The text, from a screenshot of a really cool message I received, reads:
hi stitch! im a regular reader of your site, and i wanted to ask a question that im unsure if you’ve addressed so far or not. having grown up on tumblr from 2011 onward, i definitely feel you hit the nail on the head about the “blank slates ghost” and migratory slash fandom always hyperfocusing on white men. it’s really telling how ships like stucky (while i personally enjoy it) can completely overshadow and create hostility toward steve/sam; i had a friend who got routinely vagued and harassed for that exact thing. but what im wondering is, on the flipside, how can white and nbpoc interact w black characters in ships without being creepy abd voyeuristic? i liked your post about the finnpoe racist fics where finn is always hyper-big and sexualized, that kind of demonstrated some stuff Not to do, but i wonder if there’s more nuance to it? should we accept that black fans will sideye/be more wary of nonblack people getting involved in the slash scene for black characters, or are there more dedicated steps we can take to openly be supportive and non-fetishistic? thanks for reading this even if you dont have much time to answer!!!
I got this message in my inbox a few days ago, but since the email address attached to it looks like it’ll bounce back if I email them back and this is a topic I’m sure many of y’all have been wondering about… I decided to make public! I hope that my anonymous reader sees this and knows that I’m grateful to them for being a longtime reader and for sending this message!
There are two real questions being asked here and I’m going to try my best at tackling them in clear and relatively concise ways.
Now, to the answer(s):
how can white and nbpoc interact w black characters in ships without being creepy abd voyeuristic?
I think one of the main things to keep in mind is how you talk about these Black characters in ships and how you write about them. One recurring thing I’ve noticed even from people who genuinely seem interested in Black characters do some really weird things when writing them that are huge red flags to Black readers.
- Emphasize a (usually nonexistent) size difference between the Black character and their non-Black partner(s)
- Have the Black character fawn all over their non-Black partner’s pale(r) skin and straight/light hair
- Turn the Black character into a glorified Mammy figure for their non-Black partner
- The Black character always tops or is sexually dominant
I’ll give some examples of each thing so they’re clearer.
For the emphasis on size difference, you and I both have mentioned Finn/Poe. John Boyega and Oscar Isaac are roughly the same height. There’s no more than an inch of difference between their heights and their bodies aren’t drastically different either. But the Star Wars sequel trilogy fandom for Finn/Poe constantly highlighted a truly nonexistent height difference with the purpose of making Finn out to be this bulky boss that just had to throw Poe around sexually.
Then, with the fawning over non-Black characters’ features, I turn to the Sam/Steve(/Bucky) fandom:
Do you know how many Steve/Sam(/Bucky) stories I’ve tapped out on because the author used Sam’s POV to wax poetic about all the pale perfection he was being blessed with? White supremacy in and out of fandom revolves around highlighting how much better white people – and features approximating or coming close to whiteness – are.
I’d be reading a sweet story set post-Winter Soldier and then the author would drop some tidbit in about how much Sam just can’t get over that he’s allowed to touch Steve’s soft pale skin or some rot.
(I know we had a recurring “joke” about how the ship name for Steve/Bucky/Sam being Stuckam was pretty apt because a lot of the ship’s content was just Stucky with Sam stuck haphazardly onto the end.)
The MCU fandom also does this with Rhodey(/Tony) and T’challa(/Steve). I get that rich and vivid language fuels a lot of fandom’s writing, but I really can’t remember the last time that I was reading a story centering a Black character as half of an interracial ship and had the non-Black character fawn over the darkness of their skin or something –
Unless a Black person was writing it.
On the Mammy-figure front: if you’re writing a story where a Black character is a love interest to a non-Black one and their main purpose in the story is to soothe their partner and perform emotional and/or sexual labor for them –
Congrats, you’ve written a Mammy!
(The congratulations aren’t real. Sorry.)
One example I use here is the way that in the Young Avengers fandom, the folks who shipped Prodigy (the codename for Black, bi, and brilliant hero David Alleyne) and Speed (the codename for one of Wanda Maximoff’s twins, Tommy Shephard) set that relationship dynamic up so that David was always taking care of Tommy. It was so freaking frustrating that David was literally reduced to what he could do for Tommy – emotionally, physically, and sometimes sexually – instead of being treated like a whole character worthy of being written as such by fandom.
Finally, there’s the whole thing where Black characters in interracial ships in fandom always top?
I tweeted about this several months ago, writing that:
that thing folks do where they have interracial f/f ships with a Black woman and the Black female characters are always the knight/stud/protector and they are never allowed to be soft
that thing doesn’t spark joy for me4/8/2019 – @stichomancery
Fandom generally associates “topping” with hardness, strength, and dominance. Black characters, when written in that role, are denied softness and care and well… all Black tops wind up being service tops at best and at worst… well.
One of the things I’ve been open about on twitter as I navigate through fandom is how I read a ton of Alpha/Beta/Omega (or ABO) stories. As I’ve gone through my various fandom spaces, I’ve noticed that Black characters pretty much either don’t exist across the landscape of ABO or they’re primarily Alphas.
