The specter of Gratuitous Diversity and other fictions

When I was 3 apples high, I went to my mostly white school’s library, and chanced upon a book with a title that intrigued me, Andre Norton’s Lavender-Green Magic. I read it in 2 gulps, not only because it had witches (a perennial favorite subject of mine), but because it featured African-American (or in the parlance of 70s, Afro-American) kids living in a mostly white town. My mind: blown. Up until then, all the fantasy book I’d read either had pseudo European characters or talking animals. I loved the idea that someone who had an experience similar to mine could have magical adventures like those kids in Edward Eager books or the Narnian adventures.

lavender-green magic

A few years later, in the full swing of adolescent angst, I can upon my older brother’s copy of Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany. (The iconic paperback version, the one with the engorged sun showing through a destroyed cityscape). Thumbing through it, I read about characters who had unique and somewhat underground sexual appetites—and their sexual identities were integral parts of themselves. Again, my mind was blown. Gays and other sexual minorities were just people….in a science fiction novel!

I bring these examples up not only to talk about the importance of diversity in speculative fiction, and also, to challenge a common strawman argument against it. A little background: the author Alex Dally MacFarlane wrote a provocative article entitled Post-Binary Gender in SF:Introduction on Tor.com, an inaugural post of a series which promises to examine SF that studies that issue. I read the piece, enjoyed it, and moved on. Then I saw, much later (via Jim C. Hines’ blog), that MacFarlane’s article (predictably) rattled the nerves of certain quarters of the SF community.

The chief complaint (once you wade through the de rigueur cries of PC Fascists/ GroupThink/Thought Police) is the concern about Gratuitous Diversity.

It’s the idea that having a cast of characters that reflects the diversity of humanity will automatically result in Aesop fiction full of Sally (or Simon) Soapboxes. I have yet to read a piece of fiction where giving a character an idiosyncratic and unique background (ethnic or sexual orientation or, in MacFarlane’s essay, a non-binary gender orientation) actually destroys the work. Including ‘popcorn’ fiction. One of my Clarion instructors, Pat Cadigan, stressed the importance avoiding ‘default’ mode protagonists: Joe/Jane Q. Public and his/her various incarnations as Mary Sue or Gary Stu. (It wasn’t a commandment, either—rather, Cadigan meant it as one more tool in the authorial kit). If a character is a Sally (or Simon) Soapbox, and the fiction has the quality of an Afterschool Special, that’s a failure of execution. The spectre of Gratiuitous Diversity is mostly just a strawman. (I’d love to see examples of a work of fiction that’s improved by flat characters). I say “mostly,” because I think that certain tropes and stock characters—the Noble Savage, the Magical Negro, for instance–arise from deformed Aesops and well-intentioned fiction. And there’s the case of a certain wizard (we’ll call him ‘Rumblesnore’) in famous series posthumously (and post-serialization) outed as gay, which was arguably shoehorned in. (I remember the articles/blog posts amongst a certain cohort that claimed the author was courting the politically correct crowd). But even then, Rumblesnore being off-screen gay doesn’t hurt the his character or the story; it was the execution that was lacking.

There is no such thing as Gratuitous Diversity. There’s just poorly executed fiction.

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.