[Guest Post] Engaging With Characters of Color

When it comes to fandom, characters of color consistently receive less fan engagement  in comparison to their white counterparts. There are many ways that fans engage with their favorite characters, not just in art and writing, but also through fancams, zines, playlists, or the humble shitpost. After all, someone has to do the hard work of editing Community dialogue onto screenshots of unrelated media. When it comes to fan engagement, it might not stick out in all fandoms, but there is almost always a bias shown in not only the amount of fan content created for characters of color but the type of content as well. Yes, a character may have a decent number of fanart and gifsets when scrolling through their tag on Tumblr. However, this love is often not reflected in the amount of fanfiction or meta within the same fandom.

One easy way to view the discrepancy is through the conveniently compiled list of top Archive of Our Own pairings of 2021. Although shipping and fanfiction are only one part of fandom, for many fans it’s what defines their fandom experience. So, when the top pairings each year keep coming up as majority white ships, it might be time to unpack that. 

It’s easy to brush this away as a preference or to claim that there are simply no good pairings featuring characters of color, but as the number of highly regarded diverse media increases, the top ships only receive incremental progress towards diversity. Out of the top ten tv shows of 2021 on Tumblr, six of them feature a protagonist who is a person of color. There’s good content out there with well-received characters of color that have interesting and nuanced personalities, narratives, and relationships. And yet, it often feels difficult to find fan content that showcases this.

Part of this can be attributed to the empathy gap between audiences and characters of color. A recurring fandom phenomenon where fans are more willing to empathize with white characters in comparison to characters of color. Often this comes at the expense of villainizing characters of color as abusers, while uplifting white characters who are literally villains.

But what about the times when there are characters of color who are well-loved? When people do want to see more content for them, but struggle to either find or create it? 

There’s an ongoing trend within fandom where it seems like (almost) everyone will be in agreement that everybody likes a ship, or everybody loves a character, but then barely anyone seems to be creating for it. 

Take Our Flag Means Death for example, HBOMax’s gay pirate rom-com currently pillaging everyone’s social media. The most popular ship by far is the main pairing of the show, one that is an interracial couple and has dominated the internet’s interests for the last few weeks. However, the relationship between Stede Bonnet and Edward Teach is only one of three queer pairings featured in the show. A large focus of the show also belongs to Oluwande Boodhari and Jim Jiménez, a Black man and nonbinary Latinx person, respectively. Several episodes are dedicated to following their developing relationship, a relationship that involves angsty backstories, multiple disguises, Catholic trauma, questionably priced bounties, forced separation, nuns with knives, and so, so much pining. Jim and Oluwande are giving drama, fluff, sex, murder, and time. Time to explore their relationship in the show, but also space in their backstories and future for fans to be inventive with. 

This makes it seem rather odd that they are the fourth most popular OFMD relationship on AO3, falling behind Lucius/Black Pete the very sweet, yet simple canon white m/m couple, and Edward Teach/Izzy Hands, the batshit and toxic (/affectionate) non-canon interracial m/m couple. 

But, everybody likes Jim and Oluwande. Fandom likes them as a couple, as individual characters, and even their actors get lots of love. If you scroll through the ship tags you can find a wide range of gorgeous fanart of the two, featuring teal and orange motifs and almost smooches (and so, so much pining.) 

The search for fanfiction can be a bit more difficult where Jim and Oluwande fall victim to the “Background Pairing” syndrome of the majority of their tag being passing mentions in BlackBonnet fics. If you’re a “sort by kudos” type of person, you’d be hard-pressed to find a fic centered on Jim/Oluwande in their own tag. If the tag is filtered through as ”otp: true,” an imperfect metric that only includes fics free of any background ships, the number of Oluwande/Jim content (at the time of writing) drops from 609 to 72. 

Otherwise, for content other than fanfiction and fanart, not much is present. Meta is often written as wider pieces comparing and contrasting the three main pairings, not the ship on its own. Despite having the second most amount of screen time, there are few fanvideos. Though props are due to Jim’s actor, Vico Ortiz, for sending the fandom personal requests for the Jim/Oluwande/Spanish Jackie content we all desperately need.

Maybe it’s selfish to say, but both as a fan of color and someone deeply invested in imagining Jim and Oluwande in all sorts of situations, I want more! More of the amazing content that is already being made, but also an increase in diversity of the content lacking.

