In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a princess who got the god Apollo to give her the gift of prophecy but, when she refused to sleep with him (her end of the “deal” according to multiple sources), she was cursed to utter true prophecies that were never believed as that came through with devastating consequences.
Over the years, I’ve realized that many Black people in fandom (including performers and showrunners, not just fans) are treated similarly where they signal or even shout about a problem in fandom or with the source media… but no one listens until it’s too late and they can’t continue to ignore us… or it becomes somewhat profitable to pay attention to what’s been bothering or harming us for years.
The morning that John Boyega’s September 2020 feature in GQ magazine with Jimi Famurewa went up, I lost track of how many people messaged me about or tagged me in tweets related to the piece.
The tweets and DMs I got were from both Black fans and non-Black fans, all shouting because finally we had further explicit confirmation of somethings that I and other Black people had been talking about years: the way that the Sequel Trilogy put Finn’s arc on the back burner on purpose to focus on Kylo/Rey AND the antiblackness aimed at John from fandom (as a whole) harmed him.
In the piece, Famurewa quotes John saying that:
“Nobody else in the cast had people saying they were going to boycott the movie because [they were in it]. Nobody else had the uproar and death threats sent to their Instagram DMs and social media, saying, ‘Black this and black that and you shouldn’t be a Stormtrooper.’ Nobody else had that experience. But yet people are surprised that I’m this way. That’s my frustration.”
Famurewa follows up with this paragraph:
He has made peace with a lot of this now (following that intense 2017 period he attended therapy to deal with some “horrible personality traits, [such as] anger”) but he lets his point settle as our mocktails melt to minted slush on the low table between us. And I realise his feelings about the sidelining of people of colour in tent-pole properties – and his words at the Black Lives Matter protest – all flow from this specific pain and frustration. I realise it is another characteristic response to a fight-or-flight moment. And I realise that, in the face of both overt and covert discrimination, loudly and proudly proclaiming your culture might be the sanest thing you can do.
Non-Black people across the internet were surprised.
I saw so many tweets where people were talking about how they didn’t know that John had been sidelined in the franchise or that fandom was racist to him. They were so shocked and appalled that he’d had these bad experiences as a result of being cast in Star Wars and yet, this was the first time that they’d heard about any of it. They brought up Kelly Marie Tran’s mistreatment from one of the same fanbases who’d gone after John from the start and tried to make connections there (with many people saying that he’d misspoken or was erasing her because… of course they did).
On the other hand: Black fans (excepting PickMes, of course) were like “oh, yeah, I figured this out ages ago” or “oh, I knew this was probably what happened”. It was not surprising to us. How could it be? We’re experiencing the same antiblack treatment in our fandom experiences and in our offline lives.
But everyone else?
They’re the same ones who are always surprised.
The same type of fans surprised at antiblackness in the Star Wars fandom in the tail end of 2020 (well after the events of Dec 2019-Feb 2020 from Rey/Kylo fans harassing John) are folks who experienced that stunned “wow, this really happened” reaction on main when Candice Patton spoke about the mistreatment she and other Black actresses on The CW continue to experience from fans and in the way their roles are handled.
They’re the folks shocked that Nicole Beharie was mistreated on Sleepy Hollow to the point where it almost broke her. They’re the same folks reacting now to the realization that Leonard Roberts’ unexplained departure from Heroes was preceded by antiblack racism from the show creator Tim Kring and Roberts’ costar Ali Larter. (Something that was predicted and written about to an extent by the folks at Racialicious who were of course… ignored by other mainstream sites.)
And there are multiple reasons why a certain class of fans are always performing shock and horror that their fandom spaces could be sites of serious ongoing antiblack racism or that Black actors could be experiencing antiblackness in 2020 (or that they did in 2006-2012).
The first is, of course, that non-Black people are literally conditioned to not see or think about antiblackness unless (sometimes) someone they’re close to is experiencing it – and while of course, most fans have no access to or interest in Black celebrities… they also don’t seem to connect with Black fans who talk or care about antiblackness.
