Many fans may argue that they are being respectful in not constructing minority-centered narratives because these are not “their stories to tell,” because of the dangers of appropriation or stereotyping. How do we create a learning space within fandom where such representations can be critiqued and debated without shutting down willingness to participate and contribute?
I think there is a significant difference in terms of context between the conversations that occur in the publishing industry around appropriation and the ownership of particular stories/experiences and the unwillingness of fans to engage with already existing characters of color within popular cultural texts.
In professional circles, non-white authors face significant barriers in accessing publishing opportunities that come much easier to white authors due to institutional racism. This is why there has been a concerted effort in genres such as romance novels and Young Adult literature, amongst others, to help spread awareness of more diverse voices in a white dominated field.
However, within fandom, the conversation has always been more about creating communal modes of enjoying characters and texts. It is true that certain experiences are specific to cultures that may be unfamiliar to white audiences but to posit that the majority of narratives and tropes that make up fanfiction are somehow inaccessible to characters of color is once again ascribing a universalism only to whiteness.
With regard to concerns about stereotyping, I would point out that fans routinely engage with (white) queer cultures of which they have no direct experience. The resulting fanwork regularly sparks in-fandom discussions about whether these are also problematic depictions of (white) queer lives. These discussions often become heated but I do not think fandom is going to stop writing those stories any time soon. Again, to posit that writing well rounded characters of color is an especially fraught process is to continue to validate the idea that whiteness is normative.
The concept of cultural appropriation seems especially charged in writing about fandom since fandom studies has also celebrated the ways fans appropriate and rework materials drawn from mass culture. How might we work through these conflicting ideas about appropriation as we begin to incorporate race more fully into our analysis?
I don’t have specific thoughts on this but would point to Ebony Elizabeth’s excellent upcoming book The Dark Fantastic which considers this is more detail.
Editor’s Note: Check out the podcast interview we did with Ebony Elizabeth Thomas about this project.
A push for greater awareness of racial exclusions and inclusions seems to be simultaneously playing out in fandom and fandom studies, helping us to map some of the potential fault lines (and continuities) in the aca-fan identity. What similarities and differences do you see in the ways the two communities have responded to the critiques you and others are posing at the current moment?
I think that fandom and fan studies have had a similar range of responses to critique which is a mix of genuine engagement, defensiveness, and outright hostility. As I’ve mainly been discussing fandom so far I’ll address fan studies here.
I will be honest that it remains a difficult area to discuss because I’ve received support for my work from my peers as an individual and I am always going to be grateful for that. However, I’ve also been confronted with the field’s whiteness in a very direct and aggressive fashion. This occurred in Feburary 2019, in response to my tweeting what was, in my opinion, a rather self-evident fact – that Fan Studies as a discipline is dominated by whiteness. I was extremely surprised by the pushback I received, the wider implications of which have been discussed in detail by Samira Nadkarni here.
I think it is also really important to reflect on what this level of defensiveness means when talking about issues such as decolonization. After all, if we are still at the point where non-white scholars are asked to explain extremely basic concepts such as institutional racism and structural whiteness then it is a very damning indictment of our bibliographies, methodologies, peer review processes and publishing.
I am often told that white scholars are afraid of speaking about race. In response I would say that firstly, this fear puts the entire burden of doing the work of decolonization on non-white scholars who, it must be pointed out, also face considerable anxiety and an equal possibility of messing up when approaching the topic. Secondly, this fear is damaging the field because it results in work that is fundamentally incomplete and also participates in further entrenching whiteness-as-default.
As this debate around your book have unfolded, there has been some tendency of academics to acknowledge that systemic and structural racism impacts academic research as a whole but to push back on the idea that fandom studies might be particularly problematic in this regard. This no doubt reflects the perception within fandom, and fandom studies, that this is a more progressive, inclusive, and transgressive space than most traditional disciplinary spaces. Yet, your argument is that we can only really maintain that sense of ourselves by bracketing race from our conversation. And throughout the book, you offer a range of examples where the exclusion of race from our consideration erases, silences, or marginalizes. How do you respond to the “not only fandom studies” argument?
I think that’s a rather blinkered argument to make because isn’t the whole point of an academic field to be self-critical so that it can move forward to produce better, more accurate, and more incisive knowledge? If we allow such defensiveness to shut down not just critique, but the possibility of enriching our research through rigorous and inclusive methodologies, theoretical frameworks, and publishing practices, then we will certainly fail in accurately portraying the complexity of fan communities today.
Dr Rukmini Pande is currently an Assistant Professor in English Literature at O.P Jindal Global University, India. She completed her PhD at the University of Western Australia. She is currently part of the editorial board of the Journal of Fandom Studies and has been published in multiple edited collections including the Wiley Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies and The Routledge Handbook of Popular Culture Tourism. She has also been published in peer reviewed journals such as Transformative Works and Cultures and The Journal for Feminist Studies. Her monograph, Squee From The Margins: Race in Fandom, was published in 2018 by the University of Iowa Press. She is also working on an edited collection on race/racism in fandom in order to bring together cutting edge scholarship from upcoming scholars in the field.