#diversityinSFF is not superficial

Over the weekend, a discussion of diversity in SFF magazines has been brewing in SFF circles. I don’t read many SFF magazines, so I hadn’t been aware of the discussions until Janni Lee Simner pointed someone in the discussion to Tu as an answer for finding diversity in genre. So I won’t address the specifics of a need for diversity in SFF magazines, except to say, yes, it’s important.

Rather, I feel I need to address an article, and a tweet from the author of that article, who takes the position that diversity is “superficial” and therefore unnecessary.

Summer of the MariposasI couldn’t disagree more that diversity in SFF is superficial. In fact, it is at the root of some of the deepest, well-told stories I’ve read. Take Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s Andre Norton–nominated Summer of the Mariposas. It would be an entirely different story if it were set in a Midwestern town starring white girls of European descent, or set in Vancouver or Maine and crossed the U.S.-Canadian border. The entire weave of the worldbuilding is centered around the girls’ identities as both Mexican and American, and the multiple identities that “Mexican” entails—that of both Aztec ancestry and Spanish-influenced Catholicism. The magical people and goddesses the girls meet are straight out of Mexican folklore. There is nothing superficial about anything regarding the Mexican influences within the book.

Simply changing the color of a character to “blackwash” them for diversity’s sake is far from what anyone who truly advocates for “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors” is looking for when we seek more characters of color, LGBT characters, etc. We’re looking for the heart-deep diversity of experiences that so seldom are reflected in science fiction and fantasy. We’re asking for the genre to deepen its idea of “what it means to be human”—a question that SFF excels at asking. Yes, we’re all human and we have common experiences, but how we answer the deepest questions of humanity’s existence vary with culture, ethnicity, religion, country, community. (Are we communal or do we seek individuality? To whom are people loyal? Who is in control? How do we judge goodness?) It has to do with power dynamics and experiences of privilege and the lack thereof, and how privilege is intersectional. And the genre is richer when we explore that full breadth, even when we have dragons and aliens as part of the mix.

Diversity in SFF is about human protagonists that not only welcome readers who might not feel welcome in the genre, but about opening up the world of the reader who isn’t familiar with the culture or personality of a protagonist from a community that hasn’t been as well represented in the past. It’s about awesome worldbuilding, excellent storytelling, and finding inspiration in places that aren’t the same old Western European tropes—tropes we love, sure, but they’ve been overplayed. There are fresh ideas and characters to be found from authors with different perspectives, in places and cultures that haven’t been as well represented.

What those of us advocating for diversity want is simply to see the world as it is reflected in our literature.

So for anyone who thinks that diversity is superficial—that the only thing it has to do with is the color of one’s skin—you’re the one missing the point.

Diversity is one of the most important things this genre needs right now, for the sake of great storytelling.

18 thoughts on “#diversityinSFF is not superficial

  1. Here’s how I see the issue: you’re saying you’re advocating diversity based on a principle and not for shallow reasons of political correctness.

    Savage, Davidson and others say there is a natural and more honest type of diversity on the one hand, a principled one, yours, (minus the advocacy) and a type of diversity not only being used as a racial double standard, but as a screen and platform for racial attacks on “Anglos,” a term you frequently see used.

    It is one thing to want to see yourself – it is another to claim that is being prevented by an SFF community that are de facto white racists rather than the same market forces and accidental demographic of a hobby one might see in China, the Middle East and in boxing and professional basketball. None of those four things have anything to do with racism – no one is doing them on purpose

    If the latter “selfie” version exists, it is robbing credibility from the former principled one and confusing the issue, which should be straightforward: write as you please, put in who you please. End of story.

    What indicates the “selfie” crowd actually exists and not only has racial and gender hostility but entertains double standards is that much of the push-back you’re seeing comes from the people who created a new anthology called “We See a Different Frontier.” WSADF is a series of racial revenge fantasies based on the false idea that colonialism was a whites-only affair. That is not “principle,” that is racial bigotry. Read the blurb promoting it and the call for submissions – it is offensive. If it were principle at work in WSADF, you’d see revenge stories about the death of an Islamic Turkish Ottoman Governor at the hands of the clockwork ally of a Serbian Christian included, but you do not.

