Fantasy Writer N.K. Jemisin Explains the Rise of Racism in Fandom

N.K. Jemisin was a guest of honor last week at the feminist science fiction convention Wiscon, and delivered a stirring speech about dealing with racism in genre fandom and publishing. She also told a very disturbing story about her own experiences of racism over the past year.

Jemisin is the author of the popular Inheritance Trilogy, which begins with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Her most recent series is the Dreamblood Duology.

We've excerpted part of her speech here, and you can read the whole thing on her website. She begins by explaining that racism has become a bigger issue in fandom lately, partly because people of color are becoming more powerful as creators in the publishing industry. And that means the backlash is going to be stronger. She said:

I'm going to start this off with a quote from Chip Delany, writing in the essay "Racism and Science Fiction" which was published in NYRSF in 1998. It's online, you can look it up.

"Since I began to publish in 1962, I have often been asked, by people of all colors, what my experience of racial prejudice in the science fiction field has been. Has it been nonexistent? By no means: It was definitely there. A child of the political protests of the '50s and '60s, I've frequently said to people who asked that question: As long as there are only one, two, or a handful of us, however, I presume in a field such as science fiction, where many of its writers come out of the liberal-Jewish tradition, prejudice will most likely remain a slight force—until, say, black writers start to number thirteen, fifteen, twenty percent of the total. At that point, where the competition might be perceived as having some economic heft, chances are we will have as much racism and prejudice here as in any other field.

We are still a long way away from such statistics.

But we are certainly moving closer."

I'm tempted to just stop there, drop the mic, and walk offstage, point made. Chip's a hard act to follow.

But it has been almost twenty years since his prophetic announcement, and in that time all of society — not just the microcosm of SFF — has racheted toward that critical, threatening mass in which people who are not white and not male achieve positions of note. And indeed we have seen science fiction and fantasy authors and editors and film directors and game developers become much, much more explicit and hostile in their bigotry. We've seen that bigotry directed not just toward black authors but authors of all races other than white; not just along the racial continuum but the axes of gender, sexual orientation, nationality, class, and so on. We've seen it aimed by publishers and book buyers and reviewers and con organizers toward readers, in the form of every whitewashed book cover, every "those people don't matter" statement, and every all-white, mostly-male BookCon presenters' slate. Like Chip said, this stuff has always been here. It's just more intense, and more violent, now that the bigots feel threatened.

And it is still here. I've come to realize just how premature I was in calling for a reconciliation in the [science fiction and fantasy] genres last year, when I gave my Guest of Honor speech at the 9th Continuum convention in Australia.

For those of you who don't stay on top of the latest news in the genre, let me recap what happened after that speech: I was textually assaulted by a bigot who decided to call me a "half-savage" among other things. (Whoops, sorry; he calls himself an "anti-equalitarian", because why use a twelve-cent word when you can come up with a $2 word for the same thing? Anyway.) He did this via the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's [SFWA] official Twitter feed, which meant that he was using the organization as the tool for a personalized, racist, sexist attack; because of this he was later expelled from the organization. He was just the inciting incident, though; the really interesting thing is what surrounded this whole affair. I got the expected rape and death threats from this man's supporters and others, which I duly reported to various authorities, for whatever good that did. During the month or so that it took SFWA to figure out what it wanted to do with this guy, a SFWA officer sat on the formal complaint I'd submitted because she thought I had "sent it in anger" and that I might not be aware of the consequences of sending something like that to the Board. A SFWA affiliate member posted a call for civility on his website; in the process he called me "an Omarosa" and a "drama queen", but of course he didn't mean those in a racialized or gendered way. In a semi-secret unofficial SFWA forum there was intense debate — involving former SFWA presidents and officers, and people who weren't members at all — about why it was desperately important that SFWA retain its harassers and assaulters, no matter how many members they drove off, because their ability to say whatever they wanted was more important than everyone's ability to function in genre workspaces, and SFWA's ability to exist as a professional association.

Let me be clear: all of these were racist and sexist attacks, not just one on the SFWA Twitter feed. And let me emphasize that I am by no means the only woman or person of color who's been targeted by threats, slurs, and the intentional effort to create a hostile environment in our most public spaces. People notice what happens to me because for better or worse I've achieved a high-enough profile to make the attacks more visible. But I suspect every person in this room who isn't a straight white male has been on the receiving end of something like this — aggressions micro and macro. Concerted campaigns of "you don't belong here".

This is why I say I was premature in calling for a reconciliation. Reconciliations are for after the violence has ended. In South Africa the Truth & Reconciliation Commission came after apartheid's end; in Rwanda it started after the genocide stopped; in Australia reconciliation began after its indigenous people stopped being classified as "fauna" by its government. Reconciliation is a part of the healing process, but how can there be healing when the wounds are still being inflicted? How can we begin to talk about healing when all the perpetrators have to do is toss out dogwhistles and disclaimers of evil intent to pretend they've done no harm?

(Incidentally: Mr. Various Diseases, Mr. Civility, and Misters and Misses Free Speech At All Costs, if you represent the civilization to which I'm supposed to aspire then I am all savage, and damned proud of it. You may collectively kiss my black ass.)

Maybe you think I'm using hyperbole here, when I describe the bigotry of the SFF genres as "violence". Maybe I am using hyperbole — but I don't know what else to call it. SFF are dedicated to the exploration of the future and myth and history. Dreams, if you want to frame it that way. Yet the enforced SWM dominance of these genres means that the dreams of whole groups of people have been obliterated from the Zeitgeist. And it's not as if those dreams don't exist. They're out there, in spades; everyone who dreams is capable of participating in these genres. But many have been forcibly barred from entry, tormented and reeducated until they serve the status quo.

Read the whole speech on Jemisin's site

Photo by Ellen Datlow