Aug 1, 2016 | essay

Boldly Going Nowhere

By

I’ve been told that a good internet essay begins with some showcasing of a writer’s voice. You want the reader to feel like they’re watching you settle down for a fireside chat. Maybe I’m holding a glass of scotch in my right hand and wearing a classy blazer with those leather shoulder patches. That broadcasts the fact that I’m here in an official capacity, but my casual blue jeans underneath mean I’m just a regular dude, right? Feeling chill? Because I’m here, as you relax, to talk to about race and representation in our wonderful field of science fiction and fantasy.

Oh, before you get up to leave in the back (yeah, I see you), I’m going to start by telling you a personal anecdote about Leonard Nimoy.

Spock!

See, telling a personal anecdote is one of the best ways to get past your guard. You relax a little because I’m telling a story (and one about a celebrity, to boot! We know from heavy internet research that a story about a celebrity will hook people even harder!) and not about to hit everyone with a dense article full of annoying things like facts! And research! Which only certain kinds of annoying folk love who haven’t come to terms with the fact that we live in a post-factual world today.

The truth is I like facts and numbers. It’s the super-rationalist in me. But I’ve come to realize I’m a smaller part of the population. Show me a graph and I’m your man. Yet, I’m a writer, I should understand how much people love stories, how easing someone into an essay with an anecdote solidifies the experience and gives them something to hold onto.

What does this have to do with Spock?

Spock would have loved graphs and facts as well. Arched that eyebrow of his and said “fascinating” when you laid some cold truth on him. Spock wouldn’t have gotten on the internet and raged on about people “taking over” his genre. I know that because my whole love of facts and science comes in part from Spock.

Leonard Nimoy was the first person I saw in media who represented a mixed-race person. Like me! I look white to most people, but my biological father had a pick that he could stick in his hair and go about his business. As a child, I would take one of his picks and stick it in my own long, wavy hair and get pissed off as it ever so slowly would just slide right off my scalp and off to the floor.

Spock looked like a Vulcan. But he wasn’t. He wasn’t human either. He was always trying to navigate expectations people had of him. Struggling to walk a path that was both, neither, some of everything. He could pass, if he wanted, but he still claimed both sides of his heritage.

I never met him. I didn’t even know how much of an impact he had on me until the actor Leonard Nimoy passed. I found myself shaken by loss, a vacuum appeared in a place I didn’t even know existed. Unnerved, I realized that seeing a bi-racial character in science fiction was very important on a raw, fundamental level. And I’m likely, in no small amount, “fascinated” by charts and data due to my early fascination with the character Leonard Nimoy embodied.

Getting validated is really important to us humans. It’s why bands shout out “Hello Grand Rapids, Michigan, we’re excited to be here tonight with you!” and everyone goes nuts “That’s us! They’re talking about us!” An actor mentions a town name in a live interview on late night TV and someone in the crowd shouts an inarticulate “Yeah!” and some sort of energy lands in the air.

This is why I believe we see pure joy in the eyes of girls who are meeting Daisy Ridley, as they see themselves striding outer space and traversing stars. Why so many women went into forensic science after watching the X-Files as young women. Why I got a little too excited that Rihanna was voicing the main character in the movie Home recently, putting some Caribbean gyal in my science fiction.

I don’t remember the first time a writer with novels under their belt lecturing new writers in this field told me novels with characters of color didn’t sell, and that I shouldn’t write them. In the late ’90s it was repeated to me with such distressing frequency thatI tuned it out as I set out to build a career that included a diversity of characters.

I don’t remember the first time I was told there were plenty of diverse writers in the field, and had the same few names repeated to me over and over again.

I do, however, remember the first time I basically wrote a version of this essay almost ten years ago in 2007. I got tired of people saying the same four names—“Hopkinson, Butler, Delany, Barnes”—as a list of writers of color when I would point out the whiteness of the science fiction field. With some 1,500–2,000 members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (and not every science fiction and fantasy writer is a member of SFWA, and new writers just spooling up might not be), in order for our field to just match the demographics of the USA that meant SFWA should have had at least 150–200 African-American writers because twelve percent of the US population was African-American. Not four. (Were there more than four black SFWA members? Of course. But no one could name them. And there certainly were not 150–200.)

Well, almost ten years later we have more writers of color. People can now name new names like Kai Ashante Wilson, Saladin Ahmed, Nnedi Okorafor, Wes Chu, Ken Liu, N. K. Jemisin, Karen Lord, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Daniel José Older, Alyssa Wong, and more. This is great, without a doubt I’m excited that in some years I haven’t read every single piece of work by writers of the color out that year, which is how it used to be in my first decade in this field.

But, in a sad repeat of the essay I wrote in 2007, frustrated by those who kept telling me the field was diverse, this quite simply doesn’t reflect the demographics of the U.S.A, where a lot of English-language science fiction and fantasy is published… let alone reflective of the vast freaking world of billions of people across the globe.

To match the U.S.A’s demographics, there should be about 200 members of SFWA who would choose African-American on a census bureau questionnaire. 90 who would choose Asian-American. 18 Native-American. 54 like me, who would choose two or more races on the census questionnaire.

Basically, every time you go see a bunch of writers, in person or in print, about 30% of them should be something other than white.

Just to reflect demographics.

If you’re not seeing that, then it’s an indication that something is happening to distort the playing field a certain direction. And the growth over the last ten years has been slow. In ten years, at this growth rate, we’ll still be very far from the hundreds of writers in the field we should be seeing.

So back to Spock. Here in this report from Fireside, you’re going to see lot of data and graphs that show some facts. They show the facts that as a genre—one I love and have chosen to make my living and invest many years of my life writing—we’re still radically unrepresentative. And the first rule of fixing an issue is to recognize and admit it.

I think Spock would have found the evidence incontrovertible. And hopefully my anecdotes helped you realize the impact representation, both in terms of characters and writers who can bring those characters to life, can have on making sure that we all see ourselves in the future. That we all get inspired by our genre.

So the question I pose is going to be quite direct. What are you going to do to help change this?