Originally posted on Patreon December 3, 2021. (A few edits were made to the piece before public posting.)
There’s a James Baldwin video from a 1968 appearance on the Dick Cavett show that features prominently in I Am Not Your Negro.
Recently, the clip has been floating around social media, and I think it’s actually incredibly relevant to conversations we keep having in fandom. Especially the part transcribed below the video:
JAMES BALDWIN: I don’t know what most white people in this country feel. But I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know we have a Christian church which is white and a Christian church which is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. That says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means I can’t afford to trust most white Christians, and I certainly cannot trust the Christian church. I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me—that doesn’t matter—but I know I’m not in their union. I don’t know whether the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobby is keeping me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools we have to go to. Now, this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.
A common complaint I’ve gotten whenever I mention that a specific fandom is racist or say, generally, that fandom as a space is racist is… “don’t generalize this fandom” or “it’s wrong to generalize a fandom for what a few people do”. Some people literally pull the #NotAllFans approach I spoke of years ago.
This has been a constant over the years with people deigning to acknowledge racism in fandom being bad or terrible but then turning around to hit me with “but you shouldn’t generalize a fandom as racist because that’s just as bad”.
That’s… not how that works.
Racism is absolutely worse than people saying “hey that’s racist”.
But also, I actually find myself looking towards James Baldwin for inspiration here because he does say it best: “I don’t know what most white people in this country feel. But I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions.”
I don’t know what most white people in fandom feel about people of color in and out of fandom because I cannot ask most of these people what they feel – and you know… people lie. A lot. I’ve seen openly Nazi-defending racists claim they don’t just support BLM/Black people, but that they care more about Black people than… real Black people do.
So yeah: People fucking lie.
I can, however, build assumptions about fans/fandom on what fandom believes about POC and how fandom at large thinks of racism in fandom based on:
- How angrily they respond to POC talking about racism in fandom on any scale,
- How they defend the racism in their institutions like the AO3/OTW… and what’s done in defense of them,
- The way they don’t deplatform racists within their fandoms who target and harass POC across months or even years,
- The reasons fandom at large gives for not liking Black/brown characters,
- How anti-racism and pro-blackness are treated like US-centrism in online fandom spaces orbiting US popular culture,
- Endless attacks on Black fans, journalists, creators, and celebrities in defense of fandom.
I have to generalize fandoms and fans as racist because it’s not like I can generalize them as anti racist.
Not now at a time when people are explicitly saying that racism matters more to queer/feminist fandom than fans of color or anti racism – and collecting hundreds or even thousands of notes for it. Not now at a time when white people in fandom are using BLM as a shield to excuse attacking Black people or bringing up the murders of indigenous children in Canada to shut down discourse. Not now when people continue to harass me for the “crime” of talking about racism from fans/in some fanworks and the focus of whiteness in fanworks?
What else am I to think of fandom as a whole when those people are still around but fans of color who speak of racism are successfully threatened, harassed, silenced and deplatformed?
Because as empowering and awesome as queer/feminist fandom has been for countless people over the years, it is also clearly racist as a whole.
Fandom is racist. It’s not always on purpose – ultimately fans can’t control every aspect of what they hyperfixate on – but it shows in many ways. The media fandom chooses to orient itself around, the pairings that become popular, the people who become thought-leaders, the characters that fans kin, the anger that fans direct at people who speak out… all say something about what fandoms are invested in.
Every year since 2013 – barring a blip in 2018 – tumblr user centrumlumina has posted ship stats for AO3. Aside from a steady increase of ships from East Asian media fandoms over the years, there aren’t very many characters of color being shipped in fandom. The preoccupation with whiteness – even as we get even more solid media with Black and brown characters – is grim.
A really good example of the racism in fandom’s output? The MCU fandom! Fans watch and love movies like The Eternals, Black Panther, and Shang Chi… but what does their actual output look like. As much as fans hype up these films for their diversity and the characters of color in the films, the majority of their actual output in the wake of three of the MCU’s most diverse films so far remains… white men.
