Few books have had the impact on the field of fandom studies that Rukmini Pande’s Squee From the Margins: Fandom and Race has had since it’s publication. I have been listening to Pande’s powerful and poignant critiques of our field take shape through multiple appearances on the Fansplaining podcast. The conversation about race and fandom has been long overdue. That moment of reckoning seems to be here, signaled not only by the publication of this important book, but also through important scholarly work by Rebecca Wanzo, André Carrington, Mel Stanfill and many others. Witness the recent issue of Transformative Works and Culture on “fans of color, fandoms of color” which was edited by Abigail De Kosnik and André Carrington. For those who want to de-colonize their reading and teaching, Pande has published a valuable bibliography.
These writers — many of them new, junior, and vulnerable — are rightly questioning some of Fandom Studies’s founding assumptions. It is not just that discussions of race (and fans of color) have largely been excluded from our previous work but that this absence has structured the field, determining what we see and what we don’t see, what we say and don’t say, throughout all aspects of our work.
As a founding figure in the field, I am trying to take ownership of some of my own past failures to fully address this issue. I have found myself rethinking some of my own work and shifting the ways I write about fandom to reflect what I have learned through these critiques, though I still have much to learn. I am also rethinking the syllabus for my fandom studies seminar which I will be teaching again this fall. I have come to recognize that the freedom to avoid writing and speaking about race is the worst form of white privilege inside the academy, and we — white scholars — cannot let ourselves off the hook here. Reading and assigning the works of scholars of color is not enough if it means we continue to ignore race and racism in our own scholarship.
This process of bringing issues of race and racism — and the perspectives of fans and scholars of color — into the center of our field and rethinking earlier work is painful, messy, and occurring in public. Pande has shown great courage in responding to the inevitable push-back her interventions are receiving, even as the field as a whole has embraced her important contributions to our scholarship.
As I thought about how to frame this interview, I wanted to give Pande a chance to respond to some of the pushback I have heard, both online and in private, from fans and aca-fans alike. As a consequence, with her agreement, I am playing devil’s advocate here, more than I might ordinarily do, as I bring some of these assumptions to the surface so they can be addressed. How we work through these debates will test the ethical core of our community, constituting a teachable moment as we learn from each other, listen to each other, and forgive each other. We need to confront certain issues directly, acknowledge histories of exclusion, marginalization, and dismissal, yet we also need to allow room for people to confront past mistakes and move beyond them. Above all, though, those of us who enjoy certain kinds of privilege need to err on the side of ethical listening.
From the book’s opening pages, you draw inspiration from Sara Ahmed’s concept of the feminist killjoy, asking “What does it mean to be a fandom killjoy with regard to being the subject of and reacting to racism in fandom spaces?” To this, I might add the question – what do you see as the dangers and potentials of taking on such a role at the current moment in the evolution of fandom studies? Is this a role which it is possible for fans of color (a problematic term for all of the reasons you note) to escape in regard to the racial dynamics you have identified in fandom spaces by remaining silent and complicit with a space which is safe for some but not for all, by “passing” within a space imagined to be post-racial?
I think the position of the fandom killjoy is something that is ascribed to or imposed upon fans who point out the operations about race/racism in fandom spaces rather than a role that they seek out.
It is important to make that distinction because fans who do talk about these issues are often branded as activists who are motivated by a desire to score social justice points rather than by a genuine fannish investment in a character or text. This othering also often comes with a hypervisibility that inhibits further fandom participation as their energy is expected to then go towards ‘fixing’ the problem they have identified. To quote Sara Ahmed (again!), she notes in Complaint as Diversity Work that, “A complaint teaches about institutional direction because a complaint is often treated as misdirection by the institution. Another way of saying this: to locate a problem is to become the location of a problem. Diversity work: becoming the location of a problem.”
I think the question of escapism is a really interesting one for fans of color and one that I took up specifically in my research for Squee From The Margins. I wanted to hear about what kinds of escapism were available to fans of color in white-focused fandoms, especially in light of repeated claims by white fans that they come to fandom spaces to enjoy themselves and escape from having to consider “serious” issues (like racism) that they encounter in their daily lives.
I found that while it is certainly possible for fans of color to “pass” within online fan spaces, their modes of escapism are mostly contingent – I can enjoy a source or fan text until it gets racist. Other fans articulated the importance of finding networks of fellow non-white fans so that they could curate their experiences to be safer. In all cases, fandom certainly isn’t a space where these fans can escape from race/racism even if it is not something that is engaged with publicly or vocally.
Of course non-white fans have been building alternative fan spaces for a long time. Scholars like Kirsten Warner, Rebecca Wanzo and Andre Carrington have talked particularly about how Black fans in the USA have carved out space for themselves in this way. However, within anglophone media fandom this has been less successful and has been limited to events like one-off fanwork creation fests. There is certainly a level of self-segregation being practiced – non-white fans finding each other in white spaces, gravitating towards texts with better representation, etc – but fandom spaces today are simultaneously too scattered and too connected for this to be a large scale strategy. And of course, not all non-white fans like the same texts or want the same thing out of fanworks, so to treat them as a homogenous mass is also not productive.
