Are Hugo finalists suffering from affirmative action?

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Now that it looks like the cat is out of the bag on how WorldCon members feel about the Hugo finalists, maybe we can analyze what went on with the programming. For anyone who missed it, WorldCon staff sent out the following about finalists who weren’t included on the program: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.” Then I had a conversation with a WorldCon member who admitted she didn’t really read anything, but actually nominated and voted based on the authors’ minority status.

Because of the volume of material out there, I suspect this is a standard practice for WorldCon voters. You feel obligated, so you look through the lists of recommended works, check the biographies and pick out the writers who advertise the most minority status. This discharges your responsibility as a progressive, and then you can spend your time at the con enjoying activities and authors you really like. (In this case, that looked to be panels full of white men.)

The problem is, this leads to a reality gap. It means that various authors are being promoted by a literary award system based on who they are rather than the quality of their work. It also means that quality now means pretty much zilch in the award. Certainly as a faithful reviewer of Hugo finalists, I’ve noticed wide variance in the quality of works nominated (both by Puppies and “organic” WorldCon voters). So, do members ever get around to reading these books at all? Will they get bored and impatient if they have to listen to too much from those darn finalists? After all, they got voted in, right? What else do they want?

Meanwhile on the other side of the story, a group of authors thinks they’ve been recognized because people appreciate their work. They’re excited to go to the con and interact with their fans, and instead, they’re being brushed off into back rooms by the programming committee. This is disrespectful considering their status as finalists for a prestigious award—and they feel like their careers will suffer as a result.

So, are these finalists actually being harmed? Affirmative action has been around long enough for people to judge the results, and a few research studies have investigated both the short and long term affects. The conclusion is that affirmative action policies do generally work in increasing diversity within a population, but not always how you’d expect. For example, the most noticeable result is that affirmative action tends to strongly benefit white women. Meanwhile, minorities who are targeted by the worst discrimination, like black and Hispanic men, may actually lose ground.

Currently there’s some soul searching going on because of an Asian class-action suit against Harvard University alleging discrimination in admissions. This has brought up the topic of “mismatch,” a theory that suggests some minorities might actually be harmed by promotion into an environment where they don’t really have the skills to compete. This would be beginning authors, for example, who are nominated before they’ve really gotten control of their skills as a writer. This means people might lose respect for them, stop reading their work, etc. So, is this happening to minorities who win the Hugo?

So far, it doesn’t look that way, complaints from this year’s finalists notwithstanding. They still get the name recognition, and appealing winners have gone on to become poster children, nominated again and attractive for film and TV deals. For example, see recent winners Nnedi Okorafor, Nora Jemisin and Victor LaValle. There’s also at least a small bump in readership.

Maybe it’s a question of whether the ideas actually stand up?

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Still more shameless self-promotion!

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Afromyth

A while back I sold a story to Afromyth, an anthology from Afrocentric Books edited by J.S. Emuakpor. It looks like the e-book became available on December 9, and the paperback will soon follow. You can pick up a copy here. My story is “Death in Nairobi” about a Miami detective on holiday roped into investigating a local crime. Have fun reading!

Review of Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

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This is an urban fantasy novel published in 2015 by Arthur A. Levine Books. It falls into the young adult category. A second in the series is available called Shadowhouse Fall, published in 2017. Older is a multi-award winner.

Sierra Maria Santiago is out of school for the summer and expecting to use the time to paint a mural on the stark concrete tower that overshadows her Puerto Rican neighborhood in Brooklyn. There she meets Robbie, who is of Haitian ancestry and also very talented in art. The two strike up a romance, and Robbie tells Sierra about a secret society of shadowshapers. This is a kind of traditional sorcery that Sierra’s family has been hiding from her, but during this summer a new power has risen to stamp out the shadowshapers. Can Sierra, Robbie and their friends take up the mantle of power and fight back?

Good points: This book hits on several teen issues including racism, body image and self-esteem problems, offering an inclusive message that everyone is okay and valued for who they are. It reaches out to black and Hispanic teens often overlooked in young adult literature, providing powerful characters that they can identify with. It supports the view that teens need to stand up against the traditional discrimination against persons with darker skin. There are also lesbian characters, included like everyone else.

Not so good points: I thought there were fairly serious logical failings in this book, and I wouldn’t have finished it if I weren’t reading to review it. With very little evidence, Sierra assumes who is behind the mayhem going on the neighborhood. Once she knows about the secret shadowshaper tradition, she blabs to all her friends on the train where random strangers can overhear the conversation. Without any kind of caution, she leads her friends in a war against demons, armed only with shovels and broomsticks. This plot just doesn’t hold water. Also, I don’t think it sets a good example for how budding sorcerers ought to conduct themselves.

We get glimpses of the neighborhood and quite a bit of street language, but not much of Puerto Rican or Haitian culture, or what it’s like to live in Brooklyn. The characters are fairly flat, and there’s also not much in the way of depth. I’d like to have seen the book investigate Sierra’s relationship with her mother, for example, or why her mother is so unsupportive.

I’ll give it a little for the teen issues.

Three stars.

Gays no longer a minority?

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Another group that apparently no longer qualifies for the diversity category is ordinary gay men. See one article here that explains how “white” gay men are no longer discriminated against. In this case the UK National Union of Students (NUS) wants to ban gay white men because they’re somehow responsible for discrimination within the organization. Referring back to the last couple of blogs, presumably “white” in this case means Caucasians, plus any other ethnic groups that have also achieved the privilege expected from whiteness. In other words, discrimination based on just gayness is no longer appropriate, and you have to be one of the counted minorities (black or Latino in the US) in addition to being gay, in order to be judged still a great diversity hire.

