What Fandom Racism Looks Like: The Cult(ure) of Nice

In the OTW Election Q&A segment on “AO3 Content Policy and Warnings”, there’s a merged question that asks the candidates:

How will you protect fanworks and meta which are upsetting or offensive across your platforms? What about if those fanworks or meta express views which are illegal/censored in some countries, but perfectly legal in others? Say a fan’s works don’t challenge problematic values endemic to older canons, or espouse problematic values directly. Providing they politely abide by AO3’s TOS, do you believe this fan deserves equal protection under Ao3’s TOS (a posting platform, confidential treatment of their RL identity, ability to report harassment)?

Mind you, this question clearly is more focused on protecting fans creating content that could be considered problematic or harmful than it is on considering that fanworks aren’t more important than fans – and we’ll talk about how this sort of questioning elides conversations of race and racism to make it out to be about kinkshaming and anti-queer rhetoric another time, probably tomorrow.

But what stands out is the last part:

Providing they politely abide by AO3’s TOS, do you believe this fan deserves equal protection under Ao3’s TOS (a posting platform, confidential treatment of their RL identity, ability to report harassment)?

While I’m sure, if pressed, the people responsible for that Frankenstein’s monster of a question will deny that racism and racist fanworks are the kind of content they’re talking about (because they always say “we weren’t talking/thinking about racism in fandom” and uh… duh) –

Let’s work this word problem out with some fandom racism:

If a fan writes a story that is clearly racist – like a Transformers story where the character coded in canon and fandom as Black is killed similarly to George Floyd and the protestors rising up in his name are framed as terrorists, because that happened last week on AO3 – as long as they’re polite about it and don’t go against the TOS – which again, does not make any explicit provisions against racism and racist fanworks – they get ZERO consequences and tons of protections.

As long as they’re polite about it, they get to keep making racist fanworks on the AO3 without even a slap on the wrist or a suspension or anything.


The way that the question is framed is so disingenuous – of course, this nice polite person adhering to the TOS while writing their racist ass fanworks shouldn’t see any serious consequences for purposefully creating racist content. Right?

(There’s a reason why the person who posed the question included “a posting platform” (not a right, shouldn’t be guaranteed to people purposefully doing harm) in the same list as “confidential treatment in their RL identity” (something that is a right and not something people should or actually do ask for when reporting fanworks or at any point across this conversation about racism in fandom). Just saying…)

But aside from the clear desire to privilege some fans and fanworks over others while also purposefully ignoring that we’re also definitely talking about racism–

There’s the way that niceness is weaponized in spaces primarily controlled by white women.

Like publishing and fandom.

One of the things that a lifetime in fandom and a few years in publishing have taught me that niceness is frequently utilized by some of the meanest people that you will ever meet.

They’re sugar sweet on the surface, but at the end of the day, niceness only goes so far for them and they’re actually not that kind to begin with.

Niceness – or the illusion of it – is often used to keep folks from having necessary tough conversations about race and racism. Niceness is used, by white women first and foremost, to decenter themselves as the problem people in a given situation. (After all, they’re not the ones shouting about racism, they’re the ones smiling as they pour racist poison into a metaphorical punchbowl.)

We’ve already been through how white women in fandom continue to weaponize their white womanhood (and folks’ fears that white women and their desires are under fire by POC in particular), but it’s important to talk about how the illusion of kindness is put to the same use to make sure that Black and white binaries abound and POC know their place.

In “White Like Me, Nice Like Me,” Laurie Essig, Ph.D. pokes at the paradox of being white and nice like her, writing that:

It’s far easier to pretend that my whiteness is “nice” than admit the ugly truth that to be white like me is just as sullied with the lies of white supremacy as those other white people, the ones yelling racist things in diners or cheering on a racist candidate.

Te people in fandom who hide their racism behind niceness – and who aren’t even doing that good a job at it – don’t actually think they’re racist.

They think that they’re great people because they don’t call the cops on Black people in their neighborhood (anymore), because they bought White Fragility last month (but have yet to actually read it or any anti-racist work by a Black person), and because they would absolutely have voted for Obama a third time if it’d been possible –

That it excuses the racism they get up to in fandom.

That it excuses how they’re treating fans of color in fandom.

Because they’re nice (unless provoked). They’re kind (but they’re taking the gloves off now)… And fans of color – usually Black fans specifically considering the universal nature of antiblackness making us into everyone’s perfect scapegoat – end up being the target of harassment and the primary people that this not-so-niceness is weaponized against.

