For All of Us Who've Seen the Light

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Some Thoughts on Privilege and Fandom
TEXT - Make cupcakes not war
sophie_448
So, if you're not aware that there has been a distressingly large amount of racefail going on in fandom at large lately, I'm going to have to ask what rock you've been living under. I'm not going to address the specific instances (many, many people have done so brilliantly), but I did want to talk a little bit about how recent events have gotten me thinking. Or, really, brought to the forefront some things I've been thinking about for some time.

Briefly, before I get into the main issue here, I did want to address a common kind of rhetoric I've been seeing regarding these instances of fail. It goes something like this: "But [author] was just exercising her divinely ordained to freedom of speech and creative expression! How could you be so cruel as to crush her spirit with your mean and nasty words of criticism?!"

Let me make something painfully clear here. Freedom of speech is not the same as freedom from criticism, and it only works if it runs both ways. You have every right in the world to post your privileged, ignorant, offensive thoughts or stories. Go right ahead. However, I, and anyone else you might have offended, have an equal right to express our opinion of what you've posted. Freedom has to apply to everyone or it's not freedom at all. And if you've managed to post something that has elicited that much negative response, you might consider that some hard self-examination is in order.

Now that I've got that out of the way, what I really want to talk about is my own privilege. Here's what you need to know about me. I am a white girl from a middle-class family masquerading as upper middle-class. I went to a private girls' school and attended church in several mainstream, protestant denominations for most of my life. I was taught to be color-blind, and that all people were equal regardless of the color of their skin, but I wasn't taught to understand that there are institutional and cultural systems of oppression and privilege. My schools, houses of worship, and places of business have been almost entirely populated by white people all my life, and it has only rarely occurred to me to question this. In short, I'm surprised I haven't fallen over with the weight of my knapsack of white privilege.

Why am I telling you this? I want to be better. I know that there are aspects of white privilege that are out of my control. I can't control the way someone may respond to me or form assumptions about me as opposed to a Person of Color. But there are many, many things that are within my control. The dirty secret about privilege is that it's comfortable. And it's understandable to want to stay comfortable rather than makes oneself purposefully uncomfortable. But when my comfort is based on the pain and oppression of my fellow human beings, complacency is absolutely unacceptable. So, I'm taking the first step by trying to be brutally honest with myself and with all of you about this.

Unfortunately, more often than not in my life up to this point I have taken the coward's way out when it comes to conversations about race. I have always felt that it was preferable to stay silent than to risk stepping in it by saying something stupid, ignorant, or unintentionally hurtful. But I'm coming to understand that silence is equivalent to complicity, and I don't want to be complicit in an oppressive system. So, I'm going to try to speak up when there is reason to speak. And, when I inevitably fail horribly and stick my foot in my mouth, I will try to listen to criticism without getting defensive, so that I can hopefully understand what I did wrong and why.

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I have sort of managed to miss this big issue? I mean the thing is, I've seen it mentioned a ton of times but everyone skirts around what actually happened. It isn't the first time I've seen this sort of thing go down, and I am sure it won't be my last, which is why I've just stayed out of it.

Without any knowledge of what happened, I agree completely that when you post your work online, you are leaving yourself open to comment and criticism, and it is something you should be prepared for.

Adn as for the issue of privilege; without a doubt most fan fiction is written by white females, and that definitely has a certain amount of baring on what it written and how characters are portrayed. I remember when I wrote a fic for bandom and had an original black character I got so many comments being like "Wow! Someone who isn't white in a bandom fic; I'm shocked!" And I don't know, it's sort of normal for me to imagine the world in the diverse way, because my whole life has been surrounded by a diverse group of people. I mean, being white, I'm the minority in my neighborhood.

Point being...you can't control how you grow up, only how you present yourself and see the world. Privilege doesn't make you any less or more than anyone else, and the entire time I've known you I have never thought of you as anything other than open minded and accepting. Race is an uncomfortable thing to talk about for ANYBODY. Don't be so hard on yourself. <3 You are AWARE and that is the most important thing of all.

