May 16th, 2009

A Pocket Full of Murder

Writing in the Age of RaceFail

Recent discussions and debates generated by RaceFail '09 and its most recent iteration of Mammothfail have got me thinking a lot about my own mistakes and carelessness when it comes to trying to understand, and be responsible about, issues of race (as an author of fantasy and science fiction, that is).

I want to be careful about writing this post because it's easy to get derailed into "Why you should feel sorry for me because I'm white and dealing with racial issues is so haaaard" or "So this is why you people of color need to cut us white folks more slack," both of which are, not to put too fine a point on it, crap. Nor is this post about me patting myself on the back for not being like Those Other White People Who Don't Get It, because even now I am one of those White People Who Don't Get It and to some extent always will be.

What I mean by that is, I frankly have no idea what it's like to be discriminated against, patronized, and thoughtlessly left out or even downright negated on account of my skin color and cultural background. I can try to imagine what that would feel like, but imagination is all I've got – with all the errors and omissions that kind of guesswork inevitably implies. I still have a lot of reading and thinking and most importantly listening to do before I can even begin to appreciate where all my blind spots and thoughtless prejudices are, let alone how to address them and make them right.

So I will just say this.

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I am no expert on racial issues, as many people who know me could tell you. I've only recently started thinking seriously about these things, and I've said stupid things in the past, and my first novel is full of whiter-than-white characters. I am in no way trying to set myself up as an authority here: that's not what this post is about.

But I am grateful to the fans of color who have spoken out about their reading experiences and the problems they've seen in the F&SF books they love, and called out us privileged white authors on our careless bigotry, and challenged us to be mindful of what we're doing, and listen to other voices besides our own, and apologize when we've screwed up, and resolve to do better in future (or at least not make the same mistake twice).

It's a challenge we authors have been given, and a humbling one. But it's a challenge I want to rise to, and I am trying to do so, one small (perhaps too small, but still better than nothing, I hope) step at a time. And I know other white authors who've followed RaceFail '09 and felt similarly challenged to include more racial and cultural diversity in their writing, as well as reading more books by authors of color and including more fans of color on their friends list. So even though the debate was very painful and frustrating for many of the people involved, good things have come out of it as well.

I hope the same can be said of Mammothfail, in the end.

* I did wonder a little whether those characters might fall into the "magical negro" category (not so much by virtue of them being literally magical, because that seemed to me a positive thing, but because they are both involved in educating and advising the white heroine as their primary function in the narrative). I am still undecided on this point, but anyway they're two of my favorite characters in the book.

** Though not so much the apparent belief that those were the only two options.