Over the past three years, I’ve documented multiple people who’ve used real world (offline) politics and historic and present atrocities to silence claims of dissent and derail criticism across different fandom spaces.
Police brutality, extrajudicial executions of people of color, and the school to prison pipeline are just a few examples of what people consistently repurpose across fandom in order to stop the critical ball from rolling.
Back in May 2019, I wrote an audiopost script about “Real Racism” in fandom and how people use the idea of “real racism” to derail people talking about racism in fandom spaces – which apparently can’t ever have racism in its borders.
To many people – who aren’t exclusively white members of fandom – the racism that many other people see and discuss in fandom spaces doesn’t count as “real racism”. Identifiable racism, to them, involves immediate physical pain to a real person of color, hate crimes, or traceable harassment from people saying clearly that they’re harassing someone because of their race.
To them, because much of what fans of color have detailed as fandom racism don’t involve those easily identifiable aspects that mark racism as a thing that only outsiders to fandom commit, they can’t acknowledge that fandom racism is real racism.
I’ve been doing my What Fandom Racism Looks Like essay series since February 2018, and one thing I’m starting to realize is that too many people in fandom that’ll read my posts don’t actually get what they’re looking at or what I’m pointing out.
They’ll see me detail harassment towards the actress playing a racebent DC Comics heroine or how fandom rewrites fans and characters of color as villains in the way of whiteness and just kind of… perform a bemused shrug. It’s not real racism to them because white sheets, burning crosses, and racial slurs (usually) aren’t included.
Because the racism that goes on in fandom either isn’t recognizable as racism or, when it shows up, folks wave it away because it has to be something caused by trolls or antis. Not something baked into the fandom layer cake over decades and kind of codified as unsubtle fandom law.
I quote a specific set of sentences from Rukmini Pande and Cait Coker’s “Not So Star-Spangled Examining Race, Privilege and Problems in MCU’s Captain America Fandom” from The Darker Side of Slash Fan Fiction every chance I get because it’s still one of the best things to describe this reaction towards fans of color who talk about racism in fandom.
Declaring the problem a ship war wasn’t so much revisionist history as wishful thinking: fans like to consider fannish space utopian, and racism doesn’t belong in utopia— therefore the problem wasn’t racism, it was ships. This line of thinking was white privilege at its finest (or lowest), with POC fandom as its casualties.
At the end of the day, Pande and Coker are right: people in transformative fandom like to see themselves as living within fandom-as-utopia and have written fans of color off as acceptable losses on the road to superior squeeing. The safe space that many white fans cling to as is their due is hostile and harmful to fans of color at levels that it’s hard to unpack for people who aren’t seeing it.
For many people – especially in the context of fandom racism, transformative fandom is closer to Omelas and the majority of fandom has rationalized not walking away. It’s easier for fans to stick their heads in the metaphorical sand and constantly move goal posts so that nothing in fandom is ever racist than it is to open their eyes to what fandom is like for many fans of color.
That’s where “real racism” comes in.
“Real racism” is something that folks in fandom conveniently only seem to bring up when fans of color – often Black fans – are talking about a supposedly minor form of racism. Cultural appropriation from Korean idols, the reduction of characters of color to sidekicks for white heroes and villains, the popularity of slavefic, how fans of color are smeared across fandom when critical… when fans of color bring up those instances of fandom racism, it becomes time to care about “real racism”.
Take this screenshot of a tweet from July where the person commenting dismisses “woke” Black people commenting on cornrows worn by NCT Dream’s Chenle and Stray Kids’ Bang Chan by pointing out that Black people are “getting arrested and killed for no reason, being put at disadvantage, not being able to pursue education”.
Do you honestly think that the person in the above screenshot actually cares about those things?
Or are they just using the awful things that happen to Black people on the regular to be like “hey, if you really cared about racism, you should care about this”?
Aside from the fact that we’re all relatively capable at multitasking and can care about different things at once, most of the time when people derail and dismiss conversations about fandom’s racism with “okay but there’s real racism there”, they don’t… seem to care about that real racism. It’s a banana peel tossed in the middle of the road during a Mario Kart match. It’s supposed to catch you slipping, not say or lead to anything meaningful.
Back in 2017, Holly from DiverseHighFantasy wrote a piece called “Why ‘real racism’ is a racist concept” where she properly unpacks the baggage that comes along with that term, writing in part that:
The implication that fandom/online racism doesn’t affect real people and doesn’t affect the offline world, or that it isn’t important like “serious” racism, is a silencing tactic. You don’t look like a superior ally if you ignore fandom racism with the excuse that you fight “real world” racism. Fandom racism is real world racism.
