SFWA stands for Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, a long-standing organization for spec fic (sci fi & fantasy) writers since the 60s. And, wowser, does their membership-base seems like a lot joined only in the 60s: kinda old, pretty White, speckles of diversity that feel more like tokenization than something legit. When I visit the SFWA site or see anything SFWA, I hardly see anyone different from some random White person. Sometimes they have colored hair. Sometimes they’re queer. Usually they’re White. Not very promising to me. I would like to join SFWA because it sounds like a good idea but I’m really just on the fence because of SFWA itself.
There are other “rival SFWA” options, if you will, but they don’t seem much better. There’s IASFA, which stands for the “Independent Alliance of Science Fiction & Fantasy Authors” but they seem borne from the 20Booksto50k group, which basically just seem to focus on military Sci Fi and show even less reason for me to know their existence as a Black, demi/ace spec fic author. They’re related to the whole Sad Puppies thing if I’m not mistaken, as well. At least SFWA has some marks of handling industry problems, such as #DisneyMustPay and Writer’s Beware (I may not care much for SFWA but I definitely like Writer’s Beware, so SFWA has that one hook to hang their hat on). IASFA plain doesn’t. It doesn’t offer anything in regards to actual diversity either – again, the Sad Puppies thing – so that makes it double pointless for me. If anything, IASFA kind of just serves as an unwitting advertisement for SFWA. That’s not what you ever want to be for your rival: their billboard.
SFWA does have Griefcom, which helps writers stuck in bad contracts, writers who are not getting paid as per contract, and other bad situations that can befall even the bigger writers. There’s also the SFWA emergency medical fund for writers who fall ill and it interrupts their writing. There’s even the Legal Fund, which is for issues that have to go to court. And there’s the NetGalley co-op discount (which is indeed useful to me). These are very useful things but right now, I don’t know for myself. My current situation is, thankfully (and surprisingly) well, but that never means things can’t turn south in a moment’s notice. But I also have been part of organizations where you pay dues and then are in need of their help … only to find nothing really is there. This isn’t to say that’s how SFWA is – remember, I’ve never joined – but I’ve had not-great experiences before with orgs. I’ll always be supportive of anything that even sniffs of a union but I also know sometimes things don’t always go great.
I’m already part of ALLi, the Alliance of Independent Authors, which is beneficial to me, as far as their Ingram codes are concerned. Free uploads and revisions up to five times in a month pays for itself, immensely! But the nanosecond that’s gone from ALLi, so am I. ALLi, like SFWA, also has a great background in affecting the publishing industry, such as also participating with AudibleGate, pointing out suspect business practices and scams, and other initiatives for independent authors. These are really nice things but the part that’s keeping me paying dues are the Ingram codes. I don’t really feel any support whatsoever as a Black, queer author. They have the same tokenization problem that SFWA has. They mean well but … good intentions don’t really mean much for me.
When it comes to interacting with the writing community, I’m very much in the “BIPoC* heavy/BIPoC only” crowd. If I need to hear random White people talk about their feelings in the writing world, there’s almost nowhere I can’t turn to for that. As it pertains to other historically marginalized authors, I already am part of a few groups that are for BIPoC or Black only author groups for free. I think I get the most out of the QPoC** groups. I get more comradery, fruitful interactions, and emotional support there. I don’t have to worry about code switching, I can be frank, and if there’s a problem as it pertains to anti-Blackness or anti-Asian sentiment or Islamophobia, or acephobia, etc, it gets dealt with, no waffling, no bullsh*t. That’s important.
