The Continuing Problem of So Little Diversity in Science Fiction

Angry Black Woman gets heated discussions going in her comments about diversity in fiction markets.

Nick Mamatas weighs in as well.

As for myself, online I keep seeing the same repetition. Someone says SF/F isn’t diverse, people respond by chanting “Hopkinson, Butler, Delany, Barnes” like it’s a magical phrase that dispels the +10 diversity attack spell.

Delany doesn’t write SF anymore. Butler passed away.

Hopkinson and Barnes.

People aren’t even considerate enough to add “Due” to that list, Barnes’s wonderful and incredibly talented wife. Also a person of color.

So out of 1500-2000 or so writers who’ve sold at least 3 professional stories by SFWA’s standards (let’s say there are 500 or so not in SFWA who might be eligible) people only can realistically name 2 working current writers of color in the comments section off the top of their head.

12% of the US is African American. By simple math you can take our figure of 2,000 writers who’ve sold 3 or more pro level short stories and we should expect to have 150-200 SF writers of color active in that grouping.

We don’t.

Even accounting for statistical variations, that ratio is wildly uneven.

Is the cadre of writers in the field diverse?


Whatever conclusions or actions you wish to draw next, the mathematical fact remains that we don’t even have a healthy fraction of even 100 writers of color.

This could be a larger societal issue, an issue of fandom, the technical nature of SF/F, or that readers don’t see their faces in SF/F and don’t read it and therefore don’t write it, whatever your theory is (and I’m making no accusations or forwarding theories of my own here, that isn’t the point of this particular entry), it still doesn’t change the fundamental fact that is not a racially diverse field.

Seriously, do the math.

But please stop saying “Hopkinson, Butler, Delany, Barnes” as if it makes that problem go away. All it does is embarrass the field and further alienate potential writers and readers of color because by saying that as a defense, you’re demonstrating just how unbalanced the equation is, and how ignorant you are of it. They’re some of my favorite writers, and its troubling to see their names used as a tool to disprove the lack of diversity in this field when the issue is the math.

Seriously, and with all respect and friendliness, this being said in a friendly and neutral tone of voice: do the math and think about it.

Here’s a link to US Demographics.

To find currently published writers of color, keep up with the Carl Brandon society. The awards list mentions how hard it was to find works, and if you know the markets, you’ll see a lot of them were combed from *outside* our field.

82 thoughts on “The Continuing Problem of So Little Diversity in Science Fiction”

  1. >> And write books/stories with other races.
    Easier said than done for many writers.

    Well no one said it would be easy 🙂 Using ‘Writing the Other’ is a great way to get over it. Reading lots of books and autobiographies is another amazing way to do this.
    My feelings about this are pretty well documented over at:

  2. Some quick thoughts:
    1) What Toby says is obviously the case. Full stop. People of color underrepresented in “SF”.
    2) I’d argue this means “SF” — the genre/category/community lump of it — has failed to appeal (proportionately) to people of color. SF is, historically, a white, male, dorky, community. Gradually diversifying on the gender front. Ethnically, not so much.
    3) This is more of a problem for SF, I think, than it is for people of color.
    4) Note also that if you are a person of color writing fantastic stuff — like, if you’re Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Haruki Murakami, etc. — is there a compelling reason to associate yourself with “SF”? Will it a) welcome you with open arms, b) improve your sales?
    5) Delany is a gentleman, and Butler was a gentlewoman; two people of enormous resources and profound gracefulness; and they were, back in the day, loyal to what was then an embattled little genre. But I don’t think they ever characterized Our Beloved Genre as particularly non-racist, and I seem to recall that Delany has published on the subject of racism in SF — ah yes, here it is: “Racism and Science Fiction”, published in the August 1998 New York Review of Science Fiction.
    6) In a sense there are two separate issues — explicit racism and institutional barriers to people of color in SF, and written/fannish/community SF’s simply failing to appeal to people of color en masse as a specific case of SF’s margnialization in general. In a sense they are not two issues at all; at least, they interact. While there is something unequivocally wrong with real racist barriers in SF, on some level there is not necessarily anything morally WRONG with part two of the equation — SF being a marginal white art form with limited appeal, like polka. But it does seem regrettable.
    Step one: acknowledge the problem. Step two: turn our attention from our comfortable old patterns, customs, in-jokes, tropes and rituals, and create an inclusive community and great art of lasting appeal reflecting the world as it is and could be.
    Step two’s sub-steps are left as an exercise to the reader.