If you don’t like it when people of color talk about race in fandom spaces, you likely aren’t more welcoming of it in school and work environments. If you make excuses for fandom racism, you’ll likely excuse education and employment racism. Sure, when there’s KKK violence, you’ll be outraged. When Trump puts the lives of Muslim refugees in danger, you’ll take note. Maybe you’ll even protest. But understand, racism doesn’t begin and end with extreme acts. One of the reason racism has flourished in the United States is because it has been defined by extremes, to the point where seemingly small things that people do without a second thought, things that culminate into big things like segregation, are not considered racist.
I’ve known Holly for several years and across that time, she’s received dozens of tumblr messages and reblogs that chide her for being an armchair activist or incapable of recognizing racism. Holly, who is a Black woman in a field not even remotely dominated by them and an activist in her online and offline lives, is incredibly well-positioned to recognize “real racism”.
But if they acknowledge her as an expert on racism and qualified to judge and explain how the racism in fandom – that she’s been hit with from fandom – is “real racism”, that changes everything about how they engage not just with her, but with racism in the “real world”.
As she points out, “You don’t look like a superior ally if you ignore fandom racism with the excuse that you fight “real world” racism.”
Racism is more than lynchings, beatings, and outright aggression towards people of color.
It’s also something that shows in preferences that write us off as viable romantic partners because of stereotypes because of how sexual we’re seen as being. It’s shown in how white people in the medical industry think we feel less pain than white people – like our skin’s thicker and less populated by nerves. It’s shown in how many people would disown their children for marrying a person of color – especially a Black person.
But racism is also a thing that exists in fandom because fandom is part of our wide racist world.
You don’t just shove off years of conditioning from your parents, Fox News, etc because you come into online spaces and start writing fic or creating fanworks. If your offline life is full of racist beliefs and a community that sees people of color as lesser than them, how do you come to fandom prior to breaking free from that POV and be good about people and characters of color?
How could you expect to hop into fandom spaces as a traveler… and leave that baggage at the threshold?
Your baggage comes right along with you when you come into and move around fandom spaces. What makes fandom – the entirety of fandom – a racist space is that we’ve got all of this baggage and no way to unpack any of it – or rather, the idea of confronting fandom racism triggers a fight or flight response in fans.
Sometimes, they fight us and run away right after. It’s very annoying.
When fans of color and white fans who have woken up to what their baggage has bogged them down with try to talk about the racism very clearly on display in fandom, we get shouted down.
A very real and very constant commentary is that we’re incapable of recognizing real racism and, because fans of color are jealous of ships/attention and white fans want to get “woke points”, we’re lashing out as a response and supposedly making shit up in the process.
But fandom racism is real racism.
And real present at that.
We see it in the way that fans will find reasons to demonize and dismiss characters, performers, and fans of color who get in the way of their end goals.
We see it in the content that fandom overwhelmingly creates for characters of color that hinges on stereotypes about their identities or reduces them to one dimensional tropes connected, at the end, to their value to whiteness and a white character.
I’ve seen tons of fanworks where characters of color are repurposed and demonized as villains in white characters’ stories. We see that fandom racism in how fans talk to and treat fans of color who don’t bend the knee to their fannish betters foremothers.
If you’re in transformative fandom, you’ve probably seen people crow on and on about how “shipping isn’t morality” and “fiction/fandom isn’t reality”.
Oftentimes, those people who bring up these incredibly simplistic and grammatically wonky sentences will talk about how the people who apparently think the opposite of those sentences… can’t recognize “real racism”.
They ignore the connections that cultural critics like James Baldwin or Edward Said over generations have made between what we like and consume and how we treat the people represented on the screen or in a book.
Fiction, which can come loaded with racism on the screen or in its pages, can lead to very real racism. And the same goes for its fans or fandoms.
Case in point? Birth of A Nation.
D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation was released in February 1915 to rave reviews from white audiences. The film presented the Klux Klux Klan as heroes fighting against monstrous Black men – white men in blackface – who were out to rape their women. This film was shown on the White House lawn (thanks to President Woodrow Wilson) and literally changed the way that the Klan performed their violent acts and how the wider white population saw their interactions with Black people. This film fueled antiblackness in the United States and fiction – especially in the case of cross burning which was not a Klan tactic prior to the film – became reality.
The fans of Birth of a Nation may have been racists before. But what the film did was validate an entire country’s beliefs that Black people were savages out to brutalize white women. Its negative impact on everything from the way films were shot and who was cast in them to the murders of real Black people.
