WisCon Report the First

There is so much to say about WisCon! So many good things and good people and good conversations. If I just did one long con report, your eyes would glaze over by the time I was through with Friday. So I’m splitting things up into parts by theme. The first part is a general con overview. See how organized I am?

The greatest impression I came away with is that WisCon gets awesomer and awesomer every year. I have a great time each time for different reasons. As always, it’s wonderful to see my friends and to meet people I’ve only known online and to meet complete strangers. The kind of people WisCon attracts are, in general, the kind of people I’m interested in spending my time with. Folks who love SF, both literature and media, and who can both enjoy it as entertainment and think critically about it. And, of course, they’re people of a feminist persuasion interested in discussing the intersection of SF and ‘women’s issues’. I was really happy to see more people of color at the con this year. Not surprised to discover that this had a lot to do with the Cultural Appropriation Panel of DOOM from last year. (More on this later.)

I spent the con running around from one thing I had to be at to the next. The concom kindly put me on four panels plus we had a reading for the Interfictions anthology. I also knew beforehand that I was going to do a guerilla reading with the Farthing crew since they didn’t get a reading of their own. And I agreed to organize a Sunday night party for Interfictions. Six program items and a party, I thought that was quite a lot to do and sounded like a lot of fun. Little did I know.

Just before the con, Claire Light asked me if I’d like to be on the new Cultural Appropriation panel even though I was on so much other stuff. Because I felt quite strongly about the issues raised by last year’s debacle, I agreed. On Friday, Nancy Jane Moore asked if I would like to be on the Unfair to Middle Class White Men panel since she wanted to broaden the scope from just talking about women writers and editors to including POC views. Nora, my one time (and fabulous) guest blogger was also asked to join, so I said yes. Then, on Sunday night, Delia Sherman asked if I would be part of her solo talk on editing the Interfictions anthology since she thought some input from authors in it would be useful. In total, that made seven panels and two readings. And I still had a party to deal with.

Yes, I am very tired.

But it’s a good tired, because everything I participated in was wonderful. The panels went really well, I had great fellow panelists by my side, the audiences fostered great discussion, and I did not have to deal with one crazy fool all weekend long. The level of discourse in conversations around the con (that I participated in) was high as well. Like I said, most of the people who come to a con like this are well-educated and interested in engaging with SF literature and media on many levels. Moving from party to party I talked with people about polyamory in Jem & the Holograms, the racial issues prevalent in fandom, which fiction markets were friendliest to new writers, and why the universe continues to be so damn white.

As with all things involving a thousand or so people, not everything was rosy and perfect. Eileen Gunn mentioned an interview she did with a con attendee last year in which said attendee talked about how she felt when hearing the language of the freshly desegregated South used in the Cultural Appropriation panel. That sneaky, subtle (or not so) racism borne out of people who don’t question or have questioned their unconscious biases. As I said before — and will say again in my post about the panel — this year’s panel was meant to address that and I think we did a good job. However, another con-goer (who I won’t name just in case she doesn’t want to be named) said that in one of this year’s panels about trans issues folks in the audience were saying some uncomfortably racist things. The kind of things that no one at WisCon would have said regarding women.

Now, this is not to start off some craziness about how sexism isn’t as bad as racism or vice versa. As many of you know, I do not engage in comparing oppressions. However, seeing that WisCon is a feminist con, it would be seriously hard for someone to get away with saying some sexist shit. That’s just the bottom line. But saying racist things? Yeah, we know that could happen — it happened last year, and apparently it happened this year.

Of course, I did not see it because I was taking part in the kinds of panels that people with questionable views were less likely to attend. And, even if they did attend, it would have become clear real fast that the panelists weren’t going to allow that crap to last more than a half a second. And the attendee who saw this happen said that it so shocked her that she wasn’t sure how to respond or address it. Something else I completely understand. For non-POC who are aware of issues surrounding race, it is sometimes hard to confront racism because they aren’t sure how exactly to go about it or they’re concerned about being the voice of POC when they aren’t one. Plus, when you’re in a room full of white people and one or two (or three or four…) of them say something racist and the whole room doesn’t smack them down, it feels anywhere from extremely uncomfortable to a little bit dangerous. I’ve had that experience myself. Not long ago I was with a group of friends and two of them said an incredibly racist thing and everyone laughed. I was the only black person there and I felt not only really alone and hurt, but also betrayed. I didn’t feel safe voicing what I felt at the time, but you can be sure I’ve stayed the hell away from all of those assholes since.

For next year, I had an idea of not being on very many panels — say just one or two — but going to panels that aren’t about race and just watching. And if I see something like that happening again, I’ll speak out forcefully against it. Because that crap cannot continue. Especially in a space like WisCon. Obviously, I don’t want to turn into some sort of tolerance police. But just as someone would or should speak up in any other con about sexist behavior and words, I intend to confront people about racist behavior and words.

