The science fiction and fantasy community has a problem with race. More specifically, SFF publishing as a whole is and continues to be antiblack.
It seems extreme to put it so bluntly, but I’m tired. I’m tired of editors who hide their bias behind “quality,” I’m tired of the only opportunities for black writers happening the two or three times a year that POC get to Destroy something, and I’m tired of diversity statements that are lip service and little else.
Black Lives Matter? Only when it helps your personal brand.
Folks in SFF like to point to successful black authors as though they prove we’ve somehow evolved beyond the shadow of #Racefail, because it’s a popular fallacy that if a single black person can succeed then we’ve obviously moved past institutionalized racism.
But an analysis of 2015’s short fiction gives lie to that truth. While a few authors have managed to find some measure of success, far more have been locked out of the industry. And the ratios point to more than just an issue of opportunity.
The SFF community needs to ask: why? Why are only a few magazines publishing the majority of the SFF short fiction from black authors while almost half are publishing none at all? The issues are systemic, and to get to a more equitable disbursement and real opportunities for black writers, we need to be honest and frank about the root causes of the problem and how to fix them.
“It’s All About Quality”
This is the single-biggest excuse we hear whenever analysis points to systemic problems. It’s kind of sad how unoriginal it is. Whether you’re writing for children or adults, whenever there’s a poor showing of any historically marginalized group, the issue of quality is the first one brought up.
More specifically: “I’d love to acquire more authors from [marginalized group], but the stories I get just aren’t of a very good quality!”
Quality is a slippery metric when it comes to writing, because an editor’s idea of quality tends to be tied very closely to their tastes and beliefs. If your tastes are heavily influenced by the European fantasy tradition, then it’s pretty unlikely you’d find something to love in an Afrocentric high fantasy, especially if you tend to believe that only black people are interested in reading about black people. Meaning: editors need to look critically at what they’re acquiring and interrogate their biases if they want a more representative list. Like Rihanna says: you gotta work work work work work. Because the problem might not be the short story in front of you, it might be you. And if you aren’t considering how your biases are informing your choices, how can you change things?
You Don’t Really Want Us Here
SFF has been antiblack for so long that it’s really hard for authors to imagine that the community wants them here. Look at the write-ups for Readercon and Wiscon (really, go Google it. I’ll wait). It’s no secret that there’s a low-level hostility toward black faces in SFF spaces. But that hostility extends to black SFF stories as well, as exemplified by this review of Long Hidden.
Many black SFF authors opt to self-publish rather than face this hostility. Or we’ll submit to magazines that have featured black authors in the past, places where we know we’re welcome. And really, can you blame us? If the SFF community wants to welcome and embrace blerds (black nerds), then it needs to work to ensure that cons are inclusive. And we need reviewers able to understand that stories written in black vernacular serve a purpose, that the language isn’t just a distraction from an otherwise cute story. It is part and parcel of the authenticity of the story.
Separate Isn’t Equal
As much as I love the POC Destroy [Something] books, they are emblematic of the problem. The established SFF short fiction markets are so unwelcoming to PoC in general and black authors in particular that we have to build our own, separate spaces. But separate isn’t equal, and the separation of opportunities for authors of color both ghettoizes these authors into a niche interest and gives more mainstream markets a pass for not being inclusive. After all, why do you need to think critically about your list if you know there’s going to be an anthology set aside for the people you’re ignoring? Short answer: you don’t.
If You Build It, We Will Come
Promoting diversity and inclusion isn’t a passive state, it’s an active one. If you aren’t getting submissions from black authors, then you need to wonder why. Look at your list, at your brand. If there is a diversity statement on your submission website but you aren’t actively campaigning for more submissions from black authors, you’ve done nothing. Do you want better representation in your SFF? Well, it’s going to take work. And not by black people. Don’t put the onus on us. Put it on yourself.
Acquire short fiction by black authors, especially fiction that challenges your comfort. Support successful black authors and short fiction magazines publishing those authors. Challenge the idea that black people don’t write SFF by questioning panel line-ups at cons and events. Be vocal about your support, and work to promote those that are already doing the work.
Members of the SFF community need to work to make their spaces—literary and conference and review—welcoming and inclusive of black fans and authors. We’re here, and we’re waiting.
About the author
Justina Ireland enjoys dark chocolate, dark humor, and is not too proud to admit that she’s still afraid of the dark. She lives with her husband, kid, and dog in Pennsylvania. She is the author of Vengeance Bound and Promise of Shadows, both currently available from Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers. Her essay “Me, Some Random Guy, and the Army of Darkness” appears in The V-Word, an anthology of personal essays by women about having sex for the first time, published by Beyond Words (S&S). And her forthcoming book Dread Nation will be available in 2018 from the HarperCollins imprint Balzer and Bray. You can find Justina on Twitter as @justinaireland or visit her website justinaireland.com.
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