Digital Project: Assessing RaceFail '09

Table of Contents
Project Overview
Background: RaceFail '09
Findings: Participants
Keyword Case Study: Black and White
Challenges and Future Applications
Special Features

Project Overview


This site serves the final project for MLL 774, Digital Humanities Practicum as well as an exploration into future dissertation research on fandom communities and science fiction and fantasy (sff) fandom throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In previous projects, I have explored the linguistic drift in fandom terminology as fans' modes of communication shifted from print media such as zines to electronic media--listservs, online forums, communities such as LiveJournal, and, in our present moment, Tumblr and Twitter.

I have chosen RaceFail '09 as a case study to track the linguistic (and ideological) generational drift in the sff community for a few reasons. First and foremost, of course, is scope. RaceFail '09 began with a few LiveJournal posts, but rapidly spiraled into an event spanning multiple platforms and involving thousands of individuals. Notably, many of the debates within RaceFail '09 fell into sharp divides between pros (professional authors and editors) and fans. Key to this pro/fan clash was the usage of pseudonyms, a practice common among LiveJournal users (and many other online communities at the time), but mistrusted by some of the pros. Also of note is the almost instantaneous tendency on the part of participants and observers to archive and organize events as they occurred. LiveJournal user badgerbag added a list of total participants and posts as of April 2009 to rydra_wong's original link post. Laura Hale also provided a keyword search, replicated as an image on the FanLore RaceFail '09 entry.

Post Selection

I have selected ten posts from nine different authors based on a number of criteria, including importance to the overall RaceFail '09 conversation and number (and ferocity) of comments. Six of the posts originated on LiveJournal (although one has been ported to Dreamwidth, and another exists only as a screencapture). One is a Metafilter thread discussing RaceFail '09 and the culture of LiveJournal. The other three are blogs on authors' sites. Below is a list of the posts chosen, arranged in chronological order:

1. "Whatever You're Doing, You're Probably Wrong." Elizabeth Bear's first post, dated January 12, 2009, and generally seen as the beginning of RaceFail '09. Bear addresses the subject of writing "the Other," arguing against essentializing marginalized people in fiction, and offers her own methods for doing so. This post yielded 285 comments through February 13, when, presumably, Bear closed it to comments.

2. An Open Letter to Elizabeth Bear.". Blogger Avalon's Willow's response to Bear's post, dated January 13, 2009. Avalon's Willow calls Bear out for using the same racial sterotypes in her own work that she spoke out against in her post, and links this to a larger tradition of Eurocentrism in sff. This post yielded 42 comments through January 22, 2014.

3. "Real Magic Can Never Be Made By Offering Up Someone Else's Liver." Elizabeth Bear's second post, a reply to Avalon's Willow's open letter as well as Deepa D.'s essay, "I Never Dreamed of Dragons," dated January 14, 2009. Bear acknowledges their criticisms and admits that she still has work to do. This post yielded 548 comments through January 19, when Bear closed it.

4. "Science Fiction, LiveJournal and Magical Negroes." This MetaFilter post by happyroach, dated January 19, 2009, is notable for its commentary on the culture of LiveJournal. The author posits questions centering on privilege and alleged "perpectual victimhood." This post yielded 82 comments through January 21, 2009.

5. "I Almost Cannot Believe Someone Just Said This in a Discussion about Racism." LiveJournal user copracat's post, dated January 19, 2009, is a reposting of Tor editor Patrick Nielson Hayden's contentious comment reframing RaceFail as being an issue between people of higher and lower intelligence, rather than one of race. This post yielded 146 comments through January 23, 2009.

6. "BRB: Making Nice White Ladies Cry." LiveJournal user sparkymonster's post, dated January 22, 2009, expands upon a comment she originally made in Elizabeth Bear's second post (see above). This post is notable for showing sparkymonster's skill at incorporating links and quotations, a practice she continued with great effect in her comments on other posts. This post yielded 122 comments through February 2, 2009.

7. "I'm Taking This about as Well as You'd Expect." This is a screengrab of Teresa Nielsen Hayden's now-locked post, dated January 26, 2009, in which she speaks out against what she perceives as unfair treatment of her husband, editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and other pros, at the hands of the pseudonymous mob. Because of its nature as a screengrab, this post's comments are incomplete. Of the 50 comments listed, 33 were accessible. It is unknown when the last comments were made.

8. "The People Whites Don't See: An Open Letter to Kathryn Cramer." LiveJournal user coffeeandink, in a post dated March 7, 2009, writes an open letter to the pro author who outed her legal name and accused her of harassing pro authors and editors. coffeeandink responds by accusing Cramer of violation of privacy, defamation, and harassment, but her main point is that Cramer is derailing from and obfuscating the primary issue--race--and ignoring the fans and writers of color who are still speaking up. As with sparkymonster, above, this post is notable for its citations. This post yielded 116 comments through March 17, 2009.

9. "The Internets Hate Scalzi!" Pro author John Scalzi weighs in (not for the first time) on RaceFail, in a post dated March 10, 2009. Scalzi never directly refers to RaceFail '09, referring instead to a "really awful overall" series of conversations about an important topic. Notably, this post results in a guest post written by Sri Lankan author Mary Anne Mohanraj, who participated in the comments. This post yielded 751 comments through March 12, 2009, when it was closed.

10. "Why I Think RaceFail '09 Was the Bestest Thing Evar for SFF." Pro author N.K. Jemisin looks back at the events of RaceFail '09 in a post dated January 18, 2010, reflecting on the positive change that has occurred within the sff community over the past year as a result. This post yielded 91 comments through October 20, 2010.


I separated each post into two sections, original posting and comments, before uploading them into NVivo. I focused on the following data:

- number of comments per post
- number of total participants in each post, and across all posts
- most prevalent commenters in each post, and across all posts
- original poster (OP) participation in comments, and across all posts

I also performed a keyword search on each file, searching based on a list of pre-selected terms as well as the most common words per post. The latter search included all words of three letters or more, and removed certain "stop words" such as "threadcollapse," "reply," "expand," and "january." All searches also combined forms of words: "racism," "racist," and "race" were all counted together, for example. In addition to noting the most frequently-used words, I focused on the keywords "white" and "black," tracing their frequency in the comments of each post. RaceFail '09 is infamous for both discussing and burying the subject of race in sff: tracing the instances of mentions of whiteness and blackness seemed key.


The Introduction which follows provides a brief overview of RaceFail '09, along with multiple links to extended discussions of the subject. The following sections, Findings and Keywords, break down the results of the searches outlined above. Finally, the closing section, Challenges and Future Applications, notes some of the difficulties I have encountered during this project as well as my plans to expand it in future semesters.