Hey, hey! I got whitemansplained!

10 Aug

(Part of this post originally appeared in the Literature section at MyMedia,
as part of the race in literature thread.
I’ve added further commentary below the cut)

An excellent, if long, follow up, to the Fireside report on SSF and black authors, with some pointed answers to oft asked questions, written by a Black, published author of SSF short stories:

Hi. I’m a small time SFF writer. I’m black. I also submit short stories to paying SFF markets. Most times I’m not successful in selling my stories. A few wonderful times, I am. Do I see lots of stories published in top SFF markets with faces like mine? No. And believe me, I search for them. It’s not the most scientific process: Are the characters black? Do I detect an inference to anything black-ish? Hmm… that author’s name sounds black, lemee google em up right quick. Again, not exactly a science. But it’s what I got. Are the gatekeepers at these SFF markets black? Rarely. At least rare enough that when one or two are, they show up in black SFF spaces to announce with hopeful desperation: “I’m working at so-and-so. Please, please, please submit your stories because the slush is whiter than a Gods of Egypt, Noah, Exodus triple-feature!”

Because if black SFF writers are being underrepresented in short story markets, then SFF as a whole is going to be less representative. Think I’m exagerrating? Okay. Here’s a neat trick: name five black SFF writers off the top of your head that you’ve read or even heard about–whose last names aren’t Butler, Delany, Okorafor or Jemisin. If you struggling, best keep reading.

When black writers are excluded from these markets not only do we lose out on connections and networking, but simple cold hard cash. That’s money that might fund a trip to a con, or to attend a writer’s workshop, or a better laptop/software, or the space and time to write, or rent, or a basic incentive to publish–cuz altruism is noble, but it don’t pay none. Given the long history of wealth exclusion for black people in America, there’s a discomfiting knowledge that under representation in some of these paying SFF markets creates a type of financial inequity that is essentially shuttering black creativity.

(7) Maybe “race” isn’t the only reason your story is rejected. I actually saw someone write this. With words. Thanks for splainin’ how submitting and rejection works Sherlock. No one is saying that race is the sole reason black writers are not being published in mainstream SFF. This seems, in fact, to be a sly way of making the “quality” argument: the universal lament of concern trolls to just about every appeal for diversity, in everything. When I get rejected, and it happens lots, I understand all sorts of factors go into that. Maybe the story doesn’t fit their needs. Maybe it’s not that good. Maybe they’re pretty stocked up on steampunk pirate stories. Issues of race and diversity are just one added factor. I don’t just automatically say “Bet I was rejected because I’m black!” That’s just what you see in wack 1980s and 1990s sitcoms and movies. In real life, black folks go through entire mental quantum field models of self-doubt before even raising the “R” word–if only because we expect to be finger-wagged by a society that almost never ever believes us. When you hear a black person “cry” racism, trust that we done already quadruple-checked our math. But I also understand that “quality” is as arbitrary as anything else.

[b] The burden of change here is on SFF markets not on black writers. I repeat, the burden of change is on SFF markets not black writers. Don’t tell black people to open up their own SFF markets. Don’t say, “well you guys gotta submit more.” If SFF markets want diverse stories, they’re going to have to do more than simply state it and then wait patiently for it to happen. Words and intentions are nice. But without concerted action there’s not going to be much change. SFF markets are going to have to take part in engaged activism to bring in black writers, to increase the submissions of black writers and to publish more black writers. It ain’t gonna happen by osmosis.

Seriously, go read the whole thing–if I could, I would quote the entire thing here, because it addresses all the many explanations and justifications given to exclude Black authors, and pretty much all minorities, from mainstream genres across the board–the same argument can easily be made when talking about romance, mystery, historical fiction…You name it, think about it, and you’ll see just how true this holds for literature in a country that is not homogeneous in its makeup.

~ * ~

I have mentioned here before that I often get no responses to posts like this over at MyMedia, which is not unexpected. After all, that forum is primarily a community and entertainment gathering place for people to talk about tv shows and movies, celebrities, music, sport, etc. However, me being me, I continue to write posts and link to pieces I think are important for people to read.

Occasionally, someone will ask a question, or post a comment, and, if I’m very lucky, a conversation will take place.

That is not what happened here.

First response:¹

It took me around a decade to find out Evelyn Waugh wasn’t a woman. How prevalent can racism really be in such a faceless industry?
I’d be interested to see someone experiment by shopping around their stories using ‘typical’ white, black, asian, latino names, etc.

My head tilted, while I pondered if he had bothered to follow the link, as this had been addressed pretty specifically in the essay I had just linked to. My answer:

The presumption here is, that the only difference in writing is the name attached to the manuscript. Spoiler: it’s not.
From the same piece I quoted above:

In his editorial, Troy Wiggins puts it succinctly: “A magazine that wants to publish black authors will have a masthead that includes black editors with varying levels of experience in the field and the power to influence the overall tone of the magazine.”

