A scenario for you

A scenario for you

If a white person calls me a nigger, that’s pretty racist, right?  I mean, if someone is willing to use that particular word against me, that’s not a mistake, that’s not an oops, that’s not a slip of the tongue.  That’s a pretty clear cut situation.

Okay.  Now let’s say that “Bob” calls me a nigger and I go: “You racist! OMG.”  Would you expect rational people to then say, “But Tempest, Bob is really nice.  In the past, I’ve never heard him call anyone a nigger before.  He didn’t call Jamal a nigger last week.  And he marched on Washington with Martin Luther King!”

No, you wouldn’t expect that, would you?  And even if that did happen, wouldn’t your reaction be, “The dude called her a nigger you idiot.  It doesn’t matter what he did or didn’t do before this moment, that is some fucked up racist shit.”

Maybe Bob doesn’t always have racist tendencies.  Maybe Bob has an unconscious bias.  Maybe Bob was having a bad day, was drunk, just had a fight with his wife, whatever.  That still does not negate the fact that, in that moment, Bob pulled out some racism and hurled it at me.  And we don’t need to see Bob do it 10 more times over the course of several days, weeks, years, etc. to be able to peg that instance as A Bad Thing.

Right?  Right.

So, why is it then that whenever the gender bias thing comes up, people say “Well, you can’t judge on just this one instance” or “Statistically you need more data”?  No.  No, you really don’t.  Because it doesn’t matter what happened before.  If someone does something that smacks of sexism in one point in time, that is a problem at that point in time.  We don’t need statistics to tell us that the one instance was wrong.  More data can show a pattern, sure, and that makes things worse.  But the absence of a pattern does not make things better.  Because the wrong thing was still done.  Plain and simple.

We seem to have gotten to a point in this community where sexism and gender bias is a nebulous, hard to pin down thing that people don’t want to admit exists or require extraordinary evidence before they’ll admit it exists in one place.  Even when it’s as blatant as Bob calling me a nigger.  (As proof, I cite the Harlan Ellison boob grab incident.)  It’s not really a problem, some say.  It’s not a problem until you can prove it over the course of five volumes, others say.  It’s just you people looking to fight about something and then you’ll forget about it later, still others say.

No, people.  You need to stop.  Because, as with many prejudices, it is not okay to ignore the individual instances of wrongness until you can prove some sort of pattern.  Because each time it comes up, some yahoo will always claim it as an individual instance.  Take it from a person who has had to deal with both large scale and individual level prejudices all of her life: You do not win by ignoring the small stuff just as you do not win by only worrying about the small stuff and ignoring the bigger problem.  You win by pointing out and eliminating both.

So the next time you feel the need to say something about how it’s “just one anthology” or “just one year’s worth of a magazine” or “Just” anything, stop and eat a cookie.  Better yet, knit.  It’ll keep your fingers busy.


  1. Deanne says

    It’s just one more example of sexism, and it makes me so very tired having to fight the battle over and over and over.

    Knitting would not only keep the fingers busy… it could also be fun and profitable.

  2. Jackie M. says

    This is regarding the example you gave in your comments on Abigail Nussbaum’s blog? It is actually flawed logic when applied to the Eclipse Two magazine table of contents: calling someone a nigger is fundamentally active, whereas as failing to include women on an anthology is fundamentally passive. It’s the different between intent-based, conscious racism (or sexism) and unintentional, unconscious actions which nonethless have the same racist (or sexist) effects.

    Strahan’s crime, in the case of this anthology, is one of passivity–or, more accurately, of progressive action without sufficient follow-through. The result is the same; it still has the same effect of alienating female readers of SF. True. But. However dire, effects are still just symptoms–and in this case we’re talking about a fundamentally different underlying ailment. Which calls for a different treatment.

    And so I think we have to distinguish between sexist/racist individuals and sexist/racist actions, between sexist/racist intentions and sexist/racist outcomes. You know how the guidelines for how not to be an insane white person when accused of racism emphasize the importance of remembering that accusations of racism(/sexism/homophobia) are not in fact about you, the insane white person(/male person/straight person)? I mean, it’s only possible to insist that the privileged individual remember that distinction if the unprivileged minority making the accusation remembers to make it as well…

  3. Jackie M. says

    Do I always get the same little icon every time I post comments here? Because I can’t tell you how happy that icon makes me.

  4. says

    Yeah, I’m also not seeing the two cases as analogous. It’s not about “large” vs “small”. We do need to stand up against every instance of oppression whether it’s as overt as an onstage boob-grab or as subtle as a sneer in someone’s tone.

    In terms of “size”, the damage done by publishing a practically all-male anthology in 2008 which will be seen by zillions of people, in reinforcing institutional sexism (“boys write SF”) is not tiny.