Lastly, I’d just like to give a shout out to all the people I saw and met and talked to this weekend. I can’t name everyone, I just can’t. But some highlights included meeting some of my fellow Feminist SF bloggers, meeting my boy Naamen and his friend Jackie (or is it Jacquie?) who immediately became my true con buddies, hanging out with the UK contingent of my Clarion West class, getting to see my friend Cat Valente on stage accepting an award she richly deserved, looking around a party one night and discovering that I knew everyone there and ‘everyone’ consisted of writers I admire and love, having people come to me and asking if I would take part in stuff both at and beyond the con, hearing people gasp with delight when I said “I also blog as The Angry Black Woman”, finding out that all of the issues I’ve been blogging and talking about on the Internet are important to others and that they really like what I’m doing and saying.

On Monday night, Ellen Klages came over to me and told me that I was awesome. Ellen “I’m so awesome I am glowing from awesomeness” Klages said that to me.

The thing is, I am only as awesome as the company I keep. And this weekend I was surrounded by some of the most awesome people on the planet. People do wonder, with the problems of diversity in Science Fiction and Fantasy, why I continue to read, watch, and write in the genre. Take a look at the list of WisCon participants. Google WisCon in the blog search. Surf the posts tagged on Technorati and elsewhere. Those people are why. 31 years ago when the con got started, it was a different landscape. And 30 years from now when I’m shuffling through the con with my walker it will be different still. I’m looking forward to seeing the shape of that landscape and to having a hand in creating it. That’s what I’m doing to address the issues that concern me, and I can’t think of a better or more fun way.

So, end of the general con goodness. I have posts on deck about the panels and the issues raised. I’ll also try to collect as many related con reports as I can. To everyone I saw this weekend, thanks for making it awesome. To the concom, every last one of you deserves an award.

28 Responses

  1. Sounds like a great time.

    Cheers!

  2. I heard a bit of sexist shit. However, I can totally understand why it happened, and I can believe it’s an unusual experience.

    Schimel was saying on his blog that he didn’t feel much of an organized queer presence this year, either. Hopefully, next year’s con committee will keep thinking about racism and queer rights — and other issues of discrimination and representation.

    I didn’t hear much overt racism during the con, although there was some language during one panel I attended that was unintentionally exclusionary (placing the SF community and black fans at opposite poles, as if they didn’t overlap). The panel on colonialism also turned into a book club recommendation, and I kind of felt that was because the largely white room didn’t know how to engage with the issue, and so they turned from something as vastly important and uncomfortable as analyzing the colonialization of minds and bodies, to something much more comfortable like summarizing novels they liked.

  3. Yo,

    It is indeed Jackie. People who use that other spelling are just weird (ha!).

    Anyway, it was so very fabulous to meet you. I will forever have the echo of you saying “What?!?” in that very distinctive way of yours. *snicker*

    I definitely want to come back to WisCon next year just to see what changes, what doesn’t and possibly as a panelist. So much to do, so much to learn and you’re right, we all have a hand in shaping it.

    Ciao bella!

    Jackie

  4. Sounds like I missed out on something fantastic :( I’ll try to attend next year!

  5. I have a question. This is not a challenge; I’m just trying to get educated. :-) What is your opinion of Firefly. In the regular cast of 9 there are two black people and four women. Zoe is a tough warrior babe in leather which might seem stereotypical in SF but she’s also the loving wife of a very white man. Now there’s the really unusual thing: a married couple. That’s almost unheard of in science fiction. We married people are the ones who should be seriously offended. ;-)

  6. I saw the movie but never saw the show. I have it on good authority that, even though this future society uses Chinese language and is supposedly evolved out of a Chinese dominance of culture or economics or something, there were never any Chinese people shown. And in the movie, there were very, very few, if I recall.

    Joss pisses me off. he’s clearly a smart man and he’s clearly a person who understands that there aren’t enough strong women in SF or in TV or movies in general. He is so aware of this issue and it shows and he’s wonderful at advocating for it. But it seems like he can’t pay attention to anything else in the midst of all that. He has a real problem with too many white people around and not enough black people around. And his characters of color have major issues, too. More on that in another post.

  7. (placing the SF community and black fans at opposite poles, as if they didn’t overlap)

    Mandolin, can you elaborate? I was on a panel and said something that later I worried sounded wrong, so I’m wondering if it was me. (I’m tired, but in vague memory I said something like, “I was ashamed to read SF in public, especially around black people. I felt like a traitor for reading it. Reading SF made me like ‘them’, a traitor.”)

