I’m tired of being told that I have somehow imagined racism in fandom.
Whether it’s an interaction between myself and someone else, a subtweet thread I come across, a cosplayer in Blackface condescending at everyone, or racism in a piece of fanwork or fandom itself… I am sick to death of being told I’ve somehow managed to exercise my imagination in a way that has “made up” racism in fandom and/or from the source media.
And so are a lot of other people of color across fandom.
One of the things that I’ve wanted to talk about for a really long time is the way that racial gaslighting is present and necessary to the current (racist) state of fandom.
Let’s start with a definition of racial gaslighting and gaslighting as a whole. In “Telling Black People They’re “Imagining” What They Know To Be True is Racial Gaslighting“, Banchiwosen Woldeyesus writes that:
Racial gaslighting is rarely “seen.”
It hides in everyday conversation.
The term “gaslighting” comes from the classic movie, Gaslight, 1944 movie in which the male protagonist convinces his wife she is losing her mind. He turns the gaslights in their home off and on while denying this is happening. You might be familiar with gaslighting in relationships, friendships, work settings, and issues like sexism, but this manipulative tactic also works on race — just not in a visible way.
Racial gaslighting covertly manipulates Black people into thinking they’re wrong even when they’re right. It makes them question their own experiences.
It’s emotional abuse.
In fandom, racial or racist gaslighting seems functions in two ways.
First, it’s set up to cause Black people and other people of color to second guess their experiences.
If everyone around you – including other people of color – keeps telling you that you didn’t witness or experience racism, how can you believe it for yourself? When you’re going back and forth with other fans who are telling you that you’ve made things up, that you’re actually just imagining racism, that someone who was racist to you on main “didn’t mean to do it” or “was just asking questions”… it takes work to keep from believing the lies people tell you right to your face.
The other function is to make other people question and then reject our experiences as people of color.
I’ve talked about the silencing tactics people utilize against fans of color over the years and how one thing fans do is pretend that fans of color talking about racism in fandom/as part of shipping practices are doing it because they’re all bitter “anti shippers”.
It’s messages like this one, deeming “80% of the ‘fandom racism’ complaints” as “literally just ship war bullshit in a stupid hat”.
That right there? The anon insisting that a Black fan talking about how bad it feels to see people in fandom publicly defending racism and telling fans of color to “get out of fandom”/”stop using the AO3” is actually lying about their experiences, that fandom racism isn’t real – and conversations about it is “just” about shipping wars writ large – is functionally a part of racial gaslighting in fandom. Because the goal is manipulation here too, but we aren’t the real targets of these messages or the harassment campaigns. Our minds aren’t what’s being changed.
As I’ve covered before, there are a lot of ~other people of color~ who have somehow managed to set themselves up in different fandoms as the arbiters of what is (not) racist in fandom.
They’re a huge part of why it’s so easy for white fans (and non-Black fans in the case of antiblackness) to dismiss racism as a thing that’s somehow all in our heads.
While we, fans of color who speak on the racism that people aim at us in fandom, are explicitly told that we don’t speak for “all POC” when we talk about the racism we witness and experience across decades in fandom, the POC who pretend they don’t face racism… somehow get to speak over us because they are POC TOO.
And because they can talk over us, they’re telling outsiders that they have somehow managed to never experience or see racism in fandom. So, because they’ve never seen it and neither have their (racist) white friends… Fans of color saying that we have dealt with this sort of fandom experience must be making things up.
I have been keeping screenshots of different issues in different fandoms for over a decade. Until December 2019, I didn’t post them uncensored outside of group chats or DMs where I’d gesture at my friends and go “do you see this racist shit”.
For years, people have insisted that I’d made up screenshots I posted with the handles cropped. They told me and others that I was describing things that didn’t happen or couldn’t have happened. When I started posting screenshots with usernames attached in early 2020 when portions of the Rey/Kylo fandom were going after John Boyega their hardest?
Then the goalposts shifted to say that actually, I was “bullying” and “gaslighting” the people whose racist tweets I was posting. When I took on the burden of proof and went “hey this is what happened”, it became “oh you’re literally harming and abusing us by posting screenshots” from people who denied what I was seeing, what they and their co-fans were doing, on very public social media.
And here’s a thing I keep thinking of: if fans of color are busy defending themselves, trying to “prove” that their mental health is secure, and dealing with the fact that people are publicly gaslighting them… how can they get on with what they’re actually trying to do in fandom? How can we have fun when we’re defending ourselves and forced to constantly air our trauma over people harassing us and calling us liars?
The main purpose of racial/racist gaslighting here is to stop conversations about racism in fandom.
