-Isms in Sci-Fi: Take #1,896

I spent sometime this weekend worrying a little over my review of Empress up at Fantasy Magazine because of my calling out the race issues. It’s that same old conflicted feeling of: #1 yes this stuff should be called at but #2 I do want to work in this industry someday so will my being so vocal hinder my chances. I occasionally have bouts of this and then blow it off because talking about these issues are so important, everywhere in SF and in other spaces. This time however the feeling popped up while I was hanging out with my friend bankuei on Saturday. When I voiced my concerns he said something that crystallized everything for me, paraphrased here:

“Those people who would reject you because of what you say weren’t gonna buy your fiction anyway.”

Now on the heels of this comes the exposure of a rejection letter sent by Helix editor William Sanders which is full of such bigotry that it makes my head spin. I’m gonna quote part of what my homegirl Tempest quoted of it over at her blog:

I’m impressed by your knowledge of the Q’uran and Islamic traditions. (Having spent a couple of years in the Middle East, I know something about these things.) You did a good job of exploring the worm-brained mentality of those people – at the end we still don’t really understand it, but then no one from the civilized world ever can – and I was pleased to see that you didn’t engage in the typical error of trying to make this evil bastard sympathetic, or give him human qualities.

(whole letter also here*)

Wow! Really?
And I didn’t even quote the part about “them” (Muslims) being incapable of honesty and sheet-heads. Will WIlliam be called out for his racism/religious intolerance?
In the SF/F community you never really know and more than likely if he is called out it will be a slap on the wrist that’s forgotten by most in a couple of months, except by everyone who saw the letter and was horribly offended and hurt but they don’t really count anyway, do they? Bad behavior in the SF/F community often blows up into a huge stink, then the perpetrator offers a prefunctory (and often false) apology and no lasting consequences are placed on the him. So others get the notion that they can continue/start their own horrible behavior with no problems. I’m thinking specifically of the Connie Willis/Harlan Ellison instance but there are plenty other examples that float through my mind.

If these folks can continue to spew this racist, sexist, classist, -ist bullshit then I can continue to call it out.

*Here you’ll also get to see Sanders attempt to defend himself {anonymous}, I find his calling of the letter poster “son” patronizing as hell but that’s just me. Also as an editor he should know that words are key if he’s talking about extremists/terrorists mentioning the Q’uran and referencing “those people” was a very bad choice on his part because it focuses it on Muslims unless he’s assuming all terrorists are Muslims or vice-versa. Plus like phrases like “those people” and “civilized world” (which puts a place to the bigotry and makes it seem about race as well as religion) send alarm bells up for anyone with the least amount of anti-oppression training

Also see author/managing editor of Helix Lawrence Watt-Evans {livejournal user lwe} try to justify the letter by saying it’s not racial, it’s religious. Which makes it okay?? Because religious intolerance is so much better than racial intolerance?

That argument ignores the connections made between Islam and brown people throughout the last millenia. Also his argument that Islam is sexist, anti-Semitic and homophobic points to a complete lack of understanding of Islam, because there are extremists in all religions that are sexist, anti-Semitic and homophobic. We always talk about the extreme religious right in the US but I guess they aren’t as bad? But I’m blanking on why…

This argument also points to a pretty large misunderstanding of Islam and the fact that within the religion there’s much discussion on tradition versus religiously required practice with many advocates calling for the end to honor killings and other practices seen as horrible by those within the religion. Islam is not a monolith, just like race is not a monolith. Oops! There I go connecting race and religion again.

22 responses to “-Isms in Sci-Fi: Take #1,896

  1. Yeah, I saw this, this morning. So much for sci fi being forward thinking, right?

  2. I appreciated that you called out the race issues in Empress in your review. Something like that can definitely effect my enjoyment of a book/story/movie, as I’m sure it can for many others, so it’s totally relevant even under limited assumptions about what reviews should talk about. And it’s also, as you said, just really important on its own.

    I’ve worried about something similar but different: will being out as a queer person hurt my chances of getting published in certain markets? Will some people be less inclined to buy my books when/if they’re published? I think what you friend said makes sense but I also think this: for me, I’ve come to the conclusion that, even if there is a cost to being out, the cost to my well-being from hiding such important parts of myself would be worse. I also think of being out as a form of activism. I imagine there could be similar costs to you–if you silence yourself, that bottles up your feelings and hurts you. It limits your ability to fully participate in SFF communities, which I don’t want.

    And if no one calls out such awful racist/Islamophobic things when they happen, things won’t change. I know when I feel attacked or outraged by some oppressive incident, it feels good to hear that others see what I saw, and also feel how wrong it is. I think it’s really good that the readers and writers (published and future) who Sanders attacked can read your and Tempest’s posts and at least know that some people are aware and working for justice (although I bet anyone who is from the Middle East or is Islamic who hears about this will feel extremely leery of submitting to Helix now, if not completely shut off… )

  3. Um, that wasn’t meant to be a winky face at the end but a close parenthesis.

  4. Are you by any chance going to Denvention worldcon? Cause there’s things I am willing to say in person that I’m not willing to write online. Not that you should take me for a model – I thought your Empress review was fine; you say many good things about the book and talk about your other negative reactions as well based on your own reading experience. I don’t believe you impute motive.