Alphas, if you know nothing about ABO tropes in fandom, are basically biologically engineered to Top. They’re physically aggressive and sexually dominant in all but a very few semi-subversive takes on the trope.
And lots of folks, when writing ABO series that include a Black character – especially in relationships with a non-black character – make them alphas and lean in hard on stereotypical portrayals of Black alphas in the role.
(The issue here is that alphas already serve up hypermasculine aggressiveness as part of the in-AU worldbuilding where which is annoying when layered onto white male characters but becomes really fucking racist when it’s layered onto Black characters.)
If you’re literally writing Black characters as sex-starved beasts who can’t control themselves or their sexual desires, you’re playing into a hundred years of antiblackness in media.
So uh… stop that if you’re doing it?
(And don’t start if you’re not.)
should we accept that black fans will sideye/be more wary of nonblack people getting involved in the slash scene for black characters, or are there more dedicated steps we can take to openly be supportive and non-fetishistic?
Now that I look closely at this, you’re asking technically asking two questions here.
You want to know if non-Black fans should just accept that Black fans may be rightfully wary of how non-Black fans engage with M/M content about Black characters and create/consume content anyway as best as they can
How to be more proactive about creating and consuming content about Black characters in M/M slash fandom spaces so that you’re supporting the Black creators you know and not fetishizing or stereotyping Blackness in the works you create or consume.
I feel like that’s about right?
Let’s start with the first one because that’s actually easiest to answer and I like doing things in order anyway.
Short answer is… yes.
Well… it’s still yes.
If you really want to be good to Black fans and responsible when creating content for Black characters, you need to decenter yourself and accept that sometimes your best won’t be good enough. I know it’ll suck sometimes, especially if someone calls you or your work out when you’ve put so much effort into writing responsibly and still getting your id on, but –
If you’re writing outside your lane and you want to do a good job, part of doing a good job is listening to the people you’re writing about.
Part of doing a good job involves paying attention to things like the #OwnVoices conversation in Kid and Young Adult literature and applying it to fandom.
It involves accepting that your hurt feelings aren’t more important than someone else’s reaction to their culture or ethnicity being written in ways that offend them.
(Which doesn’t mean that you need to be a doormat or put up with harassment. No one gets to hurt you because they’re hurting. Use your best judgement about how to handle these situations and just try your best at all times.)
Now, let’s talk about some ways that non-Black fans can be more supportive when it comes to Black content creators and more aware of the content they’re creating and consuming concerning Black characters.
Black Content Creators/Members of Fandom
- Comment on and share our work if you like it! (This is good fandom practice regardless, but if you know Black fans/content creators in your fandom that are creating good work, make a point to highlight it in order to let us and your peers know that you like it.)
- Have our backs when it comes to our criticism and if we’re right about something, support us. One issue that happens a lot is that people will tell Black fans privately that they agree with the criticisms we make in fandom, but publicly… they don’t say much. You don’t need to go to battle for us, but, for example: if your friend group is being excessively harsh towards a Black fan, it’s not enough not to join in. Figure out if you can do something more tangible.
- Know a Black fan that’s expressed interest in commissions? Commission them to create content about a Black character you love and shout about that story or piece of art!
- Don’t tag us into discourse positioning us opposite other Black people in fandom. Black people aren’t a monolith and we’re not going to agree on everything. But tagging Black fans into discourse in order to do battle with another Black person is not something you should do.
- Read novels by Black authors and starring Black characters. If you have insecurity in how you write Black characters as a non-Black person, look to writers like Beverly Jenkins, Tomi Adeyemi, Jason Reynolds, and Alyssa Cole for examples of quality writing centering Black characters. You don’t have to read their work just to learn from them (and you should read their work because you like it).
- Make use of resources that are available for people wanting to write outside of their lanes. My site doesn’t necessarily do a lot of “here’s how you write” type content, but there are tumblr sites like Writing With Color that serve as resources!
- Make an effort to create content that centers Black characters even if it’s unrelated to your main ship. So if you ship Stucky, take some time to write a story about Sam that doesn’t hinge on his interactions with Bucky and Steve. Write about Bonnie Bennett having a good day or Boyd from Teen Wolf getting the happy ending he deserved.
- If you’re writing sexy stuff or certain AUs, the sky is literally the limit. Just keep in mind that some things that work well for white characters can have unfortunate and racist connotations when you slap them on a Black character. Writing responsibly does not mean that you can’t write sexy content. It just means that you need to think a bit harder about how to dodge truly harmful content.
- Please stop using food terms to describe Black characters’ skin tone. Please. Even if you’re writing cannibalism-focused fic, please don’t do it.
And when in doubt?
Alpha and beta readers can help you fine-tune your ideas, move you away from unfixable AUs, and help you get the best story possible.
At the end of the day, wanting to be better to your fellow fans and when writing Black characters is an important first step. All you can do if you’re serious about this is keep working on your craft and your empathy.
No one, not even Black fans, come into the world fully aware of how to properly write Black characters from the start. Let’s be very real real here: we all struggle when it comes to writing Black characters as we live in a world that devalues Black people.
Wanting to be better is a good start.
Just keep going and be honest with yourself and your fandom friends throughout.