I think the issue for me here is, in my experience, when you’re a PoC/minority in majority White spaces, groups and organizations, you’re basically going to be their social-structure guinea pig. Horrible things have to happen to you first (and usually a lot) before any movement is done – or believed. It’s like, as a crude example, instead of someone researching gunshot wounds to figure out if getting shot hurts or already guessing “getting shot hurts” because of the general reality about being harmed with a firearm, when a PoC is in the room, all that reasonable logic magically drops away and they go “nope, I have to shoot you to figure out if it hurts. Preferably, a lot.” Usually, the White folks in these spaces want to automatically believe “I’m a good person, I wouldn’t harm anyone”, which is fine and natural for people of all stripes to think. But the problem is when that thinking interrupt literal reality: “I’m a good person, I wouldn’t harm anyone – that’s why I think you’re automatically lying when you say I’m hurting you. The world did say you’re mendacious, after all.” Been there, dealt with that, there’s a reason why the horror genre comes easy to me despite the fact I have hardly ever consumed any horror media whatsoever in my life. It’s also part of why “Get Out” was noted correctly as a horror and Black audiences definitely saw it that way but White audiences thought that it should have been considered a “comedy” instead … which I’m sure, for Black movie goers, that added to the chill of the horror experience. I’m sure a lot felt like they were in a room sitting with a bunch of Charles Mansons. Or, as I like to call it, “Get Out: The 4D Experience”
It insanely creepy to deal with this incredibly normalized behavior. It’s the reason, I believe, why there are usually fireworks when a White person is accused of being racist … but they don’t mind doing racist acts. That cognitive dissonance of “Being called racist is bad because racists are bad … I am not bad. I do things but that doesn’t make me racist because racists are bad and I am Not Bad. I do not strive to be Bad therefore I can never be considered racist, who are Bad.” It is understandable that almost everyone wants to be considered a good person, it’s natural even! But, good grief, it isn’t true if the actions don’t add up. I personally am not exactly willing to shell out money (especially $100 a year) just to put up with that behavior. I rather be in environs where the people already know, through and through, “this is genuinely okay behavior and that is genuinely not-okay behavior”. Not “I want to think we’re all angels. No matter what.” SFWA is way too White and says way too many familiar wonky things (“This place is the most loving and supportive place ever”) that makes me go “Am I going to waste my money?” I’ll pay to participate in the Net Galley because that directly benefits me, I get to use Net Galley at a majorly reduced price (it goes from $400+ to $40, that’s pretty decent) but putting up with White nonsense paraded as “innocence” or “it’s just an opinion, everyone has one” for an extra $100 isn’t exactly an experience I would prefer to pay for – especially since I get to experience it for free, including when I don’t want to (which is literally “always”).
SFWA means well, and even has a DEI*** … but who doesn’t nowadays? Plus, DEI’s are moreso pandering & virtue signaling to other White people, as far as I’m concerned. They’re written really well and crafted strongly … and barely applied where its actually useful. Its like “these rules exist for when we feel like using them.” As a Black person, it basically is just fancy text that’s going to be ignored, window dressing. Or touted when the accused are, well, accused. (“This can’t happen here! Look at our pretty DEI!”) Guess how I know DEIs get used like that in majority White spaces.
Yeah, some may say “but you can join the Inclusion committee” – but why? SFWA has been around since the 60s, I was born in the late 80s, and we’re currently two decades into the new millennium/new century … are you freakin’ kiddin’ me? They should have sorted this nonsense out back in the 60s. End of story. No “we just learned about racism”, no “we didn’t know”, no “it was normalized”, none of that. Literally impossible. It was the 1960s. There are zero excuses. That Inclusion committee should have been existing, since the 60s. The very same people who can imagine galactic and fantastical beings from distant worlds – and do it for literal hundreds of pages – can’t wrap their heads around literal reality? Now, that’s what I call fiction and fantasy.
And I don’t feel like putting up with it, especially not paying money for it.
