Skip to content

The Price of Institutional Racism

August 28, 2013

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.

In short, attitudes such as those of Helen McCarthy paved the way not only for Racefail ’09 but also a photo that was recently tweeted by the author Jim C. Hines:


(the original is here)

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.

  1. August 28, 2013 10:56 am

    Yes, it is the same Helen McCarthy.

    To say that conrunners are people ‘of authority in fandom’ has a very strange sound to me. The fandom I came into and knew did not give authority to conrunners, they were nothing special. I ran conventions, so did most of the people I knew in fandom, but we didn’t call ourselves ‘conrunners’, because that would privilege a small and not that important part of our engagement with fandom. In fact, the fandom I knew had only contempt for any group calling themselves Secret Masters of Fandom. They were secret because nobody paid any attention to them. That attitude started to change in the late-80s and 90s, and to be honest it’s one of the things that made me give up on fandom. When the mechanics and organisation of a convention took precedence over what was on the programme, over the experience of the convention for the actual ordinary con-goer, then to my mind the convention side of fandom has lost all relevance.

    And the attitude expressed by Helen McCarthy in that quotation is not one that was common. As long ago as the mid-70s I remember conversations about why there weren’t more people of colour in fandom and what we could do to bring them in. There were a couple active in UK fandom, who were popular and well-liked, but we were all conscious that there should have been more. It was an issue, it was on people’s minds, and the most common view was exactly the opposite of that stated by McCarthy.


  2. August 28, 2013 11:27 am

    I am glad to hear that.

    I’ve not encountered that much discussion of race in my trawls through old fanzines aside from much more recent references to an issue of Vector that tried to discuss political correctness but I’m not sure on the context other than it causing some sort of hideous convulsion in fandom’s body politic.

    I believed that McCarthy’s views were common because I remember those kinds of views being common while I was growing up. Stewart Lee once mentioned 1970s Tories campaigning under the catchy slogan ‘If you want a N***er for a Neighbour, Vote Labour’ and that certainly fits with what I remember being acceptable speech prior to the 1990s.

    I just hope that McCarthy has re-considered her views, what with her being one of the most widely esteemed experts on manga and anime.


  3. August 28, 2013 1:41 pm

    The point of The New Criticism championed by John Crowe Ransom and others is that the text is the primary source. Scholars may wish to delve into an author’s biographical information, but that’s a side issue. In the case of HP Lovecraft, his views on race are immaterial to an assessment of his work. And Lovecraft and Howard are not known for being racists. Both were products of their time and culture. There aren’t many PsOC in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, either.

    The creation and appreciation of art does not, I would argue, require any particular conformity on the part of the creators and assessors. SciFi doesn’t appeal to a broadly diverse audience in the same way Harlequin bodice-rippers don’t.


  4. August 28, 2013 2:17 pm

    Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote at least one novel about how with Europeans not holding them back the people of Africa and Asia would build their own equally great civilisations. It wasn’t a novel free of issues, but it’s heart was plainly in the right place.

    Leaving that aside, racism is absolutely integral to HPL. I love HPL and his work, but you can’t set the racism to one side. It’s the root of much of his horror. The Horror at Red Hook. Arthur Jermyn. The Shadow over Innsmouth. The Street, which is probably a more egregious example than any of those. I could easily go on. Race fear is central to HPL’s horror. Absolutely central.

    Howard is sometimes racist in his work but I’d query whether it’s central to his work (in fact, I don’t think it is). Lovecraft though, it’s absolutely not a side issue. It’s central to the works themselves. I agree with the idea that the text is the primary source, but you don’t need any knowledge of HPL’s life at all (and in fact I don’t have that much) to see the racism that runs through it.


  5. August 28, 2013 2:22 pm

    McCarthy’s view is a fairly standard free market conservative view of the world. I don’t agree with it, but their perspective tends to be that freedom in its various forms is a greater good than say inclusivity. It’s a coherent political philosophy, and one that a good 40% of the country or so (maybe many more) broadly agree with.

    I doubt her argument would be phrased in the same terms today, but I’d guess the underlying philosophy remains one that would find a great many supporters. It’s the basic Tory view of the world after all, and the world has many Tories (literally, and figuratively).


  6. August 28, 2013 2:48 pm

    As Max says, I don’t think it’s possible to disentangle the writings of HPL from the views of HPL. Not only are his writings filled with grotesquely racist depictions of non-white people, the writings themselves can frequently be read as directly addressing the question of race. For example, Shadow over Innsmouth is quite nakedly about the horrors of miscegenation and the idea that sleepy New England towns might be inhabited by people who ‘Look’ foreign and have strange religious practices.

