The Price of Institutional Racism
Yesterday morning, as part of my on-going mission to understand fandom and the history of its institutions, I came across an interesting article by someone named Helen McCarthy (Hopefully not that Helen McCarthy). Written in the mid-1980s for a fanzine named Conrunner, the article addresses the idea of fandom needing to become more inclusive of black and minority ethnic people and dismisses the idea in just about the most high-handed manner imaginable. Though the article stops well short of saying that people of colour are not welcome in science fiction fandom, McCarthy tries her best to derail any attempt at inclusivity by painting it as patronising, authoritarian and racist in its own right:
Fandom is a broad church; if blacks and Asians want in, they’ll come in, and like every other kind of fan they’ll make their own fandom in their own image, but if anyone decides fandom isn’t relevant to his world, what right do we have to try and absorb him? Freedom is the right to refuse and stay separate, as well as to accept and be accepted.
It is worth noting that while these words may come from another era, they are a good indicator of what was acceptable parlance in British convention-running circles in the mid-1980s. These were the attitudes of people in positions of authority in British fandom in the mid-1980s and these attitudes will have had a very real influence upon how fandom developed and how it has dealt with issues of inclusivity and diversity over the last thirty years.
Taken in 2012, this photo shows all the current, past and future chairs of Worldcon and while there are a few female faces in the crowd, there is only one person of colour. Oh… and bottom-right dude with the hat and Shades of Grey T-shirt? That would be Rene ‘Readercon Creeper’ Walling.
Why has there only been one PoC chair of Worldcon? Because all of the people in the above photo came up through fandom at a time when calls for greater inclusivity were met by concern trolling over the need to provide special food preparation areas for “Kosher Jews”. All (but one) of the people in the above photo are privileged in so far as they have all benefited from the institutional racism of science fiction fandom.
First coined by the civil rights activists Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton in their book Black Power, ‘institutional racism’ was a political slogan long before it was a useful theoretical construct. Originally used to refer to the way in which institutions staffed by prejudiced individuals tended to act in a collectively racist manner, the term institutional racism is now used to draw a distinction between the effects of individual people acting on racist beliefs and the effects of individual people enforcing policies that are in and of themselves discriminatory. For example, when the London Metropolitan police was branded institutionally racist by the inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the implication was that even if individual police officers were not themselves racist they were compelled to act in a racist and discriminatory fashion by the rules and procedures governing the Metropolitan police.
The institutions of science fiction fandom are old… old enough to have been built by people with radically different values to our own and science fiction’s lack of diversity is what you get when venerable institutions are allowed to keep running without undergoing any real process of self-examination or reconstruction; Institutional racism is what happens when a particular sub-culture is less ethnically diverse than the population that surrounds it and yet nothing is done to redress that balance. Institutional racism is what happens when people who are not racist perpetuate patterns of racial exclusion simply by virtue of doing things the way they have always been done. Institutional racism is what produces photographs like this:
Events like Racefail ’09 and the Rabid Jungle Cats fiasco are the products of a culture that has long been in denial about its own institutional failings. Science fiction fandom presents itself as a friendly and inclusive space and is so desperate to believe in its own myth of inclusivity that the myth now serves as a barrier to reform. Confronted with evidence of its insularity and lack of diversity, fandom would rather protect a myth of inclusivity than work towards making that myth a reality: Don’t feel welcome in Fandom? Well… the problem must be at your end because we’re all super-friendly and super-inclusive down here. You’re leaving? Just as well really… we don’t want unfriendly people like you hanging around!
The absolute worst thing about institutional racism is that it is going on right now. As I mentioned, the above photo was tweeted by the author Jim C. Hines and when Hines’ tweets were made known to the con-running community known as the Secret Masters of Fandom (SMOFs), they began to make their displeasure known via email. Classy as ever, Hines chose not to quote the content of those emails but to summarise and mock them in a post on his blog that ends with these wise words:
That’s what colourblindness and genderblindness look like in this context. It doesn’t mean everyone is equally welcome in our community, because they’re not. It means looking at a photograph dominated by white men, and refusing to see anything problematic in our history. It means twisting one rhetorical knot after another to try to justify why this isn’t a real problem, or if it is, it’s not our problem.