  8. ABW,

    I’ve seen the movie and the show, and liked both — but even before I started hearing grumblings about it, I kept wondering, “Where are the Chinese people?” It was poor worldbuilding, frankly — the characters swear in Chinese and use chopsticks, so naturally the viewer would expect to see many, many Chinese folks present in the stories. There were a few in the background, but never anywhere near as prominent as a(n implied) dominant culture should be.

    I remember going to see the movie with two white friends, and we literally started making up our own worldbuilding to try and explain the curious absence of Asians. “Oh, look, in the movie intro we see the ships taking off from the Americas, but none taking off from the eastern continents. That explains it!” But that was a weak attempt at inserting plausibility on our parts. Joss just didn’t do a good job of it.

    I will say, I’m glad he did a better job of race in Firefly than he’d done in Buffy or Angel. But even then it was simple!race — the white/black binary and nothing more. I’m told one of the characters (played by a Brazilian actress) was supposed to be part Asian, as were the Tam siblings, but if you can’t tell, what’s the point?

  9. No Nora, it wasn’t you (or ABW, for that matter). Same panel, though.

    I think it was super-innocent, just one of those linguistic tics that’s hard to shake.

  10. What Nora said about Firefly. The situation with the Tams was made worse by the appearance of their very Caucasian father. Can’t remember if we saw Mom, but I think I’d remember if the parents were of different heritages.

    That said, if you spackle heavily to explain the absence of Asians in an Asian-dominated future, it’s a good show. The TV episodes are generally better than the movie, which worked a little too hard at wrapping up loose ends from the show than telling a standalone story.

  11. What Nora said about Firefly. The situation with the Tams was made worse by the appearance of their very Caucasian father. Can’t remember if we saw Mom, but I think I’d remember if the parents were of different heritages.

    The mother appears briefly in the same episode as the father, and also appears white.

  12. Revena, thanks. That’s a fine example of Firefly’s casting failure: Mom’s part was small enough that an Asian actress with limited experience could’ve handled it, which would’ve had two pluses: the Firefly ‘verse would’ve looked more complex, and an Asian actress would’ve gotten a credit for her resume.

  13. For assholes of all sorts: Sendahole.com.

  14. I’m afraid I never thought about it all that much. I just always assumed that the Chinese thing was mainly a lazy way to solve the problem of how to have the characters cuss without annoying the censor or using made up profanity, which always sounds extremely silly.

    Another thing, English has a lot of Latin words but we’re not surrounded by Romans. But I’m not saying it’s all okay. They could have had more Chinese people. Maybe if it had lasted more than 14 episodes they would have gotten the complaints and made some improvements. The show never had a chance to grow and evolve.

  15. The spackling works fairly well when the story is set in the outer planets. But given the set up, the inner planets should have *lots* of Asians.

    Also, some of the higher military folks should be Asian. You can spackle that a bit: In the eastern part of the Roman Empire, most of the soldiers were local, and the language was Greek, not Roman. So you might assume that Firefly’s military people who were assigned to the outer planets were folks who weren’t going to rise high where the real power was.

    It’s still a lot of spackling.

    And, yes, I’m very sad it was cancelled.

  16. Lynn S,

    I would agree with you if it was just language. But there was Chinese on their computer screens, Chinese in the ship’s name, Chinese culture visible in their everyday behavior (the characters eat with chopsticks — well, so do I, but not every meal), their high culture (Inara’s “high class” garments and behavior), etc. And there was the clear implication that China was not just a culture they had absorbed (as Latin has been absorbed into other languages resulting in Romance languages), but a culture which was *dominant*, as evidenced by the US/Chinese bifurcated flag. This is the Roman Empire with the Romans still around, or at least that’s what the flag suggests it should be.

  17. Oh I totally have a theory for that spackle job… The Chinese were so dominant in that culture that they decided to become beings composed of *pure energy* and move to a different universe.

    Will, I think of your comment about the actress of limited experience as somewhat paternalistic and inclined to tokenism. That is the short version of what I want to say about that. The ranty bit will be over on the feministsf blog.

    Anyway ABW I had *no idea* you were on 7 panels and more! How did you live, eat, or sleep! That really rocks.

    About the awesomeness of Wiscon, I just hope we can sustain it all year in our bloggy little world.

  18. Badgerbag, I was afraid it might sound that way. I meant it to sound practical: If they really thought the white guy was the best actor for the father–and he was good–then they needed to find an Asian for the mom. It’s a minor part, and there are plenty of competent Asian actresses in Hollywood. The identity of the Tams says at least one parent should be Asian. There are a lot of struggling actors who need breaks. Some of them are Asian. Why not give a break to an Asian actor? We’re not talking special favors here. We’re talking about casting that’s true to the world of the show.

  19. Badgerbag, it may be that I should back up to clarify: If I’d been casting Firefly, the Tams would’ve been Asian and at least a third of the characters who appear in the inner planets would’ve been Asian.