    In fact, I think that racism is what makes HPL an interesting writer. Just as Dante captured what it was like to be Medieval and T.S. Eliot captured that first ghastly rush of modernism, Lovecraft captures what it felt like to be a racist and aristocratic WASP at a time when African American culture was beginning to assert its own identity.


  7. August 28, 2013 3:29 pm

    For me HPL explores two quite different sources of horror in his fiction, sometimes in the same story. One is the much discussed cosmic horror. The other is race horror, the fear of miscegenation. It gets discussed less, but is just as central as the cosmic stuff.

    In both Lovecraft captures the fear of the unknown, the strange, the utterly other. Unfortunately he included among the utterly other Eastern European immigrants (to take just one example).


  8. August 28, 2013 4:19 pm

    A lot has happened in literary criticism since the New Criticism.


  9. August 28, 2013 5:37 pm

    Couldn’t disagree more that HPL’s “views on race are immaterial to an assessment of his work”. I recently read ‘The Colour Out of Space’, and it’d be a very, very forgiving reading (if not willfully blind) that didn’t claim race horror (as Max puts it), and fear of the other aren’t the significant subtextual *and* surface-level drivers behind that story. The entire thing is basically hysterical white people running around screaming that an evil colour is invading their land and coming to get them.

    Of course HPL is an interesting writer, worthy of study; and I’d like to think that most criticism is mature and complex enough to recognise his achievements without simultaneously ignoring his racism. Perfectly possible to enjoy some aspects of a text while decrying others, surely?


  10. August 29, 2013 12:02 am

    Wow, I’m astounded that an article that basically calls out the fandom community for being too white and too insular could be so roundly denied by you responders. For g*damn shame. See, this is how you get the label of racist, when you’re simply self-satisfied and clueless. Get it? Self-satisfied and insular eventually equates to racist. I’ve been a huge sci-fi and fantasy nerd my entire life…I got it from my mom and uncle and great-uncle. But just like most aspects of conformist America, I just had to suck it up and glean what enjoyment I could (I’m black and pushing 40). But you get sick of that. Twenty-odd years ago, I remember telling my at-the-time beloved writing professor in college, a published sci-fi author, how turned off I had become from mainstream sci-fi, because it rarely reflected my views. His silence still rings. Yey for guys like Neal Stephenson, who made a black asian man his Protagonist. Even PKD, by noting race (at times, weirdly), sort of addressed the issue. You folks need to wake up. We know you and your little SF/fantasy playground as well and maybe even better than you do. We may even know your country better than you do (it’s our playground and our country, too, and who makes a better outsider?) And oh yeah, we happen to be the future you claim to love and seek so diligently. Racism is a tried and true SF/fantasy phenomenon; from HPL and Howard to Tolkein, Heinlein, McCaffrey, on through Scalzi. Period. Accept that and work against it. Even David Brin wrote about f*cking anthropomorphic animals but never non-whites. Guess what? We noticed. White authors damn themselves by excluding non-white characters (i.e., non-white readers) and denying the problem exists does nothing to solve it.


  11. August 29, 2013 1:09 am

    “All (but one) of the people in the above photo are privileged”

    Given that the one non-white person in that picture comes from the dominant ethnic group in the country where Worldcon was held the year he was the chair, I don’t think the parenthetical exception is necessary.

    I think that some of the negative responses to discussion of institutional racism come from conrunners who feel that they have been working hard and trying to run the best conventions they can, and take the criticism as “You horrible bigot, nothing you do is worthy because you personally are driving non-white fans away.” And the knee-jerk reaction is: “I’ve done no such thing! I’m not a racist! I know fandom is really white, but what do you want me to DO about it??”

    “Don’t do stuff that looks overtly racist” is a start, but I feel that, to really engage the conrunners, what’s needed is more about positive actions that can encourage people of color into fandom.

    In that spirit, suppose you’re addressing an audience of people deeply involved in running conventions– Worldcon specifically, or sf cons in general, whichever you like. What are your suggestions for better handling the specific situations you mention above?

    If you were constructing the program, how would you handle the Chinese and Indian sf panel differently? Would you not have any white authors on the panel, and run the risk that your volunteer pool doesn’t have enough people of color with an interest in speaking on the topic to populate the panel? Would you just write the panel description differently? If so, could you provide your preferred phrasing?

    If the LoneStarCon program had started out with a description capturing the intentions behind showing Song of the South better, would that be sufficient? If there are other aspects of the screening that are problematic, is there a way to do it right, or should it just be avoided altogether?

    What would constitute appropriately addressing the problematic nature of authors such as H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard?

    And sure, the Spanish-language programming is great, but it’s there because that particular Worldcon is being held where it can draw a large Hispanic population. Next year it’s going to be in London, where there will almost certainly be fewer people available to talk about Latin American literature. With that in mind, what do you suggest that could be done, rather than just not done, on an ongoing basis, no matter where Worldcon is held, to encourage people outside the traditional Worldcon population?