Did any of this make sense? LOLZ RAMBLERAMBLERAMBLE

It all started when someone posted a spn_j2_bigbang story, which was J2, set in post-earthquake Haiti. Here's a good explanation of what exactly the problem was and here are some excerpts from the story if you're interested.

Maybe three days later, someone posted a bandom big bang in which Gabe Saporta (who is Jewish) was cast as a Catholic priest. As far as I know, that hasn't garnered as much attention, but there were several people on my flist talking pretty actively about it.

I appreciate the affirmation, but I know I have a long way to go. I may not be able to help how I was raised, but it does color the way I see the world. I had graduated from college before I ever heard the word privilege in this context, and it has taken me too long to recognize that there are all these little, insidious ways in which I allow myself to rest of that privilege. So, this post is one more way of being aware and accountable about something that is, by its very nature, supposed to be invisible.

LOL. YES YOU MAKE PERFECT SENSE.

ALSO YOUR ICON IS THE MOST PERFECT THING I HAVE EVER SEEN.

Wow...that is pretty intense. And I really don't even know how to swallow that sort of thing happening. I do have to say though, how proud I am of fandom for pointing it out and saying THIS ISN'T OKAY. Because it really really isn't. I really can't expand more on it right now because...yeah. Supremely fucked up. I guess...I've read fics that deal with delicate subjects, but timing is huge and HOW they handle it had such baring on the effect it will have. I haven't read the fic, and I don't want to, so I can't comment much more than this. I just have a giant question mark floating above my head right now.

I guess...I don't know. It's so easy to remove yourself from that sort of thing, which was the entire point of your post. That it's very easy to sit in a bubble and not realize everything out there or that the things you see on the news or read about are REAL and are affecting people RIGHT THIS SECOND.

It kind of reminds me of when 9/11 went down, and seriously, I live in NY and I can't even tell you how scary and extreme that was from my backyard. Having people running through the halls screaming and crying. Having neighbors die. But I still had friends who were all "I wish people would shut up about it." and "Why watch the news?" And how fucking SCARY that frame of thought was to me. I just DIDN'T UNDERSTAND how anyone could function with this big, huge thing happening and how they could remove themselves enough NOT to care more than just a "that's sad."

And I kind of think that is what this author, and so many other people are guilty of. WE FORGET because we aren't living it. Everyone is guilty of this in some form. And just...you're a good person for trying. I sincerely mean that. What you once were or how you once may have thought only matters as much as they are the building blocks to how you think and feel and react to things today.

THOUGHTS; I HAVE A LOT OF THEM. SORRY.

AND YES, IT IS AMAZING. I HAVE WAY TOO MANY MCSHEP ICONS NOW. D:

I'm ethnic Chinese; I've lived for many years as a minority in the UK, US and elsewhere. And yet I would freely admit I am reasonably privileged, and out of that I racefail a lot.

I think your attitude (recognising your privilege, listening to others, always wanting to learn more) is the best attitude when it comes to learning to write sensitively from privilege - and it is the attitude I definitely try to adopt too.

I've been talking with other FoC and white fen about race, the use of tragic events (re: the Haiti fic) and whitewashing/cultural or racial appropriation in fic (re: the Gabe Saporta fic), and I think I'm at a good place with these things! For instance, there is the view that fanfic that appropriates from a majority to a minority (as opposed to the other way, as with the Saporta story) is legitimate as an expression of addressing white- and hetero-norms. Feel free to PM me or talk to me further if you wanna :)

You know me: white, middle class, etc etc, but I'm completely on board with you here. Privilege is comfortable, and that makes it hard to shake. And there is a point that "not making waves" is so enforced, it's beyond ridiculous. But some waves need to be made.

Not so much about privilege but more about PoC:

I think a lot of what is wrong with society today is that they say they're teaching colourblindness, but they're not. They're teaching colourmuteness. They're say they're teaching us that black is no different from white, but really they're teaching us that you pretend like there's nothing going on, the problem isn't there if we push it under the rug and don't talk about it.

