One of the challenges that comes up pretty regularly in conversations about diversity and inclusiveness in SF/F is, “Show me where someone has been told they can’t be a part of fandom because of their race/gender/sexuality/etc.”
The underlying assumptions seem to be that:
- There aren’t any such examples, and therefore–
- All of this talk about the need for diversity is a made-up problem blown completely out of proportion by a handful of oversensitive souls looking for something to be offended by and/or campaigning for Hugo awards.
I could point to examples of explicit attempts at exclusion, like “Its bitches like you that are ruining SF. Why cant you leave it to men who know what their doing?” But what would that prove? Usually such examples just result in moving the goal posts. People will acknowledge that sure, there are a few cavemen and trolls out there, but go on to explain that most of SF/F is better than that, so why make such a big deal out of those rare and extreme outliers?
It’s true that I’ve rarely seen people explicitly, deliberately, and publicly saying, “Hey, we don’t want women in our genre” or “SF/F stories should only be about white heroes.” And that’s a good thing. Our society has finally reached the point that there can be serious social consequences for a convention that posted a “Whites only” sign at registration, or a publisher that said in their submission guidelines, “LGBT authors need not submit.”
The problem is that so many people think that’s all racism and sexism and homophobia and discrimination are — “Whites only” signs and lynchings and KKK rallies. As long as we don’t have any of those at a convention, what’s the problem? If an event doesn’t turn into Tailhook, then there’s nothing for women to complain about!
If that’s the foundation for your understanding of discrimination and inequality, then I can see how you’d be confused by ongoing conversations about the need to do better. I suspect this is why some people react to such conversations as if they’ve been personally attacked. When I point out that SF/F has a problem with inclusiveness, a fair number of people seem to hear, “The Genre Police are accusing me of being racist/sexist/homophobic/bigoted/etc, and that’s not true at all! Why, I love Martin Luther King, Junior, and I’ve never attended a KKK march!”
So let’s look at a few aspects of inequality and discrimination. Things that aren’t as blatant, and often aren’t deliberate or conscious at all … which makes them much easier to ignore, if you’re not one of the people being hurt. What follows are just a handful of the studies pointing out the larger, less obvious problems we continue to struggle with.
Blind Auditions and Sexism in Symphony Orchestras – “Traditionally, women have been underrepresented in American and European orchestras. Renowned conductors have asserted that female musicians have ‘smaller techniques,’ are more temperamental and are simply unsuitable for orchestras … Using data from the audition records, researchers found that blind auditions increased the probability that a woman would advance from preliminary rounds by 50 percent. The likelihood of a woman’s ultimate selection is increased several fold.”
In other words, judges were significantly more likely to reject a candidate if they knew she was female, based on nothing but the candidate’s gender. But I’d bet you every one of those judges would insist they were only trying to choose the best musicians, and they would be highly affronted if you dared to suggest they were sexist. I trust folks can see the parallels to all-male “Best of” anthologies or male-dominated awards ballots, not to mention editors who insist “They’re only looking for the best stories!”
Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care – “…a consistent body of research demonstrates significant variation in the rates of medical procedures by race, even when insurance status, income, age, and severity of conditions are comparable. This research indicates that U.S. racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to receive even routine medical procedures and experience a lower quality of health services.”
I’m not aware of any hospitals or doctor’s offices that post “Whites only” signs, and yet we’re consistently giving poorer health care to non-white patients based on their race. But I’m sure most of those doctors and nurses would take great offense at the suggestion that they were acting in a racist way. They’d probably insist that they’re colorblind, treating all patients equally.
Gender and the Perception of Knowledge in Political Discussion – “…both men and women perceive women to be less knowledgeable about politics and men to be more knowledgeable, regardless of the actual level of knowledge each discussion partner holds.” Oh look, it’s the Fake Geek Girl thing all over again. How many of those men and women do you think would believe their perceptions were being filtered through a sexist lens?
Experience and Perception of Racial Discrimination – “When asked how much discrimination still exists against Blacks, only 10% of Whites said ‘a lot,’ while 57% of Blacks said ‘a lot’ … sixty-seven percent of Blacks described encountering discrimination and prejudice when applying for jobs, 50% reported incidents during shopping or dining out, and many stated that it was a common occurrence to hear derogatory racial comments.”
In other words, those of us who aren’t on the receiving end of discrimination have a much easier time minimizing it or pretending it’s no longer a problem.
Perception of Conversational Dominance – “…men (and to a lesser degree, women) perceive women as talking more than men when women talk only 30% of the time. This phenomenon is not limited to Spender’s academic seminar data or to CMC, but rather is a feature of mixed-sex conversation in public settings more generally.”
This phenomenon of distorted perception seems particularly relevant to complaints about non-white/non-male/non-straight/etc. characters and authors “taking over the genre.”
I’m sure someone will point out that none of these studies are directly or specifically about SF/F and fandom, and that’s obviously true. They are, however, about people — about people’s perceptions and actions and biases, many of which are unconscious. Last I checked, SF/F and fandom were made up of people. And we do this stuff too.
Just look at Malinda Lo’s research — she drew on multiple sources to research LGBT representation, and found that, “Less than 1% of YA novels have LGBT characters.” There are accounts of agents and editors asking authors to “straighten” characters. Multiple reports of sexual harassment at conventions and throughout our community. Whitewashed cover art. Racist nastiness toward cosplayers. Gender-specific threats. And so much more that I’m not going to link to, because I could be here all day, and you’re just as capable of using Google as I am.
Twenty years ago, I would have told you I was a nice guy, utterly free of bigotry or prejudice. I would have been wrong. I grew up in this culture. I absorbed a lot of messed-up ideas and assumptions. It took years for me to start to recognize those, and even longer to work on changing them. I’m still doing that work. I probably always will be. I don’t believe that makes me a supervillain. I believe it makes me human.
We’ve got to stop thinking that this is all about mustache-twirling villains in black hats. Look at those studies I linked above. The researchers didn’t collect a sample of wife-beating, gay-bashing Nazis for their studies. These weren’t evil, hateful vindictive supervillains. They were ordinary, random people, most of whom would probably be shocked to learn that they treated others in unequal ways. They were people who had grown up absorbing the discriminatory attitudes and assumptions of their culture.
Very few of these people self-identify as bigots. Very few think of themselves as racist or sexist or homophobic or discriminatory. But they’re part of the problem.
And those people who choose not to see it, because nobody’s burning crosses at conventions or actively campaigning to kick all the women out of SFWA? Who read stories of harassment and discrimination, but dismiss them as people looking for attention? Or make excuses for the perpetrators? Or refuse to believe these things happen without notarized video submitted in triplicate with at least fifty witness signatures? Or who decry the backlash against bigotry as “lynch mobs” and “witch hunts”?
They’re part of the problem too.