Less than 24 hours after receiving SFWA’s highest honor, the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award at this year’s Nebula Award ceremony, Mercedes Lackey was removed from continued participation in the event for using a “racist slur” during one of the event’s panel presentations.
The phrase Lackey used during panel discussion was reportedly “colored people”. She also, according to numerous online reports, mispronounced Samuel R. “Chip” Delany’s name, although how it was mispronounced and in what context remains unclear.
SFWA announced the ban with the following press release:
The following email was sent to our SFWA members and our Nebula Conference attendees this afternoon:
Dear Nebula Conference Participants and SFWA Members,
We learned yesterday that while participating in the “Romancing Sci-Fi & Fantasy” panel, Mercedes Lackey used a racial slur. First, we apologize to our attendees and the other panelists who were subjected to that slur. We’ve disabled access to the panel to avoid any additional harm being caused.
Second, we are immediately removing Mercedes Lackey from the conference and the additional panels she was scheduled for, in accordance with SFWA’s Moderation Policy. The use of a racial slur violates the instruction to “Respect all cultures and communities. Do not make derogatory or offensive statements even as a joke.” That applies to everyone in a SFWA space, at all levels of their career.
Third, we will be discussing with the other panelists for “Romancing Sci-Fi & Fantasy” how they would prefer we proceed when they are able and comfortable in doing so. We will be offering to edit out the offensive portion of the panel or hold the panel again at a later date, inviting back the other three panelists and moderator to again take part. We will respect their wishes on how to handle this issue while also sharing the invaluable expertise they offered during the discussion.
Thank you to our conference attendees and panelists who reported the use of the slur. We appreciate being alerted to it right away, so we could investigate and come to this decision as swiftly as possible.
The SFWA Board of Directors
“During the panel, Samuel R. Delany’s trailblazing work was referenced. He was also referred to as “colored.”
Hearing this, I had an out of body experience. I typed: “By ‘colored,’ surely you mean Black?” into the chat–then deleted it. Seconds later, I’d deleted several more “let’s backtrack & re-state that” messages, feeling shaky and out of it.
When folks fuck up, it’s important to call that out. Even when things are done in a spirit of warmth & kindness. (Delany’s work was being *praised,* as it should be!) But in that moment, the power dynamics left me speechless.
I was the only Black panelist. I’m a newer author without many publishing credits. I’m in my early thirties, and was referred to as “young” during the panel. (That’s fine. I am young.) Those aren’t excuses. But they are illustrative of the power differentials at play in SFF.
Now, though, I need to warn folks: please take care if you plan on watching our panel. Some wonderful wisdoms were shared, but you’re going to encounter that moment, and the silence might be suffocating.”
On Facebook, Samuel Delany essentially stated that the use of the term “colored person” did not bother him.
The Moderator of the panel (whose name escapes us at the moment but who identifies as a person of color) stated that she was non-plussed and wasn’t sure what to do given the power dynamics involved.
Several people on Facebook stated that while they knew that “colored people” was not the most recent preferred term, it being considered “offensive” was news to them.
Several other people on Facebook quoted dictionary entries, included the OED, which stated that “colored person” was both an archaic and offensive phrase.
Some discussion was had regarding context, centered on both age and geography.
Several long-time members of SFWA have announced displeasure and/or resignation from the organization. Their reasons can generally be summed up as “the banning over that phrase is ridiculous and one step too far.”
This is a developing situation.
Opining Editorially, here are some of our thoughts:
As I had to explain to one very prominent sports promoter when one of her major sponsors engaged in cheating at her event and her reluctance to enforce her own rules caused major issues at her event – “never write a rule unless you are able to enforce it no matter what or who is involved”.
In this case, SFWA did go ahead and enforce its rule “no matter what or who”, but I think it may have victimized itself in doing so.
The rule being referenced by SFWA is their “Moderation Policy” and it states “Respect all cultures and communities. Do not make derogatory or offensive statements even as a joke.”
Further, Code of Conduct for the Nebula Awards states that the following are remedies for violations (of the code of conduct, which presumably incorporates the moderation policy as well):
- Warning one or more parties involved that specified behavior is inappropriate
- Requiring a formal apology on behalf of the complainant(s)
- Ejecting the offending party from the premises
- Removing access to SFWA spaces or Venues on a temporary or permanent basis
- Barring a non-member from future membership
- Removal of a director from the board of directors (As per Article V, Section 5, Subsection c of SFWA Bylaws: Removal of a Director by the Board)
Given the information about the event that has so far been publicly released, many people think that the removal from panels & presence of the newly awarded Grand Master, especially considering the varied responses to the phrase used (colored person/people) was out of proportion to the offense, suggesting that correction during the panel itself, with an opportunity for Ms. Lackey to explain herself and offer apology, was out of proportion.
At this juncture, we believe that this is the case, and we offer two arguments in that regard:
“Colored Person” is viewed by many as archaic, but not offensive. We have curse words that are universally recognized as such.
Contemporary thought suggests that the “person” come first when identifying someone (person of color), but not remembering that is not always a deliberate offense.
Regardless of intent, we are bound to have disagreement on this issue until such time as we have universally accepted definitions. As someone who tries to avoid giving offense and someone who believes that the subject gets to “pick their pronouns”, I was unaware that “colored person” had moved from the “archaic, not-preferred” into the “offensive” category. There was a time in my life when it was considered the preferred term – the phrase to use when one did not want to give offense.
Lack of universal understanding would suggest that a warning and an opportunity to correct things would have been the more appropriate, approved, response, with sterner measures being taken if correction was not accepted and embraced.
However, there’s one other “opt out” that could have led to less fraught circumstances.
“Respect all cultures and communities. Do not make derogatory or offensive statements even as a joke.”
Mercedes Lackey was not making a joke, nor was she necessarily making a derogatory or offensive statement. She used a phrase that some in the audience found offensive.
There should have been a query in between the statement itself and the actions SFWA tool. “Excuse me. Was your use of colored person intended to be derogatory?”
The moderator herself has stated that she was not entirely clear on what her actions should have been and I can understand the situation: Her choices were to let it go by (and judging from all the verbiage on the matter so far, members of the audience visibly reacted, so that would have been problematic) or to publicly call out the recently installed SFWA Grand Master and suffer whatever the consequences of that might be.
I have no conclusion, only thoughts on the matter, the strongest one being that this particular situation certainly reveals that we need more discussion on these subjects and need to refine the definitions, the actions, procedures, etc. The moderator should not have been placed in such an awkward position and SFWA itself needs to offer some more clarity and specificity in its policies.