One clue to what’s going on is in David Kaufman’s article on the same subject here. He suggests that gayness has allowed underqualified white men to be promoted at the expense of women and minorities, and that “…diversity and inclusiveness policies must address the needs of those who’ve been excluded most…” So, looking at it this way, there’s only so much diversity space available and it needs to be reserved for particular, especially oppressed groups–not gay white men.

Considering the SFF community then, there’s only so much space available on those book pages. Does it need to be reserved for those particular minorities who have been most oppressed in the past?

What is Whiteness?

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According to Jamelle Bouie, the recent election is a case of “white won.” If that’s so, maybe this is a good time for another look at what that word “white” means. I’ve already mentioned in a previous blog that white is more a set of power relations than about race. This means that whiteness is about power and privilege and not really about skin color at all.

One of the mistakes that neo-left activists have made, according to David Marcus in a response to Bouie’s article, is that this group has equated privilege with skin color, assuming all white people are privileged and demanding they should admit this and apologize for oppressing people-of-color. According to Marcus, the struggling white working class (along with a big chunk of the middle class) has responded to this demand with a hard swing to the right. He suggests that “whites” will no longer accept that minorities should be allowed to pursue their own interests to the detriment of whites, and that things people-of-color say will no longer be ignored in the political arena.

So given that this is really about power and privilege, who turns out to be white and who turns out to be a minority? This is an interesting topic. First, people of Arab ethnicity are currently making a move to withdraw from the “white” race into a MENA (Middle Eastern/North African) category. Although Arab-Americans have been designated as white for the last 70 years in the US, they increasingly feel they don’t have the privilege that whiteness should confer.

Next, it occurs that Asians are actually “white.” This is a social phenomenon that goes back several decades, when suddenly Asians became invisible in diversity counts (and started to sue about discrimination in university admissions). If you’re interested in further reading on this topic, see an article here by Eugene Volokh written in 1998. Non-Latino Hispanics also turn out to be invisible in diversity counts, and I’d hazard a guess that Native Americans are mostly invisible, too. So that leaves only blacks and Latinos as the minorities who actually count.

Next blog: How does this affect the SFF community?

Bio of black SFF pioneer Charles W. Chesnutt

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FeatherPenClipArtCharles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932) was born in Cleveland, Ohio, of parents Andrew and Ann Maria Chesnutt, “free persons of color” from North Carolina. Charles was of racially mixed heritage, and now would probably suffer from being “not black enough.” Although he could have passed as white, he grew up as an African American and continued to identify strongly as black.

After the end of the Civil War, the family moved back to Fayetteville, NC, where Andrew Chesnutt opened a grocery store. Charles attended the Howard School for black students and later became a teacher and assistant principal. In 1878 he married Susan Perry and the couple moved to New York City briefly and then back to Cleveland. Charles studied law and passed the bar exam, then established a profitable court reporting business.

With prosperity ensured, Chesnutt took up writing stories, which were well-received and published in nationally recognized magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly. During his lifetime, Chesnutt completed a number of works including stories, collections, novels and a biography of Frederick Douglass. One of Chesnutt’s most important works was his first book, a collection of short stories titled The Conjure Woman, published in 1899. The stories were folk tales of the supernatural that reveal black resistance to slavery and revenge against white culture. The book was adapted by Oscar Micheaux as a silent film and released as The Spider’s Web in 1926.

This information is from Chesnutt’s article at Wikipedia. You can read more here.

More on multiculturalism as policy

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Vijay Mishra (2012) calls multiculturalism a “structure of control” for managing minorities without really affecting the power and position of the majority. In other words, he’s saying the majority uses the policy to sympathize with minority concerns, but only pays lip service to actual equality and remains unwilling to give up anything real. Because of this, the majority never becomes part of the cultural mosaic—it always remains outside, separate and in control. Now we’re looking at the politics of redistribution, whether you’re talking about publishing or political power.

Mishra’s is likely a good description of what the policy of multiculturalism has not accomplished over the last few decades—which is any real transfer of power and opportunity to the masses. However, it’s questionable if expectations for this were ever right in the first place. For example, C.W. Mills (1999) argues that “whiteness” isn’t actually related to color, but is instead about a set of power relations. The elite 1% that owns half the world’s wealth doesn’t really break down along racial, gender or ethnicity lines. The list of US billionaires, while admittedly mostly white and male, also includes a number of women, Asians and African Americans. When you look at the ranks of millionaires, the number of minorities increases further. This suggests the issue of redistribution of wealth and power is more about industry, opportunity and good investments than minority vs. majority status. Of course, opportunity is the huge elephant in the room.

Another issue that has affected multicultural policy in recent years within the US is the problem of the disappearing majority. White children are already a minority in the US, and as older individuals die off within the next few years, whites will achieve full minority status. This will have to change the conversation about minority vs. white privilege. For example, white voters can’t count on carrying an election through sheer numbers any longer. Whites may soon become eligible for minority scholarships and Affirmative Action support. The public schools will serve increasing numbers of POC as white populations decline. As the white middle class continues to wane, POC will have to look at shouldering more of the responsibilities for paying taxes, driving the economy and affecting political change.

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