Aug 4, 2017 | #Blackspecfic

It's Up to Us


I live in Brooklyn. Specifically, I’m privileged to live really close to the Brooklyn Museum. This weekend, I ducked in on my way back from a meeting to check out a small exhibit on the Equal Justice Inititative’s research into the history of racial terror lynchings. On the opening wall there’s a quote by James Baldwin that just stopped me in my tracks:

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

Talk about on the nose—this is why the #BlackSpecFic report exists, and why we set aside some money every year to commission it. Talking about this stuff can be difficult, but it’s essential work that we need to do in order to ensure that the SF/F field thrives into the future. And this work—this conversation—needs to happen in public, out in the sunshine. There are lots of reasons for that, but here are a few:

1) Sunshine is a great disinfectant. More often than not, shitty ideas don’t hold up to serious scrutiny. All those bigots (and yes, you are bigots, my dudes) saying that the only thing that matters is talent, how the internet is the great equalizer, how there’s no interest among Black people in being genre writers? They often don’t stick around when you show everyone else how completely and utterly out to lunch (and out of touch) they are.

2) We need to learn from each other. In the same way we get together online and at cons to swap tips on how best to market our books and stories, how to properly outline a novel, what works and what doesn’t when it comes to promotion, we need to be able to talk about this huge problem in our industry: we need to be able to listen to Black authors when they tell us that our field is racist in general, and against them in particular, and we need to amplify their voices so that everyone is aware. We need to talk about what tactics work, and which efforts are a waste of time. We also need to be able to praise people doing the hard work of inclusion, and yes, we need to be able to avoid the people who continue to propagate white supremacy in our field. The best way to do that is simply by talking to each other, and by comparing notes in public.

3) Systemic racism is insidious, entrenched, and often invisible. The only way to identify it and counteract it is by shining a light on it. Some of us are more aware of these issues than others. That’s okay, none of us woke up one day just knowing about these complex, sometimes subtle—but sometimes brutally violent—societal dynamics. We all had to go through our process of understanding how the systems in place subtly and not-so-subtly undermine the best efforts of authors of color, and Black authors specifically, to take their seat at the table. It requires constant vigilance, because this shit is tricksy and slippery. It requires constantly checking yourself, and checking your friends.

Because I’ve got news for you: the future is not white.1 The world has always been a rich tapestry of colors and voices, but it’s not been terribly inclusive. If we want to strive for excellence in this field, it’s our job to ensure that all voices are heard, and all people are represented. It’s also our responsibility as ethical human beings to work to correct inequities when we see them.

Crucially for our field, the world is moving on: The SF/F field2 is no longer the purview of a handful of isolated white nerds who found solace and community amidst a sea of bullying and harassment at the hands of jocks and frat-bro assholes. SF/F is the mainstream—starships and superheroes absolutely dominate the box office, wizards sell millions upon millions of books, zombies and dragons rule on TV. And if you’ve been paying attention, you know that people of color—and Black people in particular—have been a vital and fundamental part of that emergence into the mainstream. They’ve been here all along, and as we have seen in the essays we’ve been publishing for the past two weeks, they’re telling us loud and clear that they’re tired of having to settle for less, or bang on doors in order to be taken seriously. I don’t blame them. So they are doing their thing elsewhere, they are taking SF/F to greater heights, they are building their own damn thing, and they will rightly leave us behind, to grow older and whiter and more and more isolated, until we just… stop mattering.

Editors and publishers, this is totally on you. On us. On me.

It’s not up to Black authors to work twice as hard for half the returns. They’re not the ones fucking up; they’re the ones busting their asses to get somewhere in this field, swimming upstream in the face of five hundred years of so many flavors of violence that unless you’ve lived it, you can’t possibly comprehend it—I know I certainly don’t. But I don’t need to understand it—I just need to listen to people who tell me about the lives they live, trust them to know about their life and their struggles better than I do, believe them, and then act.

It’s up to us, the people who work in this field and are directly responsible for who gets published and who doesn’t. It’s up to us to hold space, to amplify voices, and to lend a helping hand. We need to push ourselves, we need to do the work. We’re responsible, it’s time we acted like it.

Editors and publishers, I’m calling you all out. What the person at the very top of an organization believes, how they act, what values they champion, informs how everyone else at that organization behaves. What are you doing to set an example, and combat systemic racism? How are you changing your processes, how are you optimizing your operation for the explicit outcome of publishing more marginalized voices, and specifically more Black authors?

I want to hear about it, from you personally, in public. Write a blog post, record a podcast, fire up a tweetstorm—I want to hear what you’re doing, so that I can learn from you, and do more on my end, too.

I’ll go first.

