The Only Way Forward is With No Names @iamajanibrown @WalidahImarisha #afrofuturism #worldcon #sasquanPosted: August 23, 2015
Edit: Walidah Imarisha and I had a discussion in Twitter after I released this piece and I wanted to add her thoughts and part of our discussion. I’ve added it to the end so that you’ll have context but I mention it here because her thoughts are the ones that you must read before you leave this piece. Never listen to me when you can be listening to the people who are living this and fighting it.
I’m currently at the World Science Fiction Convention in Spokane, Washington state. As always, my focus is education and (no surprise to long term readers) equity. I’ve had the opportunity to attend some amazing panels. One was on the experience of women in art, publishing and game production of female characters for video gaming. Others were discussing issues such as non-white presence in fiction (#AfroFuturism with Professor Ajani Brown) and a long discussion of the changes between the Marvel Universe in film and comic form, as well as how we can use Science Fiction & Fantasy in the classroom to address social issues without having to directly engage the (often depressing) news sources. Both the latter panels were excellent and, in the Marvel one, Tom Smith, Annalee Flower Horne, Cassandra Rose Clarke, and Professor Brown, there was a lot of discussion of both the new Afro-American characters in movies and TV (Deathlok, Storm and Falcon) as well as how much they had changed from the comics.
I’m going to discuss what I saw and lead towards my point: that all assessment of work for its publishing potential should, where it is possible and sensible, be carried out blind, without knowledge of who wrote it.
I’ve written on this before, both here (where I argue that current publishing may not be doing what we want for the long term benefit of the community and the publishers themselves) and here, where we identify that systematic biases against people who are not western men is rampant and apparently almost inescapable as long as we can see a female name. Very recently, this Jezebel article identified that changing the author’s name on a manuscript, from female to male, not only included response rate and reduced time waiting, it changed the type of feedback given. The woman’s characters were “feisty”, the man’s weren’t. Same characters. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re being sexist or not, it doesn’t even matter (from the PNAS study in the second link) if you’re a man or a woman, the presence of a female name changes the level of respect attached to a work and also the level of reward/appreciation offered an assessment process. There are similar works that clearly identify that this problem is even worse for People of Colour. (Look up Intersectionality if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) I’m not saying that all of these people are trying to discriminate but the evidence we have says that social conditioning that leads to sexism is powerful and dominating.
Now let’s get back to the panels. The first panel “Female Characters in Video Games” with Andrea Stewart, Maurine Starkey, Annalee Flower Horne, Lauren Roy and Tanglwyst de Holloway. While discussing the growing market for female characters, the panel identified the ongoing problems and discrimination against women in the industry. 22% of professionals in the field are women, which sounds awful until you realise that this figure was 11% in 2009. However, Maurine had had her artwork recognised as being “great” when someone thought her work was a mans and “oh, drawn like a woman” when the true owner was revealed. And this is someone being explicit. The message of the panel was very positive: things were getting better. However, it was obvious that knowing someone was a woman changed how people valued their work or even how their activities were described. “Casual gaming” is often a term that describes what women do; if women take up a gaming platform (and they are a huge portion of the market) then it often gets labelled “casual gaming”.
So, point 1, assessing work at a professional level is apparently hard to do objectively when we know the gender of people. Moving on.
The first panel on Friday dealt with AfroFuturism, which looks at the long-standing philosophical and artistic expression of alternative realities relating to people of African Descent. This can be traced to the Egyptian origins of mystic and astrological architecture and religions, through tribal dances and mask ceremonies of other parts of Africa, to the P.Funk mothership and science-fiction works published in the middle of vinyl albums. There are strong notions of carving out or refining identity in order to break oppressive narratives and re-establish agency. AfroFuturism looks into creating new futures and narratives, also allowing for reinvention to escape the past, which is a powerful tool for liberation. People can be put into boxes and they want to break out to liberate themselves and, too often, if we know that someone can be put into a box then we have a nasty tendency (implicit cognitive bias) to jam them back in. No wonder, AfroFuturism is seen as a powerful force because it is an assault on the whole mean, racist narrative that does things like call groups of white people “protesters” or “concerned citizens”, and groups of black people “rioters”.
(If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve seen a fair bit of this. If you’re not following me on Twitter, @nickfalkner is the way to go.)
