Racist Rejection Letter Stirs Controversy in SF Community

In the aftermath of the Violet Blue episode and in the midst of the PZ Myers controversy, racism reared it’s ugly head in the SF community. Aspiring SF writer Luke Jackson published a rejection letter written by an editor for Helix, William Sanders, in which was said :

“I’m impressed by your knowledge of the Q’uran and Islamic traditions. (Having spent a couple of years in the Middle East, I know something about these things.) You did a good job of exploring the worm-brained mentality of those people – at the end we still don’t really understand it, but then no one from the civilized world ever can – and I was pleased to see that you didn’t engage in the typical error of trying to make this evil bastard sympathetic, or give him human qualities. {…] the narrator seems to be saying that it was this incident which caused him to take up the jihad, but he’s being mendacious (like all his kind, he’s incapable of honesty). […] most of the SF magazines are very leery of publishing anything that might offend the sheet heads’

Unfortunately the letter was deleted in fear of a lawsuit threatened by Sanders. Putting the ethics about publicly posting a rejection letter aside, this is one that needed to be seen. Author Tobias Buckell has a great post on his blog summing it up. In an interesting development writer Yoon Ha Lee got a taste of Helix editor Sanders professionalism after asking to remove her story:

“Sanders flounced off in a huff, stating that the story ‘never did make any sense’ and that he only accepted it to ‘please those who admire your work’-what altruism!-‘and also because (notorious bigot that I am) I was trying to get more work by non-Caucasian writers.’ If I were a writer currently submitting to Helix, I would kind of worry about that bit-all things considered, if a story really does suck, I’d rather have it rejected so I can fix it.

He then played psychic and claimed that I only asked for the story to be withdrawn ‘because, let’s get real here, you feel the need to distance yourself from someone who is in disfavor with the kind of babbling PC waterheads whose good opinion is so important to you, and whom you seem to be trying to impress with this little grandstand play.’ He closed with: ‘There was a suggestion I was going to make, but it is probably not physically practicable.’

After that he pulled the story and replaced it with these professional words: “Story deleted at author’s pantiwadulous request.”

Sanders is now demanding anyone who wants their stories removed from Helix to pay forty bucks!

(See also: Tobias Buckell: “Asimov’s Forum Ickiness”, Buckell: “Keeps Digging”, K. Tempest Bradford: “William Sanders, Senior Bigot, Helix”)


  1. Heading reads “Racist Rejection Letter Stirs Controversy in SF Community.” No race is mentioned in the rejection letter. Are Muslims a ‘race?’ What race are Muslims?

    Race is mentioned in a follow-up message from Sanders. He writes he “was trying to get more work by non-Caucasian writers.” I cannot where Sanders self-identifies in this regard, so I cannot say what that self-identification might be. Online pictures of Sanders (of which I found several) may be helpful in this regard, but I will not say that Sanders is ‘Caucasian’ or ‘non-Caucasian.’

    But if it is the follow-up message that is racist, then any similar effort to get ‘non-Caucasians’ in print is also racist. It would mean ‘diversity’ is racism. And if his statement is racist, and if Saunders is ‘Caucasian,’ then one can be racist against one’s own race. Is that possible? What might that mean?

    Just because someone is blunt or rude or wrong doesn’t mean they are racist (or sexist, etc.). In the same way that my comment here, just because it questions claims of racism, is not automatically racist. (Still, I’m pretending to be anonymous to shield myself from people who live in a black and white world. Whoops, was that racist too?)

    I encourage rasing the bar on racism. People saying words? That’s just what it is. If words had that kind of magic power then every time I’d say “one million dollars!” it would appear. Racism is when law or force is involved, not just being a jerk or politically incorrect or mistaken. The Hutu and Tutsi conflict, Jim Crow laws, now there’s some racism for ya.

  2. rac?ism:
    1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
    2 : racial prejudice or discrimination

    I think what Sanders was referring to here were the “sheet heads”, as he put it. Which is a derogatory term for those of Arabic or Middle Eastern descent.
    Are the Arabs a race? What about a culture? Can someone be bigoted against someone’s culture? Sure. And yeah, I’m sure we’ve all met people who have strong feelings about certain groups, racial and cultural. But some of us realize that there are “rude, blunt” (as you put it) people everywhere, and these individuals don’t define the entire race or culture that they come from either.
    Once you group together a people with the word “all” (as Sanders did with “like all his kind, he?s incapable of honesty”), I think it’s a safe bet that someone is prejudiced and is discriminating against the entire group of individuals they lump together with the word “all”.

