N. K. Jemisin (nojojojo) wrote,
  • Mood: cold

Operating in hostile territory.

I give up. They win.

I've been sitting here through the resurgence of RaceFail 2009, trying to figure out what to say. Feeling guilty because I haven't said anything thus far. And when I've tried, I've found myself watering down what I really want to say more and more, because I am afraid.


I have no day job right now. When I do, I work in academia; reputation is the most important currency there. But for the time being I'm a full time writer. I'd like to stay one, so it's my hope that my book will sell well when it comes out. Whether it does is dependent on a number of factors that have nothing to do with my skill as a writer. The number and location of reviews I get. Awards I get nominated for. Blurbs. Word of mouth. All factors which rely on one thing: how much people with power and influence in this field like me.

I've spoken out against incidental racism in SF, and against the ongoing racism of exclusion and misappropriation that so few in this field seem willing to acknowledge, let alone correct. I've done this through both of my online "personas" -- N. K. Jemisin and nojojojo. I've spoken about this stuff at cons and in writing groups. I've offered myself up as a guinea pig and a comforting listener to all manner of stupidity. Not because I want to help all the white writers out there who are wrestling with this issue, but for my own sanity. This is what I need to do to write in this genre and still respect myself in the morning.

Lately I've come to realize that I cannot continue to do this without serious, possibly fatal, risk to my livelihood -- writing career and day job too.

Throughout this conversation I have seen insults, dismissals, threats of retaliation, and actual retaliation from people with a great deal of power and influence in this field. That's what makes this RaceFail, IMO, even though I think a number of people have taken away good things from this discussion. If any of those are also people with power/influence in the SF genre, I have no idea, because most of them haven't said anything about it. So as a result, I'm left with the overwhelming impression that SF fandom contains a lot of intelligent, courageous people who are willing to talk about their issues, sometimes painfully. While the SF establishment -- editors, authors -- needs to be collectively taken out and shot.

This impression is false, I know. There are many, many editors and authors out there who care about this stuff because it's good for them, and good for the field, not because they're trying to score PC brownie points. I've met and worked with lots of them. But it's really hard to remember they're out there when the people talking loudest are the ones denying, obfuscating, supporting, and inflicting the very same racism I've spent years trying to fight.

I have always known that it would be difficult to write in this genre as a black woman. SF/F has so firmly established itself as the genre of white male power fantasies that in I'm often ashamed to admit my involvement with it to other PoC, and many of them look at me with pity when I do. The dearth of industry folk like me, of characters like me who aren't caricatures, of stories that derive from my experiences, was a warning sign -- but until recently, I assumed it was primarily a sign of benign neglect. Most authors in this field are white, most editors publishing are white, most readers are white; naturally they want to see stories by and for themselves, I thought. I took to heart the age-old response of the racist to complaints about the pallor of the genre: so write something yourself. I did.

But what I've lately come to realize is that the absence of writers, editors, and characters of color in this genre is not benign neglect. It is a purposeful and very malignant thing. This is hostile, unsafe territory for me, and a disturbingly large number of people think that's just hunky dory. There are people in this genre who are perfectly happy with the way it's been, and who do not want it to change. Those people have fought hard in this debate to maintain the status quo. And they have lately proven that they're willing to use more than words in the fight. Some anti-racists I respect have been threatened with physical harm and verbal abuse; they've been outed, lied to, served with cease & desist letters, and threatened with lawsuits. They've had minions sicced on them, and sockpuppets harass them, and bits of their private lives -- some real, some conjured out of the aether -- used against them as weapons.

Why? Because they saw behavior, writing, or speech they thought was racist, and they complained about it. That's all.

I've done some of that. If my writing career is successful I'll do more: I will write characters of color and other underrepresented groups who aren't stereotypes or tokens; I will prove by example that it is possible to write inclusively and still be entertaining; I will imagine futures full of brown folk, and pasts too, and write them; I will encourage young writers of color through workshops and mentoring so that there can be more of us; I will join other efforts that have the same goals.

But to do that, I'm going to have to protect myself. Because if there's one thing RaceFail has taught me, it's that there are some crazy motherfuckers out there, and they do not behave in logical or ethical ways. I am afraid of them, as one should be of people who have proven themselves dangerous and irrational. If they're willing to do this much over a critique, how the hell will they react to someone doing what I'm doing? I've been involved in internet race debates often enough to see the possible consequences: blacklisting, phone calls to workplaces, stalking, frivolous lawsuits, worse. I don't have any money. I have no rich husband to fall back on; my family doesn't have much in the way of generational wealth. I have to write, and sell, to eat. Failing that, I have to find other work. Can I do that, if my efforts to blog against racism trigger a bunch of powerful, irrational people to declare vendetta against me? Or if it causes rational-but-dangerously-regressive people to actively impede my career?

I don't know. Maybe. But my life is hard enough; I'm not sure I can handle making it harder.

Then there's the example offered by other established writers of color in this field. They're very quiet; have you noticed that? They talk about this stuff too, but sparingly. They spend the bulk of their time doing what I'm trying to do -- writing inclusively, doing it well, teaching, leading by example. But they don't talk much in the blogosphere. I'm beginning to realize why not.

I'm going to have to become quieter too.

I am a coward for doing this, though; I'm very aware of that. By allowing myself to be silenced to any degree, I'm letting people down and probably losing some folks' respect. I sure as hell am losing some respect for myself. But the way I see it, I've got two choices: hate myself a little but keep writing and publishing, or respect myself and torpedo my career.

I am not safe right now. I will not be for a long time, if ever. So my choice is clear.

Either way, I have to say: I hate the whole of SF/Fdom quite a bit right now. Hopefully that feeling will fade one day.

ETA: I really, really appreciate all the comments being posted offering support and condolences and reassurance. Seriously, ya'll; it's nice to be loved. But I should be clearer; I'm not sad or in low spirits right now. I am angry. I'm withdrawing to protect myself from crazy people, but also because my rage has turned a familiar flavor of cold and I am feeling the beginnings of true hatred, and I need to protect myself from that too.

Again, this isn't to say that I don't want you posting supportive comments; they do help. (So do the promises to buy my book when it's out. ^_-) Just saying I don't need cheering up or anything. I'm OK, and will be more so as I metabolize this. Thanks, seriously.
Tags: race in sf
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