    In turn, if advocating for diversity is based on evenly applied principle and not gender and race-based political correctness, then one should see the same crowd advocating for diversity in black Samba music in Brazil, Bollywood in India, shadow puppetry in Indonesia and in the National Basketball Association, but you do not. To do that is principle, at least to me. I’m sure there are white people in Brazil who’d like to be a samba star. They are going to have to deal with the reality of market forces and the accidental ethnic expressions of a hobby and leave off with the accusations of racism. There does not need to be a “quest” or advocacy for diversity in Bollywood or samba. There is no “imbalance” there and there is none in SFF. SFF is not a United Nations diversity pie-chart, it is a hobby and it is susceptible to market forces which are no more racist than that of a samba or Bollywood fan.

    Furthermore, any non-Western cultural artifact such as myths, place-names, etc. is protected by the diversity crowd in SFF as if they’ve trademarked it, and if Western writers want to use them, they call it “cultural appropriation” – culture theft. They never use that “principle” on themselves – SFF is looked at as some global generic heritage, but the diversity crowd see their own cultural expressions as worthy of UNESCO World Heritage protection. The simple truth is that the modern SF we all know and love comes directly from mid-century European-derived American literature, film, culture and science – people have to accept that, respect it, and deal with it the same way they expect me to respect their own cultural heritage and the white people who are failed samba stars have to deal with that reality. If samba can be seen to be “authentic” by the culture which created it without having to submit itself to an affirmative action pie-chart, why not SFF? There is a double standard and it is based, not on even-handed principle, but on race. There aren’t many white people in samba. So what? Who cares? I don’t really think SFF’s heritage needs to be respected, but I am playing Devil’s Advocate here in order to illustrate the double standard and the lack of an even-handedly applied principle. That lack of principle to decide right from wrong instead using race and gender to decide it is what is called political correctness, and it unfair. I am not all of human history and I am not a colonialist and I am not an “Anglo.”

    Write your stuff, hope people like it, stop with the accusations if they don’t. And stop with the diversity crusade. There is no principled reason for it. There is a principled reason for letting that find its own level and accepting that, but not a quest for it. There is no more wrong with a too-white SFF than there is with a too-black samba. In fact, anyone in America even suggesting samba is too black would be pinned to the wall as a racist. Yet too white is a mantra in SFF and it is wrong. You cannot have this two ways.

    1. Who are you to judge who is sincere over whether they want to see themselves? There is no such thing as the “selfie” crowd, if you actually get to know the people who are looking for diversity.

      Once again, missing the point.

      1. These are definitions of hate speech, first from the American Heritage Dictonary of the English Language and then the Random House Kemerman Webster’s College Dictionary:

        “Bigoted speech attacking or disparaging a social or ethnic group or a member of such a group.”

        “speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.”

        I didn’t make them up and they are not “concern trolling.” Those represent a principle we can all abide by and which favor no one. I said I am not against diversity. I am against people who use it as a screen to attack others, and they most certainly do. People use “Anti-Zionism” as a screen to attack Jews. White supremacists use Confederate Civil War reenactments as a screen to indulge their disdain for black folks.

    2. Leveling accusations of “political correctness” is an easy and facile way to demonize calls for diversity, and defending a lack of diversity in SFF via the perception that modern SFF is derived from European sources ignores the complex realities of race and ethnicity in culture and society. It’s reductive to say “the market is the sole determining force here, and the market is fair, impartial, 100% focused on creative merit and audience demand, free of sociological, political, and personal influences of any kind.” It’s equally reductive to define “Western” as exclusively, overwhelmingly white European. Our reality is much more complex than that. Does the world of SFF fully reflect the reality of the world around it? Are the readers whose desire to see their experiences reflected in the SFF literature of the day being heard? It doesn’t sound like it. It sounds lilke that desire being mocked as “political correctness” and dismissed as unimportant and unnecessary.

