Barkley — So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask: A Column of Unsolicited Opinions #51

An Independent Opinion of Science Fiction: A Declaration

By Chris M. Barkley:

I have thought it my duty to exhibit things as they are, not as they might be.

-Alexander Hamilton,  from a letter written on August 13, 1782

As a frequent user of Facebook, one of my daily (and habitual) delights has been posting fantasy and sf items of interest to many, MANY pages. (And YES, some of those items have been cribbed from this very website). 

One of my favorite pages is simply titled Science Fiction, a private group with nearly 68,300 members. The page was established in February 2008 and describes itself as:
“Science Fiction in all forms: Movies, books, t.v. shows, comics, video games and other media. Discussions of science and technology of the future in fiction.”  

It is clearly stated in the Group Rules of the Forum that:

1) Be polite, courteous, friendly. Be Polite. No disrespecting each other (even via pm’s)
2) Stay on target. Posts must be Science Fiction (or close to it) in nature. Discussions & comments must be about Scifi.
3) No irl politics & religion. Polite discussion of politics & religion must be in the context of specific usage in a specific scifi I.P. No discussions of real world politics or religions are allowed here.

During my time as a member, I’ve had some general disagreements with others that all fan groups have experienced since the Big Bang.  familiar with some members but it was all amiable and non-confrontational. That is, until recently…

Over the past two weeks I posted four items on the Science Fiction page which have drawn a LOT of attention:

On June 20th: “10 awesome science fiction and fantasy books by Black authors” by Daniel Devita

Almost immediately, several commentators, all of them white, accused me of racism. The primary reason seemed to be that I, an African American, was openly calling attention to black authors. Why wasn’t I promoting white writers? That MUST be racist. This was a peculiar bit of illogical thinking to me since NO ONE seemed to be objecting to memes and images about white actors, writers and authors that anyone (including myself) were posting on a regular basis everyday.

On June 22nd, these two posts: “Octavia Paved The Way” and “If You Really Want to Unlearn Racism, Read Black Sci-Fi Authors” by Cree Myles.

In the former, I was chastised for posting about the birthday of a celebrated Black woman sf writer because, well, she’s Black and dead. What? In the latter, AGAIN, I was called to task for “just promoting” Black writers. Who the hell was I to do THAT?

Lastly, there was this Instagram post of several reimagined illustrations of a Black Wonder Woman (titled Nubia By Render Goddess), which in turn was posted on The Secret Society of Black Superheroes Facebook Page:

Again, there was a constant barrage from white commenters, who either made disparaging remarks about the images, the darkness of her skin that were overtly racist or adamant claims that Wonder Woman could be either Lynda Carter or Gal Gadot but NEVER A PERSON OF COLOR.  

When I joined the Science Fiction page, it was my expressed goal to offer opinions and observations about science fiction that go beyond “what are you watching”, “what game are you excited about” and “who has the faster/cooler spaceship.” My intent was to offer an opportunity to think outside the perimeters of the culture the people were familiar with and expand people’s awareness of the larger universe of possibilities that sf literature, art and film has to offer. Because, it is generally thought, sf is supposed to be ‘fun”. Well, the moment people say something derogatory about someone’s race or gender, BOOM, you just made it VERY political

There has been a lot of support for my postings, from like-minded fans and people of color. But, as it has become readily apparent to me that there are a number of members who seriously object to discussing or considering diversity and instead have decided to reply with some rather defensive and disparaging comments on these posts.

To those members of Science Fiction forum, I have a very simple message for you: You’re WRONG.  HOW WRONG? Let me quote one of our greatest fictional Presidents (and THANK YOU VERY MUCH, Aaron Sorkin), Josiah Bartlet: “No. No ‘however’. Just be wrong. Just stand there in your wrongness and be wrong and get used to it.”

Furthermore, I was very heartened by the force of those who rose in defense of my posts. The message was very clear to the detractors: your time is up. It’s over. Collectively, we will no longer “bend the knee” and passively accept your boorish stances and hate speech.