    I note, on the other topic, that Sanders isn’t really in the mainstream of the sff world, having burned other kinds of bridges years ago.

    My son, Twin A, took a 200 level course on Islamic History and Civilization last semester, a seminar with a very good teacher, and I love hearing him go to town when people trot out the tired old ignorant cliches.

  5. When I read that letter there was a moment where I was like, “Is this for real?” Because it just seemed SO CRAZY & horrible that I couldn’t believe that dude would put it out there like that to someone. I kept waiting for the punch line, like him jumping out at the end & going, “Just kidding!” (not that such a ‘joke’ wouldn’t be in extremely bad taste… ) Alas, no.

  6. As the person who received the rejection, I think people should understand the full context of Mr. Sander’s email before they jump to conclusions. I posted it here:


  7. bankuei-

    You’re absolutely right. Being silent on issues that are important to me will hurt much worse than talking about it and that’s something I really need to remember. I also like your point about support and knowing someone else sees the same thing as you do. That’s so important because we’re constantly bombarded with the message that everything in the country is a-ok and that we’re all just oversensitive and no matter how educated or sure of yourself you are you can begin to believe that.
    Thanks for the comment it really helped me clarify a bunch of things in my head.

  8. Kate-
    Sadly I’m not gonna be able to make it to Devention but we can talk through email if you want or I can email you my phone number and we can talk over the phone.

    Thanks for the comments on the review I tried my best to stay within the paramater of professional journal reviews which is: 50% good and 50% bad. And while I don’t think I achieved that ratio I did want there to be a balance.

    I’m hearing a lot about Sanders from different sources that are telling me he’s gone batshit a few times before and then deleted his rants from the internetz so I’m very glad to find out he’s not part of mainstream SF.

    Yay for Twin A! I love it when folks go off about the innaccuracies of what we think Islamic culture is like. It’s entertaining to see ignorant folks verbally beat down.

    Isn’t it too crazy to be real?!? I had the same reaction when I first read it: This must be a joke but Watt-Evans is defending him…OMG this shit is for real.

  9. Luke-
    Honestly, your post does absolutely nothing to change my opinion of Sanders. In the letter itself he doesn’t specifically talk about your character, he talks about “them” and uses the term sheet-head which is far from the critquing of one character and goes on to be a slur. No matter what your character was like the letter is full of generalizations and derogatory words and that’s never okay.

    Even if he was just talking about one evil character those terms go way beyond that. That’s like saying, “Oh I had a villanous Af-Am character so it’s fine that the rejection letter referred to him as a porch monkey!” Um…what? It is never okay to use those words. And at that point he’s not talking about the characters foibles as part of him he’s instead blaming his flaws on his religion (race, gender, sexuality, socio-economic level, etc..) which paints everyone of that religion in the same light.

    So yeah…still not okay.

  10. Naamen,

    Your words to Luke are much clearer than mine. I added the link to his blog entry but I also asked in my reply to him if he used the term sheet head and the concept of the civilized vs uncivilized world.

    I feel as if Like is scrambling not to be marked a trouble maker author in the SF world and completely forgetting or losing sight of the prejudice in the rejection letter; if he ever saw it to begin with.

    I want to thank you for hitting the point that’s been bothering me about LWE’s words. I only used the phrase prejudice in my own entry because LWE’s words did make me pause and question why I was associating those words with racism alongside religious intolerance.

    I knew something was twisted in it, when he brought up Mr. Sanders’ Cherokee history/roots. It was an extra little twist to the ‘He can’t be racist, he’s got not white in his blood’ that rang the bells that things were off. But I couldn’t quite connect the dots.

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  12. What amuses the shit out of me (and by amuse i mean makes me sneer with the cynicism of the ages) is that people will display this kind of foolishness and then marvel over why, exactly, so few POC seem to be involved in scifi communities?

  13. Avalon’s Willow-
    Thanks. I think your reply was fantastic though. Especially asking Luke if he had started the dialogue that way because it makes a huge difference in how the letter is read if the author used words like that within the story.

    It took me a while to connect the dots and figure out why I was connecting it to race so much. I mean part is the connection that’s always been made between brown folks and Islam but that whole “civilized world” was the clincher for me. It’s a phrase that automatically makes a judgment based on completely arbitrary criteria, I mean who gets to define civilized? By putting it in that space…ugh it’s such a huge warning bell, like when people start a conversation with “I’m not racist but….”. The word choice reveals what space Sanders is in and it’s an ugly and twisted one.