  12. Smofslist permalink
    August 29, 2013 1:38 am

    “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.”


  13. Smofslist permalink
    August 29, 2013 1:39 am

    “The reason why SF fandom is of little interest to persons of colour seems to be that SF is of little interest to persons of colour. There was a suggestion recently that SF should be made a compulsory study subject in schools. That looks like a solution. If you can’t persuade them to come in how about dragging them in kicking and screaming.”


  14. Smofslist permalink
    August 29, 2013 1:40 am

    “The fact is that there are very few PoC writers, and fewer readers, of SF/Fantasy, and our conventions just reflect society as a whole.”


  15. Smofslist permalink
    August 29, 2013 1:44 am

    “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.”


  16. Smofslist permalink
    August 29, 2013 1:44 am

    “I’d rather see the best person available for the job, as chair of a convention, and not what their color or gender is.”


  17. Mark Richards permalink
    August 29, 2013 5:02 am

    I am a member of the mailing list (smofs) you’ve cited above, but an infrequent poster, and I haven’t posted in the the threads you’ve discussed.

    First, some quibbles:

    I do have to ask — what was the purpose in posting that photo of past Worldcon chairs not once, but 3 times?

    And having been in fandom ten years, you do realize that the term “Secret Masters of Fandom” was always meant to be sarcastic and self-deprecating, right?

    (Hardly secret, masters of very little … OTOH, the term is admittedly a frequent albatross around our necks when dealing with people who don’t get that it’s tongue-in-cheek … a perennial problem.)

    The replies from the person posting excerpts from the smofs list as “Smofslist” — excerpts which are out of context**, I might add — may be illustrate your points nicely, but in an intellectually dishonest way.

    They fail utterly in conveying the fact that a wide-ranging discussion on this topic is taking place; a discussion, by the way, in which many of the participants admit that there is a problem, including some of those whose quotes are being rudely yanked from the context of the original posts.

    **(and I also have to wonder whether the person posting as “Smofslist” asked the original posters on smofs for permission to quote them … between the anonymity and their being out of context, I assume the answer is NO.)

    What are some of the solutions?

    I, for one, don’t pretend to know them with anything approaching authority. I can only do my own humble best.

    One problem I see is that many of the young people who grow up in non-white communities may simply never hear about us. Bradley, posting above … my first wife … her cousin (a long time fan) … they are among the rare few who did.

    It gets somewhat better when you go to the ranks of professionals in our field, where you encounter Chip Delany, Octavia Butler, Steven Barnes, Saladin Ahmed, Taylor Blanchard, N.K. Jemisin … among others.

    (Of course, they’re also too busy making their livings in this field to have more than a peripheral concern with fandom and its issues.)

    I’m reminded of the titular character in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He’s a somewhat socially maladjusted, unapologetic nerd, steeped in comics, fantasy novels, and RPGs, out of step with his own (Hispanic, Dominican) culture.

    And he never finds us … why?

    How do we reach out to these people, out of our “safe”, white comfort zone? At the risk of being overly optimistic, answer that, and maybe the rest will follow: people filter in … some of them decide one of the fannish activities they like is helping to run our conventions … and perhaps, a few years from now, an update on that photo will look a little less pale.


  18. August 29, 2013 6:55 am

    Well said Bradley :-)

    What really gets me is the fact that while SF Fandom continually talks about being a friendly and welcoming space, it is noticeably less diverse than the society that surrounds it. How can fandom be inclusive if it fails to keep up with a wider society that most people know to be profoundly racist? The penny should have dropped when Worldcons started looking like golf clubs and Country and Western concerts.


  19. August 29, 2013 7:49 am

    Hi Petrea,

    If that is indeed the con-runners’ response then I think they need to grow the fuck up because every time something like this happens and the SMOFs respond with defensiveness, it makes them look worse. They look worse because defensiveness is all about protecting their feelings rather than protecting their cultural spaces from racism and sexual harassment. If they feel under siege it’s because the wider community is trying to tell them something and they’re not listening.

    In terms of positive actions, I think that stuff like LSC3’s Spanish-language track is a really excellent idea and I’d love to see that type of stuff become standard across all Worldcons. It would be nice if next year’s London Worldcon had some programming about a) British colonialism in genre and b) the diverse ethnic history of East London and the docklands area near where the convention is taking place. Every country is multi-ethnic and multi-cultural and convention programming would be a great way to reach out to the wider community. Given how often programming falls back on tried-and-tested panel ideas, I see this type of thing as a real win-win situation.

