Progress Isn’t Completion

I’ve been thinking about racism and diversity lately, especially in the context of speculative fiction. SF has a long and storied tradition of diversity through a monoculture of whiteness. By and large you have white males writing for an audience of white males, and at this point some of the associated attitudes are all but encoded in the community’s DNA. You’ve got Tolkien with his Easterlings and Southrons, which was echoed by a number of writers such as David Eddings. You’ve got Harlan Ellison groping Connie Willis at the Hugo award ceremony. In more recent events you’ve got conversations about diversity within the SFWA, the professional organization for writers of speculative fiction, quickly reaching the “I think Fred and Jim are black” level of discourse. Then there’s the column by Dave Truesdale that led to an even crazier discussion.

In light of all of this, The Angry Black Woman discussed diversity in fiction markets, specifically speculative fiction, and how to improve it.

In both instances, two editors who differ in age, experience, and probably ethnic or religious background said nearly exactly the same thing to me. To wit: ” I didn’t know (or care) if [the people who submitted to my markets] were black, white, purple, or polka-dot” (Resnick) or “I don’t choose stories based on race or culture or gender, I just choose the best stories” (an editor friend).

I really, really hate this excuse – for several reasons. The first of which is that it gives the appearance of being reasonable, thereby shutting down further discussion or debate. In writing, only the story should matter, not the writer! It also assumes that the submission pile represents an adequate and accurate cross-section of writers and stories. Therefore, by picking the best, the editor is automatically being fair.

The appearance of fairness, though, is false. That’s not readily apparent. Thus, anyone who disagrees seems, to the casual listener, unreasonable and strident.

I submit that I am neither unreasonable nor strident (at the moment). I hope that means people will hear me out.

Go read the whole thing. I mean it. She discusses why saying “I’m color-blind” or “I’m publishing the best stories I get” don’t cut it.

What all of this drives home to me is that I continue to benefit from the privilege of my heritage. I am a straight white Christian male. The way American society is structured works to my benefit. I’m not earning seventy-seven cents instead of a dollar due to my gender. The police aren’t as likely to search me if they pull me over.

Oftentimes in these discussions, someone says, “I’m not privileged! If I were, I’d be a lot better off!” I’ve been guilty of thinking that myself. I was wrong. My privilege shows up in surprising ways. Take today’s NPR report on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Minority Health announcing two initiatives to increase the number of minorities in clinical trials. Minorities are extremely underrepresented in trials. To take one example, in clinical cancer trials between January 2003 and June 2005, 88.8 percent of those enrolled were whites. That’s crucial because clinical trials lead to new medicines and treatments. We’re in a situation where any differences among groups due to race, differences that could lead to ineffective treatments and death, won’t be found.

Now tell me that I’m not privileged. Even medicine is designed with me in mind.