Tokens or Intruders: The issue of Diversity at SF Conventions

The talented and provocative Jim C. Hines posted a thread on his Facebook about increasing diversity at SFcons. The responses to that thread were for the most part positive about the issue, but, predictably, there were a few ‘trolls’ who raised the de rigueur whining about quotas, political correctness, and, most egregiously, the notion that ‘urban blacks’ don’t read, most of all, speculative fiction.

To that last claim: I live in a largely black city (Washington, DC) and I take public transportation. I can assure you: ‘urban blacks’ read. On buses and subways, a book-reading black person isn’t a Unicorn who only comes out during nights when the moon is blue. If someone is reading something I’ve read—and they aren’t completely tuned out to the world—I will say something to them. “Great book!” or “Have you read <insert name of author>?”

a unicorn who only comes out during nights when the moon is blue

a unicorn who only comes out during nights when the moon is blue

Anyway, I don’t know what strategy would work to get a more diverse demographic to attend. (But I have some ideas—more about that in a later post). But I do know what will drive ethnic and sexual minorities away.

It’s not that cons are whites-only spaces, per se. Rather, they give off the vibe of Stuff White People Like. Stuff White People Like, in case you didn’t know, is (or was) a popular website that snarkily/ironically listed things that ‘code’ as White. Such as, “White people like paninis!” or nonprofit organizations or organic markets. I freely admit, the hipster-modulated joke that website is predicated on is lost to me. Again, I live in a largely black city (though the population dynamic is changing). Seeing black people eating paninis or working for nonprofit organizations or shopping at Whole Foods is just banal. But that isn’t enough to drive people away, in my opinion. A nuisance? Yes. But I and my fellow PoC are made of sterner stuff. That vibe, in my opinion, provides a fertile ground for both macro- and microagressions. It’s the subtle message ‘one of them is here?!!?’ that cause reactions that range from the overly enthusiastic to the downright hostile.

I’ll give some examples.

I was at a con a few years ago (which I won’t name) where my hair was touched and complimented on. The person who did it meant well, but you can’t but help feel like the Hottentot Venus when that happens. I believe the person came from the overly earnest school of liberalism where Othering, rather than meanness, is the form racial microagression takes.

More recently, at Arisia, there were reports of a white male walking into a party hosted by the Carl Brandon Society and informing the group there that slavery wasn’t all that bad. This, of course, is open hostility.

Both examples are unpleasant things that would make most people wonder about the value of spending an expensive weekend where you’re considered either a Token or an Intruder. I love Game of Thrones and China Mieville and Ursula LeGuin, but there are limits.

And here’s another thing. When a ‘troll’ shows up on a message board forum (or Facebook thread) and spews ignorant/hostile/covertly hostile garbage, the Abstract People of Color hordes they’re talking about? They use the Internet, too. They even read entire websites dedicated to Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror. A 15 year-old me, reading stuff like ‘urban blacks don’t read SF’ would sooner go to a Daughters of the Confederacy cotillion than a SF convention. (The food would probably be better there, too.) Whitesplaining is another form of micro-aggression that will push someone away. There is a long and storied history of racism in the SF community that whitesplainers ignore or pretend doesn’t exist.

I am ending my temporary exile from convention-land by attending the 2014 World Fantasy Convention that will be in my own backyard—in DC. I want to bring my younger cousin to it, as well, since he has firm geek credentials. Maybe our presence will make other PoC feel less alone.

3 responses to “Tokens or Intruders: The issue of Diversity at SF Conventions

  1. The last World Fantasy I was at, I could count all the Asians I saw with the fingers of both hands (and I barely needed the second hand). I went, but it was definitely pretty white! I hope to go again this year. Would be nice to see more PoC!