In April 2019, I was invited by Zina Hutton, Cait Coker, and Robin Reid to be part of a Roundtable on Race and Racism in Fandom and Fan Studies at the PCA/ACA 2019 conference held in Washington DC, USA. The intention was to discuss Fandom and Fan Studies 10 years after the events of RaceFail ’09 to see if things had changed and, if so, how. While I didn’t speak to the events of RaceFail ’09 itself, it did inflect my critique of institutional responses that followed in the wake of a more recent event.
What follows here is a rough estimate of the things I said at the conference, much of which was unscripted. I should note that these are my views alone and that I do not speak for Rukmini Pande, who was also involved in the series of events I plan to discuss.
At the same time, I should also be clear that many of the points that follow are points that fans of colour (hereafter FOC) and acafans of colour (as well as acafans working on critical race theory in fandom) have already noted. In a multiplicity of ways, I am echoing their work, restating it, forcibly reinscribing it as best as I can, and ascribing it as best as I can (and Rukmini is part of this, though again she is not the first).
As previously noted, these conversations have been around for far longer than us, and to assume that we are the first to voice this discomfort, this anger, this complaint (per Sara Ahmed) is to be complicit in this erasure and our own eventual erasure. These are not just my words, this is not just my voice.
On February 8, 2019, Rukmini Pande tweeted about being exhausted with the structural whiteness of fandom. In response, one of the then keynotes of the Fan Studies conference in 2019 (hereafter #FSN2019) Nicolle Lamerichs chastised and tone policed her. Following a series of responses calling her out on this behaviour, Nicolle then attempted to walk back her tweet by gaslighting myself and Rukmini and framing us as seemingly overreacting to her first tweet, which was subsequently called out.
Given Nicolle’s position as keynote of #FSN2019, her words were not without effect and institutional weight, and therefore I tweeted on the #FSN2019 tag about the event and proceeded to document and unpack the nuances of what was being implied at the time. Given her remarks, I felt it was necessary to note that a conference keynote voicing this sort of racist tone policing would have an effect on potential or existing acafans of colour.
Notably, while Nicolle’s attack of Rukmini was a factor, the issue was far larger than either of them, and this interaction remains more a symptom than the cause of the problem. Rukmini tweeting about being exhausted by structural whiteness in Fan Studies indicated the larger problem itself—the fact that this sort of tone policing interaction is common, as is the manner in which whiteness is invisibilised in these scenarios until made visible by the outlying interruption by non-whiteness.
While Nicolle did apologise, first to Rukmini alone and then to Rukmini and myself (for the effort provided in documenting the events), the events themselves led to further factors. The first was a range of support from other FOC and acafans of colour, as well as other scholars from a range of disciplines, but the second was also an array of responses demanding an explanation of the whiteness of Fan Studies and the need for Rukmini or myself to justify our claims (despite most being well aware of Rukmini’s extensive work on the subject).
The latter, in particular, insisted on acafans of colour, one of whom had recently been verbally attacked, perform further emotional and time-consuming labour of establishing the very basics of racist interaction. Moreover, this was usually done in false faith as the scholars in question had no intention of changing their perspective or their attitude towards the event. The intent was merely to perform engagement and dismissal, to remind acafans of colour that acceptance was contingent on white acceptance or approval.
This centring of white selfhood assumes all documentation and evidence begins from their entry into the space of discussion and positions itself as the norm, even when it is not. It positions itself as vulnerable in its lack of knowledge, and yet all knowing enough that its power is what decides the event itself. White selfhood of this sort assumes that whiteness is incidental/vulnerable/under attack/trying but not validated enough for trying/ at a disadvantage because of its privilege.
This centring of white selfhood remains key to why Fan Studies and Fandom itself is exhausting for many people of colour.
I establish this because it leads me to the third factor that came out of this series of engagements in the public sphere of twitter: The Fan Studies Network Board released a statement posted by Tom Phillips (copied below in full) that Nicolle would no longer be a keynote at #FSN2019 (with Lori Morimoto remaining the sole keynote) and that in place of the second keynote, a rountable on inclusivity would be put in place. #FSN2019 also solicited suggestions on how the conference could improve its inclusivity. It was this statement as response that I unpacked at the rountable at PCA ACA 2019.