    As for how you keep panels from sending out the wrong message, make it obvious in the description what the panel is going to be about. With regards to the Indian and Chinese SF panel, make it clear in the description that the panel will be about Indian and Chinese authors and the issues facing them and their industry. This might not keep the likes of David Brin from hijacking proceedings but it would at least make it obvious when they do. If you turn up to see a panel that is supposed to be about Chinese and Indian people writing SF and David Brin uses the panel to force Chinese and Indian people to become his unpaid street team then everyone will walk away from the panel knowing that David Brin is a wannabe colonial overlord. I trust writers to be mindful of their reputations. Same goes for panels about people like Lovecraft… don’t have a Cthulhu Panel have a ‘Fans of Problematic Things: Lovecraft’ panel.

    Evidently, the Song of the South screening was supposed to be framed by a discussion of its problematic aspects but the online programme in no way made this clear. Had the programme been more clearly written then that panel could have been sold as ‘Southern Worldcon addresses American’s racist past’ rather than ‘Southern Worldcon screens notoriously racist film’.

    I think part of the problem is the way that programming only ever gets sorted out at the last minute. It’s all very well having inclusive programming but if nobody hears about the existence of the programming until a week or two before the convention then chances are that you won’t bring in any new people. One of the (many) reasons I don’t really go to conventions is that while I’ll hear about a convention in plenty of time to get myself sorted, I won’t have the information that would allow me to decide on whether or not I wanted to go. As I said, I think this is the best Worldcon programme I’ve seen since I’ve been paying attention to such things but until the programme dropped a few days ago LSC3 was a Texan Worldcon with some guests of honour I had no interest in. Last minute programming assumes that people are going to Worldcon anyway and that goes a long way to accounting for why SF Fandom is struggling to bring in new (and more diverse) blood.


  20. August 29, 2013 8:14 am

    Mark —

    I think that picture really does say a lot about the state of SF Fandom. A picture may speak a thousand words but the same picture three times speaks three thousand! :-)

    Hmm… I think that the jokeyness of the SMOF title varies from situation to situation. When the SMOFs are in the right then the title reflects the fact that without them we wouldn’t have any conventions at all. When the SMOFs are in the wrong, it’s just a joke and why is everyone taking it so seriously? Personally, I take the conspiratorial overtones to be a joke overlying the very serious fact that these people are community organisers and being community organisers puts them in something approaching a leadership position when it comes to addressing community problems such as racism and sexual harassment.

    The SMOFslist person isn’t me but as a subscriber to the list, I don’t see much evidence of a wide-ranging discussion of issues surrounding race. I see a few people defending Jim Hines being drowned out by wave upon wave of (often offensive and pig-headed) defensiveness.

    I think the issue of people not hearing about fandom is actually two problems:

    Firstly, there’s the problem of young people hearing about and getting involved with fandom. I read genre stuff and played genre games for years before I ever heard of fandom’s existence and even then, the only reason I heard about it is because people in fandom started linking to my old blog. That is one problem and it’s linked to the greying of fandom.

    Secondly, there’s the problem of non-white people hearing about fandom and yet deciding not to get involved.

    The first problem is a huge problem and is one that I’ve written about quite a bit on this blog. The second problem is where institutional racism comes into play. I suspect a lot of non-white people with an interest in genre do hear about fandom but choose not to get involved because they suspect that they will not be welcome there. I’ve often felt out of place at conventions because I didn’t really know anyone and everyone seemed a lot older than me but at least I looked vaguely like the other people at the convention. I can totally understand why a non-white person would step into a convention, see no other non-white people and never come back… particularly when programme items like Song of the South, H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard make it look like SF Fandom is totally relaxed about massively racist books and films.

    That photo of the Worldcon chairs is telling as while fandom in general has problems with diversity, con-running is its own fannish niche. Even if a non-white person did find themselves a place in fandom they would still look at the SMOFs, see the lack of non-white faces, read their complete lack of sensitivity and decide not to get involved in that aspect of fandom.

    Whenever SMOFs are criticised for this type of stuff they invariably go ‘well if people don’t volunteer, there’s nothing we can do!’ That policy has resulted in that photo. Maybe it’s time for a new approach. Maybe it’s time to come to terms with the fact that fandom is not nearly as friendly and approachable as it would like to think it is.


  21. August 29, 2013 8:51 am

    I agree – the problem is the lack of inclusivity. There is indeed the myth of sf being a welcoming space, but it is often implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, hostile to newcomers (any newcomers, regardless of race or gender). People are called out for not being the right sort of fans, for having become interested in sf through films and television, rather than through reading. For all of its commitment to exciting new ideas in terms of technology, sf fandom is in some respects far more socially conservative than many arenas I’ve been part of. Add to that a stubborn defence of the idea of fandom as a place free from politics (as if that itself were not a political action) and as a ‘safe space’ (which far too often is taken as ‘a safe space for me to act like an arse without consequences’), The result is that the overall influx of new people into book convention fandom (which is what Eastercon and Worldcon are, with occasional concessions to other media, concessions loudly resented in some corners) is pretty low. Fandom’s institutional racism and sexism are products of its general insularity. Which makes these issues very hard to fix.