    The issue in your dispute with Nussbaum, though, is not about whether we should stand up against small cases or not. It’s an issue of what responsibility you assign to an editor. Should they ensure that their TOC is gender-(and racially-, and nationally-, and class-) balanced? Or should they just include that as a factor and do their level best?

    If you were saying that the presumption should be that, given how many good women writers there are and the importance of outreach, of interrogating one’s own taste, etc., etc., Strahan probably didn’t do his best, I’d be right there with you.

    But it’s not analogous to calling someone a nigger. The thing is, if you call someone a nigger it is very clear you could have done something else. You could have called them a creep instead. You are clearly solely responsible for your choice of words.

    In the Eclipse case, the issue is more constrained. We don’t know what was in Strahan’s slush pile. We don’t know how many people he solicited, and who turned him down. We can strongly suspect that he didn’t do his best. But we can imagine a case where someone put out full page ads in Ms., rented planes with banners saying please women submit, called all their friends in drunken pleading, etc., and on the day when the book has to go to press, they still have only found one woman.

    To say that in that case they should walk up to their publisher, hand back the money, tear up the contract and take up goatherding in lieu of SF editing? Well, it would be inspiring and noble if they did, on one level, but it would also be a betrayal of the publisher. There are damned-either-way situations in life.

    Does this seem like quibbling? Because I don’t think it is.

    Someone who calls you a nigger is not “failing not to call you a nigger”. There is no possibility of suspecting that they did their damnedest to avoid calling you a nigger and it simply didn’t work out that way. However the Eclipse case is a case where you can imagine someone doing their best, and it not working out. I’m not saying that’s what happened, just that I don’t buy the analogy you make above.

  5. says

    I get sick of saying, over, and over,

    “It doesn’t matter whether you are a racist. You just did a racist thing. That’s what matters.”

    People think “I am not a ” is a free pass out of “I just committed a sin.” It’s not.

  6. Aunty Wend says

    And, you know what? It’s really not hard. Here’s what we used to do with Farthing. First of all, you slush. Then, you select. That is, you choose the best stories from the stories you’re sent and send out acceptances.

    Then, you “do editor”. That is, you select from your batch of acceptances (those that meet “the standard”, whatever that standard may be) those that go in *this* issue. In Farthing’s case, a couple of sci fi, a couple of fantasy, a couple of horror. Around half by female writers, around half by male, allowing for the fact that all you (often) have to go on by way of data is the name. Check for other balances – try to avoid an all-White issue, or an all-American issue.

    Then edit, copy edit, proof read and publish.

    (Then go bust, but that’s entirely another story lol)

  7. says

    Ben, I think you and Jackie are getting too hung up on the specific analogy. It’s not meant to be 1 to 1, it’s meant to point out that, when prejudice is blatant, people don’t say “But we’d need him to do that prejudiced thing 5 more times before we can really determine if it’s bad” but when it’s nebulous in certain people’s minds, that’s exactly what happens.

  8. says

    Okay, I’m quibbling about terms maybe? But I am happy to go with “we don’t need him to do this thing which reinforces sexism 5 more times before we can really determine if it is a regrettable and woeful thing to have transpired, before we can say, oh hell, not again, wtf is up with that?”

    Sure, with you there. And I agree with Jonquil above: effects are what matter, not intentions. “You did this thing which is shocking to us, given the history, we are mad, we don’t care what you were thinking.”

    However the word “prejudiced” (here is the definition) is generally an accusation of motive and thought process.

    You can point to an act and say “that there is sexism” and if someone wants to engage you in an argument about the actor’s probable cognitions, process, and motives, you can hold up a hand and say “do I care? Jesus, people, I have eyes, and that’s sexism!” Definition two: “behaviors that promote stereotyping of social roles based on gender.”

    You are using “prejudice” as a synonym for racism/sexism/homophobia/xenophobia/etc.; and maybe this is a specialized local usage (in which case maybe it’s my fault for not educating myself on the sociolect of this blog :-) ), but, dictionary-wise, it certainly sounds like an accusation of motive.

    And you can’t make an accusation of motive and then, when people want to engage in a discussion of probable motives and patterns, say “please people, I don’t need any data to know what his motives were!”