    And that whole Sanders Cherokee roots, it made me laugh out loud because like you said it’s such a cliche: “He can’t be racist his great-great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee princess” I couldn’t help it I LOL’d.

  14. Delux-
    Yeah the whole:
    *scratching head* Why don’t more POC come to SF cons or write SF? *pause* well not the sh**t h*ads but the other ones…


    It shouldn’t come as any kind of surprise that we don’t want to be involved in some of the mainstream SF circles where we are exposed to shit like this all the time.

  15. naamenblog – “It shouldn’t come as any kind of surprise that we don’t want to be involved in some of the mainstream SF circles where we are exposed to shit like this all the time.”

    Honestly, as a white sf fan, who hangs with mostly white sf fans (because most sf fans are white, not because I really like white people. I might add many of the people I know are gay or poly.) I rarely encounter racism of the type exposed here. (I’m talking about the idea that white people can make racists comments between them, but not mean it racially when POC are listening in, like the letter referenced suggests.)

    I actually encounter people who are trying very hard to NOT be bigoted, at least as they see bigotry, and while they sometimes come off looking naive, they are at least trying.

    I help run a scifi con in San Diego, go to ComicCon every year, go to many other smaller cons, know many authors in the genre, and just went to WisCon. I run a sff writing group of which one of the member is Indian (family from India) who went to Clarion last year and is published. I’m a member of two other groups of writers, none of which have ever made a racist remark.

    I’m really sorry you and others of color encounter this type of stuff wherever you are. Maybe it is not the genre, but the location that is the issue? I know I am not a POC (I’m actually a pretty dark half-Jew, my wife is Jewish – I occasionally hear anti-Semitic comments, but not from scifi fans, and I have been called “sand-n****r), so I may not be as attuned to this, but it is important to me, and I try to pay attention. Since you mention that is happens all the time, I am going to try to be even more vigilant in stopping it when I see it.

    Good post.

  16. Corby-
    Thanks for commenting.

    I think that like you said you’re probably not as attuned to it, which isn’t a mark against you. I”ve gone out with a mixed group of friends before and had something fucked up happen and then I look up to see that only the POC at the table have caught it and we have to explain the problem to our white friends who are actually fantastic anti-oppression activists. I think that often were taught to only notice the large instances of racism and not see the smaller slights that are just as destructive.

    When I say take number 1,896 and “other instances”, I’m not necessarily talking about remarks only, there are plenty of other things that happen at these Cons. I mean I can name at least ten People of Color who’ve experiences some sort bigotry at WisCon – which is a hundred times better than other Cons (Note: I love WisCon and have gone the past two years and will continue to go, that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems). And my first (and so far only) time at ComicCon I was confronted by blackface and folks taking pictures of her like it was okay, which was so painful to see that I left the Con adn went back to my hotel to calm down. Those kind of actions make it difficult for me to return becasue it’s no just the woman but all the people taking pictures and tacitly approving her actions.

    Then of course when submitting stories to groups you sometimes get the reply “Oooh great story but why is the character black? It doesn’t add to the story at all.” which of course sets up white as the default and makes the author feel completely othered.

    And sometimes these stories don’t even make it into the mainstream SF consciouness. Sometimes ’cause no one wants to talk about it and silences the accuser with yells of “you’re to sensitive” and “seeing race only makes it a problem” and “I don’t care if your brown, black, yellow, purple or green”. Sometimes because it’s so painful it’s only shared with a close knit group of folks.

    That being said I do see SF/F changing/trying to change mostly because I think we’ve approached a significant mass (not a critical mass yet) of POC at Cons and such that talk about these issues and raise consciousness.

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  18. I’m still mulling over a lot of this stuff–particularly the issues of speaking out and what consequences there may be from that within what is a fairly small field–but I wanted to mention that i hear anti-Muslim spewing far too often and as a religious person myself it really makes me angry.

    I *always* make a statement to show that I do not agree and why. Every once in a while it will turn out that the person simply is ignorant, and is open to hearing the truth, but if on further expansion I judge that the person is simply poisoned by his own prejudices then I will usually change the subject. Some people cling to their prejudices because it gives them false comfort. There’s a point past which I cannot change that for them; I can only make it clear that I do not agree, and then move on.

    I would be interested to hear if and how other people have successfully dealt with this issue. Well meaning people can be educated, but others would rather stay stuck where they are.

  19. I remember what I was going to add to this: what makes me uncomfortable with my way of dealing with things, as per above, is that I have the *luxury* of making a statement of opposition and walking away if I feel I can’t get any farther.

  20. Kate-
    I can see where the ability to walk away would feel uncomfortable but really it’s not your job to educate people, especially those who have no inkling that they’re being bigoted. The truth is that we do what we can and there are plenty of times I felt like confronting people but didn’t because of the situation I was in or even just the modd I was in because it takes a lot out of you to battle someone’s bigotry over and over.

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  22. good article thank you

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