Fan studies is a discipline overrun with whiteness.
This fundamental truth, put forward by a fan studies scholar on Friday 8th February, prompted a number of conversations between academics on Twitter. The resultant discussion has required us – the board members of the Fan Studies Network – to consider the role and function of the FSN within the field, and how our conference events frame representation.
Since the FSN was founded in 2012, we have worked hard to be inclusive in a range of ways, but it is clear through the recent discourse that in relation to issues of race we have failed. This is a failure that we want to rectify. This is an issue that is bigger than the Fan Studies Network, and working towards a solution will not be an overnight process. However, there are steps FSN can take to try and be better.
This starts with our annual conference. We were delighted with the calibre of keynote speakers chosen for FSN2019, and chose these scholars because of our respect for their excellent scholarship and their support of FSN over the years. We believe that a keynote speaker should represent their field, and use their position at the conference to inform, interest, and inspire. We also believe such discourses should come from the keynote addresses themselves, rather than being informed by external discussions. As a result, in agreement with those we invited as keynotes, it has been decided that the conference will feature Lori Morimoto as the sole keynote speaker this year. The second keynote slot will instead be dedicated to a roundtable discussion on representation and diversity. We welcome thoughts on the most appropriate format for this roundtable, including potential participants.
All FSN keynotes have been chosen by the board since our first event in 2013, but we now recognise that we need to rethink our selection practices and procedures. So, over the coming months, we will be inviting everyone with an interest in fan studies (regardless of whether you have attended one of our events or not) for your thoughts on how we can make fan studies a more diverse and inclusive space. Inclusivity is an issue for us as a field to address together, and we want to ensure that the most appropriate voices are heard.
The last 72 hours have involved a considerable amount of reflection and discussion between FSN board members, trying to react to an ongoing situation and consider the discourse with a level head. One thing that has become clear to the board is that we have underestimated the power and privilege we have in our positions. To understand why such a misjudgement has taken place, it is important to contextualise the role of the board and the ongoing management of FSN.
The network was founded by PhD students who lamented the lack of a common space for those with an interest in fan studies. It began as a group of UK-based friends and peers, keen to get a network off the ground. Unfortunately, the board’s ambitions for the network have been hampered by time and money. In regards to the former, for a large part of the lifespan of FSN the board have all been in precarious states of employment, unable to be afforded the time to work on network activities beyond the annual conference. For the latter, it is worth noting that FSN has no form of funding, and the conferences are entirely self-sustaining – all the money earned from delegate fees go into the conference. Ultimately the success of FSN in attracting such an international selection of keynote speakers over the last few years has relied on vast amounts of goodwill and compromise.
With this in mind, for the last few years the board has essentially seen itself as a conference organisation committee. What we did not consider, however, was how the decisions we make with our conference could have wider implications and ramifications. We now recognise that although we quite casually (albeit in good faith) began FSN to promote networking in the field, it has grown into something that warrants more considered formalisation. This is an opportunity to recognise that the board would benefit from new voices, and we are considering ways to take this forward.
Challenging the structural whiteness of our discipline is going to take more than just sticking plasters and tokenistic gestures. It will require all of us – individuals, institutions, committees, publishers, editorial boards, SIGs, research centres and beyond – to work together over the coming months and years to make fan studies a welcoming space for marginalised scholars. The six of us on the FSN board cannot and do not claim to know the answers, but we do have a platform and a presence within the field that we would like to put to good use. Please help us to do that.
We are particularly keen to hear from scholars of colour on this matter, but we welcome the comments, suggestions and input from anyone with an interest in the network and the field of fan studies more broadly. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org (including “INCLUSIVITY” in the subject line), and if you are able to do so, please make the trip to Portsmouth (UK) in June for FSN2019 so that we can address these issues in person.
