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.
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.
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.