    But it doesn’t have to be like this. NineWorlds managed to be inclusive, and was full of the young and the female. It was less good on PoC, but still better than any Eastercon I’ve attended. Now, that could be a model for established book fandom, but I’m not sure that change is truly possible. The future, it seems to me, probably lies in the establishment of new fannish spaces that are more inclusive, and the progressive attenuation of those that are not.


  22. August 29, 2013 8:58 am

    Just to be clear Bradley, I didn’t deny the article in the slightest. Also, neither did Tomcat. I mention this because you refer to the piece being “so roundly denied”, which is very self-righteous but not actually quite right. There’s been a range of views in the comments here.

    Also, I can live with the implication that I (along with other responders before you) am some kind of closet racist, even though my comment was mostly arguing that HPL’s racism is inseparable from his work, but I really can’t accept the implication that I’m part of fandom. That really is offensive.


  23. August 29, 2013 9:03 am

    Hi Tony :-)

    I think that NineWorlds is something of a WaterShed moment in the history of British fandom.

    For ages, whenever trad fandom was criticised for its lack of diversity, it’s lack of inclusivity and its general weirdness, the response was that young people should not just get off the older fen’s lawn… they should grow their own lawn. And that’s precisely what happened with NineWorlds: An aggressively inclusive and ambitious convention that effectively routed around the damaged circuitry of traditional fandom.

    In some ways, I’m sad that it has come to this but reading various fan histories… it’s not the first time it has happened. I was reading about the creation of the BSFA not that long ago and the description of the scene at the time is remarkably similar to the state of traditional fandom today; insular, cliquish, increasingly disconnected from the literature and largely unwelcoming to newcomers.

    What makes me sad is that a lot of the institutions that are currently under pressure have incredibly rich histories stretching back generations. I would hate to think that people might be forced to choose between an inclusive fandom and a historically rich fandom.


  24. August 29, 2013 9:05 am

    Mark, taking one of your author examples, here is N.K. Jemisin in her own words: “Still, for me Worldcon has always been fraught with tension. Some of my worst experiences w/ bigotry in SFF have occurred at Worldcons.” This is a tweet she linked to here:

    That comment was dismissed as not really being racism. It was just bad people are everywhere.

    So it’s not that POC/non-white writers don’t speak out about the issues. They do, but people are quick to argue it wasn’t really racism and the community wasn’t actually unwelcoming to them. They don’t really know their own minds or understand their own experiences. And when the discussion comes up again, people will act like that discussion never happened. It’s always the first time people have heard there were problems.

    The problem is not that POC/non-white people haven’t heard of conventions. It’s that when they hear about them, they hear about the bigotry and see the responses from the people running them saying they aren’t going to do anything about it. Sort that out and the people will come.


  25. August 29, 2013 9:12 am

    Anyway, it does seem absolutely strikingly obvious that fandom is a profoundly conservative institution, deeply insular and hostile to any form of inclusivity.

    There are exceptions, Bradley mentions for example Neal Stephenson and of course there’s Le Guin and the marvellous Octavia Butler, Iain MacDonald and David Mitchell, Samuel Delany, but they really are few and far between and I suspect we could collectively list all of them without too much effort. Besides, wherever there’s prejudice there are always exceptions, and the risk in talking about them is that you can seem like you’re saying “see, there’s all these guys, there isn’t a problem” when in fact you should be saying “hey, there’s only these guys, this is a huge problem”.

    Fandom is inclusive in a very narrow way. It’s inclusive of white high school freaks and geeks, but deeply hostile to anyone else. For me the best answer isn’t to make fandom more inclusive, it’s to nuke fandom from orbit. Fandom holds back the genre. The conservatism of the fans leads to trite books with nothing to say. Given though that fandom won’t go away, sadly, that best option isn’t available and so addressing its blatant prejudice becomes essential.

    There’s a myth that just because you’re part of a group that’s been discriminated against, geeks say, you’ll be sympathetic to other discriminated groups. It should be true, but it isn’t. You can be discriminated against yourself, and yet be racist, yet be sexist, yet be homophobic or transphobic (is that the right word?) or anti-semitic or many other things. In fact often you can be worse than most at those things, because hey, you’re the victim aren’t you? How can you be the bad guy?

    First thing we do, kill all the fans.


