An Ableist Microaggression: “It’s nice to see you walking!”

Last week my friend Jesse and I went out shopping to a store we like where we know a number of the staff members. Jesse took her walker rather than wheelchair, principally because it is easier for me to drive and load the walker in my car, than it is to load the wheelchair into the minivan.

One thing that happened as we were leaving the store is the staff person said to Jesse, “It’s nice to see you up,” as in upright, not using the wheelchair.

This is a microaggression. (link to Wikipedia).

First, the assumption that an acquaintance or even stranger has the right to comment on your assistive tech, on your presumed health status, on your body– that you would even want to know what some stranger thinks. But people do this all the time and they think it’s a good thing. They think it’s welcome praise, that is a nice fuzzy compliment.

They think it’s praise because they value being upright and walking over using a wheelchair, even though it is a value-neutral distinction. It may be better for you and your self-care to use to the wheelchair, but hardly anyone will praise you for that. You should use what will work best for you, cause you the least pain, not what society values.

They think it’s praise because they think it’s an improvement in health status. This demonstrates an incomplete and failed knowledge of chronic illness, mobility impairments, and assistive tech. Many people who use assistive tech use that tech occasionally or periodically, and again, it is value-neutral to do so. Diseases get worse and they get incompletely better. It happens. And sometimes you use the tech for more practical reasons that have nothing to do with your disease/impairments, but rather to do with the barriers that exist in society. Maybe walkers or walking sticks are easier in the airport than your wheelchair is, for example, even though the wheelchair is more comfortable. Maybe you don’t want to risk the airport damaging or losing your expensive and valuable wheelchair. Maybe you’d use your wheelchair all the time if society didn’t suck so much.

WisCon Guests of Honor: Race and Gender over time

In the last post, I talk about the basics what Guests of Honor are at WisCon and how they get selected.  This year I sat on a panel called “Where is WisCon going?”  One thing I could have said (but forgot to), is that I nominate and vote for women of color for the Guest of Honor slot.  I can’t be the only one on the planning committee who does so, but it seems like this is a recent trend.  I got curious.  When did this trend start?  What does it look like?

I created a spreadsheet using Google drive, which you can view here:

WisCon Guest of Honor stats

Methods (or, how I filled in the spreadsheet)

I filled in the gender and race of each guest of honor as best I could, up through next year’s convention.  I did a lot of guessing.  If you see errors, please let me know and I will fix them.  The best way to gather such data is to ask people individually (called self-report); instead I searched Wikipedia and personal websites.

Gender data: I don’t know if any of these people identify as gender queer, non-binary, trans, or another category.  Some of the early guests of honor do not have web sites of their own.

Race data:  This was frustrating to try and figure out, because white is an unmarked state.  We white people don’t point out the fact that we are white, we generally don’t write or talk about it, except in rare instances.  We aren’t questioned about it in interviews.  I googled “Is China Mieville white” and “What race is China Mieville?” and the only thing that came up in results was information on alien races.   This leads me to think that he is white, since no one has thought to remark upon his race.  Looking at photos is only marginally helpful: some people of color are light skinned, etc.  I included Jewish ethnicity for some people, because a couple of people listed talk openly and frequently about being Jewish, which moves them away from the “unmarked state”.

So, I did a lot of assuming and guessing, which has almost certainly led me to make an ass out of myself in my quest to make a point.  Please point out errors in the file if you see them, and I will fix post-haste.

It was easier for me to fill in the more recent years of data because I started going to WisCon in 2007.  I began to follow the work of some of the authors, meet authors and their friends, and generally become part of the community.  So I gained insider knowledge.  I lack this knowledge for the earlier years of WisCon.

After a couple of hours of filling out my chart, I compiled some percentages.

Results (or, what the data show)

For all 40 years, the guests of honor at WisCon have been mostly white women.  Women as a percentage of the total never drops below 70% (column J).  Through 2009, the percentage of white guests of honor (with the caveat that I am assuming whiteness for a number of people), stays above 90% (column N).  To me this says, “WisCon is for white women.”

