Mercedes Lackey Removed from the Nebula Conference

SFWA removed Mercedes Lackey from this weekend’s Nebula Conference less than 24 hours after celebrating her selection as a Grand Master during the Nebula Awards ceremony. The reason given is that she “used a racial slur” while on a panel.  

SFWA explained the action in a “Statement on Removal of Mercedes Lackey from the Nebula Conference”.

Dear Nebula Conference Participants and SFWA Members,

We learned yesterday that while participating in the “Romancing Sci-Fi & Fantasy” panel, Mercedes Lackey used a racial slur. First, we apologize to our attendees and the other panelists who were subjected to that slur. We’ve disabled access to the panel to avoid any additional harm being caused.

Second, we are immediately removing Mercedes Lackey from the conference and the additional panels she was scheduled for, in accordance with SFWA’s Moderation Policy. The use of a racial slur violates the instruction to “Respect all cultures and communities. Do not make derogatory or offensive statements even as a joke.” That applies to everyone in a SFWA space, at all levels of their career.

Third, we will be discussing with the other panelists for “Romancing Sci-Fi & Fantasy” how they would prefer we proceed when they are able and comfortable in doing so. We will be offering to edit out the offensive portion of the panel or hold the panel again at a later date, inviting back the other three panelists and moderator to again take part. We will respect their wishes on how to handle this issue while also sharing the invaluable expertise they offered during the discussion. 

Thank you to our conference attendees and panelists who reported the use of the slur. We appreciate being alerted to it right away, so we could investigate and come to this decision as swiftly as possible.

The SFWA Board of Directors

The circumstances and the specific slur are discussed by Jen Brown in a Twitter thread that starts here.

What was said is stated in the Twitter thread.

This is the second time an issue has come up since Lackey was announced as a Grand Master last fall. Previously, SFWA asked Lackey to “clarify a past statement on writing trans characters”.

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187 thoughts on “Mercedes Lackey Removed from the Nebula Conference

  1. David Dyer-Bennet: Delany has posted in a couple of social-media threads I’ve followed, and he doesn’t seem offended.

    Matthew Foster: Samuel Delany has weighed in and he’s not siding with the SFWA.

    Can someone point me to the document that all POC signed, which designates the 80-year-old Delany as the official spokesperson for all people of color? I haven’t had any luck finding it with Google.

    These arguments, that use of the term is fine since Delany is fine with the use of the term, are eyerollingly disingenuous.

  2. Especially as Jen Brown was right there being not fine with it at all. I feel like people keep kind of disappearing her out of the narrative.

  3. though I may have been distracted by boggling at her mispronunciation of Delaney’s name and rambling digression about how there was some other Samuel Delaney who was different from the Samuel Delaney she was talking about, which was the general context in which the word was said.

    Wait, Heather Rose Jones how did she mispronounce Delaney’s name?

  4. I would very much prefer it if this didn’t end up being set up as some sort of Samuel R. Delaney vs Jen Brown as avatars of the war of the (white people talking about) black people. Both of them deserve better, and both are entirely entitled to their opinions and feelings, as shaped by their different ages and experiences.

    Yes, person-first-is-better is certainly not clear-cut in all circumstances; autistic people are far from the only group of disabled people who prefer identity-first. But in this specific case, the phrase used at the Nebulas is, at best, archaic, and at worst… well, the only time I’ve heard someone say it in real life they were not being nice, or respectful, or polite, but framing the mere presence of non-white people as a negative. I think that people who have kept using it despite it falling out of polite use are those who have had very little to do with the people in question, or at least the younger ones. A UK datapoint, not USA, but I think there isn’t so much difference on this one. (We do have a couple of words which are either more or less serious than the USA.)

    There is a discussion or several to be had about how to protect everyone including those who use archaic or idiosyncratic terms and former-or-present slurs for themselves – this is hardly the only time there’s been a conflict along those lines, see “queer” and “gay” and “basically every terminology debate disabled people ever have” for details – but I’m reluctant to make that about protecting people who are without the group and hurt people within it.

    I suspect Larry Dixon’s exclusion was because the last time Mercedes Lackey was criticised, he did exactly what he’s doing right now, and the organisers decided they’d rather he did it on Twitter than mid-panel.