It’s an engagement type with a goal to make fans of color and white people in fandom second guess the validity of conversations on racism in fandom. To make the people talking about it seem unhinged and manipulative just for sharing what’s actually happening to them on a regular basis.
It does this by making people question fans of color who are like “well this is racist, here’s why”… usually by putting fans of color who are very vocal POC TOO up front to mock and dismiss our experiences. They do this by frontloading their side of fandom conversations about racism with people who imply that other people of color are just imagining racism here.
But here’s a thing about that: I have a healthy imagination and so do a lot of other fans of color in different fandoms. Why on Earth would fans of color imagine dealing with or witnessing racism in fandom when we could imagine a better world?
Personally, I wish I didn’t have to deal with fandoms where antiBlackness and other forms of racism weren’t just guaranteed experiences I’d have… but then they’re also spaces where when I go “hey this is antiblack”, people gaslight me to hell and back and harass me on top of it.
When I’m using my imagination in fandom, it’s to dream up worlds where people and characters that look like me/my friends have the happy endings and kinky scenarios that they deserve. Why would I waste my time imagining racism where it doesn’t exist?
The idea that fans of color “imagine” racism where it doesn’t exist is just… annoying. Because why on earth would we do that? If we could imagine anything, why would we imagine fandom as it is for people of color in multiple fandoms, where we can’t even speak amongst ourselves about racism in these spaces without people taking it as harassment?
Personally, I would imagine fandom as a utopia. As the utopia people keep telling us it is.
Why would I imagine racism?
Why would any of us?
There’s this post on instagram by @ogorchukwuu that I find very useful for understanding racial gaslighting in fandom. Let’s look at how some of the different points are relevant to racial gaslighting in fandom:
“If you protested/said it peacefully, more people would listen to you.”
We’ve covered that tone policing is kind of integral to how fans of color and our experiences are kept from being heard.
Remember, there’s someone on Beyonce’s internet that thinks that me putting a resource link for folks with clear reading comprehension issues in my sidebar was verbally abusive and exactly the same as her abusive father. There are people bitching because I curse in my non-Teen Vogue articles… grown adults. The screenshots of my tweets (from 2019) sent to Courtney Milan as proof of me being a harasser? I’ve literally said more unkind things to and about rapper Jay Park.
The thing is that there’s no tone any fan of color can use that will make people agree with us about racism in fandom… because they disagree with the actual thing we’re saying:
Racism is present in fandom – in fan behaviors aimed at fans, celebrities, and characters of color and the fanworks people create about them and how they tweet or talk about these people and characters – but shouldn’t have any place in these spaces. Racism shouldn’t be protected in fandom, but it really is at the direct expense of fans of color. This needs to change at every level.
The thing is that my tone – and yours too, likely – isn’t actually the problem.
What I’m saying genuinely bothers more people than how I say it, but they will choose pretend that the real problem is that I’ve said the word “fuck” a few times and children might be harmed by me cursing about racists.
Please think about the frankly horrifying backlash to my Fan Service column on criticism in fandom or the way that Rey/Kylo fans attacked me in May just for mentioning that I was harassed by different people from Kelly Marie Tran in our interview.
Neither piece is harsh in tone nor uses any profanity and yet I was attacked and people continue to call for my firing.
But that’s not the point to those people, that’s not the thing they’re mad about. The point is that racists in fandom don’t want to talk about racism in fandom… and they will do whatever it takes to make sure no one else can. They’re mad that more people of color than ever before are willing to publicly speak on racism in fandom and how it affects them.
No matter what tone a person of color uses, no matter how close they are to the racists in questions, and no matter how they try to use small words since “big words” somehow set off the anti intellectual college graduates in fandom… We’ll never be able to talk about racism in a way that appeals to racists in and out of fandom.
Because only denying racism in fandom would work for them.
“What I said/did is not racist”
Fandom is yet another space where racists get to define racism. I don’t know when it actually began, but literally someone can use a slur in a “heated fandom moment” and then go “i was upset and it was in the past, but it’s not racist because I have grown” or “of course i’m racist, I’m white” and people just… accept that without looking at all their other ongoing racist shit.
“Racism doesn’t exist anymore”
The fandom equivalent is “racism doesn’t exist here”.
Fandom is seen as postracial – especially in the fandoms populated by queer people and women – and so there’s an assumption that there’s no racism here because it’s progressive.
Except the progressive politics are kind of over-blown? People publicly use alt-right dogwhistles (like claiming unspecified anti fandom as proof of “marxism” in fandom (in the way the alright uses it) or claiming fans of color criticizing inaction and racism are outside agitators), harass people of color specifically for talking about racism, and create purposeful racist fan fiction including retaliatory stories where characters of color are sexually assaulted and/or killed… to upset fans of those characters.