I, on the other hand, am considerably less classy and so I’m quite happy to repost some of the arguments deployed by the SMOFs on their mailing list against the charge that they might have unwittingly been the beneficiaries of institutional racism. Consider the following:
I am very tired of know-nothings with little to contribute telling all those volunteers who actually do the work all the things they are doing wrong.
When it’s the people on the outside looking in who are the ones that think we have a problem and should be working to solve the problem, I’m less likely to care than when it is our own.
What I don’t get is why it matters to some (outside people) what color the chair’s skin is, shape of his/her eyes, or whether the chair is a him or a her. The chairs of Worldcons are chosen by the organizing committee. I don’t think any weigh their votes by looking at the previous 3-4 and then saying we need to have a Female chair this year! They are going to pick the best person in their group. Likewise, I don’t believe that anyone’s site-selection vote is swayed by the gender or color of who they state their chairman is, but if anything by what they know about the _person._
Going to cons–and Worldcon moreso–is a luxury activity. The truth is that most POC don’t have the disposable income. They’re a noticeable minority at airports, on cruises, and other luxury activities.
Why has there been only one non-white Worldcon chair? Because science fiction fandom is not welcoming to non-white people, because con-running has not done enough to address its own lack of diversity, because people would rather believe that fandom is inclusive than force it to become inclusive. Why has there only been one non-white Worldcon chair? Because opinions like the ones above continue to influence and inform the development of science fiction fandom.
The true generational cost of institutional racism is the people who are not present in this photo, the people who never got a chance to chair a Worldcon because they were chased away and made to feel unwelcome before they ever got the chance to be deemed the “best person in their group”.
The institutions of fandom need to start working on their inclusivity and while this process of self-examination and reconstruction is bound to be painful and divisive, the short-term pain is invariably preferable to a long drawn out slide into racial exclusivity. Much more of this and fandom’s lack of diversity will start to draw in the people who actually do hate people of colour and if that happens then it’s game over. I don’t claim to be any kind of expert on racism or institutional change but a good start would be for fandom to acknowledge that it has a very real problem:
- Admit that while science fiction fandom has problems being welcoming to people of colour, science fiction con-running appears to be even less diverse than normal fandom.
- Admit that while you may not personally be racist, your involvement with largely unreconstructed social institutions may result in your acting in a way that perpetuates racial inequalities and problems of diversity.
- If someone behaves in a racist manner or says something racist, don’t try to protect them by claiming that they’re actually a super-nice guy. Racism isn’t nice and protecting people who do and say horrible things makes you look horrible by association.
- Don’t be defensive… listen. We are all products of particular times and particular places and the vast majority of white people have been brought up in cultures that are institutionally racist. When someone calls you out for being racist, your first reaction shouldn’t be to assert your lack of prejudice but to consider your words and your actions… is your upbringing betraying the person you truly want to be?
In terms of concrete programming advice:
- Don’t allow panels on Chinese and Indian SF to become discussions of how Chinese and Indian people can help white authors like David Brin to sell books.
- Don’t screen a racist film like Song of the South at the biggest convention in fandom, and if you do then make it abundantly clear what the context of the screening is supposed to be.
- Don’t devote panels to racist authors like H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard unless you’re willing to acknowledge their problematic nature. You don’t get to be a fan of problematic things by ignoring racism and cherry-picking what it is that you want to talk about.
- When choosing a guest of honour, remember that a person’s reputation cuts both ways and that while a big name author will bring in the fans, a big name author with a history of making homophobic, sexist or racist statements will almost certainly make you look like an apologist purely by association. In short, words have consequences and fandom needs to stop tolerating and apologising for bigots.
Interestingly, while the Song of the South fiasco has raised the spectre of racism going into a Texan Worldcon, the Worldcon itself actually has some of the most inclusive and interesting panels of any Worldcon I have seen in my ten years in fandom. All too often, convention programming seems to exist in a weird bubble that scarcely acknowledges either the existence of the Internet or the world outside the convention hall. This year’s Worldcon is in Texas and the programming reflects that by including a Spanish-language track including a load of panels on Mexican, Chicano and South American genre writing. Most places are multi-ethnic and multi-cultural and reflecting the diversity of the world outside fandom might help the world inside fandom become just that little bit more diverse. That is how you start to unravel generations of institutional racism and if these worthy and aggressively inclusive programming choices leave less time for the types of panels you enjoy… well… that’s the price you pay.