Last year, when we published the initial #BlackSpecFic Report, we committed ourselves to doing a few things. From Brian’s editorial:

• We’re working with the developer of our submissions system to add in an optional, anonymous form for people to self-report their demographic information when they submit to Fireside. This way, we can take a much closer look at what is going on in our submissions pile.

• We are going to change our submissions process. Once a year, we will still have one big submission period open to everyone. But several other times a year, we will have targeted submissions windows, each targeted toward a specific marginalized group. So black writers, writers of color generally, LGBTQA writers, women, writers with disabilities, etc. We’re still working out the details on this, but all the dates will be publicized well ahead of time, so that people who don’t have the leisure time to whip up a submission on short notice can get their work ready.

• Fireside’s staff is currently one white man (me), one disabled white woman, and one Puerto Rican man. And that’s OK, but it’s not nearly good enough. As our staff expands, we will be looking specifically to add black people and others who represent marginalized communities. We will also look for more opportunities to work with guest editors from those communities.

• We also want to hear from the black writing and publishing community about what else we could do better. You can email me directly at [email protected] or talk to us on Twitter.

So how did we do? Let’s see:

  • Anonymous form for submissions: nailed it! It turns out that there was no huge technical challenge to this—a simple Google form works just fine. So what did we find? I’ll come back to this in a minute, but let’s put a pin in it for now.

  • Targeted submissions windows: we didn’t do this after all. It turns out that this type of targeted action has unintended consequences that we didn’t see at first. After talking to a few people who gave us some reasons why this might not be such a good idea, we decided to scrap this.

  • Adding Black people to our staff: we’ve more or less failed at this. We just hired Brian’s replacement, and she’s part Latinx, but she’s not Black3. We have added two Black slush/first readers, which definitely helps, but we don’t pay them any money yet4, so I’m hesitant to assert that we’ve ‘added people to our staff.’

  • Hearing from the Black writer community: I feel like we’ve done okay here, and I think that the rest of the Fireside Staff would agree, but that’s just our feelings—we don’t have data to back that up. This looks like it might be paying off in 2017, but we can talk about that next year, once we can show our work. So far, we’ve got nothing.

So that’s one ‘nailed it,’ one ‘bailed,’ one ‘failed,’ and one ‘eeeeh I think?’. That doesn’t sound terribly successful to me. And the ‘nailed it’ was basically a freebie, because come on, anyone can set up a Google form. We need to try harder.

One of the problems with engaging with this kind of issue is that it can be easy to list out the types of things you should be doing, but those things usually aren’t just one big thing that you can go do, be done with it, and check it off your list. You don’t ‘hear from the Black writer community’ by going to the monthly meeting of The Black Writer Community, or whatever. You have to make yourself explicitly open and approachable on an ongoing basis. But even that’s not nearly enough, because Black writers are skeptical of us, with very good reason. We have to be humble, and open. We have to be ready to fuck up, be called on it, own up to it, apologize, dust ourselves off and try again. And again. And again. (This is just generally good life advice, I think. It’s Basic Humaning 101.)

But we still need concrete goals; we still need ways to objectively measure whether the things we’re doing are having the desired effect. So instead of giving you a new list of things we will do, I’m going to tell you what I’d like Fireside to accomplish: I’d like the percentage of stories by Black authors that Fireside Magazine publishes, and the number of submissions by Black authors in our slush pile to be proportionate to the percent of Black people in the US population.

According to the latest census data, 13.3% of the population of the United States is Black.

According to the 2016 #BlackSpecFic report data, 6.3% of the stories Fireside published are by Black authors. But in 2015, that number was 9.4%. So, we actually backslid this year. Awkward.

According to our post-submission form, 7.8% of the authors who submitted work to us this year are Black on average. (It’s a weak average—we’ve only done two of these so far.)

Looks like we have some work to do. I don’t expect to magically hit these goals by next year—like any endeavor worth doing, this will take time and effort. But I do expect to check back in next year, after the 2017 #BlackSpecFic report (yes, you should expect it’s coming), and show you that we’re moving in the right direction. I will also talk about what we’ve done, and what we’ve learned along the way. I hope other publications choose their goals, do their work, and share their learnings publicly, too. We’ll all be richer for it.

To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t know if this is the right metric. And I realize that it follows that Latinx numbers in Fireside should match US census numbers, and so should LGBTQ, Asian-American, Arab-American, Disabled people, etc etc. It’s turtles all the way down, right? These are all worthy groups to fight for, but we’ve got to start somewhere, and we’ve decided to focus on this. Given how difficult it can be to articulate this stuff using hard metrics, and how ultimately useless it is to squabble about numbers in the face of a huge systemic problem at the societal level, that goal feels like a fair one, generally speaking. Improvement in those particular numbers tells us we’re moving in the right direction, regardless of whether the specific goal is a perfect one or not.

