Racism and Sexism

By Robert Silverberg: It’s folly to think that denials can ever catch up with falsehoods and distortions, and so up till now I have refrained from attempting to defend myself against the accusations that have been aimed at me since shortly after the San Jose Worldcon.  But now the situation has reached a new level of unreality that leads me to break my silence.

At San Jose, the Best Novel Hugo went — for the third consecutive year — to a writer who used her acceptance speech to denounce those who had placed obstacles in her path stemming from her race and sex as she built her career, culminating in her brandishing her new Hugo as a weapon aimed at someone who had been particularly egregious in his attacks on her.  Soon after the convention, I commented, in a private chat group, that I felt that her angry acceptance speech had been a graceless one, because I believe that Hugo acceptance speeches should be occasions for gratitude and pleasure, not angry statements that politicize what should be a happy ceremony.  I said nothing about her race, her sex, or the quality of her books.  My comment was aimed entirely at her use of the Hugo stage to launch a statement of anger.

I would not presume to comment on her experience of having had racist and sexist obstacles placed in her career path.  I have no doubt that she did face such challenges, and I’m sure the pain created by them still lingers.  I in no way intended to add to that pain.  However, it seemed to me that this writer, after an unprecedented three-Hugo sweep and considerable career success otherwise, had triumphed over whatever obstacles were placed in her path and need not have used the Hugo platform to protest past mistreatment.

An unscrupulous member of our chat group illicitly posted my comment on the web site of someone who has indeed devoted himself to harsh racist attacks on this and other writers, and from that moment on — guilt by association, I suppose — I was denounced on the Internet as a racist, a sexist, and perhaps a lot of other dire things.  (I do not participate in social media and all I know of what is being said about me has come from third parties.)

I am not a racist.  I am not a sexist.  In a career spanning many decades, I have generally been known among my colleagues and in fandom for my professionalism, my courtesy to people great and small, and my helpfulness.  And, though I hesitate to evoke a version of the old anti-Semitic cliche, “Some of my best friends are Jews,” I have in fact maintained warm friendships with several of the (very few) black science fiction writers of my era, and I have numerous friends of the other sex as well, who can testify that the epithets that have been hurled at me are undeserved.

Now Marta Randall, a friend of many years’ standing, has asserted in File 770** that I have a history of sexism as an editor stretching back over the years, declaring that when she and I were co-editors of the annual anthology NEW DIMENSIONS she had proposed an all-female issue of the book, and I had threatened to remove my name from it if she did.

I have no recollection of this episode.  I think that editors have the privilege of excluding any group they wish from their anthologies — men, women, Jews, Christians, Bulgarians, atheists, whatever.  I don’t think that’s a particularly good idea, though, except where the anthology’s intent is one of special pleading — as, for instance, an anthology intended to demonstrate the excellence of Canadian science fiction and therefore limited only to Canadian writers.  (But Jack Dann’s two WANDERING STARS anthologies, limited to stories on Jewish themes, included four stories by writers who were not themselves Jewish.)

NEW DIMENSIONS, which I edited for ten years, was intended to provide the best in science fiction as I understood “best.”  I had no intention of judging submissions by any standard except literary quality: I paid no attention to the race or color of the authors who sent me stories.  In fact the first issue of NEW DIMENSIONS had four stories by women in it, and most of the others had at least two or three female contributors, with the lone exception of the fourth issue, which had none.  I see no evidence here of systematic editorial discrimination against women.

Eventually I wearied of the work involved in editing NEW DIMENSIONS, and, since Marta Randall had been a frequent contributor (four stories in the ten issues) and her novels then were being published by Pocket Books, which was also the publisher of NEW DIMENSIONS, I suggested to Marta and her Pocket Books editor, David Hartwell, that she take my place as editor of the anthology.  To help maintain the book’s commercial viability, I suggested a three-book transition: the eleventh issue would list Robert Silverberg and Marta Randall as editors, the twelfth would be billed as “Edited by Marta Randall and Robert Silverberg,” and from the thirteenth issue on she would be listed as the sole editor.  This proposal was accepted and Marta was given a three-book contract.  I was not a party to the contract and was co-editor in name only; she picked all the stories and did all the other editorial work.  Issues eleven and twelve duly appeared with the editors’ names listed as agreed.  She had three stories by women in the eleventh issue and three in the twelfth, about the same male/female ratio as I had maintained during my editorial tenure.  I understand that the thirteenth issue was prepared and then canceled before publication, for reasons that I don’t know.

As I said, I have no recollection of Marta’s having suggested an all-female issue.  If she had, I probably would have said that I didn’t think it was a wise thing to do, since NEW DIMENSIONS had established itself over a decade as a generalized anthology without any special agenda other than to publish good science fiction, and this would have broken its continuity of policy.  I would have said the same thing if she had proposed an all-male issue, an all-Uzbek issue, an all-fantasy issue, or any other kind of all-anything issue, because I wanted ND to remain something recognizably like what it had been under my auspices.  I think the book would have died otherwise.  This does not make me a sexist.  I would not in any case have threatened to remove my name from the book — an empty threat, since under the terms of the original arrangement my name was already due to be removed as of the third issue she would edit.