  5. I feel really sorry for Jen Brown. She must have felt all her choices were bad. I’ve been in situations where speaking up got me brigaded and situations where I’ve hated myself for not speaking up. She had the added pressure of being a relatively new author who might be seen as overly sensitive and rushing to correct a SFWA Grand Master.

    Was the moderator asleep at the wheel?

  6. As someone living in another country than US and not having this “first amendment”, I agree this isn’t a free speech issue. Lackey became a member agreeing to follow the Code of Conduct of the convention. This is about an apparent breach of the Code of Conduct on place of the convention.

    No idea why Dixon was originally banned, but I agree that his behaviour makes everything worse. A more logical response would have been to read up (as I have now been forced to do) and act like Benedict Cumberbatch.

  7. It’s hard for me to comprehend why so many people feel certain it’s either highly improbable or irrelevant that this could have been a mistake made without racist intent.

  8. Nice derail, Total. Americans claiming a right to free speech are talking about the First Amendment.

    I’m an American, rcade, and I’m not talking about the First Amendment, and it’s breathtakingly jingoistic of you to assert that that’s the way the conversation has to be. But, in any case, not much reason to continue down this path, so I’ll leave it.

  9. I think SFWA are setting too high expectations on oral discussion. We all make slips of the tongue, and using the wrong word while praising someone doesn’t sound like a slur. If you were writing a book, you might pick it up when proofreading, or your editor would, but these gaffes occur orally all the time. Professional radio and tv journalists trip up over MP Jeremy Hunt’s name all the time, and they apologised, but were mocked, not condemed.

    How confident would you be to use the correct words on an informal public stage.

  10. I find this a little bit baffling to be honest. She got booted from the conference because she complimented somebody incorrectly.

  11. English has always had taboo words. The taboos used to be related to religion and bodily functions, but those words have lost their force, so we need new forbidden words. The trouble with them is that you can’t quote their use, so readers can’t determine the context and judge the matter for themselves. The words themselves, not intent to insult, are prohibited. But taboos give words their power. They teach people to be shocked and hurt, while teaching malicious people that they can shock and hurt by using those words. No one gains except for the people who actually want to be nasty.

  12. As another non-American, I suppose I stand outside the discussion. But it does amaze me that people here who also discuss mispronunciation of Chip Delany’s name keep misspelling his last name. Which in my view is more insulting than perhaps, if you haven’t heard it pronounced correctly, mispronouncing it. (Since I haven’t heard what was said, I have no opinion on whether his name was or wasn’t mispronounced, but I do try to at least spell the names of people I write about correctly.)

    As for “coloured”, I can understand that it’s disliked due to its use during the Jim Crow era. But it was also the term favoured by African Americans from the 19th century and on; it is still in the name of the NAACP and it was certainly the most common non-derogatory term in the late 1960s and in the 1970s, when Mercedes Lackey was in her teens and twenties. (I hesitate, but can’t refrain from noting that linguistically, someone designated as a “person of colour” must grammatically be a “coloured person”.) Given the content and context of Lackey’s comments on Delany, it must also be impossible for anyone to actually believe that she meant to disparage him in any way.

  13. “If it was acceptable 50 years ago, then it’s just as acceptable today.” 🙄

  14. Just as a point of reference, it is also news to me that “colored” had moved from being an archaic term to being an offensive one.
    Grew up in the 60s and 70s in the north east.

    I’d be interested to learn when those dictionary definitions were updated.

    On the limited evidence presented so far, I tend to see this as an over-reaction. I don’t mean that there wasn’t any offense, actual or perceived, but the handling of the situation seems out of proportion to me.

    Those are my reactions. They may change as more is learned.

  15. Also a non-American. I very much see the offense (whether intentional or not), but it seems as though the response was completely disproportional to the crime committed.
    I’m trying to understand why Mercedes Lackey wasn’t given a chance to clarify her statement and then apologize.
    Banning someone from an event for one word (even the C word) without any due process seems overkill.
    I hope there will be some sort of “lessons learned” from all of this after the storm blows over.

  16. As a Black Man myself, I adore Delany — yet I’m sliding, 100%, with Jen Brown, who we should be directing our support to. And I note, first and foremost, how many just ignore her presence, on that panel.

