How does fandom’s empathy gap come into play when the trauma of POC is on the table? Why does the empathy that fans extend to white characters, fans, and performers, hit a hard wall at POC – especially when it comes to Black characters, fans, and performers in my direct experience?
In the Slate.com article “I Don’t Feel Your Pain”, author Jason Silverstein uses the following example as he describes the racial empathy gap:
Let’s do a quick experiment. You watch a needle pierce someone’s skin. Do you feel this person’s pain? Does it matter if the person’s skin is white or black?
For many people, race does matter, even if they don’t know it. They feel more empathy when they see white skin pierced than black. This is known as the racial empathy gap.
The way that non-Black people literally do not believe that Black people feel the same levels of physical pain – documented through over a century of studies – is one way that we see the empathy gap play out. However, this isn’t the way that it tends to play out in fandom because there’s no one out there pricking fans of color with pins to see if we bleed the same color and amount. (Yet.)
But what they do is constantly privilege white feelings over Black ones.
Kylo Ren’s fandom-created sad backstory is used to excuse his bad behavior while Finn’s canon backstory is not an excuse for him… existing.
Black women playing love interests opposite white heroes are shamed and harassed by fandom while the men playing their actual enemies are coddled at every point.
And fandom will coddle white racists in fandom while literally rewriting the Black fans talking about racism as monsters out to harm or actively harming others. (Honestly, I have never seen empathy given to Black fans talking about racism… unless the Black fan in question was being used to derail another fan of color’s comments by talking about the racism they were faced with in an adjacent fandom space.)
If you’ve been keeping up with my What Fandom Racism Looks Like series since 2018, one of the constants of the series is how I point out the way that fandom has vastly different reactions for different groups of people. Where Black people and fictional characters are concerned, fandom really cannot muster interest or empathy for them – and being asked to do either is frequently met with claims of being “policed” by folks with little to no power in fandom or by outright aggression.
The Star Wars fandom is one of the best examples for the three groups of people I’m talking about and so that’s why they’re going to be the focus of this first Fandom Racism 101 piece.
Across the past four years, Black people and characters in the Star Wars fandom and franchise have gotten noticeably less empathy and understanding when compared to white people and characters in the same places.
Let’s start by talking about John Boyega.
From the start, John Boyega has been subject to racism in fandom. That is a documented fact of fandom. He was being called racist slurs by people angry that he was a Black Stormtrooper and disrupting their understanding of the troopers… but he was also mistreated by people who didn’t want him as a romantic lead opposite Daisy Ridley’s Rey. Those people just happened to be very invested Kylo Ren fans (and often, Rey/Kylo shippers) who made their shipping interests a huge part of their personality in and out of fandom –
And took their anger at the unsatisfying ending for Kylo out on John Boyega and his fans.
(I won’t rehash even recent fandom history, but in “Rey/Kylo Shippers: A New Look At An Old Face of Fannish Entitlement” and “What Fandom Racism Looks Like: Weaponized White Womanhood”, I talked about and gave examples of the fandom’s bad behavior directed at John.)
It’s been fascinating… people who will swarm on a Tumblr or Twitter post because someone says that Adam Driver is too unattractive for the levels of thirst he gets (or even when they’re saying that he’s got fans because they think he’s hot) – are among those who see nothing wrong with either directly attacking John or passively supporting their peers as they do.
Adam Driver’s feelings about social media posts he will never see (as he doesn’t have public facing social media accounts) are considered more valuable and worth protecting than John Boyega’s as he’s being attacked at end by multiple factions across fandom.
We’ve even seen where, when John expressed his honest feelings about antiblackness worldwide and the murder of George Floyd, folks in that very racist fandom actually said he was speaking up “for clout” or trying to somehow distract from the only thing that fandom cares about – his “laid the pipe” joke from December 31st.
His understanding that wealth wouldn’t prevent him from being killed for his Blackness never comes into play. There is no empathy provided for John from that fandom about him being one more Black person who was subject to seeing two recorded murders of Black men go viral in a very short time. No thoughts about his trauma.
And of course, these fans aren’t showing empathy to Finn either.
Take George from August 2018, whose partial response to my article “Who the heck is Ben Solo?” was well… this nonsense (and why I deleted it in a hartbeat…):
It’s interesting to me that you think that Ben’s history of abuse and grooming is entirely fabricated. After all, it is mentioned in TLJ novelisation when Leia is reflecting on her son when they sense each other through the force. Even if you don’t take that as canon, TLJ clearly shows through interactions between Ben and Snoke that he has been groomed into The First Order and has an unhealthy relationship with his groomer, shown by Snoke’s cutting remarks and physical abuse.
I also think that you take the representation of Ben within the shipping setting a little too seriously. The art, fanfiction and headcanons are all in the name of developing a character beyond canon. You might not enjoy a fluffier interpretation of a character you view as abusive, but the amount of people who do might disprove you.
Although discussions about popular fiction in relation to race and gender are important, I think you are barking up the wrong tree in terms of Finn. Finn’s story of abuse, although tragic, isn’t delved into in canon as seriously as Ben’s. I highly doubt that a majority of reylos view him as similar to Ben in characterisation. Even most viewers can see that their personalities differ and their relationships with other characters differ also.
This dude spends the first paragraph claiming that “Ben” has a sad poor baby backstory of abuse, uses the second to condescend to me about the connection to shipping and how I’m taking it too seriously, and then… flat out dismisses what Finn has clearly gone through as a result of the First Order and what Rey/Kylo fans were saying and doing then about him.