Yes, I will talk about race, and I will talk about privilege, and I don't care if it's considered PC or not. Because the borders of political-correctness are too sensitive - it's gotten to the point where you can't say black or fairy or housewife without being scared someone's going to jump down your throat. PC has set up all these rules where people are too scared to talk about issues that we're only going to learn from if we talk about them.

(on a slightly different note, apparently studies have shown that once children hit a certain age - it's pretty young, probably around 13 but I'd have to dig up the study to confirm that - you can teach them equality and colourblindness until the cows come home and it won't work. They're most open learning to racial equality before they even hit middle school.)

This comment is not directed at you specifically, but it is a response to this message and I hope to share one perspective. I've posted it under my own log-in and if anyone feels they'd like to respond I hope they will.

I find that racefail is an interesting thing because much of it is very selective and guilt laden. Political correctness really shouldn't be a fashion, it shouldn't be embraced because it's cool or the thing to do. It's very easy to point out white middle class privilege and how awful it is for persons of color. It's literally easy to see, to visualize, to personalize with pictures. How about the behavior of the entire slash community with regard to the way they treat men, and specifically how they portray gay men?

I am gay. I am at times mystified and left slack jawed by the things that women write about men loving other men. Sometimes I enjoy them more than I can say, but it's rare to get through a story of any length that I don't scratch my head and wonder what the heck those guys are doing. Do slash writers ever ask gay men what's erotic or romantic or just real life? I might be wrong, but I think this is far more a matter of slash writers not even seeing the point that it even matters. At least when speaking of color discrimination people will admit there might be a problem. I don't think the slash community has ever even been aware of, or cared that gay men might be a group that deserves equal or fair consideration.

I won't go to the issue of at least nominally straight, hetero sexual men being portrayed as gay and depending on their point of view it could be pretty offensive. I'm not straight, I'm gay so that's my point of view. If you want to say that if a lot of people are pointing their fingers at an author or story perhaps the writer should think things through, then how about the idea that in slash you can't even get a lot of fingers pointed at routine bad behavior because while it's about gay men, there aren't very many reading it to make complaints.

All too often gay men have been pressured not to make any complaints, to be ashamed to admit their identity, to just suffer in silence. As a matter of statement I'm of an ethnic grouping, but I've never experienced the level of discrimination as an ethnic person that I routinely do as a gay man. Slash is a haven in that gay men aren't hated and reviled. That's TOTALLY awesome. It's why I read slash in the main, because it's a warm fuzzy place of mostly happy emotions. It can be wonderful to read about men with deep feelings and genuine love for each other along with some smut. How can that not be good in the main? I think it is.

I have many friends in the community, I go to cons and pal around with some awesome gal-pals. They write some of my favorite fics, not because they're my buddies, but because they ask questions and do what they can to make their men more like men. It's a pet peeve of mine and I think it's also true for many of the guys I know, we hate it when writers use male actors or celebrities and emasculate them by making them chicks with dicks.

Then some women say things like "but we're just telling a story" or "that happened to a girlfriend of mine and that's how she felt." OK, but explain why it's awful to project those things on a person of color but acceptable to do it to gay men?

I like slash. I read it daily, I often make comments and send feedback. Some of the responses I get are wonderful and so feel good it warms me all day. Less frequently I get emails that let me know that slash "isn't written for men, so if you don't like it don't read it" and let me say I'd love to see some people write that kind of comment to a person of color. They wouldn't have the guts to even attempt that sort of blatant offense.

Truth is often subjective, it's truly difficult to pin it down at times. I think most people really understand that. No group is perfect, no society has all the answers, I know that I certainly don't. I can't speak for all men, I can't speak for all gay men, I simply point out that there are plenty of things done routinely to the men in slash that wouldn't be acceptable in other genres.

Thank you for allowing this comment,
Cappy.