    As many have also noted, the term used is one many (not all!) Black Americans know well. And as someone who’s screwed up, at a con, in front of other People of Color, around Offensive Terms for Asian people? Yeah, it can HURT to get called out, to be reminded that language changes, and what you recall as fine from 20+ years ago now, isn’t.

    And it isn’t, for damned good reasons. Just as SF itself has improved in ways I couldn’t have imagined when I was reading as a kid, so, too, has how we use the language I read more adroitly, English. We imagine such amazing things, and use such astonishing turns of phrase to do so, now! And the flip side of that, is that we discard the bits of the past that didn’t work, that held us back.

    We never can carry everything forward. And sometimes, as we discover the New, we also find out that there’s parts of the Current that “we” just didn’t see. We didn’t see, for so long, how much damage we did by insulting groups with terms they didn’t like, in the middle of inflicting cultural and systemic harm. We didn’t understand how to listen to those voices, and what we can learn from them.

    And now, we have a chance to. We can set aside the few things that didn’t work, and make room for what does! I mean, is anyone really begging for the return of Asimov-style characters in stories?

    And I see, in our culture, the fear rising from that act, the rage of the so-called backlash. It should fill anyone who cares about SF as a platform for The Future, with shame and a rising determination to fight for a better future.

    That it does not, is evidenced in many comments, here.

    Jen Brown is right. Delany can be gracious all he wishes, but these situations harm beyond the target, just as our words can impact beyond the scope of a work. If that wasn’t true, we wouldn’t still be basically speaking Shakespeare!

    It’s OK to be flawed. And doing flawed things, have repercussions. There’s a clear policy, the policy was breached, and repercussions occurred. That so many seek to defend someone who did speak poorly, over defending the woman who had to sit in that moment…I’m not shocked, nor sadden.

    It’s just why I avoid SF so often, these days.

  17. @John-Henri Holmberg

    when Mercedes Lackey was in her teens and twenties

    I’m a generation younger than Lackey but there’s several terms that everybody used freely in my teens and twenties which I’ve purged from my vocabulary. If I make it to 71 and am still in a mental state where it’s not cruel to let me out in public, and still use one of those terms I hereby declaim that it’s only fair for future me to deal with the consequences.

    (Also I know that my partner would not be going on the offensive a la Dixon).

  18. …and now Jen Brown is the focus of attacks on Twitter, which should come as a surprise to precisely no one, including Dixon.

  19. I have seen responses to this in a Mercedes Lackey fan group on Facebook. Gargh. Somebody claimed Jen Brown was going to tell Mercedes Lackey about the term during the panel but then decided not to do so because she wanted Lackey to be hurt by the report. How can you read that thread and get that impression?! With blinders on, I guess. All she did was talk about how she was too nervous and upset to type anything into the chat at the moment — and she started the thread to warn people to expect that moment in the video of the panel.

    People are throwing around words like “woke” and “virtue signaling.” In a Lackey fan group. How Sad Puppian of them. Moderators keep turning off the comments on the post, which makes sense to avoid more drama. But it also makes it harder to correct any BS that arises.

  20. Count me with the people who knew the term was outdated and would never use it, but were unaware it was actually offensive.

    I feel extremely ignorant.

  21. “If it was acceptable 50 years ago, then it’s just as acceptable today.”

    This was not what I meant, as hopefully most understood. There were a great many words denoting various groups of persons as well as individuals which were used frequently and seldom protested against fifty years ago, and which none of us use today. However, the rapid addition of new words not allowable can be problematic to follow. As said, I don’t live in the US, and that may be a reason, but the incident under discussion is in fact the first time I’ve become aware that “coloured” is no longer acceptable. I note that an American like Steve Davidson above says the same. And I submit that this may indicate that the shift in perception of “coloured” may well have gone under the radar for many, who have noted the much louder shift from “black” to “African American”.

  22. John-Henri Holmberg: I don’t live in the US, and that may be a reason, but the incident under discussion is in fact the first time I’ve become aware that “coloured” is no longer acceptable.

    I can’t speak for the situation in other countries, but given that the word has been considered offensive in the U.S. for 50 years now, it hardly seems that excuses can be made for those in the U.S. who have apparently spent the last 50 years with their heads buried in the sand.

