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.

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8 Comments

  1. on May 8, 2007 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    You know, I was coming here to note how enlightened I am this morning, going, “What’s wrong with 11% of the population of clinical trials being black? That’s about the percentage of blacks in the general population.”

    And then I slapped myself, because you said 88.8% white, and I did the mental math while ignoring every single other minority out there. I want to blame it on a lack of wakefulness, or perhaps environment, but … neither is terribly satisfying. :sigh:

    There’s selection bias, I’d expect, in the number of minorities who get into medical trials because of wealth and healthcare access disparities. I’m fine with slicing such data along racial lines in an effort to make sure that underserved groups get treatment and study—there’s enough data to suggest that race has enough genetic difference to affect how diseases operate—but I’d be almost as concerned that poor Americans of any ethnic background are underserved as a rule. But then I’m one of those pesky people trying to figure out a way to nationalize healthcare without wrecking the system any more than it already is.

    [And yes, I’m off on a tangent. Sorry.]

  2. on May 8, 2007 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    We talked about this for a couple of hours last night before Stephen wrote the post. A lot of it dealt with what I’ve experienced in the workplace as a women in the south doing technical work. There’s definitely still a bias out there. It may not be as extreme as it was 15 or 20 years ago but it’s still out there. Unfortunately, in my experience, almost entirely with older white males.

    It’s really my hope that when Liza is my age, this sort of problem really will be a thing of the past.

  3. on May 8, 2007 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    To round off the tangent, here are the percentages from the study, with the percentages of the group as part of the population.

    White: 88.8% (75%)
    Black: 8% (12.3%)
    Asian/Pacific Islanders: 2.8% (3.8%)

    In terms of ethnicity, 5.6% in the trials were Hispanic, versus 12.5%. All data taken from the 2000 US Census.

    There are genetic differences, but there are also cultural differences that can keep some folks from getting good treatment.

  4. Danielle
    on May 8, 2007 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    One SciFi book that dealt with racism is by Sharon Shinn “Heart of Gold”. A series with some cultural diversity (different races – the Marat, the Canim, and the Icemen – who’ve been at war with the Alerans) is by Jim Butcher “Codex Alera”. I’ll have to go through & read through the links you posted…

    I don’t see a bias where I work, but I’m in administration (which seems typically female)…

  5. on May 8, 2007 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    It’s really my hope that when Liza is my age, this sort of problem really will be a thing of the past.

    I’ll hope for it with you, but I just don’t expect it. I had sexual harrassment avoidance training at work last week, and as I sat in there, I remarked on just how white male skewed my workplace is.


    Stephen, are whites really 75% of the US population? I didn’t think it was that high.

    There are genetic differences, but there are also cultural differences that can keep some folks from getting good treatment.

    Certainly. That’s a big problem that I can’t even begin to think of how you solve. The issue is in building levels of trust, and man … is that ever hard to do societally.


    I don’t see a bias where I work, but I’m in administration (which seems typically female)…

    And that’s an issue, too, at some level. I’m not so naïve to think that there aren’t some gender-based tendencies that make females strong in such roles, but it always worry me in business that we mentally chalk such things up to “woman’s work”.

  6. on May 8, 2007 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    Stephen, are whites really 75% of the US population?

    Yep. I did the hand calculation from the 2000 US census numbers, but it turns out Wikipedia’s already done it for us with the 2005 numbers.

  7. on May 8, 2007 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    Ahhh, okay. See, I guess that, when I think Caucasian, I’m really thinking an American of Western European descent.

    Admittedly, I’m Irish, Welsh, English, Scotch, and nothing else. Oh wait, 1/64 Cherokee. But … yep.

    I thought about becoming Baptist just so my inability to dance would be forever unknown to the world…

  8. Scoop Johnson
    on October 29, 2007 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    Re: Harlan Ellison groping Connie Willis…

    He now says he did no such thing.

    http://www.freetimes.com/stories/15/24/breast-of-show