Wow, hi! Okay, there's a lot to address here. I want to pull out one of your points first because it's definitely a separate issue.

I won't go to the issue of at least nominally straight, hetero sexual men being portrayed as gay and depending on their point of view it could be pretty offensive.

Fanfic is not written for, nor is it intended to be seen by, the people it is written about. This is quite a different issue from your personal experiences as a gay man participating in fandom. To claim that we shouldn't write anything that might be offensive to the subjects, or to the creators in the case of fictional subjects, can only lead to the conclusion that we shouldn't write fanfic at all. Ever. Since you've said that you enjoy reading fic, I'll assume you share with me a basic feeling that it's a form of storytelling and creative output that has a right to exist.

Now, to address the rest of your comment.

I don't think the slash community has ever even been aware of, or cared that gay men might be a group that deserves equal or fair consideration.

I cannot emphasize enough how much this is not the case. Debates about the motivations for writing slash, whether it is an unacceptable appropriation of gay male identity, and (relatedly, although not directly relevant here) whether it is misogynistic, are as old as fandom itself.

Obviously, each fan individually may be more or less concerned with these issues, or, in some cases, not even be aware of them. Different groups of fans also, I think, tend to be more or less concerned with certain topics. However, in fandom writ large, these issues are discussed frequently, and with a great deal of depth.

Here are a few links. Representative only of what I could turn up in my delicious account, unfortunately, but there's a lot more where these came from.

Recent post by tsukinofaerii that addresses a few gender and sexuality issues, including this one

A post by a gay male fan with an interesting perspective.

Terrifyingly smart piece by hth_the_first on slash communities and queer fan communities, how they're different and how they overlap.

A very thoughtful perspective from poisontaster on how straight women can deal with this issue conscientiously.

Some older meta that I actually haven't read. I just had it saved for a rainy day, but it looks like the fourth list on that page has some posts you might find useful.


I also want to give a nod to an issue that seems to be embedded in your reasoning, even though you never explicitly bring it up. There's an—outdated, IMO—perception that fandom is mostly heterosexual women. This is a large part of the basis for the claim that slash is appropriation. In my experience, this is really not the case. So let me put forward to you that there are more identity issues at work than you've really addressed. Gay identity, male identity, and gay male identity are three different things.

I will certainly agree with you that, as a woman, I can't understand male identity from the inside. However, as a queer woman, I certainly have some understanding of gay identity. The question then becomes, how much can I, given my own experience and whatever information I have access to, successfully understand and portray gay male identity in my characters?

That's not a question I have an answer to. Nor can I assess another writer's success when I'm reading a fic. Or, at least, I can't do so based on the criterion of personal experience as you do, since I have no experience as a gay man. The most I can do is do my research and try my best.

FWIW, the writers that I respect most, and whose stories I enjoy most, are those that make a concerted effort in this regard. And there are whole groups of writers (female) who absolutely agree with you about the undesirability of the "chicks with dicks" characterization. Plenty of us flail and agonize and show each other bits of things and ask "but is he acting like a guy here?" We don't have a definitive answer, but a lot of us do try.

Just wanted to say thanks for your thoughtful and considered response. I wanted to explore the links you shared and except for the last one which led to many others, and I'm glad to have been there. There were a few too many on the last one for me to get to them all and I wanted to respond in a relatively timely manner.

This is your journal and I'm a guest here, hopefully a mannerly one. I certainly don't want to be overbearing and rude. I do want to say that my original post was to comment on the reaction of the slash community to racefail as compared to their treatment of gay men.

When you said "Fanfic is not written for, nor is it intended to be seen by, the people it is written about. This is quite a different issue from your personal experiences as a gay man participating in fandom. To claim that we shouldn't write anything that might be offensive to the subjects, or to the creators in the case of fictional subjects, can only lead to the conclusion that we shouldn't write fanfic at all. Ever." I would respond by saying that while it isn't written to portray my experience as a gay male participating in fandom, neither is it written for ethnics. But the community is obviously reacting with a certain vehemence to at least one story that stereotyped a black male. I've read numerous posts about it, though I could never find the actual story since I think it was locked and taken down. I'd say that my experience as a gay man is probably at least as relevant to slash as is the proportion of blacks and in particular black men.