    And for those making the excuse that “no insult or offense was intended”, that does not mean that no insult or offense was given.

    If I step on your foot and you call me out, I don’t say “it’s not my fault, I didn’t intend to hurt you” — I say, “I am so sorry for stepping on your foot, and going forward, I will make a concerted effort to never make that mistake again.”

  23. Pro or con, judge from direct knowledge. Anybody can watch her speech and the rest of the Nebula Awards online and judge for themselves.
    Her portion starts here:

  24. Black hasn’t stopped being used both by Black people and by non-Black people as an inoffensive term.

    “African-American” is commonly used and correct in context but has often been misapplied (it’s been used for people from Kenya, for British Black folks, for Caribbean-Canadians…. and yes. for white people born in Africa who immigrated to the US.)

  25. Okay, where did that plus in my name come from and can it die now?

    (I tried to post a second comment and my name came out as Lenora+Rose which dropped me into moderation as a new user)

    Much more importantly:

    The comment in question:

    I think it’s very telling that Larry Dixon’s defenders are in Jen Brown’s DMs…. calling her a word much worse than coloured for daring to mention this. Anyone care to claim that this is okay?

  26. I can’t speak for the situation in other countries, but given that the word has been considered offensive in the U.S. for 50 years now, it hardly seems that excuses can be made for those in the U.S. who have apparently spent the last 50 years with their heads buried in the sand.

    Wow. I guess my head has been buried in the sand. It was a term used a LOT when I was a child, and as I’m only 50, either I grew up around a lot of racists or the change happened more recently than you think.

    Or the move from outdated to slur happened later than you think.

    In any case, you are making a whole lot of assumptions about people who didn’t realize it was offensive as opposed to outdated. While none of us who aren’t emotionally impacted by the word get to dictate who takes offense and how much offense they take, I would submit to you that there is a little leeway in how much people know or understand about the word’s offensiveness, and that doesn’t make people “bad” if they didn’t realize it had become a slur.

  27. There’s a lot of interest in categorizing the word — slur, offensive or archaic — but does that matter when it is widely known to be problematic in the U.S.? I think most people in this discussion knew to avoid using the word except in the rare historic use such as describing the full name of the NAACP. And even then it can be avoided by just using the initials.

  28. There’s a lot of interest in categorizing the word — slur, offensive or archaic — but does that matter when it is widely known to be problematic in the U.S.? I think most people in this discussion knew to avoid using the word except in the rare historic use such as describing the full name of the NAACP. And even then it can be avoided by just using the initials.

    Agreed. She should have known it wasn’t a proper word to use.

    I’m just surprised at Jen’s reaction to it. I didn’t think it was offensive, just outdated, and never once considered why it’s outdated – because it was offensive. This makes me guilty of not thinking about it. Fortunately, I at least understood it was a term that shouldn’t be used. Now I understand that it’s a term that can cause hurt. It’s not just an archaic word that shouldn’t be used because it’s “out of date”, it’s a term that can cause genuine pain.

    Until today, I considered it an acceptable but outdated term – imprecise and incorrect, but not offensive. The NAACP is an example, it’s in that name but it’s out of date. I didn’t realize it was offensive. Seeing Jen’s reaction opened my eyes. Now I understand. I did not until, literally, today.

    This is certainly a fault in me. I did not know I was missing it, and it can be hard to admit ignorance, but … yeah, I was ignorant. It wasn’t something that had come up before in my life. I am privileged that way, and I recognize that. It’s embarrassing, and people like me guilty of such ignorance often overreact and double-down instead of admitting guilt. Then it becomes a feedback loop of bad feelings all around. I want to short-circuit the loop – some people genuinely were unaware of the term’s offensiveness. Please bear that in mind as you go forward.

  29. Colored was offensive in New England where I grew up forty years ago or more as was the more loaded N word that I shall not use here.

    My white sister brought home a Black boyfriend from University that she later married and had two children with but my grandparents used both slurs most deliberately., ie “He’s colored!” when they met him. The birthdays of the grandchilldren sort of changed their minds towards him but not really.

    His father was one of the Tuskegee Airmen. Look that up.