  3. I’m afraid that for some people the “not easy” part is convoluted with the “not motivated” part. This is going to be like steering a battleship. They have a lot of momentum don’t turn well or fast.

  4. Rick Novy: “Easier said than done… There are still many places in the US that are monochromatic, and writers coming from those areas will find it hard to include.”
    True: while I’ve been surprised here in the Canadian Prairie by how towns, originally Mennonite or Francophone, have grown startling diversities, there are still many that are almost exclusively that subculture, never mind simply European.
    It’s also true that every writer everywhere does not have to automatically fill their books with diversity. A fantasy novel set in 12th Century Scotland will not, generally, include people from a widely diverse background. Likewise, a novel about a small town in a non-diverse area doesn’t have to include a character of some other race just for the sake of it. But those fall into the category where the writer who asks him or herself “Is there a reason so-and-so is white?” can sincerely answer “yes” without being racist.
    To change genres to TV, I don’t expect Corner Gas, a sitcom about a tiny town in Saskatchewan, to include a wide range of ethnic diversity. The majority of the cast and extras in every episode are white, but that doesn’t faze me; that’s the area and it’s an honest reflection of it. (As ffor the twons or surprising and fairly new diversity, there’s another similar sitcom set in an only slightly larger town called Little Mosque on the Prairie….)
    But consider the cast of Buffy versus the cast of Veronica Mars. Both are stories focusing on a blonde teenaged girl — in part to make a clear feminist statement, but the choice of the main character being white is not entirely gratuitous. Both are set in Southern California, in middle-sized towns, large enough for their own college, but not much larger than that. But Buffy is surrounded by white, white, white whiteness. Veronica is surrounded by whites, but also by non-token blacks and latinos. (There’s also a visible class-war element, and the white trash has its say as well.) Based on the area both shows are set in, and the similarity of setting, they should both look like Veronica Mars. Nor did it *damage* the spirit and attitude depicted in Buffy on the rare occasions they included a black character or hinted at the possible existance of class divisions — except possibly in how it emphasized its lack elsewhere. It could have been there. There was no in story reason not to add it. Sure, Buffy can get a pass for her whiteness, but there’s No reason Xander couldn’t have been Latino, or Oz African, or Anya Japanese.
    Corner Gas doesn’t hurt the cause of racial equality on television.
    Buffy did.
    The resemblance to Our Beloved Genre should be clear.

  5. I amazed that people leave Due out of the chant. The chant is bad enough as it is, but here on Earth 1, Due is far more prominent than her husband. I can walk into any drugstore right now and walk out with a Due book, and she’s also well-known as a biographer and memoirist. I’ve even seen her featured in an airline magazine (albeit about The Black Rose).
    I’d say I was shocked, but at this late date, there is no expression of Skiffyland insularity that could shock me.

  6. Walter Mosley is an interesting example of a black writer, well regarded in another genre (mystery) who made clear overtures to SF — not just writing futuristic stuff, but seeming to make a point of reaching out to skiffy-as-such. (Story in F&SF, and was he interviewed in Locus?)
    Any info on how that went?
    (I thought the story in question was intriguing but not anywhere near as powerful as, say, his anti-mystery Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, which is brilliant).
    Minister Faust’s book on the space age bachelor pad would be another recent example of a high-profile African-American SF book. I didn’t read it. Got plenty of attention from Locus, though. Any sense, other than that, of how it was and how it did?

  7. Lenora Rose:
    But there are people out there doing it properly, both in print and on the screen. Firefly was a good example of how it should be done. We had a black woman as a major character, and in an interracial relationship to boot. Nobody on the good ship Serenity gave a rats ass about that.
    For another example of how it should be done, with sexual orientation rather than race, see the Tuesday, May 8th entry on David Gerrold’s blog regarding the “Blood and Fire.” http://www.gerrold.com/soup/page.htm. Since the original Star Trek broke all kinds of new ground, he’s worth listening to.

  8. Rick: There are people out there doing it properly – per Veronica Mars. (I can cite several people, starting with Our Host, doing it in print.)
    Firefly, though, is a bad example of showing racial equality. Yes, there’s the interracial marriage that is not a plot point of a big deal . But it’s set in a culture with a lot of Chinese influence, and show me one Asian. (The first episode I thought Kaylee was biracial — **before** she wore the cutesy chinese outfit — but that impression seemed to vanish through the series.) Race isn’t a Black-White issue. I like Joss Whedon’s writing in many ways, but on race and cultural diversity, he keeps on writing near misses that end up bothering people.

