I’m gonna be real here:
Most of the time, people aren’t creating problematic or harmful content with the intent to hurt other people.
Honestly, even in an age where spite fuels so much of fandom, a majority of people in fandom aren’t creating content based on the negative feelings that other folks inspire in them.
Mostly because well… who has time to spite-create so seriously?
So yeah, when folks write certain kinds of content in fandom, chances are that when they say “I didn’t mean to offend/hurt anyone” that they absolutely mean it.
The idea of hurting or offending others might even be absolutely horrifying to them just from an empathetic standpoint because most people don’t like hurting people.
Knowing that, I’ve found it really difficult to figure out how to deal with intent at the same time that I’m critical of fandom content.
Because intent isn’t magical.
Intent doesn’t stop the pain or harm done by the content that was put out into the world.
Most of the time, when I come across racist work in fandom, the original poster did not intend for that work to be taken in a racist manner and they’re generally people who balk at the realization that something they’ve created comes across as racist to people of color. All they wanted to do was tell a good story, share an idea they came up with, or dig deeply into a kink that fascinates them.
Racism was not on their menu.
But it was still served up to Black fans.
Take the writer of those M’baku/Darcy Lewis headcanons that were floating around tumblr back when I was on the site. The original poster did not intend for the headcanons to be viewed as racist, but… they were. They were taken as racist, regardless of her intent, because they were racist. Those headcanons about Darcy kind of colonizing Wakanda and bossing around the locals may have seen cute in the original poster’s head, but once she put them out where other people could see them?
Her intent to share her ship didn’t trump the impact: that she’d created content that relied on racist tropes about Black people and recentered Wakanda to be all about a white character from another sub-franchise.
Or how about people who write size-kink in the Finn/Poe (StormPilot) fandom?
These are people who definitely are thinking with their id and their intent is literally to tell a good sexy story where Poe Gets Plowed in the Star Wars fandom. But their intent doesn’t negate a solid century of Black men being written and perceived as hypersexual and horrifyingly large beasts out to rearrange the sexy bits of pure white women.
What’s sexy to some people is decidedly unsexy to others –
And racist because of historical context that the person creating the content might not have access to.
How do we even begin to talk about the fact that most instances of racism in fanworks is borne out of the original creator finding something interesting and handling it poorly when applying it to a character of color – or not realizing that it’d be a bad call when they applied it to a character of color?
Like that one person who did the art of humanized and modernized Tarzan characters – a logical leap to them considering all the modernized art that gets popular on the internet – and then made the gorillas Black people with dreads. That was a skippable moment, for real.
Or the person who did the Finn/Rey Tarzan AU and made Finn Tarzan. (I’m not the biggest Tarzan fan out there, but if you must do an alternate universe for Finn/Rey or uh… any of your ship, you should keep the canons in mind. As in: Rey would be Tarzan. Just saying.)
As content creators in and out of fandom, we need to keep in mind that intent isn’t magical. We can’t wave our intent wands over criticism of our creative work and expect that to end well for us. Explaining why something totally isn’t ever racist because that wasn’t your intent to someone that found it such is not how you handle criticism.
Your intent – our intent as creators – doesn’t matter.
I know that stings, but it’s true.
We can intend all we want to, but at the end of the day, it’s the impact that matters.
I’ve found myself walking back direct criticism of fanworks as I’ve grown my platform or as a person. I’ll still talk about tropes I find unappealing or appalling, but I do my best not to zero in on any one creator anymore because it’s not their intent that matters to me or in the endgame: it’s their impact.
One of the things we have to start getting comfortable with in fandom is acknowledging that fandom does have an impact on others. Our fanworks impact others regardless of what kinds of fanworks we’re creating or the reasoning behind them.
And when it comes to racist fanworks, it’s definitely difficult to figure out how to shape these discussions and how to bring it up to people who legitimately do not know or think that their works are racist… because that’s not how they intended them to be read.
I’ve been in fandom for a majority of my life. I know I have created works that were racist in my fannish past. I didn’t sit there thinking “yes, I get to create a racist work” but that doesn’t excuse the racism that other people found in those works.
It’s important for us to think about how to handle these conversations as critics and as creators because like… on a creator standpoint, we need to do better about addressing our errors and owning up to how our intent doesn’t cover us from critique.
As for being critical? I know it’s hard to go into something painful really gently, but… I’ve realized that while there are Bad Actors in fandom (as with every space), there are people who literally need that handholding. That need people to be like “hey, that story you wrote? Racist as heck, here’s why. Hope you do better in the future!” to them so they can do better.
This is something I’m going to work on being better about as a creator.
Tackling impact and not assuming intent.
(I’m not asking y’all to do anything here, by the way. But feel free to get introspective with me and think about how you can be better at critiquing and creating content!)