So if I say “wow MCU fandom really just seems to care about white men” – which I have said, I’m sure – people will show up to inform me that I’m unfairly generalizing a fandom. But… am I?
How about stan twitter fandoms? Many of those fandoms have histories of antiblackness at different points – usually because fans reacting to cultural appropriation or celebrities saying the n-word. There are many fandoms that I could point to that have gone wild on stan twitter in defense of a celebrity. And if you go “[fandom name] has a history of being antiblack”, even as members of that fandom are being antiblack, people will show up despite the receipts provided, in order to be like “stop generalizing a fandom”.
Or let’s talk about all the people publicly defending the “need” for racism in fandom and on the AO3 across September and October 2021. What am I supposed to assume about fandom from tweets and tumblr posts with hundreds or thousands of notes talking about how racism is necessary or claiming anti racism is an anti fan/dom plot?
Fandom is racist on large and small scales. It’s not a generalization to point that out, especially if you’re a person of color talking about things you’ve seen or experienced. Expecting fans of color to write in a way that appeals to or comforts wider fandom or even racists specifically, is actually racist. If I’m talking about a racist fandom – like the aggressive shippers in the Star Wars fandom who’ve harassed me for years – I’m unlikely to make exceptions even though I know several shippers who aren’t like that.
Those words aren’t ones I have signed up to put in my tweets or blog posts. I don’t have a contract signed to protect your hurt feelings or to keep from making you feel like you’re part of the problem. It’s not part of the fandom social contract to moderate my words to stop hurting the feelings of people whose fandom is racist at large. Especially not when these same people take joy in being nasty about me and blaming me for/saying I deserve the harassment I receive.
But beyond that: It’s very strange to expect people of color talking about a present or past experience of racism from a fandom to go “oh but don’t worry, it was only some of them”.
Why expect people talking about racism from a fandom to frame their words in a way that makes it easy for people in the fandom to slip out of loopholes?
Why would you want that?
The #NotAllFans/”It’s Just As Bad To Generalize” approach is just one of those incredibly annoying things people in fandom do because fans as a collective and fandom as a whole are racist.
These are communities and spaces that prioritize white experiences, desires, and emotions over those of people of color – unless those fans of color are willing to enable them. These are spaces where people publicly say racist things, create, and praise racist media, racist celebrities, and racist fans… while casting fans of color as violent bad guys in the same shared space just for talking about this stuff.
No one corrects generalizations about fans of color who talk about racism in fandom unless it’s to ultimately defend whatever they ship.
They don’t, as a norm, correct forceful misrepresentations that anti racism (or literally just us talking about racism in fandom to one another) is anti fandom in and of itself. The people making threads about not harassing people for their fanworks or over their old social media posts… don’t tell people not to harass fans of color talking about racism. They don’t go “not every POC talking about racism is an anti and it’s weird of you to assume they are”.
Basically, I just think it’s both strange and wrong to insist fans of color not make generalizations about racist fandoms – as if that’s worse than being racist in fandom. If you don’t like fans of color not taking pains to specify the number of racists in fandom is “only”
How about you do your part to make that the truth?
How about you call out racists – including calling in your friends because y’all all do have racists in your inner circles in fandom? How about educating yourselves about how to make community spaces, the shared spaces of fandom, more accessible and welcoming to fans of color rather than racists?
It’s so entitled… how do people have more energy to try and control what fans of color do and how we talk about our experiences than they do for actual racists in fandom?
Sure it’s #NotAllFans, but because we’re wading through the openly racist fans and the ones who swear they’re not racist but don’t like… help us deal with racism… I don’t understand where we’re supposed to get the energy to tailor everything we say for people that are kind of just salivating over the chance to dismiss us and pretend they’re not racist.
However, I will stop generalizing when folks in fandom stop being racist on such a wide scale.
Fix that first before you come for fans of color for “generalizing” because I guarantee that generalizing fandoms as racist is far less harmful than racists in fandom being a pain in the ass to people of color here.