I think that it's simply easier to point out racial miscasting than some of the behaviors that happen with regard to gay men in slash. I understand that it's written in the main by heterosexual women. I truly don't expect them to get everything just the way I think the world should be as a gay man. I don't know if I could do that for myself on any given day. That doesn't change the fact that there are some issues that deserve to be considered, to be pondered or deliberated. Clearly some of the slash community is doing exactly that, and I'm glad.

I'm not sure if there is a proscribed etiquette for posts of this nature. I sincerely hope I haven't intruded in a negative way. LJ seems very much a medium for public posts in what are nominally personal journals and the contradiction is at times awkward. Have you ever wanted to truly communicate with a writer about something in a story but didn't want to post something that could be construed as negative when what you really wanted to be interrogative? I've been in exactly that position at times and find that discretion is the better part of valor. It was never my intent to barge in or condemn the slash community, it was simply to point out a perspective.

thank you for your gracious allowance in free speech. I wish you much success in all your writing endeavors.




First off, it occurred to me that because of the way I threaded my replies, you might not have seen the second half of my comment. (Yes, I got too wordy for one comment) so do check out the rest of my reply if you didn't see it. I think it addresses some of these issues.

Oh, please don't feel obligated to wade through all of those links. Especially since I freely admitted I haven't read that selection either. I just wanted to offer some broader resources since my general practice on tagging meta posts is haphazard and very much geared towards my own interests.

I think perhaps I wasn't quite clear on what I was addressing in that first post. When you suggest that one potential problem with slash is that the (presumably) heterosexual men about whom it is written might find it offensive. What I meant with my response is that the reaction (or potential reaction) of the celebrities that we write about is a separate beast, theoretically speaking, from your own perception of the portrayal of gay men in fanfic.

There's plenty of meta (not to mention literary theory) regarding what and who it is or is not "okay" to write about, especially when we consider RPF. But that's a different question entirely ("Should we write wildly untrue stories about real people with real lives?") than what you were addressing with the rest of your comment, which is why I bracketed it off at the beginning.

Regarding race vs. sexuality, I agree it's a difficult question. I know this may not be the most pleasing answer, but I do think audience has something to do with it. While there are many fen of color, male fans in slash fandom are rare enough to be a statistical anomaly.

Does that mean we shouldn't try our best to represent gay men as accurately as possible given our lack of personal experience? Of course not. But it does mean that most writers probably don't expect any men to be reading their work. So, naturally, they're going to cater to the desires and expectations of their audience as they understand it, which is female.

I'm trying not to ascribe a positive or negative value to this because I'm describing a perception of general practices, not what my own practices are.

It's also important, I think, to take a historical view. Fandom didn't spring into being with the birth of the internet. It's been around since at least the sixties (although more than one of my friends would argue for an earlier birth date than that) and Star Trek. At that time it really was almost entirely heterosexual women (although, from my understanding, gay and bi women, gay men, and others have always been present). Because they gained new members by actual personal contact, they tended to recruit others very like themselves.

If you look at accounts of early fandom, it's clear that we've come a long way when it comes to inclusion and issues of representation. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't continue to try to improve, but it does put things in context.

Lastly, please don't feel like you're intruding! That's exactly what public posts are for. You've been very respectful (as I hope I've been in return) and never let it be said I can't take a little polite disagreement. I would, though, like to suggest to you that being gay doesn't exempt you from male privilege. You talked about getting negative reactions to some comments you left on stories. I'm not surprised. Fen can be very protective of what is seen as a female space precisely because there are so few such spaces. There is definitely a knee-jerk response to being told by a man (however polite and well-meaning) that you (a woman) are not writing the "right" stories. If you know what I mean.

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