Look, I have many memories of being at the Baltimore Book Festival (because, woo, I’m a Baltimorean – and it was way better when it was in Mt. Vernon, not in the Inner Harbor) from being a teenager to growing up and SFWA never really did any effort to make me feel like I wanted to join, that I should join, that I would be wanted, all of that. The opposite, oh, sure, but that was it. I still remember the white tent (everyone had white tarp tents, they were exciting to me for some reason), the White people, and the cockamamie bullsh*t I regularly heard year after year by whoever sat behind the table. Regularly. Bring up anything about noting how non-diverse things appear on the SFWA table and they’ll get really sniffy & defiant in tone and bring up some random Token du Jour, like Ellen Oh, for example. Or their primary favorite: Octavia Butler, ugh.**** Or try to name some super obscure Nigerian author that I, a teenager/young adult, wouldn’t know about (and neither would the majority of the festival goers unless the author’s name was in big letters somewhere) to basically go “See! You don’t know what all the other 2 billion Black people on this planet is doing, I just now proved to you that it is you who is creating this mythical thing called ‘racism’ and I who am in the right. How dare you stir up trouble because we regularly show White people almost exclusively?” Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaah, I’m not sure if that behavior is deserving of my money in particular.
Some were nice and went “you should join” but it also was when SFWA was traditionally published authors only so the nice “you should join” kind of had the “assuming traditional publishers would even look at you. Who wants to read Black sci-fi anyways?” sitting behind it. Like saying “hey, we’re not keeping you out. That’s somebody else. Somebody we can literally pull up on their behavior but we’re gonna ignore that part. That’s somebody else, don’t go crying to us.” These were the people the SFWA thought should be tabling at the Baltimore Book Festival (in case people didn’t somehow know, Baltimore is a majority Black city) and be the mouthpiece of SFWA. I don’t think in all the years I have gone to the Baltimore Book Festival, I ever walked home with any SFWA material in my bags. I usually collect loads of stuff from the Baltimore Book Festival and socialize but SFWA did a really good job solidifying me not really wanting to join. I mean, they kinda told me from when I was a teenager, a kid. I’m literally in my 30s now. What else am I supposed to think? That I should pay $100/year for more of that? I can get insulted and dissuaded from spec fic literature for free, no need to pay for it.
I mean, at least SFWA isn’t Baltimore Science Fiction Society-level bad. BSFS (I never saw a more appropriate use of the term “bs” in a name, at least they’re honest) easily could make SFWA look like the bastion of diversity and inclusion … that’s how trash BSFS is. SFWA has problems out the wazoo and have done lots to pretend those problems don’t exist or just go “ehhhhhh, not a big deal” but BSFS really lives up to the “BS” in their acronym. I remember they would always mention the one (1) token Black dude in all of BSFS, Alexander. I knew Alex … and the fact that he basically went Get Out/Othello level nuts because of all the White people that surrounded him. He basically reserved that for the Black folks I suppose, he seemed to know how to keep it together for the White folks (because of the whole hyper-visibility, double consciousness thing, which can literally drive you mad – as it did him). He had massive internalized anti-Blackness problems that clearly were messing with him because, welp, he’s Black and he’s experiencing anti-Blackness in the fields he really wants to be in and didn’t want to acknowledge it. That’s really common for a lot of Black folks (and other PoC but definitely Black) in White spaces. The BSFS always touted his name as their One And Only (which is sad, you are celebrating that you have one Black person and not scratching your head “How are we the Baltimore Sci Fi Society and we only have one Black member in a majority Black city?”). Alex didn’t always know that, which means he didn’t sign up to be the Jesus of their organization. Oh, and it also affected how people treated Alex (y’know, because of the reputation he had no idea about that was thrown upon him). And Alex was about my age then, so really young (late teens, early 20s) … and this was how the folks surrounding him, who were way older (remember, these sci-fi/fantasy communities are usually piled full of silver ponytails, potbellies and living memories of when Kennedy was shot) acted. Yeah, no wonder Alex went bonkers.