  26. Cain Doggett permalink
    August 29, 2013 10:09 am

    “Whenever SMOFs are criticised for this type of stuff they invariably go ‘well if people don’t volunteer, there’s nothing we can do!’ That policy has resulted in that photo. Maybe it’s time for a new approach.”

    As you know, convention runners in fandom are not paid. Your bold proposal that qualified people of color be rounded up and forced to work in convention running without pay whether or not they wish to volunteer has no bad historical precedents and can only end really well.


  27. Mark Richards permalink
    August 29, 2013 11:16 am

    Jonathan –

    I see your point about the picture, even if I think it was starting to smell of dead horse …

    And yes, the SMOF label is a double-edged tool, not everyone gets the jokey aspect. As somebody who has spent a good chunk of my life in the subculture, sometimes that amuses me, sometimes that annoys me. Nor do I pretend to the label of SMOF; I worked on conventions years ago, was away from them for a few years, and now occasionally work on them now.

    BTW, I knew “Smofslist” wasn’t you. You both excerpted the list, but only Smofslist is trollishly hiding behind a pseudonym. You’re right, however; on going back over the posts, there is indeed an awful lot of defensiveness, an infuriating amount of flippancy, and a lot of “well, okay, but what do you expect me to do about it?”

    I think there are a few people, however, who are admitting that there is a problem, but don’t know what they can do about it.

    Fandom probably is not as friendly and approachable as it likes to think it is. It is, in many ways, hidebound and conservative. It also has a rich history and folklore that I think a lot of new people might enjoy if they were introduced to it. Because it’s also one of the places I like to think of as home I’d love to try to make it more welcoming.


  28. August 29, 2013 12:32 pm

    Cain — I find it very sad and worrying that you can’t think of any way to make people of colour feel welcome other than by rounding them up and forcing them to work. Fandom really does have a problem with inclusivity, it has done for generations. Getting defensive and pearl-clutching really only makes matters worse.


  29. August 29, 2013 12:46 pm

    Mark —

    I think more care and attention in programming really would help things. Texas recognising the state’s relationship to Mexico and Latino culture is a really great idea. Bit more of that and bit less talk about ‘half-savages’ and ‘rabid jungle cats’ could make a very real difference.

    I hear you when you talk about fandom being home because I can totally understand the FIAWOL ethos. I can totally understand why people have devoted the bulk of their lives to institutions that were around before they were born and which continued to exist after they went. I can totally see it and what makes me sad (and quite angry) is that many of the people who would find themselves in fandom are being denied that chance by conservatism, insularity, defensiveness and rank insensitivity.

    I have enough self-awareness to realise that fandom isn’t a good fit for me but I see real value in all of these creaking institutions and I don’t want them to go away.


  30. donnerscott permalink
    August 31, 2013 7:23 am

    Hi there. Interesting read. Lack of inclusivity is something I hope I can help address from where I am.

    One thing I think can help is exposure to new voices in sf, but we need to enable access. Looking for clues how…

    I get a few enquiries from published authors looking for publishers who might be interested in taking on works in translation, and could do with help right now for an author from Turkey with a lot of foreign translation success to his name in other countries. If anyone can help me with that I am all ears.

    (Sorry to be so brief… typing from my phone and I need to leave the house in ten minutes too.)


  31. September 16, 2013 3:11 pm

    “As you know, convention runners in fandom are not paid.”

    And so we re-enforce the idea that only privileged well off people should be directing fandom conventions.

    Volunteers are great, but I think the idea that fan run conventions can only be manned by volunteers is… a bad idea. It ensures that systemic problems of privilege will be handled only by people who have those privileges. Why *can’t* a worldcon interview for a handful of paid posts, with a positive discrimination policy?


  32. kastandlee permalink
    September 16, 2013 7:13 pm

    Jay Blanc: One word: Money.

    Worldcons already cost more to put on than similarly-sized genre events. (Major reasons: lack of year-to-year continuity; each Worldcon is really a 5000-person one-shot start-up convention.)

    To pay even one person a reasonable salary would add a significant amount to the cost of the convention; a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests we’re talking about at least a 10% increase for a full-time Executive Director*. And if we paid one person, there’s a fair expectation that a lot of the people who are currently devoting thousands of hours of volunteer time to the event would be less likely to do so. (“Why should I when so-and-so is drawing a salary? Let her do it.”) Would people already screaming at paying $250 for a membership be any happier paying $275 so that one person could spend full-time managing the event?

    I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m saying there are significant challenges to doing so, some of which amount to saying, “We must kill the patient to save it.” If your solution involves making WSFS a full-time, permanent body with a board of directors that picks and chooses Worldcon sites, committees, and employees, or permanently anchors “Worldcon” in a Large American City to get economies of scale, you risk destroying much of what those people already invested in Worldcon (and there are a lot of them) find attractive about them.