The Fan Studies Network board
 For the sake of transparency – the Interdisciplinary Institute for the Humanities at the University of East Anglia makes a budget available of £500 a year available to Tom Phillips in his role as co-Chair of the network. Last year this money was used for travel and accommodation for two board members at the FSN conference in Cardiff.
When I began my section of the roundtable, I began by noting that I was going to be angry and “mean.” I said this not to be theatrical but to pre-emptively note my awareness of how my words were likely to be received. I was going to talk about being angry that Rukmini was the subject of an attack, I was going to name Nicolle, and I was going to chronicle the events all over again in spite of having accepted her apology. I felt, without the verbal intervention of anyone else, that to show my anger again, to replay the issue, would be perceived as rude, uncouth, and not truly accepting of Nicolle’s promise to change and learn.
In a professional space where I am an early stage academic, and at a conference that has its own issues with inclusivity, I was not unaware of the fact that doing this would lead to lost opportunities and see me labelled in particular ways. I knew that this perception would affect my chances at professional and personal networks. I know that to be a person of colour refusing to let a discomforting incident of racism be closed and resolved will result in claims of attention seeking, rudeness, drama, bullying, and more.
This fear was very real and it existed in a space where I knew Zina, Cait, and Robin were in agreement with what I planned to say and do and would stand with me. But, unlike others in the field, I made these statements knowing that my own current and future employment was not contingent on acceptance of the points I made. And even then, I second-guessed myself.
It shouldn’t be unusual that FOC and acafans of colour can centre their own emotions when discussing the aftermath of racism in Fandom/ Fan Studies post-apology, and yet somehow it is perceived as such. This may be because we’re not supposed to be seen as more than the site for a “learning experience,” or, depending on the space, a site at which white acafans come to gain absolution for stating that ‘race exists and is important but there’s no space to consider it in this paper’ as though whiteness is unraced.
I note all this not to frame my own vulnerability—I am far less at risk than academics of colour in the Global North, and my positionality in India means that I am the violent, upper caste problem that needs to shut up, educate myself, and put my privilege to use organising change—but because even with the knowledge of a safety net, of supportive academic friends, of knowing that the fallout would be unlikely to factor into the professional and personal relationships I hold dearest, I was worried.
This is the issue: white acafans have the freedom to apologise and “learn” from a racist attack they performed or occasioned, but FOC or acafans of colour naming or discussing the same racist experience publicly, especially if they were the subject of the attack or adjacent to it, would be seen as uncouth or unwilling to let the close the subject post-apology.
Whose “learning” is privileged as a consequence? And whose lives and spaces merely becomes sites of this “learning” without the same access? Who is allowed to discuss the events that occurred and in which spaces these discussions can occur are policed by these positions. What do FOC and acafans of colour “learn” from racist attacks? What can this teach them that they do not already know?
If we frame this sort of event as a “learning experience,” the fact remains: whose learning? Who is centred? Who benefits from this? What happens to the person attacked? Have they ever been considered in this as more than the site of this “learning”?
Manners have long been the tool of racist colonial enterprise and this is no different. A lifetime of internalised self-policing informed me that my feelings were less important than performing reconciliation; that being polite would be to refuse to name people, to name events, to call this racist. Neither Rukmini nor Nicolle, who am I to speak to this event?
At what point of defending a friend did my own personal experiences of racism in academic and online spaces frame my responses? At what point would people reading this or hearing it then begin to exclude my perspective as “less than objective” because I can imagine what Rukmini experienced because I’ve experienced numerous similar interactions as well?
I began by calling myself mean because, despite the apology and #FSN2019 statement, and despite being an outlier to the original tweet interaction, I was going to refuse the tidy nature of “it happened, a white person learned, it’s over and Fan Studies is the better for it.”
I called myself “mean” because I intended to be a disruption and refuse closure, and because I was going to point out that #FSN2019’s response is as much a part of the centring of whiteness as anything Nicolle tweeted, if slightly more subversive in its working.