  3. “Just because someone is blunt or rude or wrong doesn?t mean they are racist (or sexist, etc.)”

    No, but saying that middle eastern people shouldn’t be portrayed as having human qualities is racist. And yes, “sheet head” is a racial, not religious, slur aimed generally at middle eastern people. Sanders now claims he wasn’t even talking about all Muslim people (much less all middle eastern people), but with only the extracts I’ve seen to go on it’s hard to conclude anything but the worst. If the actual letter provides more “context” perhaps he should be letting people read it. And perhaps Sanders, despite spending a couple years in the middle east, didn’t realize that his comments would be interpreted as an ethnic slur rather than an insult to a particular religion.

    From the details at least one of these 3 things is true: a) Sanders is racist b) Sanders is ignorant (didn’t realize his words would be interpreted as racist) or c) Sanders is stupid (the full body of the rejection letter exonerates him, but he doesn’t want people reading it).

    Anyway, rudeness is reason enough to decide not to do business with someone (which is what the SF writers in question are deciding). I didn’t notice the part where Sanders is being tried for hate crimes or anything. Much like Sanders is just saying words, so are his critics.

    “I encourage rasing the bar on racism.”

    I encourage you to raise the bar on what constitutes pointless PC bickering and find some better shit to criticize (like those Catholics claiming that not swallowing a cracker is a hate crime, or people upset about that New Yorker cover with the Obamas on it).

    I generally agree that individual racism is not as big a threat as institutional racism. But it’s important not to forget that institutions are made of people, and have only as much power as people allow them to have. The attitudes of individuals have wide ranging effects. To be horribly cliche, had there not been widespread antisemitism in the Weimar Republic, it’s doubtful the Nazis could have pushed through racist policy. Had racism not be rampant in the American south, the Ku Klux Klan would never have been tolerated.

    And seriously. Do words have “magical power”? No. Do words have power? Fuck yes. How do racist attitudes spread? At least partially through words.

    And remember, this isn’t just about the uttering of a particular word, it’s about an editor expressing the belief that a particular group of humans be portrayed as subhuman. Even if he only means terrorists and radical jihadists or whatever, I still find that comment troubling. We live in a time when there’s serious public debate over our policies of torturing people accused of being radical Muslim terrorists. Suggesting that media should portray “the enemy” as less than human is not only flimsy literature (I like my villains to be somewhat sympathetic), but worthy of social criticism.

  4. Well said Klintron. Here’s William Sanders response to the shitstorm. Here’s how he feels about the publicly posted letter:

    “But still, the fact remains that this whole thing would never have taken place
    if people had simply observed the accepted usages of communications ethics,
    not to mention common human decency.”

    After writing that letter along with bashing a writer who politely asked to have her story removed from Helix, I find this hypocritical and ironic as hell.
    “Communications ethics and human decency”?
    How about walking the talk?
    (there’s many posts on the link, just hit next to read the entire thing.)


  5. I think People are being over complex here.

    Sanders is a JEW I assume?And I also Assume that a few of his years in the middle east were in Israel?

    I Am also going to assume that he Supports the Neo-Conservative Policy?

    No I’m not saying all Jews are like that BUT there is that faction the neocon(zionist) who’s mentallity is very distinct and Sanders Reeks of it.

    Anyone here Care to disagree????!

  6. John- According to Sanders blog he is a Christian:

    “Meaning absolutely no irreverence, but quite the contrary. As a Christian
    I deeply resent the way these people invoke the name of Jesus Christ to justify
    their bullying and power-seeking, let alone their avarice. In place of the
    real Jesus they have created this fantastic character, a kind of combination
    of real-estate salesman, chief of police, and high-school football coach; and
    so I call him “Jeebus” rather than soil the name of Jesus by going along with
    their misappropriation of His name. (To harken back to a certain vice-presidential debate: I know Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is a friend of mine. And this figure they worship is no Jesus


  7. > Sanders is a JEW I assume?

    Christian. Part Cherokee.

    > And I also Assume that a few of his years in the middle east were in Israel?

    I’ve seen him mention Turkey, possibly some other countries. Didn’t happen upon any mention of Israel.

    > I Am also going to assume that he Supports the Neo-Conservative Policy?

    He reportedly actively campaigned for Kerry in the last presidential election.

    > No I?m not saying all Jews are like that BUT there is that faction the neocon(zionist) who?s
    > mentallity is very distinct and Sanders Reeks of it.
    > Anyone here Care to disagree????!

    See above.

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