  9. says

    Here’s the thing, the same people who say “sexism is nothing” when it’s directed at women, are the same ones who flip out every single time at any “reverse-sexism” – they don’t excuse a woman who says “argh, men are pigs!” in a moment of venting frustration at years of discrimination, they go “OMG!Man-hating hairylegged feminazi! Help, help, I’M really the one being oppressed, how come it’s only okay to pick on men, the pendulum has swung too far the opposite direction/fill in your favorite bingo square here.” You’ll never find reciprocity, you just find male reviewers whining like crazy about books with “radical feminist” themes, because the tiny handful of them that exist weigh on them like a mountain of boulders, and even coming into contact with a little bit of pointing out that there is routine sexism still, hurts them like the Sun does Gollum (I was going to say salt::slugs, but then I remembered that the Sun is a demigoddess in LOTR…)

    –Alas, I have to disagree about your original example, though – one of my flist just had to resign from a gaming guild after the guild leader not only refused to deal with racist epithets routinely uttered, and the bleats of “freedom of speech! shutup, you’re hurting our feefees by calling us racist” – but rationalized it by saying “they don’t mean it, they’re only joking” said guild leader apparently being a RL telepath…

  10. says

    Bellatrys, I should have prefaced my hypothetical people’s reactions to Bob as being “what people who are not stupid would do”. Unfortunately, there are still some who would ignore/defend Bob using that word. And those people deserve to be tossed out the airlock.

  11. says

    Hyperlinks weren’t stripped… maybe they are hard to see because they are green. I should change this theme… but I is lazy.

    Anyway, I rarely turn to the dictionary for definitions of complex words, particularly any time racism/sexism/etc are discussed because the dictionary is woefully inadequate to the task of defining words that come with a lot of sociological baggage and most of them are written/overseen/etc. by white people, which makes them not quite as neutral on subjects like this as one would like a dictionary to be. But even without that, it’s hard for a dictionary definition to be comprehensive, as that’s not really what they’re for.

    I usually use the word prejudice the way people use racist and sexist (I try, anyway) because of the discussion we had on ABW about the difference between little r racism and big R Racism. And having to explain THAT is a whole complicated thing. But essentially prejudice, to me, is not just about motive because it can also be unconscious. Someone can have a prejudice and not be keenly aware of it and have it color their actions and words until someone finally says “Dude, you are a bigot!” or something.

    I don’t assign a particular motive to Strahan’s choice (just as I actually don’t assign motive to Gordon or Gardner et al.), I’m speaking to the result. The motive, if it exists, is one of passive indifference to the very real problems of marginalization in publishing and SF publishing in particular. Though it may be unconscious, though it may not have been his intent, it’s still a problem, like you said.

    The lexicon trips a lot of discussions of this nature up :) One day I will write a book to ease the confusion.

  12. says

    Yeah, I know what you mean – you *think* people would be better socialized these days, to the point of at least *pretending* not to be bigots the way small children do when caught (“No, I said KNITTER! Really!”) but the lack of self-awareness of some people is amazing, matched only by their Denial stats. (Can you have a negative in Clue?)

    Then again, every story that dealt with race and/or gender in the big F&SF special anniverary issue two years ago was pretty offensive and clueless (and whiny OMG we white/guys are so OPPRESSED), there was the recent “Open Grope Project thing,” fandom is not as much more advanced than the general population as we would like to believe ourselves to be, and they would really HATE it if we did start collecting stats on it. (Then they’d call us hypercritical and say that numbers didn’t really represent anything….am I too cynical?)

  13. says

    You say: “But essentially prejudice, to me, is not just about motive because it can also be unconscious.”

    However, I didn’t say anything about “conscious”. The distinction I’m making is between saying about something “this thing you did is sexist in its effects” and saying “this was a prejudiced thing to do, perhaps unconsciously so.”

    My point — and my reading of Nussbaum’s point — is that statistics are precisely how you would in fact measure unconscious bias.

    Thought experiment time:

    So Eclipse One was a 50-50 gender split, which is uncommonly balanced for an SF anthology; Eclipse Two is almost all-male, uncommonly unbalanced. Strahan does not explicitly balance the TOC, clearly: he does not, as Aunty Wend reports Farthing does, go through and select, from the pile of “good enough” manuscripts, about fifty-fifty male and female. Right?

    So, neither does Strange Horizons. Jed, Susan, and Karen explicitly do not make reference to gender in their decisions. They do not consciously “gender balance”. Like Strahan, they “just pick the stories they like”. The result is that, because of their tastes, their reputation among potential submitters, etc., over the last almost eight years, they receive substantially more male submissions than female, and publish substantially more female than male.

    OK, so here’s the thought experiment. After eight years or whatever of this track record… 60% male slush pile, 75% female TOC, or whatever it is… there happens to be a three-month run of all-male authors. They just happen to buy only fiction from men for three months. If we take the SH editors at their word, if that’s what they picked, that’s what they’d run — they wouldn’t stop and find some female-authored stories to intersperse with the male-authored stories. And then, after that, it went back to the usual 75% female TOC for the next four years or whatever.