      1. Does the National Basketball Association “fully reflect the reality of the world around it?” Does hip-hop, jazz, quilt-making, beer can collecting, NASCAR, hockey, salsa music, Bollywood, batik-making, samba, boleros, boxing, Portuguese Fado, fine art photography, graffiti art, Hinduism, Egyptian cinema, Sufism, motorcycle racing, romance literature, Turkish pop music, the Association of Black Journalists, cabinet making, Iron Man competitions, Utah, Ohio, Chess competitions, spelling bees, Broadway, supernovas and dirt?

        When people cherry-pick their “principles,” yes, I mock it, as I do any hypocrisy and double-standard.

    3. James May,

      I think I understand where you are coming from. You don’t feel that it is ethical/fair to “require” a certain quota of “non-white” motifs in SFF, especially as there are many other genres and places in the world that aren’t held to that same quota.

      I’ve never seen “a quota of diversity” as the goal of Tu Books or any of the other pro-diversity articles I’ve read. The idea behind “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors” is the chance to see an experience that is different from “the cultural norm,” whatever that might be. Different stories have a marvelous way of creating understanding and common ground between people who have little in common. Humans will always need these pathways to greater understanding.

      “It is one thing to want to see yourself – it is another to claim that is being prevented by an SFF community that are de facto white racists rather than the same market forces…”

      I disagree with you here on two counts. First, it is not “nice to see yourself,” it is *vital*. Stories are the place to find role models (what I want to be as well as what I don’t want to be) and see new options that aren’t easily discernible in our own lives.

      Second, although there are angry “us against them” arguments, I have found the bulk of the arguments for diversity in SFF are not an attempt to redirect the spotlight, but rather a request to let in *more* light. The more light we have available, the more we all grow.

      This is why, I believe, Stacy disagrees so strongly that “focusing on superficial diversity misses the point of SFF.” The point of SFF *is* new experiences.

      Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s wonderful talk, “The Danger of the Single Story,” (http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html) does an amazing job of explaining why *everyone* needs stories that come from different experiences and backgrounds.

      1. The thing about anger is that anger usually is the emotion for which people who have had to deal with too much already have to convey the pain they feel. And it is painful to *never* see yourself reflected in art and literature—not to mention experiencing racism on a day to day basis, personally and institutionally. So I feel like those people who are expressing anger have every right to express their anger.

        1. Thanks for explaining that. I couldn’t have even put that into words.

          I just wish people would stop latching onto anger as the *only* argument, or even the defining argument.

          Anger and pain are valid! However, responding with my anger and pain is not going to help either one of us.

        2. No one “never” sees themselves in art and literature and so what if they don’t? It isn’t “vital.” Why would it be vital for me to see myself in Arab literature if I lived in Egypt? If an individual feels that way, fine, I respect that, but they don’t have to light up Arabs as morons because they ignore Viking mythology.

    4. “SFF is looked at as some global generic heritage”

      It may be a shocking discovery, but other countries and cultures also developed their own SFF traditions.

      1. As an SFF fan who’s spent 9 years in 20 countries outside my own, you just profiled me. Why? Why the assumption I live in some closeted world? My mother taught me that when someone couldn’t possibly know the truth of a thing and assert they do, all they’re doing is showing what they want to believe. I’ll tell you what: when something shocks me, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, good luck telling sambistas in Brazil they’re a bunch of clueless provincial Lusophone racists in need of diversity and that samba in Russia is as authentic as their own, because even Japan has developed samba traditions. So what? They come from Brazil.

  2. Thank you Stacey for posting! I couldn’t agree more!

    For me, as a writer of diversity in SFF novels, it has very little to do with the color of my character’s skin and everything to do with her culture. Her culture helps shape her into who she is, and is a part of why she makes decisions throughout the story. I feel if diversity in a novel (or magazines) is well weaved throughout the story, then the story would be two-dimensional without it.

    It has nothing to do with being politically correct, it is simply telling a story with well rounded characters. Why would literature, which is supposed to reflect real life (even SFF), be so different than the diversity we encounter everyday?

    So to go along with what Stacy said, “What those of us advocating for diversity want is simply to see the world as it is reflected in our literature.” I also feel that those of us advocating diversity want to see our literature as it is reflected in the world we live in.

  3. I love seeing diversity in Fantasy and reading about it and want to incorporate it more in my own writing but fear I won’t do it justice no matter how much I research another culture or race.

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