to the ballot.

    In all this discussion of gender roles, one work that hasn’t been mentioned is Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness.” I wonder how many regular SF readers under 40 have read that.

    Comment by smitty59 - August 29, 2014 10:02 pm

  10. […] last year’s Worldcon, which I reported on here, diversity and inclusion was a central theme. Several of the panels reflected this, such as one on […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Eastercon 66: Fun and Friction in Science Fiction - April 8, 2015 7:08 pm


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