So, how do we, as a fandom, start engaging with these characters in a more earnest manner? 

1. Create: 

This probably goes without saying, but the most straightforward way to get more content is to make it yourself. As fans, we need to constantly challenge our own biases, and consider whether the work we are putting out is an accurate representation of our interests in these characters. If you’re stagnated on ideas, consider why your inspiration may feel limited when it comes to characters of color, and why your usual tropes aren’t working for you this time with those characters. 

If you primarily create something like angst, fluff, or even PWP, is there a reason why you struggle to view these characters as possible subjects? Consider why you may find yourself uninterested in exploring a character of color’s traumatic backstory even though angst is your favorite thing to write. Or the way you may find a relationship between POC boring, but in comparison, consider a fluffy white m/m a refreshing change of pace. Is there a reason you might struggle to view a relationship between POC as sexual and shy away from including them in your NSFW art? (For the record, fetishization is not the answer here)

This isn’t to say that you should force yourself to make content that you’re not interested in, but a call to challenge your own comfort zones and broaden your creative range. Take the time to explore the characters’ voices through writing drabbles. Allow characters of color to be the subject when practicing pose studies. Consider the possibility of new aus that you wouldn’t think to apply at first, and how POC can also fit into enemies-to-lovers romcoms, gritty apocalypse worlds, and gut-wrenching soulmate aus. 

And most importantly of all, don’t be afraid to share it. Posting your creative work on a public platform is no small feat and necessitates a certain level of vulnerability to do so. Not only do you have to grapple with the fear that someone may ridicule your work, you have to feel as if what you’ve made is good enough to post. One of the things that is nice about creating for a smaller fandom is how easily the two cakes theory applies. You may worry that the “cake” you made isn’t good enough to be at the table when compared to the work of others, but really people are just excited to have multiple cakes to choose from! The same principle works here: People aren’t comparing your fancontent to others and determining if it’s good enough to be made. People are simply overjoyed that their favorite pairing’s tag is finally updated with new food to enjoy. 

2. Support:

Regardless of skill set, something everyone can do is support the fans who are making the content you want to see! Content centered on characters of color often receives far less engagement in comparison to white characters, something that can feel disheartening for many creators. As a creator, of course, it’s important to maintain a confident outlook and not rely solely on validation from others, but engagement feels good. It can sting when you’re used to receiving a certain amount of likes or retweets from your work, and for that to drop sharply when you venture outside to other characters. If people feel underappreciated or ignored when creating, there’s no reason to expect them to continue. 

A way fans can be proactive in this is by making sure to give extra and more personalized attention to fan content featuring POC. It’s impossible to force others to engage with content they’re disinterested in, and not everybody has a large platform to boost exposure for other fans. A method to counteract that is by showing appreciation when given the chance. Any fan can comment on fanart, send messages that show love for a person’s meta or headcanons, or include a small compliment in the tags when reblogging something. Fanfiction especially can be a lonely endeavor since it’s often a bit more separate from other social media sites. Subscribing to your authors is a great way to stay up to date with their work!

Personal gestures like this don’t just help fans know that they’re appreciated, it also emphasizes that they are also a part of fandom and that they have a place within it. Fans of color often face repeated messaging that we don’t belong in fandom and that nobody is interested in our content. It’s vital to go the extra mile to include fans of color as a part of the fan community. 

3. Centralize:

Creating spaces focused on characters of color who may not get as much attention helps people locate other fans, as well as find new content to consume. It can be difficult, however, because to make a fan space…you kinda need fans. 

Oftentimes, characters of color are the last ones to receive fanweeks, zines, and other fandom events dedicated to them. Something people may do to alleviate this is to make the events themselves, but then they become discouraged when there’s low engagement. When these events flop, it reaffirms the belief in fans’ minds that there is no audience for these characters/ships featuring POC. 

I would highly encourage people to not simply mimic the fan events they see for more popular white characters and instead focus inward on creating community events that are a more appropriate fit. This isn’t to say that you can never hope to have a fanzine complete with a full merch bundle, but that there is work to be done before something like that is possible. 

Starting slowly with smaller, low-stress events is a fantastic way to create more content, find other fans, and introduce more people to the characters/ships as well. 

