Benjamin Rosenbaum wrote a note the other day essentially announcing his re-entry into the blogosphere with a note On Blogging that threatened to write an incomplete and imperfectly articulated essay. He did not mention that it would be On RaceFail ’09; I think those were the good old days before I had heard of the thing, anyway. I still know almost nothing about it, and although I found his essay provocative, I am going to attempt to avoid the provocation, and instead write about…
Well, see, here’s the thing. Browsing through the whole controversy, I was struck by this thought: the SF/F community exists, and I am not in it. This may not seem like a startling conclusion to you, but it was to me. When I was a teenager, I thought of myself as a fan, possibly a trufan; I went to the local conventions, dressed in costume, and talked about books and movies and television shows with other fans. Or fen. I wound up being co-president of the specfic fan group at college, although (and this is a whole nother minefield about community) the group wasn’t particularly interested in speculative fiction. But anyway. At the time, I thought (or I think now that I thought then) that there was a sf/f community, and that I was in it.
Later, when I drifted away from attending conventions, I realized that my high school con attendance was really a group of a dozen or so teenagers, taking advantage of an excuse to go to a hotel for a weekend and generally not interacting with anything bigger than ourselves. It was a community, if you will, but not an sf/f community, just a community of a bunch of teenagers. And I became convinced that in truth, there was no sf/f community in any significant sense. Oh, there were people who went to conventions and voted for the Hugos, but not very many, and there were people who wrote and published speculative fiction, but not all that many of those, and not all that many of those were fans, really, in the sense that I understood the term. And lots of people read (or really, watched) science fiction and fantasy, and almost none of them were fans, in the sense that I understood the term. So the idea that there was a community, in any real sense involving communication and connection, bridging, common interests and goals, cooperation, any of that, well, I don’t know that I ever said ain’t no sech thing, but pretty close.
But it turns out that there reallio trulio is a sf/f community. And that I’m not it. Because one of the ways that you can tell if there’s an actual community is if Big Issues come up that people within the community talk to each other about. Did you hear about the Davidsons? is one difference between a neighborhood and a community. And clearly, people were stopping each other on the street (well, the virtual street) and asking if they had heard. And not only had I not heard about the Davidsons, I continued to have not heard Davidsons while the gossip became about what the Jim Melton said to his wife about the Davidsons, and what she said back. Not that I mean to trivialize the topic, but then you can’t really assume that the gossip about the Davidsons is trivial or shallow, either. My point when you look at the dynamic from the point of view that it is All About YHB, the overwhelming conclusion is that I don’t know the Davidsons, nor the Meltons, despite having metaphorically lived down the block from them for years.
Now, one of the things I’ve recognized about the sf/f community, even when I didn’t really believe it existed, is that it is very much concerned with issues of exclusion and inclusion. Which is why the plural of fan is fen, right? I mean, there’s a lot of secret handshake bullshit, ghu and infernokrusher and rot-13 and zines and all the inside jokes that have come and gone over the years. And no, not all of them have been purely fanstuff, but the aggregation is clearly baffling to mundanes, and while I won’t say that such is the point, really, it’s not not the point, either, from the point of view of the insider who gets to really accomplish something by getting inside. On the other hand, this is scarcely unique to the sf/f community.
OK, so I’m getting, slowly, to my point here. Because I have one. Really. I just needed to get it out of my satchel, and there was all this other stuff on top of it. But I’m nearly there, now. Promise. Anybody still here?
So. While happily ignoring everything else about this whole business, what happened to the Davidsons is that a bunch of people were told that the sf/f community is perceived by racial minorities as unwelcoming to racial minorities. That is, racist. Now, as Ben Rosenbaum was saying up there, the accusation of racism, particularly of institutional racism, of community racism, is a very tender spot for us privileged white people, and we squawked. (Of course, by saying we, I am not claiming membership in the community that I was just talking about not being a member of, I’m just saying that had I been part of the we, I would presumably have been part of the squawking white we).
So, there I was, thinking about what Ben said, and about the fact that I wasn’t part of the squawking white we or any of the we at all, and I was thinking about other communities that are similar in some sense to the sf/f community. In that they exist, I mean. One of them that came to mind immediately is Scottish Dancers; while a lot of it is just people going to their local groups and having a good time, there is a national and international community, as evidenced by the fact that when something happens to the Davidsons, people hear about it. Heck, I hear about it, sometimes, and I don’t strathspey. And you know? I suspect that there are people who feel that Scottish Dancing is not welcoming to racial minorities. And that there are people who would seriously squawk about the idea that the community is racist. I mean, seriously. Of course they would.
Of the communities that I am a part of myself, there’s… let’s see, I’m not really good at it, honestly. There’s the Jewish community, which (a) is not looking for new members, other than generationally, which, you know, is different from racism in important ways that are really difficult to explain, and (2) really does, in places, go into the neighborhoods and the churches and try to have bridges between communities, but again, it’s a lot of work, and we have day jobs, and it’s easier to remember that stuff in February than it is in September. And we have a really heavy tradition of inclusion and exclusion. Not perhaps a good comparison with other communities, but I thought I’d mention it.
What else? I work in a library, and am slowly starting to keep up with what is happening at the Davidson branch, and surely there are lots of libraries that are having issues with inclusion and exclusion. I like to think that libraries are less likely to squawk when called on the barriers to minority groups of various kinds, and more likely to put effort into building bridges. Because, you know, libraries. Still, you know it happens: there’s an accusation that a library is not welcoming to the new immigrants to the neighborhood (whether those are from overseas or from the other side of town), or just as likely the local patrons and volunteers get all whatnot, and the story gets written up in one of the library journals or sent around on a listserv, and a RaceFail would definitely be a possibility.
Stretching a point, let’s call community theater a community; I might hear about something that happened to the Connecticut Davidsons, but probably not if the Davidsons were in Ohio, but let’s stretch the point. Is community theater welcoming to racial minorities? In a pig’s eye, is it. I mean, look at it. Look at us. We may talk a good game (or we may not) about race-blind casting or whatnot, but when it comes down to it, we’re a bunch of white college-educated people who would have to work like dogs to make our group anything but a bunch of white college-educated people, and frankly, we’re working pretty hard just to put on a show in the old barn. We’re not going to go into the neighborhoods and find black or asian or latino volunteers, and we’re not going to find babysitters for those volunteers, nor give them the extra help they might need approaching the plays because they didn’t have the college theater experience the rest of us did, and we’re not going to choose plays that are going to appeal to black or asian or latino audiences because we are having enough trouble selling tickets to the shows we like and that have parts that are perfect for us. Which means that we’re going to stay a bunch of white college-educated people, who are largely comfortable with each other, and are certainly not racist. No, no. Just busy.
It seems to me that it’s really hard for people within the community to really know how that community appears to people outside the community. After all, the political Parties spend millions of dollars trying to figure out what they look like to Independents, and look what they look like. And I think—I think—that when you can assume that your community looks good to the people outside, that’s a good deal of what is meant by privilege.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,