Seeing that meltdown was not enjoyable. Nor was seeing how the White folks that would parade him so much would either pretend nothing was happening and that Alex was “just fine” or “well, it’s because of the Black people who tell him things, it has zero to do with us and the insane amount of pressure we literally put him in and he didn’t ask for.” They just wanted more Black people to join so they could treat those Black folks the same … and mainly so people could stop saying “BSFS is racist”, “BSFS doesn’t like diversity”. They didn’t care what happened to the Black member, just what the visibility of that Black member could get them – which were to make them human shields against rightful accusations. Instead of trying to actually create an environment that would naturally attract Black writers, any BIPoC writer really, and make them comfortable enough to stay there, BSFS basically did whatever they could to just keep the status quo the way it was but put on some window dressing. In other words, BSFS became a joke to Black spec fic writers in Baltimore: “Ey, you know the folks who always talk about Alex? You can tell they don’t have anyone there. It’s an entire klan meeting.” (“Anyone” meant “anyone Black” in this context.) They’re not even referred as “BSFS”, just “the folks who talk about Alex”. Well, that was then. I don’t think the BSFS really gets noted by the Black spec fic writers of Baltimore because of how the BSFS acted for literal years. I’ve been around loads of Baltimore writers and even Balticon is treated as a “White sci-fi convention”. I feel bad for any Black member they managed to rope in. That person probably is in severe need of deep therapy treatment.
Generally, White majority orgs do the usual, “we bring you in just so we can kick you back out and say we’re not prejudiced while being entirely prejudiced”. Anyone who tends to survive in that environment tends to be lauded by the White folks (“look, we treat that one like literal trash and they’re okay with it! You should be also! Say we’re good people, dangit!”) and that surviving one also tend to be pretty nuts. As in, if Negro Neurosis (to borrow a term from the Very Smart Brothas) was a DSM-V listed condition, that person would be checking almost all the boxes, if not every box. They know how to keep it together in front of the White folks, due to a lifetime of strict (and occasionally life-threatening) teaching from literal infancy, but when they’re around everyone else, they become a walking time bomb. Which is bad for them and all the BIPoC folks around them. Like someone installed a bomb in their head and said, “Go on and play with the other darkies, they’ll always think it’s you. We’re just good people trying to correct the balance, that’s all. Go explode over there.” Because the meltdown is never pretty.
I already have mental problems, I don’t want those mental problems tho. So, yeah. SFWA has its trash moments, they have some compost. BSFS is just straight traaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaash. Both aren’t held in glowing regard for the reasons they themselves have created.
And, like I said earlier, I’m not sure if I want to pay for that. I’m not interested in the community, they made sure of that I wouldn’t want to, hands down. I just want the resources and to be left alone. I like Writers’ Beware and the Net Galley co-op but that’s about it. Maybe once I run into more contracts that ALLi can’t help for (I’ve been handling contracts really well so far by myself, thankfully (yay, having experience I never asked for in the music industry)) or become in super dire need of the Emergency Medical Fund (I will always be in need of mental health care but it’s so trash in this nation that, to be very obscenely frank, the mental healthcare in the USA might as well be renamed: “You’re better off killing yourself”), perhaps I’ll join. I mean, I would like to join, and I hit on all the pins to join, and it sounds like a good idea to join – but I don’t know if it is worth joining because all of the other issues that are really glaring.
I could spend that $100 on my editor, my artist, or my narrator – which would be way more beneficial to me than hearing “Oh noes! The PC police! Why can’t I be repugnant in peace? My bland story of tired stereotypes is interesting! It even was featured on the SFWA sidebar! Even netted a couple Nebulas!” on some random SFWA Slack channel or Discord or forum.
That simply isn’t worth money. Like I said, I would like to join and I have hit on all pins to join at any time if I wanted and there are some bits that sound alluring – but there are a lot more bits that do not. Maybe I will but I don’t really know for sure.
*BIPoC: Black, Indigenous, People of Color (PoC can also be used just fine)
**QPoC: Queer People of Color
*** Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
**** It isn’t Butler herself who deserves the “ugh” but the “ugh” goes to the fact that it’s usually how you can tell you’re talking to someone who knows next to zero diverse spec fic. They only keep about three to five in mind and call it a day, mainly to “prove [random Black person who has a valid point] wrong” about the issues of the Spec Fic community. Or just the “why should I shell out money to you guys?” part.