Women of Color and Science Fiction
in the United States
Elyce Rae Helford
As feminist science fiction writers and critics work for increased recognition and authority within the traditional (white, male) science fiction canon, the few women of color in the genre wage their own (explicit and implicit) battles with publishers, editors, and the themes and traditions of white writers. Such writers' sciencefictional considerations of issues as gender, race, and class help us understand why the politics and style of women writers of color may differ from those of white writers. And by examining their experiences with the publishing industry, we see how and by whom our knowledge of the experiences of people of color in the United States, as represented within literature, is controlled.
There are two primary ways that publishers can “erace”1 the literary visions of women of color in a white- and male-dominated culture. First, they can refuse to publish their writing, judging it inferior to writing by white (women) writers based upon internalized racist standards of “universality” of appeal or deviance from ethnocentric principles of “excellence” in writing. Second, they can publish only a small, select group of writers of color, distorting and controlling images of “minority” experiences. Carefully selected tokens allow publishers to decide which views of ethnic America reach audiences and which do not. So, the lives of women of color are scrutinized, distilled, whitewashed, and offered to a scrutinized, distilled, whitewashed American public.2
Nowhere in American publishing is this more true than science fiction, where only with the women's movement of the 1970s did even white feminist voices break through the erasure of past tokenism. Only then could feminists' visions ascend the patriarchal tower of representations of technology, outer space, and aliens. Even then, women were (and are often still) the “space” (or in psychoanalytic terms the “lack”) upon which phallocentric male science fiction writers erected their fiction; women were and are the aliens.3 As Ursula K. Le Guin put it, “For decades it was a man's world. The only visible women in it were a few daughters of mad scientists … and brass-bra'd Amazons.… It had been infiltrated secretly by a few heroic women writers with tight-lipped names—C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Andre