So point 2, if we know someone’s race, then we are more likely to enforce a narrative that is stereotypical and oppressive when we are outside of their culture. Writers inside the culture can write to liberate and to redefine identity and this probably means we need to see more of this.
I want to focus on the final panel, “Saving the World through Science Fiction: SF in the Classroom”, with Ben Cartwright, Ajani Brown (again!), Walidah Imarisha and Charlotte Lewis Brown. There are many issues facing our students on a day-to-day basis and it can be very hard to engage with some of them because it is confronting to have to address your own biases when you talk about the real world. But you can talk about racism with aliens, xenophobia with a planetary invasion, the horrors of war with apocalyptic fiction… and it’s not the nightly news. People can confront their biases without confronting them. That’s a very powerful technique for changing the world. It’s awesome.
Point 3, then, is that narratives are important and, with careful framing, we can discuss very complicated things and get away from the sheer weight of biases and reframe a discussion to talk about difficult things, without having to resort to violence or conflict. This reinforces Point 2, that we need more stories from other viewpoints to allow us to think about important issues.
We are a narrative and a mythic species: storytelling allows us to explain our universe. Storytelling defines our universe, whether it’s religion, notions of family or sense of state.
What I take from all of these panels is that many of the stories that we want to be reading, that are necessary for the healing and strengthening of our society, should be coming from groups who are traditionally not proportionally represented: women, People of Colour, Women of Colour, basically anyone who isn’t recognised as a white man in the Western Tradition. This isn’t to say that everything has to be one form but, instead, that we should be putting systems in place to get the best stories from as wide a range as possible, in order to let SF&F educate, change and grow the world. This doesn’t even touch on the Matthew Effect, where we are more likely to positively value a work if we have an existing positive relationship with the author, even if said work is not actually very good.
And this is why, with all of the evidence we have with cognitive biases changing the way people think about work based on the name, that the most likely approach to improve the range of stories that we will end up publishing is to judge as many works as we can without knowing who wrote it. If we wanted to take it further, we could even ask people to briefly explain why they did or didn’t like it. The comments on the Jezebel author’s book make it clear that, with those comments, we can clearly identify a bias in play. “It’s not for us” and things like that are not sufficiently transparent for us to see if the system is working. (Apologies to the hard-working editors out there, I know this is a big demand. Anonymity is a great start. 🙂 )
Now some books/works, you have to know who wrote it; my textbook, for example, depends upon my academic credentials and my published work, hence my identify is a part of the validity of academic work. But, for short fiction, for books? Perhaps it’s time to look at all of the evidence and to look at all of the efforts to widen the range of voices we hear and consider a commitment to anonymous review so that SF&F will be a powerful force for thought and change in the decades to come.
Thank you to all of the amazing panellists. You made everyone think and sent out powerful and positive messages. Thank you, so much!
Edit: As mentioned above, Walidah and I had a discussion that extended from this on Twitter. Walidah’s point was about changing the system so that we no longer have to hide identity to eliminate bias and I totally agree with this. Our goal has to be to create a space where bias no longer exists, where the assumption that the hierarchical dominance is white, cis, straight and male is no longer the default. Also, while SF&F is a great tool, it does not replace having the necessary and actual conversations about oppression. Our goal should never be to erase people of colour and replace it with aliens and dwarves just because white people don’t want to talk about race. While narrative engineering can work, many people do not transfer the knowledge from analogy to reality and this is why these authentic discussions of real situations must also exist. When we sit purely in analog, we risk reinforcing inequality if we don’t tie it back down to Earth.
I am still trying to attack a biased system to widen the narrative to allow more space for other voices but, as Walidah notes, this is catering to the privileged, rather than empowering the oppressed to speak their stories. And, of course, talking about oppression leads those on top of the hierarchy to assume you are oppressed. Walidah mentioned Katherine Burdekin & Swastika Nights as part of this. Our goal must be to remove bias. What I spoke about above is one way but it is very much born of the privileged and we cannot lose sight of the necessity of empowerment and a constant commitment to ensuring the visibility of other voices and hearing the stories of the oppressed from them, not passed through white academics like me.
Seriously, if you can read me OR someone else who has a more authentic connection? Please read that someone else.
Walidah’s recent work includes, with adrienne maree brown, editing the book of 20 short stories I have winging its way to me as we speak, “Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements” and I am so grateful that she took the time to respond to this post and help me (I hope) to make it stronger.