And while we’re focusing on Black writers, it doesn’t mean we’re ignoring other marginalized voices. We remain committed to publishing a diverse array of authors and stories in general, and providing a platform where they can share their unique perspectives more widely. We’re expecting that the work we’re doing with one marginalized community will be visible to others, and help Fireside build trust and bridges. I’m hoping that a rising tide lifts all boats.

So how is Fireside planning to move these numbers in the right direction? Let’s start with the number of published Black authors. We’ve actually acquired all our short stories through the end of this calendar year, and into the spring of 2018. We still need to fill up the fall with some more flash fiction, which we’ll hold a submissions period for soon. As our editorial calendar stands now, I have a relatively decent idea of what our 2017 looks like so far, and the numbers aren’t fantastic. I’m going to keep those to myself for now, since it doesn’t feel fair to bust out incomplete 2017 figures within the context of a report based on 2016 data, but suffice it to say that we’ve got our work cut out for us.

This leads me to the second number: submissions by Black authors. We included a survey at the end of the submissions form, in order to get a better sense of who is submitting to our magazine. Brian will go deeper into these numbers next week when he talks about what we acquired from the latest submissions period, but as I mentioned before, we’ve clocked in at around 7% of our respondents being Black authors.

It seems that in order to improve Fireside’s overall number, we need to push hard on this final submissions period of the year. In order to do that, we’ll be trying a couple of things:

1) We’re rewriting our submissions guidelines.

With Julia coming on board, we’ve taken the opportunity to more clearly articulate Fireside’s editorial vision and codify it outside of Brian’s head. Part of that process includes reviewing our submissions guidelines in order to make sure that they’re consistent with Julia’s editorial vision. We’re also taking on some feedback we’ve gathered—lots of people have mentioned that our guidelines can be kind of off putting, so we’re revising in order to rectify that. As we’re revising, we’re also consulting with experts—that is: Black, PoC, and other marginalized authors—in order to make sure that we’re not inadvertently including wording that alienates people who aren’t white. Using language that may seem innocuous to a white editor5 can come off as saying ‘this is not for you,’ to someone who is very aware that there’s no one that looks like them in the work they see published.

2) Reaching out to writing groups

This one’s a personal challenge, as I get more comfortable with my new role as publisher and get more confident working with our editors and with authors. It’s not enough to just tweet out “we’re totally looking for diverse voices, don’t self-reject!” during your submissions period, or even to explicitly state that you’re looking for #ownvoices narratives in your guidelines. Those things are fine, but can be ineffective. After all, if you’re a Black author who’s been grinding away at the submission treadmill for years, you’ve been hearing those kinds of things for a while now. If the situation hasn’t improved, why would you believe the umpteenth jackass spouting the same bullshit? I wouldn’t. I would move on and find somewhere else to be. So we may have the best of intentions when we put out the call for diverse submissions, but nobody is really hearing that shit. We need to go further. So I’m going to try to find as many Black writers groups as I can, contact them directly, and encourage them to submit to Fireside on an ad-hoc basis. What does this mean? It means that if I find out about a writer group6, I’ll get in touch with them personally and tell them two things: one, send me whatever you have ready, right now. I’ll make Julia and Elsa read it7. Two: I’ll tell them explicitly when we’ll be opening up again for submissions, and I will send them a reminder directly a week before the submissions period starts.

I’m hoping that by bulking up Black representation in our submissions, and putting work directly in front of our editors, we’ll move in the right direction. These ideally aren’t the only things we’ll try, but these are the things we’re going to try first.

This type of work is a discipline over time in pursuit of increasingly improving conditions, no different than any of the other work we do in pursuit of excellence in this field. It’s also a process that should constantly change as we reassess what works and what doesn’t, and as we listen to new perspectives. We’ll see how it goes, adjust tack, and I’ll report back next year.

About the author

Pablo Defendini is the publisher of Fireside Magazine.

  1. It’s not straight, cis, abled, or male, either, but let’s put that aside for a minute—not for too long, though! 

  2. And so-called ‘Fandom’ 

  3. For that matter—and for the avoidance of all doubt—neither am I. I’m Puerto Rican, which means I’m Latinx/Hispanic/Whatever, so I’m technically a ‘person of color’ or a ‘marginalized person’ as defined in the United States. But the bulk of my ancestors are white European, and I enjoy a metric shit-ton of white privilege. This stuff is complicated. 

  4. We definitely have a plan to, though. This is a slightly embarrassing sore spot for me, personally—at some point, you may have heard me shouting about how people should get paid for their work. 

  5. What kind of language, you ask? You should find some PoC or Black writers, show them your guidelines, and ask them directly. Go on, get to work. 

  6. Not MFA programs, actual honest to goodness writers groups. Got a group to recommend? Do shoot me a note, please. 

  7. They’re gonna love me for this, I’m sure. 

About the author

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