From 1977 to 2009, there were only three black guests of honor: Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney, and Nalo Hopkinson.  That is less than one every ten years.  Wikipedia defines tokenism as “the policy and practice of making a perfunctory gesture towards the inclusion of members of minority groups.”

In 2010 the trend changes dramatically.  From 2010 to 2016, six black women are invited as new guests of honor (Nisi Shawl, Alaya Dawn Johnson, N.K. Jemisin, Andrea Hairston, Nnedi Okorafor, Sofia Samatar); Nalo Hopkinson is invited back as a returning guest of honor for 2016; and 2 women of Asian descent are guests of honor (Mary Ann Mohanraj and Hiromi Goto).  From 2010 on, the percentage of people of color– specifically women of color– as guest of honor stays above 50%.

What changed in 2010?

The following is speculation, but in 2009 a long internet fight called Race Fail occurred.  The arguments served as a consciousness-raising event for many fans, including myself.  I believe that many people on the concom saw one way they could fight racism in their own small corner of the SF/F community: by inviting women of color to be guests of honor at WisCon.

It is striking that it took over 30 years for this shift to happen.  I am glad it has happened, and I would like to see the trend continue. I would like to see us honor Latin@s, indigenous writers, Arab writers, and others.  If you have an idea for who you would like to see be a guest of honor at WisCon 41 and beyond, send your suggestion to gohnoms at wiscon dot info.

Guests of Honor at WisCon: An introduction

What are Guests of Honor?

Guests of honor (GoHs) are one or more people invited to Wiscon, who give a keynote speech, give readings, and, if they are interested, sit on panels during the convention. Their membership fee, hotel costs, and travel are paid for, and they receive a small honorarium.  They typically receive a free membership for life thereafter (keep in mind that memberships are relatively inexpensive, around 50 dollars for the whole convention).  The speeches that GoHs give can be inspiring and informative, and may appear on websites afterward.  Some con-goers will make a point of buying and reading books by WisCon GoHs through the year, and getting those books signed at the convention.

How are Guests of Honor chosen?

Anyone (literally) can nominate someone for guest of honor status by emailing gohnoms at wiscon dot info.  It is best to include a few sentences about why you think they would make a good GoH or why you think they are awesome.  The members of the planning committee (concom) vote on who they would like to be GoH, which is one of the perks of serving on the committee.  In recent years, a group of people vets the finalists to see if they meet WisCon’s statement of principles, if they require speaker fees, etc.

Who has been Guest of Honor in the past?

You can see a list at WisCon’s website and at Wikipedia (links below).  As WisCon is a primarily literary convention, GoHs have usually been writers and editors of SF/F, but have also included fan writers and zine publishers, illustrators, and influential community members.

WisCon’s history

WisCon page at Wikipedia

In the next post I’ll examine trends regarding race and gender over time in relation to WisCon’s guests of honor.

Social Interaction Badges at WisCon 39: Part 2

WisCon is a medium-sized convention, capped at 1,000 members, focused on feminist science fiction and fantasy.  Our members come from all over the country and world.  This year we introduced social interaction badges, which are explained in the previous post.

The badges were quite popular.  We set them near the plastic badge holders and had to reprint the “green” and “white” cards several times during the convention because we ran out.  Many people only took green or white cards.  I forgot to explain that people could take all four cards as a set and rotate through them during the convention.  During our end-of-con feedback session, one person suggested that we put out the cards as sets, with a paperclip keeping them together, which means more prep time but is a great idea.  However, I think some people do want to use just one or two colors the whole time, which is also fine.

Many people come to SF conventions to be social, and many geeks (I surmise) are a bit shy, which is why the green cards went fast.  Some people did not know if the green card meant “I am OK with talking to people” or if it meant “Please talk to me.”

I realized on the first day of the convention that the “white” card had awkward racial connotations.  We talk about race a lot at WisCon which is refreshing, awesome, and sometimes uncomfortable.  So I looked down at the white card I was wearing and went “um, oops, it looks like I am referring to race here….”  It was too late to change it, but next year we will change this to a different color or pattern, such as blue, purple, or plaid.

