Since 1953, to be nominated for a Hugo Award, among the highest honors in science fiction and fantasy writing, has been a dream come true for authors who love time travel, extraterrestrials and tales of the imagined future. Past winners of the rocket-shaped trophy—nominated and voted on by fans—include people like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick, and Robert A. Heinlein. In other words: the Gods of the genre.
But in recent years, as sci-fi has expanded to include storytellers who are women, gays and lesbians, and people of color, the Hugos have changed, too. At the presentation each August, the Gods with the rockets in their hands have been joined by Goddesses and those of other ethnicities and genders and sexual orientations, many of whom want to tell stories about more than just spaceships.
This is wrong. I went on a long Twitter rant about how wrong it is. (Thanks to tehawesomersace for Storifying it.) Specifically, it erases the marginalized people who were writing and reading SF/F from the very beginning of the genre--including erasing Arthur C. Clarke's homosexuality--and thereby erases the active and passive oppression that kept many of those people marginalized. The idea that SF has "expanded" in "recent years" is false and extremely damaging.
Among the many responses to my rant was this from adamndsmith:
Genuine question: In your op, what's the best way to fight whitewash? Education on minority history? More critical editing/editors?
It needs to be fought on multiple fronts. Most important is a self-check step by both editor and publisher. "Whose story am I telling here? Whose story am I not telling? Why am I not telling that story?" You train yourself into it, like "what's wrong with this picture" games.
For example, look at the 1960 Hugos shortlist. You have to train yourself to look at that and see what's missing: the minority writers, the minority content. Maybe it's hard to see until you compare it with the 2013 shortlist. And then you have to be careful not to draw the wrong conclusion (that no great work was being created by minorities). That process of self-education is the only defense against bigoted enculturation.
Adam emailed me some follow-up questions, asking how someone outside the field could know to look for the missing history. My response was that there's always missing history. And since I was already feeling wordy, I provided a case study, which I'm replicating here in case anyone else might find it useful to have an example of how to apply general missing-history-finding techniques to an unfamiliar community or context.
This issue isn't specific to SF/F. There are privileged and marginalized people in every community. You don't have to know anything about SF/F to know that that's the case, and to look for the people who are marginalized.A couple of footnotes to this:
Here's a recent example from my own life. I read a newsletter called Atlas Obscura. They recently did a piece about fingerboarding, which I'd never heard of before:
It included some links to videos. I watched the videos and noticed that they were overwhelmingly about men, even though there's nothing gendered about the ability to move a little skateboard around with your fingers. The words "women" and "female" didn't appear in the article at all. Also, almost all the people in the videos were white.
(This could be bias on the part of the people creating the article and videos, so it's especially important to look at multiple sources, ideally created inside the community, and to talk directly with people about their experiences. No single piece of media will give me the full story.)
The article talked about the cost of fingerboarding equipment. Immediately that tells me that there are people who would love to participate but can't because they can't afford to buy the things they need.
So without any personal experience of fingerboarding, I'm already getting a sense that the fingerboarding community probably reflects the larger prejudices of the cultures around it: prejudices against women, people of color, and poor people. Since it's a male-dominated sporting community, I can also hazard a guess that it's going to be prejudiced against queer people, though that's harder to tell at a glance.
Following a link I find this, which confirms that the community is mostly male:
"This is my third time [at a Rendezvous event]," said 13-year-old Kelsey Barker from Houston, one of the few girls in the crowd. "I travel here with my mom and my friend. I don't know any other girls who do this, so I really hang out with the boys."
That piece also focuses on kids, which is interesting and makes me want to know more about the age range and dynamics at fingerboarding events.
Having gotten this glimpse into the community's dynamics, if I were going to write an article about it, I would then start doing some Google searches like "women fingerboarding". I'd see whether I could get in touch with Kelsey Barker and her mom, to ask what her experiences were like.
A search for "Latino fingerboard skateboard" brings up this piece in Spanish:
Now I know people do el fingerskate in other countries. Do they feel welcome at U.S. gatherings? That piece in Spanish mentions that fingerboarding was developed in Germany; are there tensions between U.S. and German fingerboarders, or do they get along well, or do they ignore one another entirely?
That piece links to this video of what appears to be a South American championship:
I'd try to get in touch with the people named in that video, via a translator if necessary, and learn about their experiences in fingerboarding communities at home and abroad.
I'd need to keep an open mind, of course, and believe people when they talk about their experiences. Maybe people of color do really well in the U.S. competitions but not in South America, or vice versa. Maybe there's a cadre of awesome badass female fingerboarders who would be upset at being portrayed as marginalized or oppressed. Maybe nearly everyone who does fingerboarding is gay. I won't know until I ask, and listen. But simply paying attention to what's shown and not shown in these articles and videos gives me a starting point.
1) I'm not perfect, and I'm sure I'm missing obvious questions that could be asked about minority and marginalized people in the fingerboarding community. (EDIT: For example, as seyren points out in comments, I didn't think of looking at ability/disability, which is often an overlooked axis of oppression.) I threw this together in under 15 minutes. It's just meant as a starting point, as an example of how to begin to look at a completely unfamiliar group through the lens of "which stories aren't being told?", and as an illustration of how easy it is to find the traces of missing history once you get in the mindset of looking for them.
2) I owe a tremendous debt to all the minority and marginalized people in and outside of SF/F who've taken the time to educate me and others on how to look for what's missing in mainstream narratives, especially karnythia, djolder, chiefelk, and the late and greatly lamented delux_vivens. Self-education is obviously critical, both because we learn best and most thoroughly when we put things in our own words, and because leaning on marginalized people and asking them to pour their hard-earned knowledge into you is exploitative. But there are some generous folks out there who have spent a lot of their time handing out free clues on the internet, and I'm extremely grateful for the clues they've handed me.