Yes, you have a right to your opinions, as incredibly uninformed and crude as they are. But as an enlightened and educated person, I and other like-minded fans don’t have to stand it.When I post a link celebrating a great author of color, it is not an invitation to say, “Why are you posting THAT? I don’t see race and it’s an insulting to me to inject the subject onto a discussion on science fiction.”

Well, when someone claims something isn’t about race or ethnicity, it’s definitely about race and ethnicity. When I see those comments, I honestly have to question their credentials to be fans of science fiction (or fantasy, for that matter).

I once attended a 2007 guest lecture given by actor and social activist Edward James Olmos (who is either Lt. Castillo or Commander Adama, depending on how old or actor savvy you are).  The title of his talk was “We’re All In The Same Gang”, a meditation on how America has treated ethnic minorities over the centuries and how we can come together as a nation in these divided times. The capstone quote I remember the most was “There is only ONE race; The HUMAN race.” And he is correct, every single human that has ever lived can be traced back to a single area of land that eventually broke off and is currently the continent of Africa.

So since it is a scientific fact that we are ALL of African descent, is being colorblind to one’s race an acceptable attitude? Not in my opinion. And that was not the point of Mr. Olmos’ quote. Yes, we’re all in the same gang but as of today, not all of the gang are being treated or respected as equal. When white people, well-meaning or otherwise say that damning phrase, it is not true by any stretch of the imagination.

White people In America are, on the whole, are apt to be by default, given more of the benefit of doubt in social situations and more financial, educational and social opportunities than people of color. There’s that term, “white privilege”, that you keep hearing about. That’s what it is; an (almost) imperceptible program of racist bias running in the background of our everyday lives. 

When most white people walk out their front doors, they can be relatively assured that barring some unfortunate circumstance, they’ll be home after work and catch that new episode of House Hunters on HGTV. However, I step outside my door, I am marked by the color of my skin. I can’t even walk into Target, Kroger or WalMart without having at least one set of eyes lasered in one me, assessing my six-foot frame as to whether or not I’ll be shoplifting or robbing the place. (And the fact that I’m wearing a mask against being infected by COVID-19 only adds to their anxiety.)

And while we all strive to live, work and survive together in these difficult times, there are a number of white people who conveniently forget or have chosen to ignore America’s unreconciled racist past. And to this very day, America, as a nation, has NEVER come to terms with its racist past or its untenable, unsustainable present.

That the Native Americans had their lands stolen wholesale to be plundered and that Africans were trafficked as human chattel starting four hundred and one years ago by and for white settlers from Europe. You cannot wash away or forget that much racism, terrorism, theft and genocide without acknowledging these heinous wrongs. 

The lack of representation by people of color in every facet of life has been in the forefront of our swiftly evolving culture over the past generation. And the white people who have repressed their feelings about this for decades are clearly nervous by the tenor of the terrible comments my posts have garnered. 

The racists CLAIM to like science fiction but only if it is populated with the safe, comforting presence of white actors portraying Luke, Leia and Han or Kirk Spock and McCoy. And if, perchance, aliens land or AI’s gain full sentience, what would happen? I firmly believe that they would be among the first to grab the nearest weapon, start firing first and asking questions late.  Because if you can’t handle the thought of people of color writing popular novels, or Latinx leads on television or Asian folks in sf movies, you sure as hell aren’t the sort of material the human race needs to be picked for anyone’s “first contact” team. And when they act out their racial insecurities in this fashion, they do a big disservice to other sf fans who celebrate and welcome diversity. These racists try and hold themselves up as paragons of virtue, and talk about “saving” science fiction from those despicable liberals and progressive snobs.

Congratulations; you may like Star Trek, but your posts have proven that you are incapable of understanding the meaning and underlying philosophy behind what Gene Roddenberry, and those who followed in his wake, were actually espousing. That sf is more than cool spaceships jumping into hyperspace, blowing up planets or battling alien invaders intent on wiping out humanity. That’s only a very small part of what sf is actually about.