Some ways that this can manifest are:

  • Creating Twitter/Tumblr hubs for retweeting/reblogging fancontent! This is especially great for smaller creators who rely on people checking the tags as their only means of exposure. It greatly increases engagement for the work and makes it easier for people to discover other fan creators. People who may have a casual interest in the characters/pairing are also able to be exposed to more diverse content and start to view them as more fully-rounded
  • Try a fanweekend! Fanweeks are a predetermined period of time where fans create content for a specific character/ship often based on daily assigned prompts. They’re a fun fandom bonding activity, however, there is a certain level of engagement needed to consider one “successful.” Although it’s more common for fanweeks to extend for 7 straight days, fanweekends are an alternative that can be more realistic for smaller fandoms. By having the event take place over 2-3 days, there’s less pressure on fans to commit to creating for each day. (Something that is rarely required, although a common anxiety) It concentrates the content to a smaller stretch of time, making sure it’s less likely for there to be whole days without any participants. Similar to fanhubs, it creates a space/tag to find new content, promote smaller creators, and can be a way to form connections with other fans.
  • Create a free digital zine! The reality of physical zines and merch is that you need an audience to sell it to if you don’t want to go broke. When it’s the same 20 people making content and 17 of them are in the zine, it doesn’t add up well. Free digital zines are a way of being able to create a project with other people without the anxiety of selling a product. It gives you more space to include other content, such as fanfiction or cosplay photos and can be made with any number of people. Even just one! It’s a great place to begin when it comes to running collaborative projects!
  • Bring back fanfic rec lists! If you’re excited about all the fantastic fic you’ve read for a pairing, make a post or tweet thread quickly summarizing and linking to some of your fave fics! As mentioned before, side pairings can be especially hard to find fic for since Archive of Our Own doesn’t have a super intuitive filtering system that prioritizes fic by the primary pairing. Compiling a list of your favorite fic can be used as a resource for other fans who want to get into the pairing but don’t know where to look, or for diehard fans who are desperate to find any hidden gems they may have overlooked. What makes a good rec list can vary by taste, but what matters most is sharing the work you’ve found meaningful (or hot if pwp is more your jam.)
  • Make a Discord and keep it active. Having multiple mods who post regularly in it can encourage people to talk, and it can be a good place to promote new events or fandom activities. 

Starting small with events/activities that require fewer people means you can use the success of these events to try larger projects as the community grows. Gauging what worked and what didn’t helps see what you can do next. If a gift exchange went well, then you might try a Big Bang a few months later. 

That said, communication within fandom is vital. Multiple events running at once without the fans to support it just ends with everyone unhappy. Reach out to other events and see if you can adjust schedules to allow more people to contribute to both. If two fic exchanges are going on, see if you can combine them! Promote each other! Fans who like Secret Santas are likely to be interested in Big Bangs as well since they’re both projects reliant on some form of collaboration, so why not plug the other?

4. Be willing to grow

Mistakes are going to be made. People will challenge your racial biases. That’s okay. Be open to criticism, do your own research, and adjust as needed. 

A common worry for creating fanwork on characters of color is that someone will “accidentally” be racist. Good news! You probably will! People are not omnipotent and we are constantly learning. Mistakes caused by ignorance will happen, and that discomfort at our own ignorance is something we all need to accept. The only thing you can do is be proactive. Find a beta of color (as in an editor, not a wolfboy) who’s willing to give honest feedback as a sensitivity reader. If you’re worried you’ve drawn a character too light, ask someone first. You can even post a cropped screencap on social media and ask your followers to vibe check before posting the finished piece! Engage with work by fans of color. Research writing characters of color. Look up the history of caricatures and things to avoid in art. Listen, engage, and respond appropriately when someone calls you on your biases. 

Antiracism isn’t easy. It’s not supposed to be. However, fans can all do their part in combating racism within their community and creating a safer environment for people of color.

TJ @biheretic (they/he) is a Black agender writer who’s work centers narratives of race, queerness, mental health, and humor. Their interests include media analysis, struggling at video games, and their three cats.


2 thoughts on “[Guest Post] Engaging With Characters of Color

  1. Very good. I’ve been working on engaging more with PoC characters in the fandoms I’m in, however small they may be, and am doing my best to give them the love and attention they deserve.

    As an example; there’s a Korean gacha RPG game called Epic Seven. Like most asian games like these, they have their fraction of darker skinned characters and the female characters in questionable attire, but the characters themselves are interesting and I’ve been trying to write more fanfic about one in particular. The response has been cool, but at least it hasn’t been hostile yet. So, progress, I suppose?


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