And the people responsible literally tell other people they’re doing that last thing. (Like this Teen Wolf Scott McCall anti anon here.)
“It was just a joke, calm down”
“It’s just a joke”
“It’s just her art style”
“It’s just a fic/fan art”
“It’s just fandom”
“It’s not a big deal”
It’s funny how racism in fandom as it commonly occurs is never a real issue to these folks. It’s always hand-waved away because it’s “just” fandom so so it’s not that serious… and yet if I said that a white male actor like Timothee Chalamet wasn’t hot because he was a bit twiggy, I’d have tons of people yelling about me body shaming him and complaining about how I have ruined their evening or whatever. Because it becomes that serious…
(Rare allowances of acknowledgement of racism in fandom at large is acknowledging the racism from dudebros and what comes from legitimate anti fans. That’s it. And the racist behavior both participate in – especially in the continued harassment of fans of color – is assumed to be something that only happens from a specific group. Which means supposedly progressive fandom can then ignore things like non-Black fans’ active anti fandom over Black characters and celebrities.)
“Are you sure that’s what happened?”
Again, fans of color always have to provide proof of racism in fandom… but then when we provide it we’re either accused of lying (doctoring screenshots, selective screenshotting, etc), being inaccessible, or we’re accused of actively harming people by having those receipts.
Personally, I do my best to back up my work with screenshots and academic texts. I don’t work on vibes. If I see a racist thing, I weigh the value (to other fans) of me talking about it. I have screenshots of posts – which some people send me, my super part time assistant types find for me, etc – because people insist on saying “no one does this racist thing” and I’m not about that life.
I check my sources, check my facts and then I post because I don’t have the luxury of being able to lie.
“In my opinion, I don’t think that they were being racist, I think…”
We get this a lot when we talk about specific racists or incidents of racism in fandom spaces. People will always rush to make excuses for the racist of the hour.
- “The artist who whitewashed a dark skinned character didn’t mean to do it… they’re just practicing a strange form of color theory.”
- “The person who said a slur was just having a heated fandom moment, they’ve grown since… please ignore them recently using a different slur.”
- “That person harassing a cosplayer of color isn’t doing it because they’re racist but because they just care so much about accuracy”
There’s always a reason why the current racist in fandom isn’t actually ever racist. There are always reasons why actually we should extend grace to this person who’s harassing a person of color or who’s currently writing stories where characters of color are being brutally murdered by the white fandom faves. There’s always a reason to excuse the person whitewashing a Black character and complaining about “the wokes”. Usually, it’s because the person is having a very bad day…
However no fan of color speaking on racism can ever have a bad day. No fan of color can ever “raise their voice” at someone harassing them. If we cuss someone out for being actively racist – even if it’s to us – the script flips. It becomes about how mean and nasty we supposedly are and how we deserve the racist treatment we’re dealing with because we’re bullies and “antis”.
I’ve had to deal with longterm friends – friends of color, even – who’ve wound up falling for the different harassment campaigns people have put me through.
While I have my receipts for the things I’ve said and the people who are lying about me, that doesn’t mean anything even to people who’ve known me for years… because in the end, racism like antiblackness is a community bonding activity in fandom that eats up even good people who care about you.
It’s a bonding activity in fandom and one of the ways it works so effectively is by not destroying trust in POC who speak on their experiences by reframing us as paranoid bad guys who can’t be trusted. By isolating us and cutting us off and making us too harmful, crazy, or violent to be trusted… It’s never true but… It doesn’t have to be.
And that’s why racists do it, because racists understand, especially in the case of Black people in fandom, that everybody wants an enemy, everybody wants a reason to fight, and antiblackness is increasingly a community sport. It’s a community activity within fandom spaces populated by queer people, women, POC Too types that leverage their identities to silence discourse and shut down conversations about racism.
Antiblackness specifically is a driving feature in fandom. It brings people together, and when Black people speak up about it, we’re reframed as unhinged, insane, crazy, and repeatedly told “you must be making it up”.
However, I’ve had largely unmonitored Internet access since 2001. I’ve been here for small and large racefails for most of my life. I do research. I speak to older fans of color, especially older Black fans in a wide variety of fandoms, and what I’m seeing and what they’ve experienced over the years is this pervasive sense of people misrepresenting our experiences and misrepresenting us to disrupt and destabilize conversations about racism in fandom.
The vast majority of fans of color aren’t making things up or exaggerating when we tell y’all the racism we’ve been subjected to by racist fans. In fact, we actually don’t tell y’all everything we see and experience like threats, doxxings, and slurs from people who should know better. Because we know the majority of white fans – and non-Black POC in the case of antiblackness – do not care and will never believe us.