At the roundtable, I read out the entirety of the Fan Studies statement reproduced above so as to familiarise the audience with it. I contextualised it. And then, for the second time, I did the work whiteness refuses to do: I historicised the events and unpacked what was being said and what was deliberately erased.
I began by calling this statement part of the whiteness in Fan Studies because it attempted to obscure the work Rukmini and I already did to make subversive racism evident while building off it. Speaking just for myself: having documented the events the first time (which was its own emotional and time-consuming form of labour), then having to do the work (which is labour yet again) of unpacking this statement meant that both times the task of making the subversive violence of whiteness visible has fallen to acafans of colour.
The labour of this is abstracted. Our names are not noted. When this happens yet again—not for the first or second, but the hundredth time because ninety-nine other times have happened already—we will have to start afresh. I noted this and then asked the crowd if anyone could name the people who did the work of RaceFail ’09. No one in the room named anyone.
Erasing the work is part of how whiteness forces us to re-establish a baseline. Erasing work is how work fails to proceed, is hampered at five minutes out the gate, and is then termed simply “too personal” for academic note. Erasing the work is how exhaustion or anger are framed as aggression too early in a set of responses that one side has been repeating for decades together while the other claims an innocent lack of awareness. Note that only one side gets to claim innocence in this and it isn’t the side being harmed.
The statement begins by noting that a statement was made by a fan scholar on 8 February 2019, yet the scholar in question—Rukmini Pande—remains unnamed. No link is provided to her tweet itself, and no attribution offered to why this intervention by #FSN2019 was necessary. No mention is made of Nicolle’s tweets or the responses in the aftermath, and no effort has been made to document the events in question. In effect, without knowledge of the events on twitter, Fan Studies scholars reading this would be unaware of the nature of the event itself. Our names are erased. Our work is erased. And make no mistake, it was work.
This is a deliberately decontextualizing and dehistoricising of what took place, and it is clear to me that the statement is deliberately vague to preserve feelings—yet I can’t imagine that the feelings anyone was seeking to preserve were Rukmini’s. Her statement is being used without attribution to the Fan Studies Network’s purposes while dehistoricising a racist attack, a factor that goes against all her work in Fan Studies which deliberately seeks to historicise and document these events. This deliberate act of erasure preserves whiteness and white feelings—whether Nicolle’s or any of the other academics who tweeted Rukmini or myself requiring explanations an introductory class on race could provide.
The statement goes on from there to refuse any culpability, locating those within the Fan Studies Network board as all precarious academics, suggesting that #FSN2019 has grown out of their own close networks but has only now arrived at the need to consider race (a whole other issue I don’t have the time to unpack). As such, this statement shifts from erasing and dehistoricising the twitter events affecting a brown cis woman acafan in India (Rukmini) and documented by myself (also a brown cis woman scholar in India) to centring white precarity in the Global North.
Forgive me if my sympathy is so limited as to be non-existent; not all of us have white tears to cry.
This deliberate repositioning of the narrative to showcase white vulnerability is subversively racist. That a response to a racist attack has been to recentre white precarity in a carefully crafted statement says more about the whiteness overrunning the Fan Studies Network than I ever could.
Additionally notable is the fact that no mention has been made of whether Nicolle was asked by the conference to step down (a stronger statement by the organisation about what would be acceptable in its spaces) or whether she chose to withdraw (in which case this is part of her apology and the Board itself had little to nothing to do about it).
The lack of clarification on this point makes it seem as though this withdrawal happened in a vacuum, and refuses the documentation that would indicate the Fan Studies Network taking an active stance on the issue that might actually reassure FOC and acafans of colour that there was institutional interest in their preservation. The erasure preserves Nicolle’s image and feelings, but it does so by refusing to alienate other scholars with racist practices.
As a gesture of goodwill, it is extremely telling of whose goodwill the Fan Studies Network board will work to preserve. Note that here it is not the goodwill of the academic specifically tweeting about exhaustion in the face of an uphill struggle against the whiteness of her chosen field. What is this if not networks of whiteness in play? What is this if not colonial systems of manners? To read this statement is to read a masterclass in refusal to engage while performing engagement. I would slow clap if I wasn’t horrified by how willing people are to presume this is any sort of adequate engagement.