Black people around the world and at any age can tell you what it’s like to have people tell you straight up that they won’t listen to you because you’re not nice. We can tell you about experiences of a mean ole racist getting away with being racist to us because she is all sunshine and rainbows to everyone else. We can tell you how many people will tell others not to listen to us about racism because they don’t like the way we talk about it. (People tell me and other people recommending me that they won’t read my work or engage with me because I’m too mean – when I have never actually been mean across any of my blog posts. Wow.)

But because of how the cult(ure) of nice works in these spaces, you wouldn’t listen.

Because that is how weaponized niceness works when it comes to conversations about racism.

Let’s look at Cheryl Thompsons “I am not your nice ‘Mammy’: How racist stereotypes still impact women” where she writes that:

Where kindness emerges from someone who is compassionate and comfortable in their own skin, niceness is often about feelings of inadequacy, a tactic used to get something from the other person — be it approval, acceptance or emotional labour.

Being a nice white person helps to reinforce one of the myths about racism  — that racism is only perpetrated by mean self-proclaimed white supremacists. A nice person cannot be racist because they don’t have bad intentions, or so the argument goes.

None of the people in fandom who write racist fanfiction, draw racist fanworks, or devote time being racist to and about people of color are ever assumed of having bad intentions. Even when they say that they’re doing this because of hate (or they don’t have to because it’s oh so obvious) –

Folks will bend over backwards to assure us all that the reason that these nice white folks in fandom who keep doing and saying racist things is because they just had a mad day, made an oopsie, or just don’t know what racism looks like (probably because they matrix dodge fans of color trying to tell them…)

They don’t mean anything by it. They’re nice. They participated in Fandom Trumps Hate. They absolutely have retweeted fanart with a Black character in it… once. They’re seen Black Panther at least twice.

And of course, they do all this despite the fact that there’s totally no racism where they’re from… in Europe, Canada, the US or Australia.

The framing of that question up top that positions the candidates as needing to protect polite people writing offensive content that doesn’t go against the (weak) terms of service looks like that – hastily tossed word salad – on purpose. Because the cult(ure) of niceness exists to stall progress. It exists to return the fandom focus to what truly matters to the folks in power: protecting white fans’ pleasure within fandom.

But this isn’t new.

We’ve known for ages that “nice” fans creating and supporting racist content will always be more welcome in fandom than fans of color calling out and talking about racism woven into fandom at every single level.

It’s just wild to see it kind of made clear on a wider platform than some weirdo racist’s Tumblr page.


4 thoughts on “What Fandom Racism Looks Like: The Cult(ure) of Nice

  1. I read the answers to the July 21st questions. I had to go look up what “The Turner Diaries” was as a work, which it was clear a few of the candidates also should have done. It seems that it might parallel the Transformers ‘work’–several of the answers clearly approached the question re: transforming “The Turner Diaries” instead of a contrast between a work that’s a form of hate speech and a poorly conceptualized and grammatically suspect The Dragon Age with NOTP. I’ll be working up some essays at the usual venue.


  2. Thanks for this wonderful article. Dressing up sinister behavior in the language of “being nice” is exactly why sites like 4chan and reddit were/are successful at maintaining their toxic environment.

    It has been abundantly clear to me since at least 2012 that ao3 never intends to improve their platform in any meaningful way. Their TOS is a joke they playfully bat around as they sneer ‘our hands are tied they’ve haven’t violated anything’.

    I still remember hopping from fandom to fandom (Merlin, Glee, Star Wars, Pacific Rim, Captain America WS), thinking is it like this everywhere? Is there one place where fans don’t have that urge to be cruel? There was an Avatar the Last Airbender story I started reading, but I had to stop because it was just so vile. Katara was written so aggressive and Zuko so woobied, it kinda shocked me. They even had Jet spit at her face! The plot of the story didn’t even need all of that!

    And there’s so much disgusting crap when it comes to the sheer amount of RPF. Those terrible depictions of people in BTS, One Direction, the cast of Untamed, etc.

    At least on livejournal you could make your own communities, but…online writing platforms are somewhat sparse in quality and security. I kinda miss sites like flagfic, because you could download individual stories from various platforms. If there was ever a time for a less racist platform to be developed, this would be that time.


  3. It strikes me that this is further evidence fandom isn’t nearly as safe for abuse survivors as it likes to think. When they’ve make it OK to lie about the conduct of fans they don’t like* and cultivate an environment where all criticism is equated with bullying and censorship, they’ve created a space that’s safe for abuse to run rampant.

    * Namely, the people who want fans as a collective to consider that hey, this thing they like is doing harm and they need to face that.


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