People seemed to like the clarity of the “stoplight” system of colors.  There is a universal quality to these colors; they are used in airports and are easy to understand.  “White” was not quite as clear.  One person said she took the white card in solidarity for others, and to make the cards less stigmatized, and only later realized she could have used the red, yellow, and green cards as social signals herself during the convention.

What did it mean when someone at the convention was not wearing an interaction badge?  One person said very thoughtfully that they would ask such a person if they were up for talking.

For myself, I really liked wearing the “white” interaction badge.  It was like telling myself that indeed, I can manage my own social interactions.  I can be assertive and use body language; I have practiced this and come a long way, largely because of WisCon and events like it.  I know enough people at WisCon that I did not feel I needed to wear the green card, but I wore a green one at SDS, where I did not know many people.  I am neurotypical, somewhat shy, and advocating these badges as part of universal design.

If you’ve used these badges, what was your experience like?

Interaction Badges at WisCon 39: Part 1

At WisCon this year, we introduced social interaction badges for optional use.  We used red, yellow, green, and white cards, which you can see the design of at my Flickr.  Thank you to Jeremy Parker for these designs.  We used symbols and words along with the colors to make them clear and accessible as possible, and to accommodate color-blind folks.

Flickr photos

I got the idea for these after attending SDS, the Society for Disability Studies, conference in June 2014.  I also saw two Tumblr posts about them:

I also chatted online with Sam, an autistic activist who is familiar with the cards, and introduced the idea to WisCon’s planning committee, called the ConCom.

We hung up posters explaining what the cards meant, and explained them at opening ceremonies.  I used the text almost verbatim from the above Tumblr posts.


RED (stop sign symbol) means: STOP don’t talk to me!  I don’t want to talk to anyone right now, or if I do, I will approach you.  If I initiate conversation, it’s ok to talk back.

YELLOW (triangle symbol) means: I only want to talk to people I know, not to strangers and not to people I only know from the internet.  If I initiate conversation, it’s ok to talk back, but please don’t approach me unless you know me.

GREEN (circle symbol): I would like to be approached by people interested in talking.  I may have trouble initiating conversation.

WHITE (square symbol): I can manage my own social interactions.

 So how did it go?  I will explain that in part two!

Watching the Tonight Show; unexpectedly creeped out

I am off work and resting, and for me this means watching more TV.  I like things I can put on in the background while I’m playing a game or doing chores.  One of the shows I’m watching on Hulu is the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.  Fallon is consistently very funny, cheerful, and good with his guests.  The music from the Roots is wonderful.  His humor is goofy and not mean.  He plays fun games with the guests, such as Pictionary, Catch Phrase, or lip sync battles.

The guests are listed on the Hulu page and announced at the beginning of each show, so there are some guests that I simply skip.  For instance, some Duck Dynasty people were on recently and I just turned the show off before they came on.  I principally know them because of homophobic comments one of the Duck Dynasty guys made a while back, so I am not interested in what they are saying or promoting.  But other times I give people a chance if I don’t know much about them.

So anyway: Tonight I watched an episode where Russell Crowe was the main guest.  He and Fallon sang a goofy song about tar balls in water, and made it a double entendre: don’t go swimming or you’ll get balls in your mouth.  They walked through the audience and suddenly Russell Crowe was rubbing his crotch against some guy’s face.  The audience member was laughing and turning bright red.  But I was creeped out.  I said aloud: “Is Russell Crowe, like, assaulting that guy?”  (No one was here to hear me but the dog).  In contrast, Jimmy Fallon put a microphone up to an audience member and let them sing along to the chorus.  Fallon looked respectful, friendly, and did not touch the audience member.  Crowe looked like a criminal.

There can be a lot of cringe-worthy moments in comedy.  I’ve been watching stand-up lately too, and people make jokes that fall flat or cross the line, and just go you go “ugh, no”.  But this little segment was further over that line because it involved an audience member.  Russell Crowe, you’re a creep.