Saturday, September 1, 2012

diversity in f&sf and the greatest failure of anti-racism

I don't consider Tobias Buckell a Social Justice Warrior because I've never seen him go to their extremes, but in the previous decade, he was a classic anti-racist. (My take: all SJWs are anti-racists, but not all anti-racists are SJWs, because not all anti-racists believe they're entitled to abuse anyone who fails to accept the enlightenment they bring.)

Tobias showed up in the comments in January, 2005, when, writing about Unitarian Universalists, I made my first post about anti-racism:
There’s a bit of discussion about UU Youth and antiracism in UU blogdom now. I love UU Youth, but part of me pities anyone with extremely idealistic parents. Parents, like politicians and generals, are always ready to give yesterday’s answers to today’s problems. The entire issue of “antiracism” is one of those.

My quick take on racism in the last few years: The O.J. trial should’ve told every American that racism was no longer a major problem here. When a black man can murder his white wife and her lover, then hire a great lawyer and escape punishment like any other rich person, the race war has effectively ended. Anyone who failed to notice that should take a good, long look at the skin color of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. The Republicans know that the color that matters is green. Unitarian Universalists tend to be a wealthy denomination. Money is the last UU taboo.

The tragedy of antiracism is that if you accept its terms, you can never win it, because your definitions eternally separate people of different skin tones. Never accept the terms of your opponents. If they say you are black or white, don’t work to resolve the differences of blacks and whites. Work to change a world in which a minority of people of all hues can hoard wealth while a majority of people of all hues are deprived of shelter or food or health care or education.

Names are important. “Feminist” was an unfortunate choice; it eternally divides the world into feminists and masculinists. We egalitarians don’t have to worry about being prisoners of our definitions.
In the comments, Tobias said, "Were you being sardonic or sarcastic about racism being gone? ... One of the most horrifying things for me was to move to Midwest Ohio from the Caribbean and learn that all the racism I’d been told was dead by my white American friends was less than maybe in the 60s, but certainly not gone…"

I answered, "I didn’t say racism’s gone. I said it’s not a major problem anymore. The great problem is economic inequality that hurts poor people of all hues. Focusing on racism now will only continue to divide us. Focusing on issues of wealth and poverty will unite us."

Two years later, during the Hounding of William Sanders, Tobias posted Diversity in science fiction markets at Tobias Buckell Online and noted: "So out of 1500-2000 or so writers who’ve sold at least 3 professional stories by SFWA’s standards (let’s say there are 500 or so not in SFWA who might be eligible) people only can realistically name 2 working current writers of color in the comments section off the top of their head."

I commented:
Factor in class, and you’ll find that most writers are middle-class and upper-class, regardless of race. Delany certainly came from a background of privilege. But just as there’s a shortage of poor innercity writers, there’s a shorter of poor rural writers, too. Poverty cuts across race; there are twice as many whites living below the poverty line as blacks or Hispanics. By focusing on race, the problem seems much smaller than it actually is.
And further down:
Sure, I’ll say it: SFWA and publishing don’t represent the racial or the economic realities in the US. This wasn’t news in the mid ’80s when I joined with a novel about a dark-skinned woman, and it isn’t news today. Has anyone claimed otherwise?

I pointed out on the SFWA LJ that any SFWAn who wanted to start a SFWA diversity committee could–I really can’t imagine the Board vetoing it. Committees within SFWA seem to be free to do anything that fits vaguely within SFWA’s agenda. If you (meaning any SFWAn reading this) want to do something about this within SFWA, go to the Board. If there was the slightest resistance, you’d be able to get an enormous petition of support in an instant.

But what do you do? Start having quotas for stories and covers and authors? How many points for a woman? How many for someone with brown skin? Do Asians count the same, or are they worth less ’cause they’re not as dark? Do you get any points for poor white males, or are all white males the same?

Sure, acknowledging the problem is the first step. It’s been acknowledged for most of the twentieth century. What’s step two?
Tobias answered:
With all due respect, Will, WHAT THE FUCK? Who said anything about quotas, are you intentionally trying to derail this conversation. What gives? I’m not sure what you’re trying to do, but it’s not appreciated. You’re putting words that were never in my mouth.

I think it’s remarkably illuminating that all I’ve done was point out that SF has a diversity problem, and everyone is throwing arguments at me and throwing their hands up saying ‘but what can we do’ and running off down paths.

...Really, because I’m seeing a lot of resistance and defensiveness the moment I point it out, and I still see and hear authors taking discussions of diversity and derailing them with all sorts of other issues.

Again, had it not been a problem, responses to my post would have run more like this:
“Yeah, you’re right, that’s embarrasing. Do you have any thoughts on how we might be able to fix that issue?”
I said:
And that’s exactly what I meant to do when I asked, “What’s step two?” We’ve acknowledged it. We’re all frustrated because we don’t know what the next step is. So, very sincerely, what is the next step after acknowledging the problem exists?
Tobias answered:
How do we solve it? Gosh, if I were omnipotent and omniscient I could answer that  I’m not. My statement is that just getting everyone to agree first off that there is a problem is the first step, you seem to think that’s been done, and yet whenever I’m on a diversity panel or in a post, I can’t get people to just nod and chorus ‘yes, the field lacks racial diversity.’ Instead I immediately have people explaining why it is so, or pointing out other non-diverse fields, or putting their non-racist credentials forward. I think we still have hangups on step one, because I still can’t state the obvious without hurt feelings, arguments, and people defending the field.

Just as I can’t talk an alcoholic into going any further until they admit there’s a problem (but I’ll get better, I can quit anytime, no I’m not drinking that much), it’s just as hard to find fixes.

Nor am I going to give out edicts on What Must Be Done in order to fix the problem. If I can’t get a number of people to just say ‘yes, you’re right, I’m going to go read and wonder how I might help or ask you and a bunch of other writers of color how they think I might help and listen to all what they say and then think it over’ then there is no real point in giving out edicts.

No one likes being told what to do.
I didn't reply to that, maybe because he seemed upset.

But looking at that now, I'm struck by a recurring truth: Anti-racists never have solutions. The more I observe them, the more I'm convinced it's because they don't understand the problem. They'll tell you they want to get people to acknowledge the problem, but in the examples Tobias cites—people explaining why the problem exists, people pointing out why they're not part of the problem—they've already acknowledged the problem. They're waiting for the solution that the anti-racist doesn't have.

But the socialist has it. We'll have true diversity in f&sf when everyone benefits from an excellent education and a safe childhood. Until then, "diversity" will only mean "economically privileged people of many hues".