They’re always surprised that racism is afoot… because they’re never looking at the people going through or talking about it.
But then there’s the issue that if fans go looking, where are they going to look?
The major nerd outlets do not actually (or regularly) cover fandom issues fairly and with an eye to discussing and unpacking antiblackness. And then “minor outlets” – so coverage from Black fans in the thick of it, like me – are actually dismissed and insulted by other fans and the writers/editors for the different, larger outlets so non-Black fans won’t think to read our work… and, increasingly frequently, they’re told not to.
There are few major outlets online that cover fandom and the ones that do – The Mary Sue, The Nerdist, Pajiba, etc – all largely drop the ball when covering serious issues of racism in fandom… as long as the (sub) fandoms being racist are assumed to be populated by white women. (They are very good at covering the different nerd gates or Star Wars’ Fandom Menace, conservative fandom movements assumed to be the work of racist white men, however. But somehow… they never have the same energy for the sisterhood.)
Additionally, the vast majority of fandom coverage is written and edited by white people in fandom with an intended audience of… other white people in fandom. It becomes increasingly clear what matters to these authors and what the editors think should matter to their platforms’ audiences.
Please think about the multiple “fandom is under attack by [anti shippers]” articles The Mary Sue has published since Summer 2019. Then compare that to the articles that fairly covered racism in fandom from people super invested in their white M/M or M/F pairings. Like all the Rey/Kylo Defense Squad posts versus the, as far as I remember, two posts about the racism from said fandom aimed at John or how he was subject to racism in fandom spaces.
How about the way that a fair amount of the Nerdist’s most popular coverage of Star Wars and its associated fandom in 2019/2020 has been handled by Lindsey Romain, a Rey/Kylo shipper who is directly responsible for a December 2019 tweet about John Boyega’s “misogyny” towards Kelly Marie Tran that sparked ongoing accusations that he hates women despite Lindsey’s three apologies?
(The Nerdist, by the way, does not seem to have hosted any coverage of the antiblackness John faced from Rey/Kylo shippers. Nor did they do a write up on his GQ feature the way that The Mary Sue’s Princess Weekes did. Interesting…)
Depending on the writer, platform, and/or editor, coverage of issues of antiblackness in fandom won’t even make it out of the fanbases they start in – as we saw with twitter user (and writer) @QUEENTlWA’s attempts to get major publications to cover major misogynoir aimed at Black women K-pop fans across September and October.
In the beginning of a tweet thread back in October, Tiwa wrote that:
I spent 2 weeks pitching my article about Black women being subjected to cyberattacks to 75+ editors & I either got rejected, told that the US election is a bigger priority, OR that it wasn’t interesting. I thought y’all said you wanted to amplify Black voices? #PROTECTBLACKWOMEN
Tiwa eventually had to publish her piece on her own. The way I’m publishing this piece on my site. Because outlets don’t bite. Editors don’t respond to pitches. Sometimes your connection at a site tells you they’ll do what they can and… nothing manifests because it’s not the right time or they’re busy or the stars don’t align.
In Tiwa’s case – and in the case of other Black writers who have tried and failed to get their thoughts on antiblackness in multiple idol fandoms acknowledged – we know that part of that is because people don’t want to push back against established narratives.
After a summer of many outlets rushing to capitalize off of the idea that Korean idol fans (largely assumed to be young white women) were progressive enough to be “anti Trump” and pro-BLM, I can squint and understand the refusal to cover issues of antiblackness in fandom. If you’re spinning a narrative that this specific fandom is perfect and progressive, proof that it isn’t… isn’t wanted. So of course they didn’t cover it and poke holes in the narrative they were building.
However: the thing is that writers like Tiwa are ignored now even though they have been writing and talking about specific attacks of misogynoir from their fandom… but then once it’s convenient for these outlets to cover that bad shit is happening here… then the posts will start.