As for my alleged lifetime of sexism, I offer as evidence an anthology I edited called THE CRYSTAL SHIP, published in 1976 by Thomas Nelson.  This was an instance when I chose deliberately to construct a book with all-female contributors, in order to make a specific point about the changing nature of the science-fiction field.  It contains three original novellas, commissioned by me, by Joan D. Vinge, Vonda N. McIntyre, and…Marta Randall.  You will notice that all three are women, and in my introduction to the book I observed that although for a long time there had been only a handful of female science-fiction writers, the 1970s had seen an abundance of them appear. “Which is all to the good,” I wrote. “Men and women are different not merely in physical appearance; they receive different cultural training from earliest childhood, and their ways of interpreting experience, of human situations, of perceiving the universe, often differ in ways growing directly out of those differences….Science fiction is no longer so universally unisexual, for which let us rejoice.  To be female is, I think, neither better nor worse than to be male, but it is different, it is beyond doubt different, and the difference has value for us all.”

These are not, I think, the words of a sexist.  Nor can anyone produce evidence of my alleged racism.  I have lived on into an age where it is terribly easy to offend people, intentionally or accidentally, and the Internet makes it possible for them to register their state of offendedness all over the world.  But I am troubled by the Internet comments of people who do not know me, have misread my statement on the Hugo event, and attribute to me beliefs that I do not hold.

Endnote: ** Silverberg refers to Pixel Scroll 11/17/18 which linked to Adam-Troy Castro’s post on Facebook and also ran a screencap of Marta Randall’s comment on Adam-Troy Castro’s post.

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208 thoughts on “Racism and Sexism

  1. Since I haven’t been able to read every comment carefully, this may be redundant, but I’m pretty sure that racism, sexism, etc. are matters of *action*, including speech, etc., not *being* or belonging to some perceived grouping. So if one says that all who *are* X are racist etc. rather than all who *do* Y, one is committing a form of slander, a cause which may have undesirable effects.

  2. robinareid – My partner is from Queens and knows we cannot afford to retire there. I took her for a visit to Bellingham (after she researched information about it along with some other possibilities) and she fell in love with it.

    I love Bellingham too, particularly the Bellingham Promise, which is committed to equity for all schoolchildren, so nobody needs to buy so much as a pencil. And roughly 20% of the population visits the food bank at least once a year, there is a significant homeless population, plus the casual, unthought racism and ethnic bias bubbles up distressingly frequently. Oh, and at least my district couldn’t clearly vote in a moderate Democrat over a Trump supporter for the state legislature (mandatory recount in process).

  3. I’m catching up on this and some other threads (may never get them all) after being away for my Dad’s memorial (it was great – lots of fam and many beautiful stories). This comment is related to three-day-old remarks, but I got credit for some smart things actually said by Lenora Rose, and I want to make sure Lenora gets proper credit.

    So, just another reminder that Lenore Jones, Lenora Rose, and Heather Rose Jones are three different people.

    Now back to your regularly scheduled discussions, you beautiful people.

  4. Jeff Jones, I don’t think anyone is saying “All people who belong to group X are racist” unless one is talking about hate groups like the KKK.

    But when one is talking about individuals, if a person’s words and actions are consistently racist (and/or sexist), then I think it’s entirely fair to use the shorthand that that person is a racist (and/or a sexist). Because the label is a reliable predictor of the person’s words and actions. I don’t think you would say, “David Duke isn’t a racist; he simply speaks and acts in a way that shows consistent racial bias” for example. There comes a point when it’s appropriate to call a pointed earth-moving garden device a spade <wry>….

    We, all of us, have prejudices; it’s part of being human. Some of then we recognize in ourselves and consciously work to improve on; some of them we don’t recognize in ourselves until and unless we are, embarrassingly, called out on them. But there’s a point, in words and deeds, past where one can reasonable say “well, that’s a gray area” or even “well, they mean well” — past a certain point, if the behavior is consistent, then the label is merited. (Where that certain point is, is a legitimate matter for debate.)

    So I don’t think people in this thread, for the most part, are talking about whole classes of people… other than the broad generalization that if one grows up in America, no matter where in the US and no matter one’s own racial background or social status, one is constantly exposed, from infancy, to a broad range of racial biases in mass media and from parents, teachers and peers such that it’s difficult to avoid internalizing them. Which is a statement that I sincerely doubt you’d argue with.

    That doesn’t make everyone in America a capital-R racist. But it does mean that everyone who grew up in America should be checking their biases and assumptions on a regular basis, because it’s HARD to go against that level of societal programming, and so to some degree, despite ourselves, we all are likely to slip up to a greater or lesser extent.

    I’m not excepting myself from this. For example, I’ve noticed that I get more nervous if a group of black men pass me on the sidewalk than if a group of white women do. I don’t make excuses for this; I know perfectly well that it isn’t fair to the black men, and that it’s because of the explicit warnings and the example set by her behavior that my mother gave me when I was a child half a century ago. And because I know this, I make a conscious effort to not change my behavior or affect, even if my heart rate is speeding up. I have no control over my heart rate, but I do have control over how I behave.


  5. That doesn’t make everyone in America a capital-R racist. But it does mean that everyone who grew up in America should be checking their biases and assumptions on a regular basis, because it’s HARD to go against that level of societal programming, and so to some degree, despite ourselves, we all are likely to slip up to a greater or lesser extent.

    Cassy, I agree with your comment but delete instances of “in America” and it has global application. Because we all cannot help but be influenced by the environment in which we grew up, no matter where in the world that may be.

  6. Meredith:

    “USA social justice terminology is not necessarily the same as social justice terminology elsewhere, and there’s few things that will get up noses faster than insisting that everyone should follow the USA’s lead.”

    This. As an example, “People of colour” would be seen as a racist expression if used in swedish. We stopped using it some 10-20 years ago. The argument goes that everyone are coloured, so why not include whites?

    Weirdly enough, we are still ok with it used in english for conferences and stuff.

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