Yes, Racism is Still a Problem in SFF

I’m feeling pretty ill today – a weekend long bout of insomnia culminated in me not getting a wink of sleep pretty much at all last night and I’m in a foul mood. As such, fair warning, but there’s going to be some snark in this post and, unlike yesterday, probably very few extended tongue-in-cheek Shakespeare allusions.

I made the mistake of blundering down the rabbit hole of comments sections on SFF Fandom blogs last night and this morning. What I found sickened me. There’s big problems with discussions of race, ethnicity and, yes, racism in SFF. And what’s more, it’s not just restricted to certain well known agitators with pseudonyms that rhyme with Smocks Smay.

 Down the Rabbit Hole

My first mistake was reading into the comments of an article talking about the recent departure from SFWA of John C. Wright. I know, I know, don’t read the comments. Never read the comments! But I couldn’t help myself. Things took a turn for the surreal when Wright himself appeared in the comments thread and accused another person in the comments of being one of the Pod People from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and speaking in “Newspeak” because of that person’s membership in ” a faction known as Political Correctness.”

Now, a note, this particular conversation had nothing to do with race. It largely centered around Wright’s characterization of SFWA when he said: “Instead of men who treat each other with professionalism and respect, I find a mob of perpetually outraged gray-haired juveniles.”

So, yeah, it was a gender thing. And the gender thing is also a huge thing. But if this particular privileged white male is going to take jabs at the community when it gets sexist, I have an equal obligation to point out the racism I am becoming increasingly aware of, and uncomfortable with, within fandom.

Swarthy Cult-Fiends and Sallow Easterlings

In some ways one of the most difficult realizations of my early adulthood was recognizing the racism inherent in some of my favorite authors – notably H.P. Lovecraft (who was REALLY concerned with ideas of racial purity as demonstrable by “The Shadow over Innsmouth”) and J.R.R. Tolkien, who created a war in which tall, heroic, white (in the case of the Elves, super-white) people fought a war against sallow Easterners and dark orcs.

As time goes by it becomes more difficult for me to ignore the tones of yellow peril implicit in that construction.

But, even though these two authors probably did more to shape fantasy and horror than any others in the twentieth century, it’s easy for us to put them firmly in the past. Sure, there are race issues in those old books. But that was the time and it’s not like we’re racist. Right? Right?

The Yellow Peril Never Went Away

And yet, there exists, in print, a long series of novels set in a future wherein China has overrun the world. Africans have been exterminated by the heavily othered Chinese conquerors and Europeans are forced to integrate or face expulsion into a stygian hellscape of cannibalism and darkness.

Though lip-service is paid to putting antagonists and protagonists on both sides of this sprawling series of novels, it is made abundantly clear that the European characters stand in for change and dynamism. The Chinese characters for stasis and tradition.

In the first volume of this series, the author wrote an afterword in which he stated that his decision to use the laughably outmoded and inaccurate Wade-Giles transcription for the Mandarin speakers in the novel over the much more accurate Pinyin transliteration was because he found the former “far more elegant” to the latter which he refers to as having “harder forms”.

It’s worth noting that Pinyin was developed by Chinese people for the transcription of Mandarin in the second half of the 20th century, while Wade-Giles was the product of a British diplomat who served as part of the diplomatic corps to China during the Second Opium War.

This series is an especially egregious example, but let’s face it. Despite the high-minded rhetoric of exploring the bounds of the future many SFF narratives boil down to the same sad story.

The others are coming.

They have no cause to love us.

They will destroy what we hold dear.

Because they think differently from us.

And no two ideologies can ever exist side by side in peace.

(Note: I’m not calling all of these racist. However each of these examples depends upon an enemy who is entirely other and effectively uniformly antagonistic. There are many, many more.)

 Back to the Rabbit Hole

But this all serves mainly to contextualize my thoughts when I continued down the rabbit hole. Because I did a bunch more clicking, and a bunch more comment reading, and then I found this gem:

These two vast, {India and China} ancient societies withstood the centuries by keeping down innovation, so life was much the same from one millennium to the next. Centuries slid by with little to mark them beyond the feuding of maharajahs.

