Note: This is the write-up of Robin Anne Reid’s segment in the roundup on race and racism in fandom that we had at PCA 2019 April 17, 2019.
The main point I want to make for this discussion is that Academia, in general, is having its own versions of Racefail ’09 in various disciplinary spaces and conferences. I am working on a book about Racefail ’09, and the more I work on describing and documenting the events of a decade ago, the more I see how current academic imbroglios follow a similar pattern, one that fits Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s definition of color-blind or unconscious, racism.
When academics of colors who, in the same way that Avalon’s Willow pointed out racist tropes in fantasy and sf during Racefail ‘09, point out systemic racism in academic disciplines, specifically, Medieval Studies, Classical Studies, and Anglo-Saxon Studies, they are met with claims from white liberals whose dominant response is “I’m not racist.”
The problems include programming at the major conferences, statements made, and actions taken by tenured white scholars in positions of relative privilege, against tenure-track scholars. The academic Racefail I am most familiar with involved doxing, death threats, and attempts to drive scholars of color out of the profession and was recently covered in the New York Times.
In Tolkien studies, which was created by medievalists, white scholarship deflects any analysis of racism in Tolkien’s work by pointing to his anti-Nazi letter elicited by a German publisher wanting to know if he was Jewish (this letter was the one not sent to the publisher), or by blaming white supremacists and neo-Nazis who are fans of his work, for misreading by seeing the pure whiteness of an imaginary Middle Ages, or by saying his work reflects medieval conceptions of race, therefore cannot be racist.
As Samuel Delany, Jr. pointed out in his 1998 essay ”Racism and Science Fiction” the failure to recognize that racism is a system and do to the anti-racist work necessary will have dismal results, results that we see happening today:
Racism is a system. As such, it is fueled as much by chance as by hostile intentions and equally the best intentions as well. It is whatever systematically acclimates people, of all colors, to become comfortable with the isolation and segregation of the races, on a visual, social, or economic level—which in turn supports and is supported by socio-economic discrimination. Because it is a system, however, I believe personal guilt is almost never the proper response in such a situation. Certainly, personal guilt will never replace a bit of well-founded systems analysis. And one does not have to be a particularly inventive science fiction writer to see a time, when we are much closer to that 20 percent division, where we black writers all hang out together, sign our books together, have our separate tracks of programming, if we don’t have our own segregated conventions, till we just never bother to show up at yours because we make you uncomfortable and you don’t really want us; and you make us feel the same way . . .
More attention is being paid to race in fan studies as shown by the 2019 Fandoms of Color issue of Transformative Works and Culture edited by Abigail De Kosnik and andré carrington.
However, in “A Discipline Overrun with Whiteness,” Samira Nadkarni discusses just how Fan Studies is failing to do the systems analysis necessary. SFF fandom failed to do the systems analysis in 2009, and I am seeing the same racefails in other academic disciplines.
The project I am currently working on is an activist collection about Racefail ’09. Cait Coker suggested the project after the Fan Culture 2017 roundtable on Decolonising Fan Studies.
We have been talking about how Racefail ’09 can be seen as another of what Henry Jenkins identifies as sff fans online being early adopters – in this case of racist harassment which, since 2009, has gone mainstream in the online white supremacist spaces and is enshrined in the highest office in the country.
How many of you lived through Racefail as observer and/or participants?
How many of you have heard about it?
While Racefail was not the first time that fans of color challenged the whiteness of Anglophone sff, its scope and impact far exceeded earlier debates, and it certainly did not “end” racism in sff.
The collection will consist of three parts: a descriptive bibliographic essay covering the online posts by fans of color during Racefail. There will be lists of resources on debates that came after such as citizenship fail, failfandomanon, and the Sad/Rapid Puppies backlash against “Social Justice Warriors” taking over sf fandom (meaning, too many women, especially women of color, are winning Hugos, instead of white men).
The second part will consist of reprints of key texts posted during the debate: I have funding (at least $5000, with more promised if necessary) to pay for permissions for reprinting as well as for “ten plus years later” essays, some solicited from the original participants, and others from an open call, which will be the third part.
The collection will not subscribe to the false equality of journalism’s “both sides.” Instead, I will attempt to show the work that was done (and is still being done by fans of color.
Finally, all royalties from the book will be donated to the “Con or Bust” organization. Fans have been doing anti-racist work in SFF fandom for decades (most ignored, mostly marginalized, mostly forgotten).
In 2019, there are scholars of color doing anti-racist work in Fan Studies. So, my question to my fellow white participants here and beyond in the larger areas of Fan Studies is how are we going to respond?
Are we going to double-down and repeat the white liberal mantra of “I’m not racist,” and prove it by never talking about race, or, worse, claim that being called a white person is racist and refuse to acknowledge Whiteness as a racialized construct, or are we going to start the hard work of being anti-racist?
ROBIN ANNE REID, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Literature and Languages at Texas A&M University-Commerce. Her teaching areas are creative writing, critical theory, and marginalized literatures. Recent Tolkien publications are an essay on female bodies and femininities in The Lord of the Rings in The Body in Tolkien’s Legendarium, edited by Christopher Vaccaro, a bibliographic essay on the history of scholarship on female characters in Tolkien’s work in Perilous and Fair, edited by Janet Brennan Croft and Leslie Donovan, and a bibliographic essay on race and Tolkien studies in Tolkien and Alterity, edited by Christopher Vaccaro and Yvette Kisor. Besides her work on Tolkien and feminist science fiction, she has also published on fan productions and fan activism in online media fandom. She is currently working on a edited collection on “Queer Tolkien” and would like to solicit proposals for intersectional essays on critical race and queerness. She will be starting work on a collection on Race and Tolkien in 2020: please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to be on the email list for information about that project.