    So would you say that those three months of male stories were, in that case, a prejudiced act on the part of Jed, Susan, and Karen? And that all you’d need to know to be certain it was a prejudiced act was the bare fact of those three months of all-male stories? That that bare fact was sufficient to determine that Jed, Susan, and Karen were acting out of unconscious bias during those three months… an anomalous episode of this unconscious bias, unique over the twelve years in question? And that the rest of SH’s history was irrelevant to making this determination?

    Because that’s the logical conclusion of what you’re saying. Nussbaum is saying “more data may in the future tell a different story” and you’re saying “like hell, I have all the data I need right here.” And if you’re talking about effects, I agree with you, but if you’re talking about unconscious bias, I don’t…. as the SH example is intended to illustrate.

  14. Nora says

    OH! *You* wrote this. WTF didn’t you say something while I was rambling on about reading this great article somewhere by somebody about how bias doesn’t need to be looked at systemically in order to still be bias?? ::facepalm::

  15. says

    Sorry, Ben, I was off at a retreat and didn’t really look at your comment until now.

    They’re free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I do believe that the SH editors DO take gender into account, somewhat, because they are looking to create greater balance. I’m really sure I’ve seen Jed say this. I’d like to think that if they suddenly had a glut of stories by men, like 3 – 6 months worth with no women at all, that they would say “This is a problem, we should attempt to rectify it.”

    That’s the main thrust of what I think Strahan should have done. It’s just unacceptable to “randomly” and “by chance” have 95% white male TOCs. If, as an editor, you see the anthology shaping up that way, you have a choice. Either keep things the way they are for whatever reason or to say “This is a problem, I should attempt to rectify it.” But if you just shrug and say “Oh well, only one woman,” or FAIL to notice it at all? That’s not good.

    Somewhere along the line with every anthology the editor makes a choice to not worry about gender or racial balance. Strahan made that choice this time, and it’s a bad choice. Where conscious or unconscious comes in is the whole “I didn’t notice” part.

  16. says

    cf this post: “two-thirds of the stories we’re publishing are by women….[a]nd, of course, it’s entirely unintentional–which is to say, like most editors, we don’t consciously look at gender in making our decisions.” — Jed 8/12/06

    I think there are a number of references online to SH’s editorial practice. SH does not include gender in their consideration of what manuscripts to publish.

    What they do do, and what I think editors should do, is track gender (and other) statistics, think about their implications, wrestle with them, challenge themselves to see their own biases, etc.

    What they are on record as not doing is to say “oh, we have too many authors of (gender/race/class) X, let’s go pull an author of (gender/race/class) non-X out of the pile”.

    I think they are in their rights not to do this. I don’t think it’s evil or politically suspect.

    Let me be clear: I think it’s totally cool if a publishing venue wants to ensure gender balance, making sure they have a 50-50 TOC.

    And I think it’s incumbent on everyone to think about the issue and to make an effort — to realize that we are not completely free agents with totally unbiased views of the world, but that we inhabit social structures which invisibly and inexorably and powerfully bias us in specific, predictable, non-random ways. To create the best art you can in a world with a strong invisible current flowing in certain specific directions means teaching yourself to see, and to resist, that current.

    Which means that I think the fact that you’ve ended up with a homogenous table of contents should be a wake-up call. It should make you go through that pile of manuscripts one more time. It should make you worry about whether you’re doing enough outreach. It should perhaps make you get on the phone and call friends of yours who would add breadth and balance and diversity to your TOC and call in favors from them.

    But I don’t think it’s totally morally bankrupt not to make it a showstopper consideration — one that would have you kick out a better story for a worse story. And neither do you:

    “I would never suggest to an editor that they should choose a story simply because the author or main character is female or black. However, I would suggest that editors take a harder look at the stories they like from the slush pile…If a market just isn’t getting a lot of diverse stories, that’s an acceptable reason. It’s the editor’s job to then do everything she or he can to draw in that diversity and then be very conscious of how well they’re implementing it.”

    But that approach means that, if you don’t make gender balance override all other considerations, it will sometimes happen that people will pull out at the last minute, incoming story quality will skew in odd ways, or whatever, and you just won’t be fully able — in some specific, one-off case — to (in your words) “publish stories that reflect a true balance (but don’t lower your standards to do so).”

    If you’re trying to determine whether a venue is consciously ensuring gender balance, you don’t need statistics; you can just ask. Most aren’t, and I for one don’t expect most venues to. If however you are interested in whether they are promoting diversity in fiction markets in all the ways you discuss in your excellent essay — by outreach, by seizing with interest on good stories with unusual settings and casts, by your guidelines, by thinking carefully about the stories they choose — if you want to know if they are fighting that battle against bias of both kinds — external systemic oppression, and internal prejudice — and winning… then statistics are your friend.