Across the book, you acknowledge what fandom offered you as a young woman growing up in small town India and the sense of frustration you felt in realizing that you were “passing” in a context where participants were always already assumed to be white. And you describe your growing awareness that you were not unique in having these experiences. Can you share some of the moments where you felt you were pushing against the limits of fandom in regard to race?
The process of realising how deeply whiteness was structured into media fandom spaces was a gradual process for me. Initially, I was extremely resistant to the idea that my participation in fandom spaces could be racist. I think the first time I was confronted with evidence of this was in Star Trek (2009) fandom. As someone who’d been a Kirk/Spock shipper from the original series it was deeply enjoyable to see the explosion of fanwork around the pairing once again. I even nodded along with the dominant argument that the character of Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) had been somehow lessened because of her canonical romance with Spock (Zachary Quinto).
When some Black fans very rightly pointed out how problematic this argument was, and further that Kirk/Spock fans were either ignoring Uhura entirely or writing her character in extremely racist ways within their own fanwork, I was extremely discomfited and resistant. This was partly because as someone who had grown up in India with plenty of “people like me” on movie screens, I was unfamiliar with the racial dynamics of US-centric filmic representation. But it was also very much because I was, for the first time, being made to see how my modes of fandom were deeply implicated in whiteness even as they functioned to give me pleasure and the chance to explore (white) queerness.
This experience was extremely foundational because once I was made aware of the racialization of my choices it gave me the chance to work through my own defensiveness. I realized that fandom had always encouraged me to be self-reflexive about my attraction to certain character archetypes and shipping dynamics in terms of gender and sexuality but had worked to elide their whiteness. This in turn helped me to value characters of color who also offered me the exact same modes of pleasure but which fandom had deemed to be uninteresting. This was a huge turning point for me, not because I was being policed into appropriate modes of fandom, but because I was able to actually expand notions of my own fannish pleasure.
I don’t mean to imply that this was a smooth or easy process but it definitely showed me how fandom truisms (or algorithms as I term them in Squee From The Margins) like “Ship and Let Ship” while overtly functioning to maintain fandom harmony, also work towards making whiteness invisible.
Your title, “Squee from the Margins,” evokes a fannish term that is bound up with notions of pleasure and affect. Fandom studies has long questioned the social construction of taste, whereas desire, fantasy, pleasure, and affect are seen as authentic or natural more often than not. Some would argue that the heart desires what the heart desires, so how can we push for broader representational practices in fandom without seeming to perform the kinds of policing of pleasure and fantasy which has been explicitly rejected within fandom communities in relation to gender and sexuality?
The fact that fan studies has long questioned the social construction of taste and yet has left the deep racialization of fandom’s taste uninterrogated is, in my opinion, quite damning. As I have discussed earlier, the characterization of fans who critique the whiteness of fan spaces as ‘policing activists’ rather than people invested in communal pleasure is fundamental to how white supremacy maintains itself. This is also related to the reasoning that structures the positions that you mention where gender and sexuality are somehow magically de-racialized.
I think the most blatant problem with the position of “The heart wants what it wants” is the accompanying unwillingness to name that “something” as whiteness because that would imply that fandom spaces are not neutral. White fans have, as decades of evidence proves, consistently chosen white characters to devote their fandom energies towards. Fannish pleasure and fantasy therefore are already fundamentally implicated in questions of race. It is simply a matter of acknowledging that fact. But, as is evident, naming whiteness triggers a deep defensiveness that manifests itself in trying to prove that those that point out the problem are the real location of disruption.
You trace a “jigsaw puzzle of fandom histories” which led to the current moment. In particular, you focus on Race Fail 09 as a key event which helped develop a greater focus on the implicit and sometimes explicit racialized assumptions shaping fandom. Can you trace for us some of the paths which led from this incident to the growing attention to race and fandom?
2019 marks 10 years since RaceFail ’09 and I think its legacy is an accurate reflection of the role of race in within fandom and fan studies. Firstly, it lead to a greater degree of openness in talking about the issues of race in SFF, both within fandom and in professional spaces. Secondly, it gave the chance for fans of color across media fandom to form points of connection and solidarity within these spaces at a time when that aspect of personal identity was less visible. These connections in turn amplified their critiques. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the debates in the Star Trek (2009) fandom that I discussed earlier were also happening at around the same time.
But equally, the trajectory of the debates around RaceFail ‘09 show that the presence of race/ism in fandom is noted only in times of crisis, located in the actions of individuals, and eventually excised from collective memory. When talking about fandom history, the number of scholars (and fans) who note StrikeThrough (which happened in 2007 and saw a mass purge of explicit sexual content on Livejournal) as foundational to the construction of contemporary fan spaces such as AO3 but completely ignore RaceFail (which happened only two years later) is remarkable. This forgetting is also seen in the lack of any reflection on the incident within the discipline of fan studies. For instance, during the roundtable on Race and Fan Studies at this year’s PCA/ACA conference, hardly anyone in the room could recall any scholars of color who were involved in the documentation and discussion of RaceFail. This is of course deeply troubling and points to the ways in which the discipline continues to actively enable its own structural whiteness.
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.