The evidence given for this sweeping generalization was a highly simplistic interpretation of the dismantling of the treasure fleet of Zheng He.

One could just as easily say of Europe that this vast, continent spanning and ancient society withstood the centuries by keeping down innovation through the application of religious persecution. After all, look at the Spanish Inquisition.

This view disregards that there were progressive and conservative governments in China and in India over the five thousand years of their recorded history. It disregards the Chinese invention of the compass (~1040 AD), gunpowder (9th century AD), the printing press (~220 AD) and paper (8 BC). It disregards the advanced state of classical Indian mathematics (the use of Zero, the development of Brahmagupta’s theorem, and a host of others). It is based on a Eurocentric view of the decadent east that has more to do with the effective deployment of European military power in Asia during the colonial period than anything legitimately from the history of either place.

One of the two authors of this work has also been criticized for writing a novel in which the protagonist, a woman of colour, “has inherited a mistrust of Afrocentrism, a profound and much-rehearsed disbelief in the significance of racism in shaping her career, and a deleterious approach to the various tokenistic women’s and minorities’ committees and functions that bedevil her academic life. ”

This, to me, reads altogether too much as, “there’s no racism here, and anybody who says otherwise is just one of those free-speech suppressing PC Pod People.”

I’ve written before here about the need to treat art as operating within the context of both the creator and of current culture. If our art is created by a person who, on one hand, advances a narrative that places an Eastern other as inferior to a progressive West; if that person then creates a protagonist who appears to exist to challenge the validity of affirmative action and to push forward the hackneyed belief that we live in a post-racial world, we should look at the latter through the lens of the former.

The only reason that we live in a world where racism isn’t as powerful as it was fifty years ago is because of fifty years of hard-fought battles and hard-won victories. Leaving the battle half-way to won and declaring racism is over doesn’t make it so.

There’s a huge debate about the place of politics in SFF right now.  A lot of it is predicated on a disagreement about the difference between free speech and consequence free speech.

More than a few people in Fandom would be happy for the debate to go away. After all, we want license to love the things we love. There is nothing harder than to look at something as dearly loved as the Lord of the Rings and to admit it has a race problem. This doesn’t mean that these individuals in Fandom are racist; it does mean that they would rather not feel forced to examine the racism that exists within the field. Doing so would invariably interfere with them loving the things they love. I still like reading Lovecraft (well, some Lovecraft) even though I know how truly disgusting his views are. I have to live with that – and it does interfere with my own comfort with those parts of my own fannishness.

I still like Star Wars.

But I like to think that the aspiration of the SFF community is to BE the future; to uphold an example of a better possible world. We do live in a more pluralistic world than fifty years ago. And Roddenberry was a part of that – SFF was a part of that. But we shouldn’t stop. We shouldn’t allow the conservatism of progressing age to distract us from the angels of our better nature. We have to improve ourselves. And self-improvement can be painful.

3 thoughts on “Yes, Racism is Still a Problem in SFF

  1. “J.R.R. Tolkien, who created a war in which tall, heroic, white (in the case of the Elves, super-white) people fought a war against sallow Easterners and dark orcs.”

    I didn’t see it like this at all-I guess I really don’t see any movie in terms of color. We are all from the same race-the HUMAN race.

  2. Not to disagree with you, because yeah, we are all just human beings, but it is very easy to have that particular belief when no one has ever questioned your humanity solely on the basis of your skin color. As a WoC I do not have the luxury of only believing that we are all human beings and here’s why:

    Yes, we are all human and there is only one race but there is a huge subset of people of this race that actually argue for the worthlessness of my life, and those who look like me, because of my skin color, and seek to convince political organizations and various economic systems of their belief. So as to control or exterminate me.

    Because these people insist on seeing my color as the end all and be all of everything, and seek to remind me of this at every opportunity, I don’t have any choice but to see color. I cannot afford to be colorblind, as much as I would love to walk through the world not noticing color.

    For me, not noticing color, is a life or death matter for me and the millions who look like me.

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