What is a good definition of science fiction? The best quote I ever read came from my friend, the late SFWA Grandmaster Frederik Pohl: “Science Fiction is the very literature of change.”
SF also concerns itself with the wonder, terrors and fears of the human, or alien, condition. It is an adventure into the soul of existence, that we may, if we’re lucky, get to know the unknowable with a judicious application of wisdom, compassion, empathy and experience.

Change is unavoidable. Change is inevitable. Change is happening, whether you like it not.

In the distant past, societal change, such as democracy, the Civil Rights Movement, artistic and scientific advances were incredibly glacial. Sometimes centuries would pass before anything meaningful would happen to change the human condition. But not in this day and in this age. Changes today can occur faster and with more meaningful impact than ever before. On May 25th, a Black man was murdered in the streets of Minneapolis and died right before our eyes. A month later, millions of people from all over the world, of all races, genders and political persuasions were shouting his name in those same streets, calling out for justice and to hold the responsible parties of systemic racism to be held to account for their tyranny.

We all know the name of George Floyd because he died horribly and became a martyr on the altar of racial injustice and intolerance. But you have seen what has happened in the wake of his death. Change is coming.

In fact, some change has already been felt on the Science Fiction page: more than a dozen people have been removed from the group for gross violations of the page’s policies by the administrators of the page. I have no doubt that the administrators of the Science Fiction page were shocked by these wretched and volatile comments. These removals weren’t done because of “political correctness”, they were done because “free speech” is not a license to be irresponsible or cruel. They were vile. They were indecent by any measure of the word. Because the freedom to post comes with responsibilities and consequences as well.

To my fellow page members, I say this: Continue to post what you like and what you love about sf. Whether it be online, in bookstores, in the streets, at parties or at conventions, we all should welcome diverse political, scientific and philosophical viewpoints and debates. But irrational hate speech, insensitivity towards the racial identity, gender or sexual preferences of others is not welcome, now, or ever.

“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

19 thoughts on “Barkley — So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask: A Column of Unsolicited Opinions #51

  1. Bravo. As an old white guy who grep up in the American Midwest, SF helped me imagine worlds different, and sometimes even BETTER than the one outside my window. It helped me understand that heroes don’t always look like Jim Kirk. I’m always flabbergasted when I see SF fans who think that their favorite flavor is somehow diminished by the presence of other flavors. SF teaches us that life isn’t a zero-sum game.
    Most (ok many) of us old white guys want to keep learning, keep imagining, keep changing, and we appreciate the opportunity to do so, with your help.

  2. I did a one hundred recommended books list for tor that happened to have one book by a straight white guy on it. I think it was one. I still get hate mail over that article.

  3. I skipped the images when I read this, really, and only now went back to look, and yes, I want to know that Wonder Woman’s story and would pay good money to see it. That’s still a goofy costume, but the way the tones and textures work, I believe she is immune to low-grade weaponry whether covered or not.

  4. I went back to check something out about Start Trek: “Court Martial” features Commodore Stone – the flag officer who convenes and chairs Kirk’s trial; as you all will recall, he’s Black. This was in 1967. The first African-American officer of flag rank received that rank in 1971 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_L._Gravely_Jr.) – in fact, in 1967, there weren’t any African-American naval Captains yet.

  5. Completely agree. If you can’t handle someone having a different color skin, how the can you handle someone who is actually different?

  6. Also de-lurking to say Bravo and applaud the power of your writing and appreciate the power of the image of Nubia.

  7. Well said, Chris. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences, and racist bullshit is racist bullshit. It’s important for all of us to call it out, and I’m very glad you and the Science Fiction forum are doing so.

    Keep holding up Black authors and artists, please; many of us (myself, alas, included) need the pointers from people like you to remind us to go looking for them. If other people hadn’t put (for example) Rivers Solomon on their Hugo ballots, I would likely never have encountered their work and my reading life would be the poorer for it. Likewise with many other authors of color.

    I’m not young, and I’m more set in my ways that I’d like to admit; I tend to look for the same handful of favorite authors year after year after year. I need reminders to go looking for the new, the different, the alien-to-my-personal-experience.

    And I truly do appreciate it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.