Racefail: not just for science fiction anymore

Roxane Gay reads this years Best American Short Stories, finds almost every story in the anthology was about rich or nearly rich white people:

What I felt most while reading BASS was a profound sense of absence. Sure there was a story about black people (written by Danielle Evans, coincidentally) and there was a story about a mechanic, to bring in that working class perspective and there was a story set in Africa, but most of the stories were uniformly about rich white people (often rich, white old men) doing rich white people things like going on safari or playing poker and learning a painful lesson or lamenting old age in Naples. Each of these stories was wonderful and I don’t regret reading them, but the demographic narrowness is troubling. It’s not right that anyone who isn’t white, straight, or a man, reading a book like this, which is fairly representative of the work being published by the “major” journals, is going to have a hard time finding experiences that might, in some way, mirror their own. It’s not right that the best writing in the country, each year, is writing about white people by white people with a few splashes of color or globalism (Africa! Japan! the hood!) for good effect. Things have certainly improved over the years but that’s not saying much.

At the same time, she also find her own succes being questioned for the usual reasons:

Anytime you achieve even a little bit of success there’s going to be someone who suggests you earned that success because you’re a person of color (or a woman, or both). Even though you might know you achieved your success because you’re awesome, because you worked hard for years, because you beat down doors until one fell down, you are stuck with the niggling doubt that they’re right. You worry that everyone thinks that way so you can never really enjoy your success, you always push yourself to do better, to do more, to be the best, to be so good they have to stop saying it’s just because you’re a person of color. It is exhausting.

All of which confirms the superiority of science fiction and fantasy fandom, as

Most of 2009, the science fiction/fantasy community was embroiled in a contentious debate about race that was so extensive and ongoing that it even got its own name and wiki: RaceFail, but hey, at least the SF/F community is talking about these issues which cannot be said for other writing communities.

Which is surely the most important point to take away from these two posts. More seriously, it’s strangely heartening to see that the problems sf and fantasy struggle with (the representation of non-white/male/straight voices and viewpoints, the problems with appopriation, systemic racism and underrepresentation of people of colour and so on) are not unique to it. It means that it’s not impossible for science fiction/fantasy to change for the better.

A new kind of comics criticism

David Brothers has just published a post on Comics&Cola, which talks about his frustrations with addressing racism and the like in comics and how there should be a place for a new sort of criticism in comics:

But the new criticism, the criticism that is largely coming from black and brown and Asian and Muslim and gay and trans and feminist circles and even more besides, doesn’t have an established place in comics yet. The culture is not used to it. The culture doesn’t know how to react to it, because it often comes from a deeply personal place and is accompanied by emotion instead of rote facts about first appearances and career milestones. The result is a constant diminishing of the concerns of the essayist and mocking of their context.

We talk about outrage culture and never stop to ask ourselves why someone saying “This hurt me, here’s why” is offensive, but a white man creating a comic where women are raped and non-whites are racially stereotyped is not. We scream “Free speech!” in the face of people who say “This is messed up.” We never examine why someone is angry before dismissing them for their anger. We demand perfection and eloquence from someone who has just been confronted with the unbridled contempt someone else has for them and everything they represent.

Much of what Brothers is talking about is of course the well known Tone argument: “I’m not going to listen to you as long as you’re shouting at me”. Another part comes from what Laurie Penney calls nerd entitlement, a toxic mix of historic victimhood and elitism that makes comics, perhaps more so than any other nerdy pursuit, hostile to everybody “not like us”, women and people of colour especially; the stereotypical nerd being portrayed as white and male even though women and people of colour have always been present.

That’s where comics particular history reinforces those already existing tendency. Because it’s been used so often as a scapegoat for all sorts of social problems like juvenile delinquency, has been the victim of official opprobium, has had retailers prosecuted for selling material “not suitable for kids” or artists put in jail for what they put on paper, any criticism based on larger societal concerns is immediately met with hostility. And it isn’t so much the fanboys that are the problem, attached though they are to certain questionable superheroine outfits.

