RaceFail: Race and the Fantastic

Image adapted from an image by Flickr user Dunechaser

When I submitted my thesis research to present at ICFA–the International Conference for the Fantastic in Arts–I was excited to go for a variety of reasons, but when I found out that the theme was “Race & the fantastic,” I became even more excited–and a little apprehensive–because I knew I would have the opportunity to see the effects of a phenomenon I’ve been studying in action.

For the past several months, I have been working with a team led by Prof. Henry Jenkins (formerly of MIT CMS, now of USC) and Sangita Shresthova, exploring the connections between participatory culture and civic engagement. We know that people who are involved in the fine arts are disproportionately involved with civic life: what about people who are involved in the popular arts of remix, fanfiction, vidding, mashup, meta? Can engagement with participatory culture serve as the gateway to civic engagement? Or, can activists and civic organizations use participatory culture to encourage people who might otherwise remain disengaged to take part in their campaigns?

My role in the Civic Engagement project (as it has been un-euphoniously called) was writing a case study about an online debacle popularly referred to as “RaceFail ’09”. RaceFail was a discussion about cultural appropriation and race in science fiction and fantasy stories, carried out through the medium of weblogs and LiveJournals. Over the course of several months, it spawned hundreds of blog posts (including some which have been nominated for major SF/F awards) and thousands upon thousands of comments. Most importantly, people from all walks of life took part in it. Some of the most prominent members of the SF/F community locked horns with their newest readers and least well-known fans, and vice versa.

I found that RaceFail ’09 did indeed provide the catalyst for many fans to mobilize in various ways–from becoming more outspoken about their anti-racism to taking part in boycotts and protests to founding a publishing house devoted to stories about characters of color. But most important to my experience at ICFA, RaceFail also put race on the agenda at many SF/F conferences in 2009 and 2010, encouraging open discussion of a sort rarely seen in the SF/F community before. Getting the chance to attend one of these conferences–ICFA draws a mixed community of scholars, authors and fans – was an enormous boon to my understanding of the ways that RaceFail has affected the SF/F community at large.

Certainly, ICFA was not a perfect idyll of anti-racist harmony. Whenever race is on the table, there are misunderstandings, fears, hurt feelings; some people seek genuine engagement but are unable to take part in a discussion of difficult topics without resorting to bad behavior of one kind or another, and others do not seek genuine engagement at all. Nevertheless, I saw some real communication happening–real conversations coming out of those awkward and difficult moments. For example, in one panel, a man who appeared to be white challenged an African-American panelist on the issue of “writing the Other,” the topic that sparked the RaceFail debates in the first place, defending his own work in which he wrote about people of other races. In the course of the discussion, he stated that he wasn’t white – leading to another level of complexity in the exchange. I don’t believe either of the discussants felt like the conversation came to a satisfactory conclusion; they agreed to disagree, more or less. Yet by observing their interaction, I felt like I had learned something. This is how you can avoid sounding pompous. This is how you can avoid making assumptions. This is why it’s important to think about how you present yourself to others. It is very rare, in my life, to see people discussing race openly, face-to-face, and not having it turn into a brawl or a situation where nobody feels free to speak their minds; I would imagine that is the case for some, but not all, of the people in the room.

Another moment of tension was during Nalo Hopkinson’s keynote, “A Reluctant Ambassador from the Planet of Midnight”. Even though I was not able to attend the keynote, I heard all about it as soon as it was over. Posing as an alien and using “people of pallor” as the natural flip-side to “people of color,” Hopkinson enumerated many of the ways in which it’s problematic to trot race out as a special topic, the ways in which it’s problematic to use her as the go-to black author, the go-to person who’ll talk about race. The crowd laughed; the crowd became quieter; the crowd became uncomfortable. Afterwards, reactions were mixed; some people were offended that she would take a shot at the organization that had just given her a keynote, and others were deeply glad that she had said what they had been thinking for years. Looking around ICFA, the impression was of a largely white, aging space; conference goers were male and female, but usually in their 40s, academics, “people of pallor.” Nevertheless, many commented that this year it was fantastic to see the conference becoming more diverse. That can put a lot of pressure on people of color, as Hopkinson pointed out, to be “ambassadors from the planet of midnight.” But as N.K. Jemisin wrote about RaceFail, that does not mean that it is not good or necessary, if we ever hope to achieve a more equitable society.

The rest of the conference, too, was fascinating, and the chance to present my thesis research invaluable (it was, by the way, well-received). But the key thing, for me, was seeing my research made flesh in one small way–seeing that my arguments for RaceFail being more than just a useless flame war were right, at least in this case, that the offline world was really, truly, measurably impacted by the events of RaceFail. For someone who firmly believes that online activity isn’t fake or false or less-than-real, that was quite a revelation!


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