In the foreword to Robin Means Coleman’s Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films From the 1890s to Present, Howard University Associate Professor Steve Torriano Berry writes that:
While Whites were trying to escape the fictitious on-screen dangers of the ravenous Black masses rising up to get them in a post-slavery Amerikkka, outside the movie theater, Black were actual dying from the factual horrors of being lynched, shot, dragged, raped, beaten, castrated, and burned by White supremacy groups and other enthused racists who “drank the Kool-aid” and bought into that film’s hate inciting message. It is one thing to be vicariously thrilled or horrified by some gruesome act happening to someone else on the movie screen, knowing that the actor eventually washes off the fake blood and goes home, and another to actually feel the pain and experience the horrific and gruesome event in real life with real blood and no director to yell “cut.”
Birth of A Nation was fiction, but it had very real (and real horrific) consequences then and has shaped the world we live in now. It’s a film that inspired further atrocities against African Americans in this country and serves as a really clear early example that racism in things like media or that fans cling to in fandom can and does harm real people.
What’s really interesting about the “real racism” conversation is how it minimizes the effect racism in fandom has on fans of color. One thing I see on the regular in these discussions, is that talking about racism in fandom “minimizes” the aforementioned real racism or reduces it in some way.
The set up appears to be that if folks in fandom call “everything” racism, then fans won’t be able to bring themselves to care about “real racism” because fandom racism is too little to count (and besides, these people insinuate, the racism in fandom isn’t a part of fandom and therefore isn’t real).
But like Holly says in her piece: “When you disregard one kind of racism as too trivial to matter, you’re allowing it to flourish, and that does have real world repercussions”.
The racism in fandom may seem small and otherwise inconsequential to some. After all, there are children being separated from their parents in immigration centers around the country, police brutality at staggering rates, and a high houseless population largely comprised of people of color. With all that going on, how can racism in fandom – which is always set up as trivial when compared to “real” racism – be important enough for folks to talk about?
Racism in fandom – like the insistence that “real racism” is the only kind of racism worth talking about and fandom racism ain’t it – often takes the form of what we call microaggressions.
Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D defines microaggressions as:
everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.
Racial microaggressions are “real racism”. The “micro” prefixing the word makes folks thinks it’s a minor thing but uh… no it’s not. Not even close.
Here are some examples of what fandom microaggressions look like when it comes to race:
- Making moodboards and fancasts for all of the characters in a piece of media except for the characters of color
- Writing characters of color fawning over white characters’ appearance
- Mammy figures in fan fiction (like the one story where Steve Rogers asks Luke Cage to [teach him how to] use his super strength during sex)
- Erasing or vilifying characters of color – usually ones who are in close and positive proximity to a white one – within or from their canon
- That thing that happens when a character or performer of color gets their POC-ness erased (a lot of K-pop RPF fancontent manages this, but also a lot of Miles Morales headcanons after Into the Spider-Verse)
- Block lists of antis in fandom (like a certain space soap opera fandom) that are primarily comprised of fans of color
- Claiming that fans of color are aggressive/rewriting them as a mob when they’re upset by racism in fandom
The list could honestly go on and on. I’ve been in fandom for a majority of my life in some capacity or another and I have witnessed and experienced some incredibly awful microaggressions aimed squarely at fans of color.
And the thing about microaggressions is that they look minor but have a big effect on the people constantly exposed to them. Those microaggressions are what makes fandom “un-fun” for fans of color as Shadowkeeper points out in the first part of Fansplaining’s 2016 two-parter on race in fandom:
On a super basic detached level, fandom attitudes on race make fandom a little less fun because it stifles diversity and homogenizes fandom output, keeps things looking similar. If I want to read fic about non-white characters, chances are that there’s just gonna be less written about them. So there’s less fun stuff to enjoy. Then there’s the personal level that keeps you aware that fandom just doesn’t really care about or hates non-white characters. The constant barrage of racial microaggressions. Some of it looks similar to fandom misogyny, where characters of color are more frequently criticized, hated, or ignored compared to white characters. And of course there’s the popular habit of defensive people coming up with all the reasons and excuses for why they hate certain non-white characters and why they won’t ship them with anybody. Even when trying to curate fandom experience to cut out the obvious racism, microaggression always makes it through and it makes fandom a little less fun, just keeps you reminded of the real world.
Racism in fandom, in all the forms it takes, negatively impacts the lives and experiences of fans of color. Period. The racism in fandom has a real effect on real fans of color and dismissing it because it’s not “real racism” (and like… most of the people who dismiss folks on that front aren’t even doing things in their offline lives to act like they’re experts, they just expect us to) is wrong.
It’s wrong, it’s dismissive, and it tells fans of color exactly what your priorities are when it comes to upholding the myth the fandom is safe for everyone and a site for positive exploration for marginalized folks.
I know it stings to face the reality, but fandom racism is “real racism”.
Just because you think other things are worse or because a handy PickMe POC has decided that it’s not… that doesn’t make your belief true. It makes it purposefully ignorant.