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Racism, Positive Discrimination and Fandom

Helen McCarthy

The Eastcon 90 committee has had a letter from Bob (fake) Shaw asking us if we intend to address the problem of racism in fandom. Now, please note that what I'm about to say is just my own view, not that of the EASTC0N 90 committee - obviously as a committee and as a convention EASTC0N 9O deplores any form of racial, sexual or religious discrimination whatsoever. Also, I don't know how far Bob has circulated this letter - it may have gone to other con committees, apas etc. If so, I'd be interested to hear anyone else's views on the subject. It did seem to me that some of Bob's points needed consideration in the light of whether or not the proposals are practical and necessary, and that wider implications should be looked at.

First of all, I must state that I don't consider fandom to be racist. It's possible that individual fans may be racist - after all, lots of fans are sexist or have religious prejudices, so racism must be a possibility - but fandom in its entirety is open to anyone and 1've never known anyone to be excluded because of their colour. (If anyone has a different experience, let's hear it, please.)

In not directly practising discrimination fandom has also in general ignored positive discrimination, and it seems to me that positive discrimination is what Bob is suggesting as a good idea. I think positive discrimination is a very powerful weapon, and like all such things it's a menace in ignorant or untrained hands. Con committees also have to consider the practicality of all actions to which they commit their convention.

Take the suggestion that con publicity should be put into ethnic minority languages and newspapers catering for such communities. At first sight this looks very laudable; speaking personally, however, I find it insulting. I am a secondgeneration Irish immigrant, born and educated in this country and a British citizen, so I'm in the same position as many young people of Indian extraction. I don't really think it is relevant or helpful to me, my education or my aspirations to suggest that in order to make something accessible to anyone of my racial background it needs to be printed in my grandparents' native language. Maybe the older members of the family - maybe I myself - speak Erse to our grandparents out of respect, or because the old folk have problems with English, or because it's our custom at home. It doesn't make me incapable of reading my own native tongue, English, which I have learned in the same schools as my contemporaries. In fact, it's downright condescending and could even be construed as discriminatory to suggest that this may be the case.

We should also consider the fact that linguistic barriers are one of the biggest creators of ghettos. lf an Erse-speaking person not competent in English is encouraged to attend a convention by material in their own tongue, then finds on arrival that almost all material there is in English and very few people speak Erse, that person is imprisoned in non-comprehension. If an interpreter is provided that person is still disabled - by the interpreter's own level of competence or personal biases, worst of all, having got the impression that his native tongue was part and parcel of the event - it was advertised in Erse, after all, and in papers which are aimed only at the Erse-speaking community - that person will feel like a token Irishman, only there to ease "liberal" consciences, on show like an exotic pet, cheated, deprived and discriminated against.

We must consider how we would redress the perfectly justifiable outrage of the Muslim editor of an Indian newspaper who receives protests after the convention he advertised in his Asian language newspaper from parents whose teenagers attended the event to find alcohol, possibly other drugs, and sparsely-dressed women widely circulating and generally accepted, and men and women mixing in ways not encouraged for good Muslims. How can you explain the culture of a convention in an ad or short article aimed at a wholly different culture? How can you avoid offending those whose moral standards are quite different if you don't try to explain it? How can you avoid putting off the very people you want to attract if you do explain it?

I have no idea how widely science fiction is written in or translated into all of the hundreds of Asian languages, except Japanese, where there is a huge demand across all formats from the most literate population in the world; but if there is no major sf literature in existence in any particular language then it follows that fans who speak that language must read their sf in another tongue. Therefore, if fans (of whatever race) read their sf in English, why should we assume they can't read con publicity in the same form?

Another suggestion was that con hotels should offer "ethnic minority diets". Now, since most con hotels can turn out a vegetarian meal or knock up a curry, I assume what is actually meant here are diets laid down for particular religious groups. Here the well-meaning positive discriminator is on very dodgy ground indeed. This sort of diet isn't just about the dishes offered on the menu; it involves religious observances which persons of other faiths are not qualified to make, and the thought of operating it in the average hotel is a nightmare.

Let's take kosher food as an example. Strict kosher Jews follow rituals which to most non-Jews seem arcane in the extreme; the absolute separation of milk and meat based foods is a religious requirement. Kosher ]ews cannot wash up a utensil used for meat in the same bowl as utensils used for milk, even at a different time; if one set of utensils ever touches the other the whole lot has to be purified by an authorised religious authority. lf ever a meat spoon were used to stir a milk meal, the food would have to be thrown out and none of the utensils could be used till after purification. A kosher Jew cannot eat food which has not been prepared to these standards. I do not know of a single secular hotel in this country that can provide a kosher diet acceptable in religious terms - and if it's not acceptable to the people it's supposed to be for, then it can only be a sop to our own need to feel we're trying hard enough.

The same level of religious requirement applies to halal foods, the meat element of which has to be slaughtered in a certain way. Anyone fancy persuading a con hotel that it should abandon its tried and tested food suppliers (quite possibly ignoring local public health regulations in the process) and increase its costs buying in specialised foods which its chef isn't qualified to cook because he's the wrong religion? Or how would you as a con attendee feel lf your hotel rate had to go up to subsidise the hire of a specialist, religious-qualified chef and all his helpers and utensils, plus extra insurance for the lot and religious fees if the kitchen area had to be purified or blessed? Would loading the whole of this cost on to the religious minority attendees concerned be racist?

Few of us are qualified to judge what constitutes discrimination, and against whom, where this sort of thing is concerned - and we have to be careful that what we think is positive discrimination doesn't look like nannying. If racism is to be tackled in fandom, I think it can best be tackled by fans of other races and religions coming into fandom as and when they want to and deciding what they want for themselves. Blacks don't need whites to "make" them equal, any more than women in fandom needed their male counterparts to "give" them equality. Fandom is a broad church; if blacks and Asians want in, they'll come in, and like every other kind of fan they'll make their own fandom in their own image, but if anyone decides fandom isn't relevant to his world, what right do we have to try and absorb him? Freedom is the right to refuse and stay separate, as well as to accept and be accepted.

Maybe Bob will let me know if he has thought through any of the problems I've raised here, and if any solutions offered themselves. lf anyone else who knows more than I do about how the Asian community in Britain (or any other minority community) views sf and fandom, could let us all know if racism in British fandom is considered to be a problem within that community, and what they think can be done to redress this, I'd be interested to hear it.


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This page updated on 09 July 1999