You may say, but do we actually need someone black in the editorial and reading staff to assure diversity? Can’t well-meaning staff of ANY background do this? My answer: Well, judging by the numbers in this report, ain’t been working out so well . Listen, I literally (LI-TRULL-LY) know of instances where stories written by black SFF authors were lifted out of the doldrums of the slush only by the keen eyes of black readers who had to painstakingly explain cultural and social identifiers that non-black readers and editors just didn’t get. I have recently sold stories featuring characters of color where the editors were also persons of color. And I’ve pondered if those editors were someone else (even very nice, smiley, well-meaning someone elses) if those stories would even be given a chance? The line on being published or not can be just that fickle–about who’s sitting at the table. Mikki Kendall in her essay points to as much: “many Black writers are telling stories that are unfamiliar to white editors. The context clues of Black culture may slip right past an editor who has no connection to the community the writer hails from, or to the cultures that the writer chooses to include.”

Case in point, back in 2014 Troy Wiggins’s story “A Score of Roses” puzzled a reviewer at Strange Horizons, for its use of black Southern dialect. For the reviewer this essential part of the story proved to be nothing more than an annoying “literary trick which works perhaps one time out of a hundred.” This was lamented as “a shame, because the story underneath all the “chil’ren”s and “yo’self”s is charming.” I saw an amazing story that ingeniously translocated and transliterated Elven folklore into a black Southern setting–both geographic and culturally. That reviewer only saw a “literary trick.” And that’s why diversity behind the scenes is important.

Second response, same person:

Basically I don’t see any problem with people starting publishing houses catering to different ethnicities. According to your sources, us white people are doing it already and it seems to be going well for us.

At this point, I’m sure my regular readers could see the steam coming out of my ears. I slept on it, before I indulged in behaviour that’s frowned upon over there. My response:

I’ve been trying to decide if you are being serious, just flippant, or sarcastic.
Whatever, I’ll play.
Separate ain’t equal.
Publishing, particularly in genre fiction, purports to cater to all readers. It is not a niche business, catering to specific needs for a specific group. Otherwise, all those famous literary works by mostly dead white dudes would not be required reading for all students, of all types, across the country.
Then, there’s the issue of exposure. Just because the author is not white does not automatically means the story isn’t of the same quality and scope as that of white authors. However, having that story published in a small, niche publication will mean extremely limited exposure. Having it appear in a traditionally mainstream publication will bring that story to the attention of many more readers–where it will truly succeed or fail on its own merit, and not on the size of the market.
But then, all this, and more, is addressed in the piece I linked to, just as the numbers are evident in the Fireside report I linked to in the original post, with several points elaborated on in the essays that accompany it.

As I type this, he has not commented further, but hey, the day is young–in my experience, whitemansplainers rarely get discouraged by facts.

~ * ~

¹Note: I’m not quoting his handle; let his words speak for themselves. However, as I’ve interacted with this person online for close to a decade, I’m comfortable saying that he’s a straight white cis male, who at least lives in the USofA.

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4 Responses to “Hey, hey! I got whitemansplained!”

  1. Alex Hurst 11/08/2016 at 1:15 PM #

    I have a terrible time with names to begin with, but I wouldn’t be able to name five authors. That commenter is frustrating. As a slush reader (I’m white, obviously, and part of the LGBT community) I came across a lot of LGBT that was likely not written by an LGBT. Sometimes they crafted a genuine narrative that was seamless in the fiction space; sometimes, they would mix things like lesbian = polyamory like the two were not, in fact, separate things. To a certain extent, people are limited by their cultural and economic biases, and that’s why it is SO important that the publishing house itself be diverse. A wider net will catch more varieties of fish in the ocean, while a single “type” of person will use the same hook and lure. An even bigger problem that your post presented to me was “If I were reading a POC narrative, would I even be able to pick out the genuine from the contrived, like I could with LGBT narratives?” Something for me to think about.

    • azteclady 11/08/2016 at 1:22 PM #

      Here’s the thing that more people from minority/marginalized groups are better at: acknowledging that we have biases, and that we don’t know what we don’t know. And, also more than others, we are willing to be told we don’t know, and to learn.

      This guy? He can’t even concede that much.

      • Alex Hurst 11/08/2016 at 1:27 PM #

        It’s really unfortunate. Though, props to you, you definitely kept your cool (on screen) better than I would have. Way back when, when I “met” you on my post for Hale vs. Harris, I was foaming at the mouth with some of the comments that were being left, and at that time, it had little to do with polarizing issues like minority or marginalized groups. Just reviewer vs. author, lol.

      • azteclady 11/08/2016 at 1:32 PM #

        It’s a work in progress (the keeping my cool thing); sitting on my hands helps.

        A lot.

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