NK Jemisin is an American writer who was in Australia to give a speech. The context: she’s a black American woman in Australia with some trepidation — Australia has a bit of a reputation for racism, I’m sorry to say. Even when I visited the place, there were a couple of instances of casual racism as we were touring the cities (not within the atheist convention I was attending, I am quick to add) that left me a bit gobsmacked, and I’m your standard oblivious white man. But before you think this is an Australia-bashing occasion, read the speech.
Now. Before you tar and feather me, let me tell you something else I’ve come to understand in the past three days. Australia may not be the safest place for someone who looks like me… but it’s trying to become safer. And Australia may have classified the peoples of the Koorie and other nations as “fauna” until very recently, but Australia has also made tremendous strides lately in rectifying this error. I’ve listened in fascination to the Acknowledgements of Country made at nearly every public event I’ve attended since I’ve been here. I’ve marveled that indigenous languages are offered as courses for study at some local universities. I am awed that you don’t shove all of your indigenous history into a single museum, where it’s easy for people not of that culture to avoid or ignore, because that’s what happens in the US. So as horrified as I am by the nastier details of Australian history… I am also heartened, astonished, inspired, by the Australian present. You’ve still got a long way to go before Reconciliation is complete, but then again, you’ve started down that path. You’re trying.
I want you to understand: what you’ve done? It will never happen in my country. Not in my lifetime, at least. Right now American politicians are doing their best to roll back voting rights won during our own Civil Rights movement. They are putting in place educational “reforms” which disproportionately have a negative impact on black and brown and poor white kids, and will essentially help to solidify a permanent underclass. Right now there are laws in places like Florida and Texas which are intended to make it essentially legal for white people to just shoot people like me, without consequence, as long as they feel threatened by my presence. So: admitting that the land we live on was stolen from hundreds of other nations and peoples? Acknowledging that the prosperity the United States enjoys was bought with blood? That’s a pipe dream.
Ouch. It’s true: Americans can be masters of denial. Didn’t we fix all the racism with the Civil War? Or was it the Reconstruction? Or maybe the Civil Rights Movement. Anyway, it’s not a problem anymore. The Republican Party isn’t profoundly racist at all, nor is the rest of the country. I can’t see any problems with my eyes closed, anyway.
She’s not done. She then proceeds to chastise science fiction fans.
For the past few days I’ve also been observing a “kerfuffle”, as some call it, in reaction to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ of America’s latest professional journal, the Bulletin. Some of you may also have been following the discussion; hopefully not all of you. To summarize: two of the genre’s most venerable white male writers made some comments in a series of recent articles which have been decried as sexist and racist by most of the organization’s membership. Now, to put this in context: the membership of SFWA also recently voted in a new president. There were two candidates — one of whom was a self-described misogynist, racist, anti-Semite, and a few other flavors of asshole. In this election he lost by a landslide… but he still earned ten percent of the vote. SFWA is small; only about 500 people voted in total, so we’re talking less than 50 people. But scale up again. Imagine if ten percent of this country’s population was busy making active efforts to take away not mere privileges, not even dignity, but your most basic rights. Imagine if ten percent of the people you interacted with, on a daily basis, did not regard you as human.
Just ten percent. But such a ten percent.
And beyond that ten percent are the silent majority — the great unmeasured mass of enablers. These are the folks who don’t object to the treatment of women as human beings, and who may even have the odd black or gay friend that they genuinely like. However, when the ten percent starts up in their frothing rage, these are the people who say nothing in response. When women and other marginalized groups respond with anger to the hatred of the ten percent, these are the people who do not support them, and in fact suggest that maybe they’re overreacting. When they read a novel set in a human society which contains only one or two female characters, these are the people who don’t decry this as implausible. Or worse, they simply don’t notice. These are the people who successfully campaigned for Star Trek to return to television after 25 years, but have no intention of campaigning for Roddenberry’s vision to be complete, with gay characters joining the rainbow brigade on the bridge. These are the people who gleefully nitpick the scientific plausibility of stopping a volcano with “cold fusion”, yet who fail to notice that an author has written a future earth in which somehow seventeen percent of the human race dominates ninety percent of the characterization.
That ten percent seems to be a problem everywhere: politics, religion, science fiction, atheism.