  9. To be fair, for Firefly, on the “Major Worlds” the majority of people in the background are Asian. But I agree, it would have been nice to have some of the characters they interacted with be Asian. Niska for instance, could have been Chinese with very little rewrite, or the guy “Our Mrs. Reynolds” was orginally married to (the one with the laser gun) could also have been Asian. And now that I’m thinking of it, I don’t remember any Alliance Officers being Asian. I think there was only one time that they were selling to Asian looking people.

  10. TB:
    Thank you. I’ve become so frustrated trying to talk to SF people about this in the past few weeks that I’ve been reduced to near-apoplexy and finally, silence. I was beginning to contemplate giving up on the genre and submitting only to mainstream/literary markets from here on, because it had started to feel like I was the only person in SF who gave a damn about this. Seeing posts like ABW’s, yours, Nick Mamatas’, etc., helps to pull me out of that funk.
    I don’t have the strength to participate in another of these discussions right now, but I just wanted to say I was here, projecting silent support-vibes.

  11. Lenora: Point taken, though I confess I’ve only watched about the first 6 episodes of Firefly on DVD, and never saw it when the series ran, so I don’t know if 6 shows is enough for me to have recognized that trend.
    You’re right about one thing for sure, it’s not just a black-white thing. My Filipina wife gets enough grief in lily-white Scottsdale–some blatant, some not so blatant, and I get it from the other direction.

  12. “[Firefly is] set in a culture with a lot of Chinese influence, and show me one Asian.”
    I’m always intrigued by this response to Firefly, because it shows just how ingrained some reactions are to power.
    My own reaction and interpretation is, you don’t see any Chinese characters because the Firefly crew don’t rise to that social level. Just as it would be wholly plausible to set a series in Macao, but not see anyone Portuguese, or in Hong Kong without anyone British, or Johannesburg without anyone Afrikaans.
    The fly in the ointment in this interpretation would be Simon and River Tam, who really should be played by Asians. But I’m also not sure if those pieces of casting are Whedon’s fault, or the studio’s, or the network’s — all of which are plausible, given the patterns of Hollywood.
    Still… I think the premise that the gwailo of Firefly are just too low-caste to be seen among Han Chinese holds.

  13. Coming to this very belatedly, I wanted to add a couple of links to things that were mentioned earlier, for the potential benefit of anyone arriving at this entry who’s interested in taking a second step but unsure how to begin. In addition to the other suggestions that’ve been posted:
    1. Go join the Carl Brandon Society. You can join even if you’re white. You can join the Society’s mailing list even if you’re white. You can support the Society’s goals even if you’re white.
    2. Nominate works for the Carl Brandon Society Awards. They give two awards: one for a work created by a person of color, one to a work dealing with issues of race and ethnicity. Cash prizes. Have you read anything that fits either of those categories lately? Go nominate!
    3. Writing the Other was mentioned, but I wanted to provide a direct link to the main page about it for ease of finding it. If you’re a writer and you have any interest in this stuff, I very strongly recommend buying and reading this slim volume. Extremely worthwhile.

  14. I was hesitant to comment here, but I think I will. Let me relate the experience of diversity in another commercial fiction genre, romance.
    Race is an across the board difficulty in genre fiction. In romance, authors of color are published in great numbers. It is the best selling genre, over fifty percent of all fiction sold. Asian and Hispanic authors have been assimilated into romance, provided they write at least some white characters. Those authors seem to have no problems in doing so.
    Black authors specifically have been segregated totally from the greater romance genre, no matter how many white characters we write. We are not marketed to romance readers. We aren’t distributed where they buy their books. They aren’t even aware of us. We are only marketed and distributed to black readers. I’m not exaggerating even a little bit. This limits our writing career potentials severely.
    The romance segregation is totally based on the race of the author–not the content of the book. A white romance author such as Suzanne Brockmann can write all black main characters in her romance and she won’t be segregatedm distributed and marketed as a black romance author. Conversely, a black romance author can write white characters and have her book still marketed as a black book. A black author is suing Penguin for this now.
    The RWA has never spoken out condemning this racial segregation. Nor have any prominent romance authors, even ones who write in SFF and romance such as Laura Resnick. The romance community accepts this situation and even supports it.
    Worse and more profound, so do black romance authors as a whole. No black romance authors will stand up and speak out as a group against the segregation although some might complain quietly. A few black romance authors spoke up very carefully and tactfully on black, British romance reader, Karen Scott’s blog in a series of posts about racism in romance. There was little notice or response from whites, blacks or the romance or literary communities other than irritation, even though this was the first time so many black romance authors had gotten together in a public forum and spoken openly against racism and segregation in romance.
    I have mentioned it consistently over ten years and just have consistently been attacked for even bringing up topics such as asking, for instance, why the largest romance review site on the Internet excludes black authors when it’s supposed to be All About Romance? Now we get a token review or two every month out of the dozens of black romances released.
    So SFF needs to be very, very careful when you’re looking at solutions to include diversity in your genre. The roots of racism, particularly against blacks, run very deep.
    Don’t ignore the romance genre and its dealings with diversity. There’s lessons there. There is huge diversity in romance. But it is administered under a form of racist segregation for black authors and nobody seems to give a damn, not even ourselves. Everybody seems to be willing to sell their souls, or figurative civil rights, for that publishing contract.