No, rather it’s the critical press and the socalled art comix community that’s the problem. Unlike what’s been happening in related nerd fields like science fiction fandom, there’s very little attention within serious comics circles for issues of representation, diversity and the systemic effects of racism, transphobia, sexism or homophobia. Most of the serious commentary still seems to believe in art in a vacuum, without much attention for how it reflects or even encourages racism or sexism. There’s this very baby boomerish idea of the freedom of the artist to do what he wants, without much curiosity about why it is always he doing it. It’s why you get glitzy thrash like Fukitor published by Fantagraphics, something that’s supposed to be transgressive but only deals in the same tired stereotypes you could’ve found in an eighties Chuck Norris action movie.

What critical tradition (American) comics has had, has largely come around through the efforts of The Comics Journal: no other critical magazine has had its longevity and influence. Yet that influence isn’t always benign; molded after the personalities of its founders, Kim Thompson and especially Gary Groth, it’s always been macho, aggressive and sometime disdainful of concerns outside of pure art. So you get this sort of sneering too often, a defensive response without any attempt to understand what it is sneering at.

What comics needs is the equivalent of Racefail in science fiction fandom, when long simmering issues of representation and diversity came to a head and all the underlying racism & sexism boiled over. Science fiction finally had to come to terms with the idea that fans of colour weren’t rare, weren’t hidden and owned science fiction as much as anybody else. Comics still hasn’t woken up to this.

Not impressed

Teresa Nielsen Hayden is impressed by the article Michael Bérubé wrote about why he gave up his Paterno Family Professorship in Literature at Pennsylvania State University. Joe Paterno is of course the football coach at Penn State who allegedly helped cover up the paedophile activities of another coach, Jerry Sandusky; obviously holding a professorship in the Paterno name, even if it’s the family’s endowment rather than the man, should lead to some soulsearching, as Bérubé has done.

But while I think he did the right thing in giving up this endowment, his explenation is muddled and comes over as apologetic, excuse making, perhaps more than he intended, by how he writes about his doubts and second thoughts about taking this step. I think the greatest “mistake” he makes in it is in comparing how nice the Paternos were to him and his family personally with the reality of Joe Paterno, for whatever reason, covering up Sandusky’s sexual crimes. I’ve known people with criminal records myself, career criminals even, who’ve spent more time in jail than outside it, who were perfectly nice and decent folk to me, because we were friends or family; but that doesn’t mean I should close my eyes for their crimes. The Paterno family’s actions after the Sandusky crimes and coverup became know have been reprehensible, as they have tried their best to keep the truth covered up, more concerned with keeping their own good names than the victims of Sandusky’s crimes, not wanting to take responsibility for what their father and husband did. It is hard and understandable that they would respond that way, but not a laudable thing to do. They should be called on it and their behaviour should’ve been reason enough alone to resign.

Had Bérubé stuck to explaining his personal struggle to reconcile the Paterno family as he knew them personally with their behaviour once the coverup became known I would have no real problems with this article, but unfortunately he moves on to more generalised apologetics for the rest of it. It’s the usual mix of arguing that the facts might not be quite as against Paterno as the news reporting and investigations have made out to be, that there is a hypocrisy at the heart of the scandal as other colleges have also behaved badly in the name of football (but to the extent of covering up child molestation?), that Paterno has done good things as well, that this has been an excuse for the Paterno haters to stoke the fires, that Penn State in general has been unfairly treated and that it’s all media hyped hysteria. (It’s also revealed at the end of the article that Bérubé traded in one chair for another, but that’s beside the point, though it makes the moral gesture that much easier, obviously.)

It all leaves you with a bad feeling if you’re not inclined to agree with Bérubé, as these are the sort of arguments that would be rejected out of hand in other situations. As any parent knows, “but all the other kids did it” is not an excuse and should never be used to minimise crimes like these, especially when the comparison is between covering up for a child molester or making things a bit too easy for athlete students to get a good grade. I therefore don’t quite understand why Teresa thinks this article was a good argument against (internet) pileons. Will people with their own agendas use a tragedy like this to attack those who are already their enemy? Perhaps, but that doesn’t excuse the perpetrators and should not be used as an argument to lessen their crimes.