  30. I apologize for misspelling Chip Delany’s name in my comment. The ironic (on me) thing is that I did google the spelling I thought I remembered and when I saw google results for that spelling for the correct person, I drew an incorrect conclusion.

  31. I’m older than Mercedes Lackey and I’m surprised by the number of people here who are saying they hadn’t realized that use of the word is offensive. I dont think anyone regards me as being on the !eading edge of these things, but I remember being shocked when someone used the word at a local SF club meeting back in the 1990s.

  32. A lot of people in comments here have said, “I knew it was ‘outdated’, but I didn’t realize that it was inappropriate or offensive”.

    And I think maybe that’s just a result of not ever stopping to consider why it was outdated, why it was no longer used.

    If people stop using a word, it’s generally either because most people don’t know what it means, OR because its use has become inappropriate.

    I grew up in racist small-town Midwest US, and I’m somewhere on the spectrum and rather socially oblivious — and yet by the time I was in my mid-twenties I had managed to figure out that the r******* word and the cr****** word and the n***** word and the co***** word were no longer acceptable.

    Now maybe that’s because I went to the big state university and then moved to the big city, and it’s a function of my societal privilege.

    Or maybe it’s because one of my spectrum attributes is wanting to know the WHY of things, and I generally don’t ever just accept something without examining it and wanting to know why… and it’s hard for me to understand a lack of curiosity about that — if a word is considered outdated, why is it outdated?

    I am fucking oblivious, but I’ve been cringeing for years every time I heard the Lou Reed song.

    It seems to me, especially as a deeply privileged white person, that it’s important for me to maintain an awareness and a curiosity about noticing what things in society have changed — and understanding why they have changed.

    And maybe that’s the takeaway from this incident: that we all need to consciously notice when things change, and make sure we understand why they have changed.

  33. And maybe that’s the takeaway from this incident: that we all need to consciously notice when things change, and make sure we understand why they have changed.

    Yes. This. Thank you.

    I know I was ignorant. I’ve been examining my assumptions all morning. This has shaken me. I thought I was aware. I clearly was not.

    I thought the term was no longer used because it is imprecise. I did not make the now blindingly obvious connection to its inherent offensiveness. This was a mistake and laziness on my part.

    If I were the only one, I would be trying to dig a hole to bury myself in right now. As it is, I’d rather throw my efforts into letting people know that there was a lack of clarity on the part of many people regarding the use of that word in that context.

    Some of us were ignorant. Most of us who were ignorant are sorry and have corrected our thinking. Again, please keep that in mind going forward.

  34. When I was a child, “colored” was the polite common-usage term for African-Americans. (“Negro” had more academic connotations; e.g. The United Negro College Fund.) Anything else was insulting. And “Colored” meant specifically African-American. There weren’t any Asians around where we lived, and while there were Mexican-Americans, that was the polite usage there. The neologisms “persons of color” or POC have expanded the color-umbrella to include just about anyone with a complexion darker than that of someone whose ancestors came from the northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. I tend to stand with the folks who regard Ms. Lackey’s usage as a slip of the tongue-grade reversion to the older ‘polite’ form on the part of a senior-ish citizen. I am a year older than she is, by the way.

  35. I’m gobsmacked by the number of people who don’t recognize the term as problematic. I mean, here I am, in whitebread Oregon, which has been getting a lot of attention lately for its history, and I know the usage is problematic. And I hit Medicare age later this year, so I’m not young.

    As writers we’re supposed to be sensitive to word usage and nuances. What does it say when some writers aren’t, and they end up saying harmful and hurtful things?

  36. I wonder what the overlap is between people who thought “George R R Martin Can Fuck Off into the Sun” was an unpardonable offence against the dignity of an august figure and the people here arguing that using a racial slur in the presence of a Black writer is no big deal?

  37. Three points:

    1) The glaring subtext under all of the ‘who knew’ and ‘it used to be ok’ excuses is this: If you didn’t know, it is proof that you are not in community with Black people. Fix that.

    2) SFWA took the steps necessary to ensure that we, as an organization, make it clear that WE ARE in community with our BIPOC members. This is imperfect and not nearly complete but how else do we ‘teach’ our older white membership to be in this community? At some point, that commitment to community has to be stronger than tradition, stronger than deference to venerated elders, and strong enough to survive this sort of shame backlash which we white people use to keep from having to truly confront and change our biases. Too often, we have been the family that forces the victims to sit at the table with their abusive elders from a sense of tradition and pretend togetherness. As a society, it is long past time we divest of that bad practice.