    But if you accept the claim that the actors cast were the best available, then Mr. or Mrs. Tam needed to look Asian. Saying that the least demanding role could’ve been Asian is not paternalistic. It’s damning the show creators. Maybe the next Chow Yun-Fat didn’t show up to read for Dad’s part, so it was right for that part to go to a white guy. But there’s no way they couldn’t have found an Asian actor who was at least as good as the woman who played Mom. The casting director simply can’t wriggle out of that one.

  20. Hey,
    It was so much fun being Con buddies! The drinking and discussing the relationship dynamics of Jem/Rio/Jerrica was definitely one of the highlights of the weekend.

    There was a moment during the Con where I thought, ‘Yeah, we have all these panels on race but what’s happening in all the other panels?’ Then I just sort of forgot about it but your plan is a good one. No one wants to be the tolerance police, as you said, but knowing how supportive the Con is now I’ll feel much more comfortable speaking up next year.

    Naamen

    P.S. Also you need to tell me of these markets that are nice to fledgling writers.

  21. ::horror:: Somebody had a convo about Jem and the Holograms and I WASN’T THERE?! Who is responsible for this crime!?!?

  22. Hi there!

    I just want to say that I really enjoy reading your blog, especially the posts that deal with the fantasy/sci-fi genre and race. You articulate so many of the thoughts that have flown around my head over the years regarding race and fantasy/sci-fi :)

    I am a fantasy artist and I want to portray people of colour in my work. I am a brown person who grew up in apartheid South Africa, so race issues are always on my mind. This is not possible when working for clients eg a fantasy/sci-fi book cover, because 10 times out of 10, the main character is white. I sometimes feel so argh towards figurative fantasy art in general and how overwhelmingly white it is….even little things like art books and tutorials, which teach you how to paint “skin tones” ie white skin, and its so hard to find technical information about painting black skin (skin tones are very complex and need heaps of understanding about light, hue, saturation – books can be written on the subject!)

    I feel I can effect things slowly by painting unstereotyped, strong and heroic POC characters, and change the world little by little :P

  23. Visionspring: I checked out your site….

    You had me at “Demona”!! :D

    Are gonna be at The Gathering? Do you hang out at the fansites? Do you do any other fan art?

    Yay! Another “Gargoyles” fan! :D :D !!

  24. oh wow… gargoyles fans. I may have to geek out with you all over that one.

    Visionspring, thanks for stopping by! Do you ever do illustrations for magazines? Though there are mostly white protagonists, there are probably a few more chances to depict some brown-skinned people.

    I’m going to poke around your site. :)

  25. WHAT?! ABW, you’re a “Gargoyles” fan, too?!!!

    So! Freakin’! Awesome!!

    [geek fit! geek fit! geek fit!] :-D

  26. Oh heck yeah! Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis and almost every cool Star Trek actor in existence? Keith David and Sally Richardson? A show that weaves together myth, folklore, legend, and Shakespeare? In an intelligent way, even? Good writing, good animation, kick-ass monsters? Why WOULDN’T I love Gargoyles? :D

  27. YES! “Gargoyles” was a show that proved that diversity – in casting and in storyline – could actually work!

    Y’know when I first saw Elisa Maza I thought something was wrong with my TV? No way could a sista – a smart, kickass sista no less! – be the lead heroine in a Disney cartoon!

  28. Angel H>> I absolutely plan on going to the Gathering some time in the future…but alas I live in New Zealand! I want to plan a huge US trip sometime spread out over a couple of months, and attend the Gathering, ComicCon etc. I tend to skulk around the Monthly Gargoyles contest sites, and keep in touch with some of the old artists from the fandom such as Stephanie Lostimolo, Crzydemona and Aimee Major :)

    I loved Elisa Masa, especially watching the show as a young brown girl and seeing that the main kick-ass character who befriends friggin gargoyles was like me!! And to Goliath and the clan, she was just another modern day human…It wasn’t like “yeah yeah look at me I’m mixed” – Elisa was just another New Yorker. Gargoyles did diversity well, for a Disney production….

    the angry black woman>> I have tried to insidiously (haha) push the presence of POC in some of my past illustration jobs for mainstream pop culture magazines, and my overall agenda is to definitely create a normalised presence of POC in the figurative art world as opposed to the overwhelmingly unrealistic white-washed one at present. I have also sold some paintings depicting women of colour and such, but I find that many white patrons who like my art think that having a painting with a black girl in it is “OMG like totally styley” and treat POC like fashion accessories or something. Like when you go to a fashion show and the only colour model they have is someone like Alek Wek (who is awesome by the way) but they like to include her for “shock” value (shocking to the white mainstream) and contrast….Its hard to explain. That fashion/styley tokenising of POC is yet another thing to change. SO MANY ISSUES ARGH

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