I do know that Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden both had bad experiences with internet pileons during the whole Racefail debacle, when they were insufficiently critical of certain people being caught in racist acts, caught in the same dilemma Bérubé found himself in. At the time I felt they were judged much too harshly, but I can also see the other side, as in the end for most people it is immaterial if the latest racist douche is your friend or not…

Oh fandom, please stop disappointing me.

When I first discovered it fandom seemed so exotic, yet welcoming. That was old skool fandom, written sf only, which as far as I was concerned was the only fandom. These were my people and I felt safe there. But as has become clear, should have been clear for years if not decades if I had paid attention, that safety is relative. A white bloke like me? Little problems fitting in, but as racefail has shown, as various groping incidents have shown, it may be different for women or people of colour. Fandom is slowly, haltingly grasping for improvements, getting to grips with the idea that yes, it does have to care about racism, sexism, homo and transphobia and so on.

There is a lot of resistance to this idea however, best symbolised in the following quote from the somewhat shit stirring Overheard from the Smof Mailing List Tumblr, taking anonymous quotes from a convention runners mailing list:

“What really disturbs me even more is a rather marked generational divide, again, particularly around the sexual harassment. The most horrific abuse I’ve seen, and experienced, has come from thirty-somethings, roughly. Their eagerness to see and punish harassment worries and befuddles me. I wonder if we’re beginning to see the bitter fruit of helicopter parents and/or the notion that safe spaces are possible. (This latter is a hot button topic for me. No space can be made safe. Safer perhaps, but … I just want to say that I have never felt unsafe at an sf con and am completely boggled by the whole notion.)”

Sometimes it does look like an entire generation of older, entitled, largely white middeclass male fans have to die off before we can get any real progress going, but then I remember Frederik Pohl.

Heartbreak & Heroines

Character from Heartbreak & Heroines. Art by Joanne Renaud

I should’ve done this before, as her project is more than fully founded, but Caoimhe Ora Snow/Kynn Bartlett has a Kickstarter proposal up to fund her new feminist role playing game, Heartbreak & Heroines:

Heartbreak & Heroines is a fantasy roleplaying game about adventurous women who go and have awesome adventures — saving the world, falling in love, building community, defeating evil. It’s a game about relationships and romance, about fairy tales and feminism.

You play a fantasy heroine (or hero, if you prefer) whose heart has been broken. She’s experienced some loss so great that she’s taken up her sword, her tome, her staff, or her wand and walked away from her place in society — by becoming one of its defenders, fighting back the darkness that endangers everyone.


My friend Dwayne McDuffie passed away earlier this year. He was a comic book and animation writer who loved comics — but also saw they didn’t reflect his life as an African American man. Instead of writing a lot of essays and making blog posts (although he did both at times), he and went founded Milestone Media to create the kind of comics he wanted to enjoy. By doing so, Dwayne changed the comics industry and left a legacy that won’t be forgotten by fans of Static, Icon, Justice League, Ben 10, and other comics and animation properties.

I’m no Dwayne McDuffie, but I do want to change gaming by making it more inclusive — of women, people of color, LGBT people, and basically everyone. Using Dwayne as my model, I don’t want to just talk about inclusive gaming, I want to make and play games that push the window on inclusion.

Caoimhe/Kynn is an old internet friend of mine, dating back to Usenet somewhere in the mid nineties, so I’m biased to want this project to succeed anyway, as seems to have done by having raised over $5,000 from a $3,000 target, but even on its own merits this looks worthwhile. As we’ve seen in the past few years, what with Racefail and the Russ Pledge and all that, fandom in general is in need of having our consciousness raised; what better way to do this than through projects like this, with inclusiveness awareness build in from the start, without being preachy? If you are an RPG player, why not check it out to see if you like it? Only fifteen bucks buys you a copy of the game once it’s done…