Following this, the Board asks that its members submit suggestions for how the conference can become more inclusive. Notably, the naming of race itself has now been subsumed into inclusivity more broadly, an issue that is its own can of worms given how often racism persists into other marginalised spaces. But the implication here is a sort of democratic process of drafting guidelines.
However, if the issue has been—as the opening noted—a discipline overrun with whiteness, will speaking out be safe in this purported democracy? Will there be pushback? How much safety is guaranteed? If conforming has been how acafans of colour may have chosen to preserve themselves (and justifiably so, because the threat of repercussions and exclusion looms large in these spaces), then what sort of discussion will this be? Will certain votes count more and, in a field acknowledged as overrun with whiteness, won’t the weight of these votes skew a particular way?
Little has been clarified on these matters, suggesting that in order to verbalise issues, acafans of colour have to risk their own networks again, particularly given how ideas of ‘loyalty’ operate in these spaces. Would an academic with an article in the pipeline with editors verbalise incidents of racist tone policing publicly, knowing full well that this would likely see their work penalised? Would academics of colour feel comfortable being put into a roundtable where speaking candidly would mean ruined networks and where speaking vaguely would mean the problem becomes so abstract it ranges beyond the actual people involved? Would anyone feel safe naming names, particularly of those in power? I named Nicolle and I only felt safe doing so at a conference that was not the conference in question. I have yet to discover the repercussions but I cannot imagine they will be either long term or positive.
This is what I mean by the Board’s statement being its own space of whiteness: it glancingly observed a problem but has yet to consider the ramifications of what it is asking acafans of colour to risk.
Personally, I read this statement as shifting the responsibility for decisions to the space of the conference. This not only suggests that the conference itself will continue to be a space of whiteness this year (since the issue will remain unaddressed), but that discussions of racism will be neatly cordoned off to the roundtable and perhaps one additional panel. Given that no statement was released specifically discussing Nicolle’s cancelled keynote and naming why, I imagine broad guidelines will be instituted with little to no effect.
If this sounds bitter, it is only because this is a futile old song and dance and one that is instantly recognisable to anyone who has been part of an academic council: lots of paperwork and meetings, zero actual outcome. The fact that the Fan Studies Network could so easily have drafted an early set of interventions by merely googling and collating what a number of smaller, and far more inclusive organisations and conferences (including cons) have implemented as policy over the years, before soliciting feedback, additions, or changes suggests that this is a tokenistic gesture at best. It is a chance to verbalise pain for those who attend, but not any promise of the space itself being supportive or safe during this process.
While the Fan Studies Network conference is indeed a small conference that runs primarily on goodwill, it cannot be divorced from the realities of institutional structures that facilitate it, or of its distinct choices of what is allowed to pass in order to generate goodwill.
That the work exists but the Board would prefer that it be done from scratch becomes its own version of the dehistoricisation that underlines the documentation of Race/ism in Fan Studies: it asks that work be performed to its benefit by acafans of colour in particular with an amorphous promise of perhaps changing minds in the future. Yet again, rolling boulders up hills.
The thing is, I do believe that the statement by the Fan Studies Network Board does a lot of work.
The issue is that it does none of the work for change, only its own preservation. It is a performance of willingness and allows for the Board to both, claim active work in the process of inclusivity (in name only) while maintaining relationships and refusing to alienate acafans who refuse the work of anti-racism.
It is unlikely to herald systemic change because the processes are left amorphous, and may or may not be enforced depending on who has power in the situation (which historically has been concentrated with whiteness).
How can we be ten years on from RaceFail ’09 without systemic changes in Fan Studies? This statement is but one example of how that happens.
An academic and freelance journalist by day, Samira Nadkarni spends far too much of her time having feelings and yelling on the internet. Although she sometimes writes reviews for the SFF magazine, Strange Horizons, the majority of her energy is spent reading, binge-watching terrible TV, and being stared down by her cat. You can find her on twitter @SamiraNadkarni!