The first article is a great interview over at WorldSF: Charles Tan interviews the provocative Ashok Banker who had the gall (bless the man) to turn down a NYT interview on matters of principle. Ashok says a lot of interesting things that need to be said, without pulling any punches whatsoever. I don’t agree with him on everything but the man’s experience is different from mine, and who am I to deny his experience? For instance he accuses big publishers in SF of pretty overt racism. If that’s his experience, that is not to be denied. I’ve had a pretty mixed experience of bias (mostly of the subtle kind) but I’ve also had the good fortune of coming across fellow writers and editors here in the US who are genuinely interested in listening to what I have to say through my stories. But I have no doubt that a sort of institutionalized racism does exist here in America and therefore in the SF world, which, without its vocal POC critics, probably wouldn’t spend too much time in self-examination.
The other article I’d like to point to is one by Anil Menon about Simpson’s Paradox in the Slush Pile, as he so elegantly states it. This is the sort of article I love because it shows us how careful we have to be in a) backing what we have to say with data and b) interpreting it correctly. I do have a response to it below, which will make sense after you read the article.
One reason I hesitate to make sweeping statements about racism in the genre is because of the paucity of data. Anil’s article shows that even data is not enough if not interpreted correctly. But we cannot conclude from it that there is no racism in the genre because (among other things: see below) as far as I know, we don’t have enough data. I am not aware that sufficient analysis of race has been done in the field (compared to, for instance, gender bias). Anil’s assuming that people in other countries send their stories only to the top, best known magazines. But with the internet there are now a slew of smaller markets that anyone with internet access can get to. So can we say for sure that the assumption is valid?
However there is another way that we know there is racism in the genre (where I define racism to include cultural bias that assumes superiority of Western modes of thinking/doing) — and that is from personal experience. Here, too, one has to be careful to interpret correctly because an individual may make a racist statement out of ignorance. But even that points to a subtle or institutional racism, where it is not necessarily the individual but the social belief system that propagates this kind of blindness or ignorance. I’ve come across racism in this sense multiple times from both white writers and some editors. I’ve also come across more direct manifestations, unfortunately. And obviously folks like Ashok Banker have experienced it (although I would like to hear more about exactly what his experience was).
A related way that racism might enter the picture is when stories that are good stories are rejected because they don’t fit Western preconceived notions of what a good story should be. Stories that challenge, through subject or structure or both, Western notions of good SF, might fall by the wayside. I don’t know if this actually happens (I have no data!). But it sounds plausible in a genre that is still expanding its historically pathetically limited world-view. And how the so-called third world or non-whites in general are represented in SFF by white writers is another indicator of possible bias. Much has been said on this already via the RaceFail discussions so I won’t add more.
It might be instructive to compare the situation with the gender bias question. Here is an article by Susan Linville in Strange Horizons from 2007 about gender bias possibilities in SF publishing. Interestingly her analysis is magazine by magazine (so Simpson’s paradox as Anil has stated does not apply). She finds that overt editorial bias is not the problem with the issue of so few women getting published, because the percentages of women authors are roughly representative of the proportion of women submitting stories (the possible exception is F&SF in 2007). She identifies the problem as fewer women submitting stories. There may also be a contribution from the possible factor I suggested in the previous paragraph. (If you want an example of the sort of attitudes people in the field can have toward certain kinds of women writers, read the comments quoted by Timmi Duchamp from Ken MacLeod — talk about both racist/imperialist and anti-feminist overtones!)
I would argue that fewer women submitting stories might be because of social factors that have to do with wider gender issues in society at large. Here also I yearn for data; it seems that the number of women identifying as writers of SF keeps going up by leaps and bounds (I speak only from a personal impression obtained at cons). Why don’t they submit as much? What keeps them from it? I leave the possible answers as an exercise for the reader.
I’ve also heard pointed out that reviewers tend to review fewer works by women and this is an indication of women’s works not being taken as seriously. I imagine it should be easy for someone, given sufficient time, to gather data on this.
I bring up the gender issue as an interesting comparison with the race issue. I feel that both are real issues but to what extent (we need data!) and for what reasons (we need sociologists!) — these are still open questions well worth investigating.