They will never tell their friends to stop harassing us, won’t ever stop following mutuals who have made being racist in fandom a marginalized identity, won’t ever protect us from racism in fandom. So what’s the point in talking about how bad it gets?
People are telling these fans – other fans of color who’ve been online for that long – that what happened didn’t actually happen. Even when these fans of color post receipts, even when they link to their own files, their own blogs, they’re told, “No, this didn’t happen. You’re making it up”
But then, at the same time, any random racist Rebecca can show up like, “did you know that this Black person said this thing”… But with no receipts, no screenshots, no links. The burden of proof is never on the racists or the person of color denying racism in fandom and the harm it does to real fans of color.
The same people gaslighting these fans will eat that up, they do eat it up, and it is frustrating to see and experience because it’s something that can be avoided simply by taking the initiative and asking other people “Okay, where are the receipts for this claim you’re making about this person.”
If you are being faced with a horrifying kind of claim about a person of color, ask for receipts. You should. You cane can even reach out…
But people never do. Certainly none of the people believing my harassers have ever tried to get my side of the story or even read a single thing about how these re all racist strangers I’ve never directly interacted with trying to destroy me to protect their racism…
At the end of the day: If you don’t like what someone says about racism and fandom, your first thought as a person of color not involved or as a white person should not be to wade in specifically to derail, dehumanize, and dismiss the person speaking.
It should not be fandom practice to be like “Oh, well, I would have listened to this person, but their tone is mean” about a person of color talking about racism.
It shouldn’t be accepted fandom practice to make up lies about POC speaking on racism to then excuse abusing them and cutting them out of their communities in fandom.
(You know… like the insistence that I specifically am a TERF for disliking some things other queer people like in fandom (racist things 99% of the time), the current shit where people go into my mutuals’ curious cats and blame me for heinous shit I didn’t create or do, and the insistence I am also somehow racist against mixed/biracial people of color or… Asian people).
And yet they are all parts of fandom practice when faced with POC who talk about racism in fandom.
These things are normal fandom practices and behaviors that people just ignore or accept because that’s easier than doing the work and unpicking the lies.
They’re able to be manipulated… because, in part, they want to be. They want to believe that the person of color talking about racism is only doing it to get clout, to control fandom, or to force people to ship their ships (whatever they are).
They don’t want to believe that fandom can be a racist nightmare for fans of color… even when their co-fans and their closest friends are actively and publicly a major part of the problem.
So they allow themselves to be led, sheeplike, to a version of fandom where POC who speak on racism are the real bad guys and are trying to tear fandom down from the outside.
There are so many other things that people could do with their time instead of gaslighting a Black or brown person talking about racism in fandom.
They could finally read the copy of White Fragility that they’ve kept on their coffee tables gathering dust for over a year. They could volunteer with a local organization fighting racism and actually protect people of color in their offline communities. (Perhaps not the ACLU because a lot of people touting their ACLU volunteering in fandom are in it for the fact that the organization defends the free speech rights of nazis and other white supremacists… And they think you should too).
They could bake and then eat a cake, you know? They could actively fight racism in fandom by shutting down the racists in their fandoms. These people in fandoms who are actively gaslighting and harassing fans of color… They could do so much to make the world in and out of fandom spaces better.
They could even just… ignore us.
It could, in fact, become fandom practice for these people to shut the fuck up and keep it moving when they see someone talking about racism in fandom.
However, instead of even attempting anti-racism that’s at their speed, all of these people constantly choose to harass people of color like me. They choose to gaslight us about what we’re experiencing in our shared spaces and to constantly tag-in other POC TOO to insult us, harass us, and lie as they speak over us. They choose to manipulate and lie to the people around them rather than push back against racism in their spaces.
They choose, in a world where “don’t like, don’t read” is a fandom mantra used on critics including fans of color talking about racism, to read our tweets and blog posts on racism in fandom and interpret them in the most uncharitable way possible.
How’s any of that supposed to help anyone?
If you’re a fan of color and you feel like you’re being gaslit when you’re talking about racism in fandom, let me be clear with you:
You’re not crazy, you’re not overthinking or imagining the racism [in the media, in that fanwork, or from those fans], and yes, those bitches are racist as shit – even the POC TOO acting like they don’t know what racism is or see it when it’s happening to you. You’re not wrong because a POC TOO has shown up to spin a story about how we need to actually care about “real racism” or “end police brutality first”. While we’re all entitled to our opinions, the fact that these people, that fandom at large, consistently side/s with racists in fandom? It means they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about and would rather choose to bootlick racists than urge their friends to do a little bit better.
Don’t let them beat you down.