Witness the empathy gap on display.
For years, Finn fans have been told directly that Finn’s canon abuse at the hands of the First Order – which we know from the extra text of the novels and various works associated with the series… but also from the fact that Finn was kidnapped by and indoctrinated into the FO from a very young age – didn’t matter.
We’ve been told that there’s no way he could actually be “good” and in fact that he’s actually bad… from folks who have been writing a redemption arc for “Ben” from the moment that he first took off his mask.
It’s not just one fan. It’s not just one moment. It has been constant over the past four years that Finn is less interesting, less sad, less valuable, less hurt, and less worthy of fandom’s love… than the character named Ben Solo. This was first a fierce fan canon and then, with The Last Jedi, nudged close to canon.
But the fans, again, have always made it clear to Black fans that they didn’t see what we did in Finn at any level unless they could then turn around and hand it outright to Kylo Ren.
(This is also replicated across the fandom reaction to other Black characters. Mace Windu and Lando Calrissian are two other Black characters in the Star Wars film franchise that have been subject to a truly disproportionate amount of hate from fandom and have a minimal presence in fanworks within the fandoms. Mace Windu in particular is rewritten as a villain in the same way that the Marvel Cinematic Universe fandom rewrote Nick Fury. Nothing actually supports their hate, but they won’t let go of it.)
And lastly, let’s talk about Black fans.
Y’all, I’m going to make this entirely about myself.
Because I’m one of the best examples that this happens to. In “Antiblackness in (Service of) the Archive: A Statement”, I talked about some of the experiences that I’d been experiencing from fandom specifically because I was expressing annoyance at racism in fandom and silence from the Archive of Our Own. People compared me to being a TERF, accused me of approving of harassment, misgendered me, accused me of all kinds of nonsense including having grudges against people I still don’t know.
One constant was this idea that by talking about racism in fandom, I was somehow harassing people in fandom. The irony that these claims were being made by people actively slandering me – and who certainly would’ve made their harassment direct if I didn’t believe in the power of mass blocking – never actually escapes me.
It doesn’t matter that there were people pretty much devoting hours of their days specifically to talking shit about me (despite not knowing me or reading my tweets or work beyond what other people who hate me shared).
People were so insistent that I was harassing and otherwise harming people by… naming the silence from the AO3 as racist and talking about how the AO3’s policies could be beefed up to protect everyone –
Even as they ignored how they and their peers were harming me.
Because as a Black fan – especially one who is this publicly relentless about antiblackness in fandom – it doesn’t matter.
My feelings don’t matter. My actual humanity… doesn’t matter. I was seeing people just make up shit about me and place blame on me for things anonymous accounts – who I’ve certainly never seen and don’t make – were apparently doing and saying and folks worrying about their friends… even as they actively insulted me, dehumanized me, etc. because they didn’t like that I wasn’t nice about existing racism in my time and my spaces.
The empathy gap on display here is one where Black fans who don’t toe the line don’t get to be human. Our anxieties don’t matter. Our genders don’t matter. Our right to use our spaces to comment on issues we have… also doesn’t matter. Our feelings never matter.
But we’re also held responsible for random white people’s feelings on the internet at the same time.
We’re told that we need to do something about other adults in fandom or blamed for things that literally have nothing to do with us (like other people’s responses to our critical thoughts or their own lack of reading comprehension)… by people who actively refuse to acknowledge that the Black fans they’ve made into boogeymen in fandom are people being mistreated in these same spaces because of it.
Fans gaining some serious self-awareness is one of the key ways that non-Black fans can clock and close the empathy gap in fandom. Too many people think that racism has to look a certain way and so they don’t look at how people in fandom respond to Black people and characters as racism.
But the empathy gap in fandom plays out in racist ways towards Black people and characters.
It’s in how people never second guess why everyone in a particular social group seems to hate a Black person or character in the same way. It’s in how people are expected to just care more about non-Black people – performers and fans alike – than Black ones. It’s in how, even now in fandom, you can say literally anything about a Black person or character that you dislike short of a racial slur and people will bend over backwards to defend your right to say it… but leap to call Black people “bullies” for pushing back. It’s evident in how the response to Black people talking about openly racist fan fiction that harms them and definitely is interested in harming Black characters are accused of censoring and policing fandom.
It’s evident in the way that racists in fandom have always been treated better in fandom than Black people talking about racisms critically in the same spaces.
If you’re interested in no longer being part of the problem and in now closing the empathy gap you’re staring across, self awareness is a starter. Learn to recognize when things are hinky. Learn to do your research. Learn to question your position in all of this.
Are you just placidly accepting your friends dunking on a Black fan or performer because “they must deserve it” with no research done on your own? Do you ever decide to take someone’s word on a Black person without questioning “why”?
When you write a Black character in your fanworks, how are you writing them? How do you research them? How are they treated in relation to non-Black characters and are you relying on the established fandom characterization (as in: they’re a villain, sex-hungry, homophobic with literally nothing backing it up)?
Literally, that’s how you fix this.
Challenge yourself. Challenge your fellow fans. Challenge your fandom.
Ask questions about why Black people and characters are so hated in your fandom. Demand an explanation for why Blackness is an acceptable target. Clock your own soft spots. Stop accepting the obvious gaps in care that exists in these spaces. Call this shit out as best as you can.
Don’t just accept the fandom line that Black people and characters deserve what’s being done to them right in front of your salad.