    *Note: I once was the paid executive director of a non-profit 501(c)(6) business association not related to SF/F fandom, so I’m perfectly aware that non-profit groups can have paid employees. I did not get rich doing so, and I make a lot more now in a for-profit industry as a computer programmer than I ever did running a non-profit.


  33. jayrblanc permalink
    September 16, 2013 11:01 pm

    But when “those people already invested in Worldcon” is a shrinking number, and Worldcon becomes solely about keeping “those people already invested in Worldcon” happy… Then Worldcon dies. Maybe not this year, maybe not this decade, but eventually Worldcon dies.


  34. kastandlee permalink
    September 16, 2013 11:05 pm


    1: The “Worldcon is dying” discussion is older than I am, and I was born in 1965.

    2: Worldcon is owned by its members. Really! The membership of the World Science Fiction Society is everyone who joins the current Worldcon, and WSFS owns Worldcon. Who should make decisions about how it Worldcon managed? The people who own it, or someone else?


  35. jayrblanc permalink
    September 16, 2013 11:07 pm

    Also, “And if we paid one person, there’s a fair expectation that a lot of the people who are currently devoting thousands of hours of volunteer time to the event would be less likely to do so” is a falsifiable proposition that can be tested… And Already Has by conventions that are fan run with some paid positions, such as Anime Expo.


  36. kastandlee permalink
    September 16, 2013 11:24 pm

    jayrblanc: I’m aware that there are “fan-run” events with paid staff and volunteers. But are any of them about the size of Worldcon? Do any of them essentially restart themselves from scratch every year in a different place with a completely different set of volunteers? Do any of them have their basic governing document managed by the members themselves?

    The answer is no, I think. All of the examples you will cite are single-location events run by an ongoing group, with the control of the ongoing group vested in a relatively small group. The general membership of AnimeExpo does not, I think, have the right to modify the parent organization’s bylaws or elect its officers or decide where future AX events are held, do they?


  37. jayrblanc permalink
    September 17, 2013 12:13 am

    Anime Expo is over-seen by the SPJA, a registered non-profit, with a board that are elected from a ballot of members. The SPJA conduct their yearly public board meeting, and take questions and motions from the floor. The SPJA cover more than one convention, and also run the Anime fandom’s version of SMOF Con. The SPJA Board select and appoint a paid CEO who runs the year to year business of keeping the financial and operational concerns afloat.

    Chicon 7’s attendance was 4,743.
    Anime Expo’s 2012 attendance was 49,400.

    Worldcon and the WSFS are ‘big fish’ in a shrinking pond of their own making.


  38. kastandlee permalink
    September 17, 2013 12:19 am

    Yes. And suggesting that the 4700 or so members of WSFS should give up everything they want so they can be Very Big is telling them, “You 4700 people don’t matter. Give up everything you’ve been working for, go away, and give your convention to me so I can turn it into something else because I say so.”

    Let me try calling out what I think it your unstated assumption: Size Is All That Matters. There is no other possible way of measuring the success of your event other than by the number of people who attend it. Is that a correct assumption?


  39. kastandlee permalink
    September 17, 2013 12:51 am

    Thinking about it a bit more, your comparison to the mega-cons is misleading: What other convention primarily but not exclusively devoted to the celebration of written science fiction and fantasy is as large as the World Science Fiction Convention? (There might be a few. Boskone used to be at time bigger than Worldcon before it imploded, for instance.)

    All of the other super-sized events have different focuses: AX is an anime convention. ComicCon is comics, movies, and other pop-culture entertainment. DragonCon similarly. None of these events has as its primary focus the written word. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t stuff about written SF at those events, just as you’ll find anime, movie, TV, etc. programming at Worldcon; it’s just that each of these events has a different emphasis. Saying that Worldcon should abandon what it does to Get Big is like saying that the San Francisco Giants baseball team should start playing football because more people watch football games.


  40. September 17, 2013 5:24 am

    What we are talking about is taking an aging institution with an aging population and making it accessible to a new generation of fans. I think the focus on size is simply a product of looking at the other conventions out there and realising that open conventions are big conventions and small conventions are those which, either through desire (Readercon, Corflu) or accident (Worldcon, Eastercon) have shut themselves away from the wellspring of contemporary fandom.

    What I find very sad is that any mention of change — and not just in this discussion but in past discussions on this blog — is immediately countered with talk about the existing membership losing everything they value. Really? Really? Unless the current membership value being small and old, I really find it difficult to believe that what you are saying is a real concern.

    As a side-bar, I’ve noticed that this is quite a common rhetorical tactic in Smoffish circles: If you don’t like the idea of something, you work out the most disastrous possible iteration of that thing and then talk about it as though it’s inevitable.

