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.

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