Can We Talk About Race?

There’s a bit of a kerfuffle going on right now with regards to race and racism in an organization that I’m part of and love very dearly. The really frustrating part is that it’s closely mirroring a similar kerfuffle that went on in academia about a decade and a half ago. As a result, I feel I need to break this blog’s long silence and break my “no politics” rule and chime in with what we learned over there in the hopes that it will help those in the SF/F community (fan and professional) cool down and start communicating better. 

First and foremost: we need to acknowledge that “racism” and “racist” are loaded terms. Most of us grew up knowing that it’s not OK to be racist and racism is wrong. When someone uses these words even obliquely directed at us, we instinctively become defensive. We’re not racists, and so being accused of racism is insulting and unjustifiable.

The trouble is, that reaction was leading to schools being unable to address very real problems that persist for non-white students, faculty, staff, and constituents.

You see, when there is a persistent structural challenge that disproportionately affects members of a minority population, that’s racism. When people can’t call it out because using the word “racism” sets people on edge, it becomes impossible to talk about, and therefore impossible to fix.

Let me give an example. Let’s say that the first bus from the majority-Black part of town doesn’t arrive on campus until 8:05. The school schedules a required course to start at 8:00. The professor of said course has a “doors locked at the time class is scheduled to start” policy. The result? Black students are disproportionately and through no fault of their own being locked out of a required course. That’s racism.

The thing is, it’s not only possible but probable that none of these things were done with any animus. The local mass-transit authority didn’t sit down and say, “Let’s prevent the Black students from getting to class on time.” They simply set a reasonable schedule based on usage and available resources. The college didn’t say, “Let’s schedule this class at a time when Black students can’t get there.” They looked at room and instructor availability and worked this course into a complex matrix of other courses. The professor didn’t say, “I don’t want those Black students in the room, so I’m implementing a strict late policy.” (S)He simply wants to provide a distraction-free learning environment that emphasizes personal responsibility. But the intention behind these factors doesn’t in any way change the result of these factors: Black students being disproportionately excluded from education.

So, in academia we decided to divorce the words “racism” and “racist” from the intentions behind them. Sure, maybe the bus system, the school, and/or the professor really do bear animus against Black students and are doing it deliberately, but what does that matter, really? We need to fix the problem, not go on thought-police witch hunts. So today (ideally – admittedly not always in practice), we are empowered to say, “That policy is racist” without it being taken as a personal attack on whoever’s policy it is. Rather, it’s an invitation to sit down and discuss how the policy is affecting minorities disproportionately.

So, if a student comes to me and says that a policy in my syllabus is racist, rather than being offended and rattling off my pro-equality resume, I’m supposed to sit down and say, “Really? Could you please explain how?” Conversation begins. If the policy is, in fact, creating disadvantages based on race, I want to know so I can fix it. If it is not and the student is simply not understanding the policy, I want the student to walk away knowing that their concerns were heard and taken seriously, and that they are free to bring such concerns to me in the future.

Alas, this commitment didn’t really leak out of academia.

And now I’m seeing exactly the same pattern happening in the SF/F community. People who see structural disadvantages to certain groups call it out using an “-ism.” The people invested in the policy / who made the statement in question / representing the organization involved / etc. take it as an attack on their character. The end result is a lot of hurt feelings, raised voices, and lack of listening.

People, this needs to stop.

I don’t care whether we do what academia did and continue to use the “-ism” and “-ist” words and tell people to get over being offended by them or if we replace the “-ism” and “-ist” words with synonyms that carry the “not necessarily driven by animus” connotation, but we need to be able to discuss these issues, and we need to be able to discuss them now, not several generations down the line.

So, everyone, on all sides of these debates, please take a deep breath, operate from the assumption that anyone willing to engage in the conversation is a good person coming from a good place, and let’s work out our semantics before we feel attacked or feel like we’re dealing with a die-hard “-ist.”

We all owe that to our community.


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