Black science fiction writers face 'universal' racism, study finds

Fireside Fiction’s report, #BlackSpecFic, finds less than 2% of SF stories published in 2015 were by black writers

The world of speculative fiction publishing is plagued by “structural, institutional, personal, universal” racism, according to a new report that found less than 2% of more than 2,000 SF stories published last year were by black writers.

The report, published by the magazine Fireside Fiction, states that just 38 of the 2,039 stories published in 63 magazines in 2015 were by black writers. With the bulk of the industry based in the US, more than half of all speculative fiction publications the report considered did not publish a single original story by a black author. “The probability that it is random chance that only 1.96% of published writers are black in a country where 13.2% of the population is black is 0.00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000321%,” says the report.

SFF data
Click here to read the full data. Source: Fireside Fiction

“Fiction, we have a problem,” writes Fireside Fiction editor Brian White in the report. “We all know this. We do. We don’t need numbers to see that, like everywhere in our society, marginalisation of black people is still a huge problem in publishing … The entire system is built to benefit whiteness – and to ignore that is to bury your head in the flaming garbage heap of history.”

White told the Guardian that the numbers were “terrible”, but that “I can’t say they surprise me … I think that anyone who is paying attention to the demographics of speculative fiction publishing in general, and short fiction in particular, knows that there is a problem with underrepresentation of people of colour, and that it is even worse for black writers,” he said. “It seems like … even when progress is being made with people of colour, black people are being left out. But that progress itself helps hide that problem, because publishers can point to and feel good about ‘look at all the people of colour we have featured’ without examining it more closely to see who is still excluded.”

The Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor, winner of the World Fantasy award, told the Guardian that she didn’t “need a report to tell me what I already know. Hell, this is a large part of why I started writing … because as a reader I wasn’t seeing the stories I wanted to read, the characters I wanted to read, the dearth of diversity,” she said. “I don’t spend time despairing over what’s been there for centuries. I keep it moving, regardless.”

The report, #BlackSpecFic, was written by Cecily Kane, with data gathered by Ethan Robinson. It focused on black authors specifically, rather than authors of colour more generally, said Kane, because “while all are important, we noticed several patterns – not limited to the short fiction field – in which ‘diversity’ initiatives excluded black people and hid anti-blackness”.

Kane called the numbers very damning. “Speculative short fiction publishing is rife with anti-blackness, and white speculative fiction writers and publishers need to stop pretending otherwise,” she wrote.

The author Justina Ireland, in an essay accompanying the report, was equally scathing in her assessment. “The science fiction and fantasy community has a problem with race. More specifically, SFF publishing as a whole is and continues to be anti-black,” she wrote. “Folks in SFF like to point to successful black authors as though they prove we’ve somehow evolved beyond the shadow of #Racefail, because it’s a popular fallacy that if a single black person can succeed then we’ve obviously moved past institutionalised racism. But an analysis of 2015’s short fiction gives the lie to that truth.”

Author Troy L Wiggins wrote in another accompanying essay that: “The truth is that I have a better chance of being wrongfully convicted of a crime than I do of selling a piece of short fiction to a major speculative fiction magazine.”

Black science fiction and fantasy authors, Ireland said, were choosing to self-publish rather than face the hostility of the current establishment. In an interview, NK Jemisin agreed that “black writers have their own market. They’ve got their own place to go … The absence of black writers within sort of traditional publication markets is not necessarily indicative of the number of black writers who are out there.”

Brian White turned a critical eye on his own magazine, which had published three stories by black writers in 2015, out of 32. “That’s 9.4%! Near the top of the entire list of 63 magazines!” he wrote in an editorial. “Guess what? In 2016, Fireside hasn’t published a single black writer. We have one or two in the pipeline for later in the year, but we’ve failed. We’re all failing.”

White told the Guardian that in the future, he would “make a more conscious effort to directly solicit stories from black writers”.

“This is something I have done in the past, but I want to be more mindful of it,” he said. “For our open submissions periods, we are going to add a form to allow writers to anonymously and voluntarily include demographic information. The biggest piece of data we don’t have is how many black writers are submitting stories to our magazine. In talking to black writers, both for our companion essays and in general, a hugely important thing is having a diversity statement as part of your submission guidelines, which we already do. But even more important is evidence that you actually are putting that into action. If you say that diversity is important to you, and then a writer of colour looks at your magazine and sees you are mostly publishing white men writing stories about white men doing white-men things, they are probably not going to submit.”

Okorafor said the solution was for “a diversity of people to just keep writing, producing, facilitating, consuming, enjoying and participating in all aspects of publishing, whatever your talent or skill set”.

“Why is anyone surprised about that report? We all know the problem, can we focus on the solution?” she said. “My time and energy are better spent creating.”


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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