    3) We could all stand to learn what to do if you make a slip of the tongue. We are so steeped in bias and racism (and sexism for that matter) that much of it becomes subconscious noise. This means we need to work to overcome it. If you slip, make an immediate acknowledgement and apology, and then restate with correct terms and move on. Ex: I just said xxx which was wrong because xxx. I sincerely apologize. I meant xxx.

    True community will take work, but we owe Jen Brown and all BIPOC people that effort. And if the abusive elders are unable to reform, we must bannish them from the family table.

  38. John-Henri Holmberg:

    I remember being corrected in school when I used the term “black” instead of “coloured”. That was in -87 when I had a very good anti-racist activist English teacher. On the other hand, there were complaints about the term not being appropriate when Swedish news used it with regards to the BLM demonstrations, so there must have occured some kind of change in between. I have absolutely no idea when.

  39. Eddie Louise: It wouldn’t occur to me, in the second comment I ever made in a community, to tell everyone what “we” need to do. But maybe that’s just me.

    What I see in the comments here is a combination of people who already regard “colored” as a slur, and others who based on this development with Mercedes Lackey are working towards that understanding.

    The ones who have no interest in having that understanding — they’re trading tweets with each other somewhere else.

  40. Susan Fox: It’s what Mercedes Lackey said on a panel, not what she said in her Grandmaster acceptance speech, that led to SFWA’s action.

  41. “it was certainly the most common non-derogatory term in the late 1960s and in the 1970s”

    That is absolutely not true. “Colored” was well on its way out. “Negro” was the preferred polite term by Lackey’s childhood, and by the late sixties there was a major upset with “black,” “African-American” and “Afro-American” coming to the fore.

    My mother had two books published with Little, Brown in 1969, both with Black characters, and one was updated to “black” and one still said “Negro.” While both are very dated now, I have always been glad that the one centering a Black family was the one that feels a bit less so.

  42. I have an intellectual understanding that colored is (at least in the American context) a slur (presumably a result of the dysphemism treadmill), but lack a visceral understanding why because while I know the denotation I don’t know the connotations.

    That leaves me in a position where I don’t have knowledge to make a fair judgement of the fallout.

  43. I am only a single handful of years younger than Lackey, and I am darn well aware that term, or any term that classifies a person with a label, is insulting and offensive. Would one refer to her as a “woman writer”? No. And “colored” was only used in the 70s by those who were trying to avoid a certain vile slur. I’m sad this happened, but my sadness is that the slur was used, not that there was a repercussion.

  44. JJ, thank you for your comments. I always cringed at the Lou Reed song but never stopped to consider why I cringed. I never thought about why polite individuals didn’t use colored to describe people anymore. I have a lot of thinking to do.

  45. It’s depressing that virtually all of the conversation revolves around “Is ‘colored’ offensive?” and not “Did she have the intent to be racist and can she be forgiven?”

  46. This makes me think of Space Lincoln’s introduction to Lt. Uhura in the late Star Trek episode “The Savage Curtain” (1969):

    SPACE LINCOLN: What a charming Negress. Oh, forgive me, my dear. I know in my time some used that term as a description of property.
    UHURA: But why should I object to that term, sir? You see, in our century we’ve learned not to fear words.

    Is Uhura’s attitude something to aspire to? Would Space Lincoln be able to say his line of dialogue if the episode were produced today?

    (By the way, count me [a Jew] among those who consider “colored” to be outdated in the US but had not suspected it was now a “slur”.)

  47. Matt re intent: one is the arguable objective connotations of a word, the other is the ultimately unknowable subjective intentions of the speaker.
    I don’t get all the comments that “I thought it was only dated, not offensive.” Bloom County, in 1988, amplified by William Safire in the NY Times, pointed out the distinction. It’s not a new idea.

  48. I’m 60, and the term has been a slur as long as I can remember. Look, 50 years ago we thought a lot of dumb things which aren’t true, but still persist to hurt people. Get with it; age is no excuse.

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