  15. Wow, what a great conversation. Thanks, Toby, for raising this. I just stumbled across it via a Google search on “science fiction” diversity.
    I believe that everyone should have access to reading and writing speculative fiction if it would interest/inspire them. Access can be denied and/or self-denied in many institutionalized, historically based, self-perpetuating ways — “innocent” ways, in the sense that no one is being evil, no one is being stupid.
    Mythology and fantasy have power. The ability to re-create our pasts, our cultures, and our deities and to inject magic of our present circumstances is power to create ourselves, individually and as members of our communities (and most of us, of any color, are part of at least several communities).
    Science and technology, hard and soft, offer visions of futures in which we create ourselves and our communities as we wish to be or fear to be. Again, this is power.
    The amazing author, playwright, director, and professor Andrea Hairston writes compellingly about this and its meaning to her as an African-American in her Profile in the Diversicon 15 Media Guide (p. 7). (Andrea will be Guest of Honor at Diversicon next month.)
    Which brings me to why I was Googling this topic in the first place. I’ve been involved with Diversicon for some time, and this year I’ve taken over publicity, and I was wondering what folks “out there” were saying about diversity and SF. And clearly, it’s not a “non-issue” or “old news” or something we should “just get over” (feedback I sometimes get). It’s still a living challenge.
    Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due (who is an *amazing* writer — read Between!) have been Guests, as have Sheree Thomas, Minister Faust, Nalo Hopkinson, S. P. Somtow, Bryan Thao Worra, Mark Rich, and Sybil Smith. However, we’re not a “ghetto” for writers of color. We strive to honor diversity of all kinds. It’s harder to establish a brand identity, but we don’t risk as much marginalization as if we were “that black con” or “that gay con” or whatever.
    I believe there’s a need for *both* organizations that focus on writers of color, like the Carl Brandon Society, and for organizations with broad focus (perhaps SFWA, perhaps WorldCon, perhaps the local Star Trek or anime con . . .) to reach out, embrace, and include. Action needs to happen on all fronts.
    And it’s not about smug but guilty do-gooders benefitting “those poor victimized minorities.” Honestly, for me, it’s about benefitting me. I’m simply better off when my community, my literature, my reference points, my friends, and my possibilities include more . . . of everything. That’s power.

  16. Tobias,
    I see this was written back in May. I’m hoping that now that it’s August – and now that you’re reading my novel, ACACIA – you might add my name to that all to list.
    It’s still too short a list, but let’s work on that.
    By the way, I’m also glad to have been turned on to your work by several people. I’ll be reading you soon.

  17. i have read t. due’s books they are great!! i am glad to see more black sf female writers. i have been reading sf/fantasy for more than 20 years and i always try to find stories with people of color or women. i was surprised to really like tobias’s books, i am reading ragamuffin now. it is also very suprising to see people of color on a cover! when i do i get the book. athena

  18. Thank you for telling the truth. Unfortunately or not, it will only be when white people (and I think men in particular) start calling out the inequities in our society and the SF publishing industry that things will change. When it’s just us brown and black folks doing it, all people can do it seems is roll their eyes and talk about how whiny we are. Thanks for the solidarity, intentional or not.

  19. Step two involves taking action. Began by writing a compelling science fiction short story and publishing it to the Internet, much like beginning music artist publish their debut songs. This is one way to introduce yourself to the reading public and get noticed.

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