    Welcome blog nominations in the fanzine category? That category will become a collection of author blogs.

    YA Hugo? Either a great book aimed at YA will fail to win the Hugo it deserves or it will win both categories at once.

    Encourage younger people to attend Worldcon by eliminating all the structural biases against their even walking through the door? Worldcon will come to be dominated by anime and TV and all the hallways will be so clogged with people you won’t be able to breathe.

    The truth of the matter is that these lines of argument are all bullshit because they’re all slippery slope arguments; ‘If we do X, then we will inevitably have to do Y!’ Um no… you don’t and you never have to.

    There are many things that could be done to help make Worldcon more accessible to the young (choice of GoH, cost of day tickets, proximity to public transport, size of host city, a lot more space for gaming) that could be implemented without changing the sore of the Worldcon experience. In fact, the Orlando 2015 Worldcon bid set out to create a youth-oriented Worldcon only for the SMOFs — in their infinite wisdom — to choose a small regional city without an international airport.

    Change isn’t the product of huge impossible changes but tiny manageable ones. What worries me about Worldcon is that you have no stomach for even those small changes. Just look at the discussion about welcoming younger people that took place after this year’s Worldcon; Firstly, in the space of about a day, it devolved into a discussion of whether or not young people should join the armed forces THEN someone said that, if young people aren’t interested in the history of fandom, they shouldn’t be made welcome at Worldcon at all.


  41. jayrblanc permalink
    September 17, 2013 6:34 am

    Frankly, it’s gotten to the point where I meet people who *are writing science fiction*, who don’t know what WorldCon is. They *may* have heard of the Hugos, but no idea what WorldCon or the WSFS are.

    Let that sink in, WorldCon is becoming irrelevant to a new generation, not of fans, but of *Writers*.


  42. September 17, 2013 10:21 am

    One thing I will say in defence of the SMOFs is that they put fans before authors and many of the weird contortions over award categories are spawned by fear of writers finding ways of manipulating the awards and turning a fan-centric award into a sort of horrid exercise in getting out the vote.

    I have a good deal of respect for that sensibility but I think that the SMOFs have completely lost sight of what fandom is and this is manifesting itself as institutional paranoia. You simply cannot have a civilised online conversation with a SMOF without them getting aggressive or trying to suggest that you’re not a real fan. So they’re sort of caught in the middle…

    But yes, if you’re an author looking to grab some attention on panels and maybe win over a few new readers then I can totally see why you wouldn’t bother to attend Worldcon. Why not go to a larger convention and reach a much larger pool of potential readers? Having said that, I’m not a writer, don’t work for the publishing industry and have no great desire to meet writers and so I’d be happy with a fan-centric convention that’s entirely devoid of professional writers *shrug*


  43. jayrblanc permalink
    September 17, 2013 11:10 am

    It’s not that they don’t go to Worldcon because there are better cons for them to go to… It’s that they *don’t know what Worldcon is*.


  44. September 24, 2013 11:55 am

    “Howard is sometimes racist in his work but I’d query whether it’s central to his work”

    Actually Arthur B at Ferretbrain had a long series of articles about Howard, and he basically argued (rather convincingly, I think) that race/blood is absolutely central to Howard’s writing. (also degeneration-through-miscegnation)


  45. October 2, 2013 8:51 am

    Do you have a link Emil? My favourite Howard stories are his Steve Costigan boxing tales, and I can’t remember anything much about race or miscegenation in any of them.


  46. December 2, 2013 9:00 pm

    Nice post. All salient points often ignored and found among a variety of ‘niche’ fandom genres. The lack of desire to even confront the mere possibility of exclusivity creates as the e-mails point out, and you expound upon, a culture of indifferent hand-wringing that generally only eases once the aberrant ‘topic’ and the individual mentioning it, is tucked away. Fandom is fundamentally a consumer oriented concept, and science-fiction is intimately bound up with the idea that the reader is meant to step in the shoes of the individual generating the work consumed, much more so than other forms of fiction. Its speculative nature attracts the open-minded, who are as much motivated to be passive consumers as well as active aficionados of the subject. Until a sizable portion of producers of this work, or organizers, or individuals in the editing or publishing end of the field are made up of more inclusive members, the genre will always be willfully blind to its own shortcomings on race.



  1. timewantsaskeleton | The 50th Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech post
  2. Reading Habits and the Status Quo — Radish Reviews
  3. Linkspam, 8/30/13 Edition — Radish Reviews
  4. » Blog Archive » A Half-Formed Thought re: Hugos and Fandom and Stuff
  5. A Very ‘Unconventional’ Convention – A Very Familiar Tactic | The Black Coyote - Indie Gamer

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: