Fandom – understood as progressive, transformative, queer, generative, feminist, etc – is simultaneously a lawless space where anything goes or else nothing will… and a space where we have to have rigid rules to protect people from everything from actual harassment to mild complaining or criticism in someone else’s space. For the past four or five years, we’ve seen an increase in people longing for the “LiveJournal Era”, a time when people supposedly were nicer to each other and didn’t fight each other over ships.
That era they’re longing for? Never actually existed and it was moderated in ways that continue to be damaging to fans to this day.
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.
When we talk about “toxic fandoms” and racism, the easiest example people go to are male nerds mad about Black people being cast to play comic book redheads and other “historically white” characters. However, one little known or talked about example is the way that the Harry Potter fandom from 2005 practically went to war over the one-line reveal that Slytherin Blaise Zabini was actually Black.
One perfect example of antiblackness in fandom that proves false these claims that Black characters and celebrities are just “lacking” something to make them worth shipping (characterization, canon romance, tapping tropes) and that is why no one ships them?
The Harry Potter fandom’s response to Blaise Zabini before and after JK Rowling’s reveal that Blaise was male (2004 in a Q&A) and Black (“He recognized a Slytherin from their year, a tall black boy with high cheekbones and long, slanting eyes” in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Chapter 7: “The Slug Club in 2005).
Blaise Zabini’s only appearance prior to that book and film was in a single line in the first Harry Potter book (““Well done, Ron, excellent,” said Percy Weasley pompously across Harry as “Zabini, Blaise,” was made a Slytherin.). However, people instantly made up all sorts of headcanons for this character based off of a name and Hogwarts house.
For the eight years between Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, here’s all what fandom frequently decided Blaise Zabini was:
Tan (but sometimes pale)
Dark haired with light, sometimes blue or green eyes
Draco’s best friend
A pain in the ass to Hermione
Sometimes shipped with Pansy Parkinson
Sometimes a girl
A bisexual Chad
A cool badass
Occasionally very Gender (and written as androgynous or gender queer/fluid)
He didn’t have any characterization or lines in canon, but he sure did have all of that.
A friend sent me a Reddit post in the r/FanFiction subreddit made by a Black fan venting (it’s literally tagged as such) about how it feels for her to read fan fiction while Black and essentially looking for support. Fandom being fandom – aka “racist as hell” – the most highly upvoted comments in the sub on her comment are from people insulting her, insisting that she’s an entitled “Black American” for venting, and complaining about “wokeness” in fandom (and some that even wind up getting in digs at people like myself apparently leading the charge).
A common thread across many of the comments? They’re not just telling the OP to “make your own” – especially in the case of Reader Inserts, but they’re also assuming she doesn’t contribute anything to fandom at all in the first place. If she’s “just” complaining without contributing – even though she says she’s a writer and has a clear history of engaging on the sub and other parts of reddit as a writer -, then it’s not her place to complain.
It’s a truth universally (but accidentally) acknowledged across a ton of books about being a fan of stuff, that fandom does not like talking about race.
Regardless of how which side of a binary fandom is split into between curative fandom (they primarily collect things related to their fandom) and transformative (they primarily create things related to their fandom), one truth exists: it is easier (and better) not to talk about race at all than to talk about race and racism in fandom.
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”.
This was originally posted on Patreon! Thanks to my awesome Patrons for giving me feedback across the process and helping me use my words effectively to get the ideas out!
Tackling racism in/from the big institutions within fandom – a Big Named Fan with a 20k following, that fan studies scholar with a book and a bad reputation, or the Organization for Transformative Works itself – is scary. They’re huge, they have followings that they don’t even need to actively weaponize against you, and it’s hard to wear down a big rock in your online community.
So, when it comes to figuring out how to handle racism in your fandom communities and make these spaces inhospitable to racists, let’s start small.
The most interesting thing for me to realize was how many fandoms I’d been a part of since I was a child, without even noticing that I was doing so, without even knowing that this is how I was expressing my fandom. I grew up an only child, in a quiet household, and my Indian parents discouraged me from creating accounts online. Truthfully, I never found a need for that kind of Internet interaction. This is a trait that carried through my adolescence to the present-day in how I engage in fandom and express my fanning.
The first fandom I can really remember myself getting into came about from growing up in the late 2000s. This, of course, was loving the Disney Channel shows and Disney Channel Original Movies (salute to DCOMS!) of the late 2000s. I remember checking the channel guides waiting for new episodes of Hannah Montana, getting all the fun associated merch, and going to see Hannah Montana: The Movie in theaters in 2009. I listened to the official Radio Disney station for years, listening to all their playlists and am proud to say I’m still in possession of Radio Disney Jams 10, featuring a video performance of the evergreen Nobody’s Perfect. My early-day fanning was pretty much just me, with the sometime-resignation of my parents.
Is this our first text-based meme for this series? I do believe it is!
Rather than me pulling from a photo meme, I jacked the “You kick Miette” meme for my own ridiculous ends. I’m very pleased with the result.
I know a lot of people have been watching the various conversations about what content is “allowed” to be in fandom spaces with bated breath and anxiety – especially as we know that conservatives in the United States and elsewhere trying to ban books about queerness and race/racism. It is documented that the people and stories most often affected and silenced by censorship – even non-governmental – are queer or “non-white”.
In 2021, Fandoms got more racist, so much more racist. Sure, the dude bros’ mad that anyone not like them gets cast and things are up and about, but my focus is on queer feminist Fandom, and friends, it’s a scary fact that so few of you realize how deeply enmeshed open, white supremacist ideologies and languages are in these spaces. Think about how often people use ‘woke’ in a derogatory way, about fans of color talking about racism, and you might start to see a corner of the full picture.
Queer/Feminist Fandom in 2021 has been a place where people are openly racist in the defense of whatever they like or care about in Fandom, it doesn’t matter what they’re into. It just matters that they feel as though their side is the right side, and that justifies being super racist in its defense.
People critical of the institution of fandom in any capacity and with any heat whatsoever are seen as outsiders to fandom. No matter how we deliver a critique, or how gently we suggest that fandom could be a little better, it is received as aggression and violence.
It’s seen as well… anti fandom.
Even when the people speaking are long-time fans, people who’ve lived online and moved through tons of different fandoms, we’re always seen as outsiders, especially when it comes to us talking about ways that fandom can be made more accessible for all of us – instead of just white women and queer people.