Meme-ing For A Reason: Racism In Escapist Fandom? More Likely Than You Think

The “it’s more likely than you think” meme where the top text reads “Tons of horrific and active racism in the fandom [space] *I* use for escapism as a queer person?”

As I write this, there are Star Trek fans mad about Star Trek: The Animated Series character Admiral Robert April’s upcoming appearance in Strange New Worlds. April is now being played by Canadian actor Adrian Holmes, who currently plays Uncle Phil on Bel-Air, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reboot. Obviously, Holmes looks nothing like the original admiral… but is that such a bad thing? After all, as Jamie Lovett points out over at ComicBook: “Despite being one of Starfleet’s most highly-decorated captains, April has previously only appeared in canon in a single episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series.”

One episode in a show older than most of the people complaining.

And yet, there are people screaming and moaning about “the wokes” forcing “political correctness” on Star Trek, a show that has apparently never delved into progressive politics or had people of color in main roles. Except… Star Trek, while imperfect in execution, was a science fiction pioneer in how it portrayed a relatively progressive society with diverse people learning, loving, and living together. From day one it was a show that put people of color and women on-screen… and had detractors because of that.

So when people pretend that the newer versions of the universe – starting with the very diverse Discovery series and continuing on to Picard which has a lot of strong female characters – are going against the spirit of the universe… I have to laugh. Those shows aren’t doing anything that the original Trek series didn’t do. They’re not breaking the universe or worldbuilding.

But what’s been interesting is that in between the “no one is complaining except about the complainers… who I haven’t seen” tweets and the “racism isn’t allowed in trek fandom, GTFO”… I’m seeing a third kind of tweet. These tweets are generally a rejection of racism in fandom, so you’d think they’d be great… except that they come along with this sense of shock and dismay to realize, for the first time, that there’s racism in their nice fandom for this progressive media.

And this speaks to something I have talked about before: a lot of people in fandom miss racism in fandom as it commonly appears and so when a big racism happens, they’re knocked off their balance. Often, they deny that racism is even happening at the same time they’re saying that racism doesn’t belong. That’s because they can’t understand how fandoms for things as progressive or positive as Star Trek, the X-men, and Harry Potter can have toxic fandoms or racists.

But that’s not how that works. What you’re a fan of doesn’t have any bearing on the kind of fan you’ll be or what your fellow fans will make the fandom into. Nice “positive” media can have toxic fandoms. Shall I gesture broadly at the My Little Pony fandom? I know people still deny that the fandom has had a (still-ongoing) problem with toxicity and bigotry, but I was adjacent to the community for years and that fandom’s toxicity was legendary. Dark media… can also have toxic fandoms, actually. Because the issue is what we’re willing to do to protect what we love.

I know this isn’t particularly gracious or kind of me, but it is helpful if you think of fandom as a little bit like how people are described that scene from Men In Black:

James: Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it.

Agent K: A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.

Individual fans and small clusters of fans tend to be great. They are very talented people who come together to take care of each other and form communities over what they love (and sometimes what they hate). But the overarching thing, fandom, has as much bad as good. I have been in online fandoms for twenty years and I’ve known great people and have had incredible relationships and experiences… because for the most part, I stayed within my bubble in fandom. I could escape people who hated my ships, who hated Black characters, who worshiped or thirsted over real and fictional bigots.

But my initial experiences in fandom don’t match the reality of fandom at large where whiteness is a focus, white people want to (and think they already do) control fandom spaces,  and marginalized fans [especially fans of color] are punished by fandom for speaking out about what fandom does to them and says about characters like them.

In my piece for Slate about the way Turning Red inspired tweets about fandom nostalgia that ignored the way fandom actually treated marginalized fans over the years, I pointed out that:

People of color’s roles in helping define fandom spaces are often whitewashed too. Fans of color are erased from fandom histories, treated as strangers or outsiders—especially when we’re critical of fandom. The dismissive, bullying comments about what we were into because we were people of color or liked in media? Those weren’t solely coming from our classmates and parents. Plenty of the criticism, harassment, and all-around awful behavior toward fans of color came from other fans themselves. And many of them weren’t just mean, but also racist as hell.

Racism in fandom always comes as a surprise to people who’ve managed to escape seeing or dealing with it before. Whether it’s from fans of color leaving their bubble for the first time or white fans unaware that their bubbles are bigger than ours, there’s this sense of shock that fandom can be bad for some people the same way the real world outside of fandom is often bad for us.

Right now, you might have seen conversations about racism in the fandom for HBO Max Taika Waititi queer pirate show Our Flag Means Death. You may also have seen comments denying the racism present in portions of the fandom, blaming “antis” for… something, and people of course going “i haven’t seen racism in my part of the fandom, only people complaining about it”.

Tweets like that last one work in concert with the others, framing racism in the fandom – like this one goofy racist (who’s spent about 2 years harassing and lying about me!) hyperfixating on Taika Waititi’s skin-tone and declaring that he was “white passing” so whitewashing in fan art didn’t matter – as something that people of color are imagining, making up in order to essentially accuse us of using other people’s racism to gain “clout” in fandom.

Even if the OP doesn’t actually mean to use their words to dismiss the reality of racism in fandom and our experiences, that’s how it always feels. Because you haven’t seen racism in fandom – because they’ve already blocked/muted the racists, because they don’t think what we’re seeing is racist, or they don’t go looking – we must be lying that it’s happening. It feels like well… you’re trying to gaslight us about how great and awesome the fandom is even as we hold out examples of how bigotry and bullying are going unchallenged.

I know how awesome the queer pirate show is. I love Jim and Olu the most and Ed is such a Mood. There are great people creating fanart in this fandom who recognize that the characters of color are amazing and need to be highlighted well. And there are also racists who scoff at the idea of whitewashing being a problem, who harass random fans of color for talking about racism, and declare us all “antis” out to take their porn… because anti racism = anti fandom to them and they’re not ashamed to say that.

Anyway, I find it incredibly insulting when people enter a conversation about racism in fandom to be like “how can this nice/progressive/sweet fandom have racists in it”.

The answer, friendo, is because white people in the fandom (whatever fandom it is) haven’t done necessary work to make sure that racists know that they’re unwanted in these fandom spaces. More people are seeing racism for the “first” time than shutting it down and so uh… why wouldn’t racists come to a place where people’s short term memory and common sense about bigotry is non-existent?



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