Once it’s relevant-to-them that all idol fandoms have issues with antiblackness and folks can bring it up at a timely-to-them moment. Then, because a big outlet is finally covering (and columbusing) what Black people have been talking to for years, folks will be like “oh, I didn’t’ know that this was happening/could happen in fandom. Why wasn’t anyone talking about this?”.
But we have been trying to tell y’all.
For decades, Black people have been trying to tell non-Black people in fandom, the general public, fandom/media studies, media companies, etc. that antiblackness in fandom is ongoing and a real issue that negatively impacts the way that Black people at every level experience fandom.
Kristen Warner wrote about the Iris West Defense Squad back in 2017 with “(Black female) fans strike back: The Emergence of the Iris West Defense Squad” in The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom.
I’ve been writing about the way the Star Wars fandom and the franchise itself have treated Finn and John Boyega for almost five years.
Even before Star Wars novelization author Alan Dean Foster recently revealed that he was forced to remove a scene that was “obviously the beginnings of a relationship” in the novelization for The Force Awakens, I and other Black fans and writers pointed out that The Last Jedi marked a significant shift away from focusing on Finn and Poe as main characters and centering Kylo Ren, Rey, and well… whiteness.
Princess Weekes talked about how badly Sleepy Hollow handled Abbie Mills and Nicole Beharie’s exit back when it happened in 2016. In 2008/9, the Merlin and Star Trek fandoms were horrifying about Angel Coulby’s Gwen and Zoe Saldana’s Uhura… and to their actresses as well. Fans pointed that out then too. Was there coverage from the nerd outlets and fandom journalists on Daily Dot and The Mary Sue?
I know that writers like Miranda Larsen (@acaotaku) and Keidra C. Chaney – half of the team behind The Learned Fangirl – have been writing and talking about anti/blackness from different idol groups long before any US outlet got it into their heads post-June that they needed to talk about it. And neither of them have been offered regular or big writing gigs covering K-pop fandoms or idol groups.
Black fans and Black culture writers who specialize in complex fandom and media circles have been talking about all of these different dustups and racefails for years –
But no one listens.
No one ever listens to Black people in a given fandom until it’s too late – like when a celebrity like John or Candice finally gets the room to speak up about the harm they’ve been suffering. They only listen to – and deign to even cite us – when something catastrophic keeps folks from pretending that fandoms are utopias – like with the direct aftermath of the first wave of BLM protests and fandom diving into donations back at the start of June.
Major outlets and academic fields devoted to fandom and nerddom only care when finally, the thing Black fans been talking about for years is actually and officially a thing that’ll get them clicks, views, hits on their CVs and celebration for being “brave enough” to tackle these tough topics.
But until then?
In June 2019, a few months after I’d attended PCA 2019, I wrote the following in my wrap up about the roundtable I’d moderated on fandom a decade after Racefail ’09:
When fandom keeps having mini-Racefails, minor to major situations that show a profound failure of understanding in how to make fandom a better and more equal space for all fans, and white fans keep being shocked at the racism their fellow fans and fandom spaces are capable of.
I don’t have the luxury of shock.
I don’t have the luxury of being surprised by fandom’s racism.
Neither do a lot of fans of color – especially in Western fandom spaces.
Ten years after Racefail ’09, the last thing I can be is surprised at the racism my fellow fans are capable of and comfortable with.
I, and other Black fans, have never had the ability to be shocked by racism in fandom or antiblackness from people working in various aspects of international entertainment industries. We can’t be surprised about something that we’re hit with at every single level of entertainment – even once we’re the ones making the official content or playing the lead.
We don’t have that luxury of escaping.
But everyone else does, in part, because of how uneven the coverage for these issues are, and who gets to be centered in the process.
I’m going to need more outlets (and journals, for you folks in fandom/media studies) and writers in general to cover fandom fairly and to look at what fandom is actually like for a lot of people who can’t escape into it because we’re instantly met by antiblackness that includes harassment aimed at us, but also at the celebrities we love. Hire Black writers. Actually pay Black writers. Support us when the backlash comes.
And quit being so damn surprised that antiblackness is afoot in spaces where nothing has been done to quell it.