Commitment to diversity and to examining what it looks like to have more Black people at cons isn’t just a numbers game.
This weekend, GeekGirlCon will convene in Seattle. Two days of women coming together to celebrate and revel in their geeky passions in STEM, gaming, comics, literature, film, arts, cosplay, and more. Many conventions like this exist, but this is one of the few that centers women.
In spaces like these, racism can and often does rear its ugly head, making them into hostile spaces for people of color, especially Black participants. Leslie Mac, a self-described “activist, organizer, and dope Black woman,” and TaLynn Kel, a cosplayer of over thirteen years, plan to address this with their new workshop, “Allyship in Fandom”, calling for white people who consider themselves or aim to be “allies” to examine how they contribute to these harms, how to identify when they take place, and use their voice to stand up against them. I had the opportunity to have a conversation with these two talented women and get a sneak preview of what the workshop will entail and some insight on how it came to be.
What is your relationship to geekiness and fandom communities?
Leslie: I’ve been on the geeky, nerdy, Blerdy side of things my entire life. I spend a lot of time talking about movies, television shows, pop culture, generally speaking. I’m a huge Trekker, I love superhero movies, and I love comic books. I’m just a participant of fandom culture.
TaLynn: I’ve been doing geek stuff for over a decade. I never really considered myself to be a geek, I just really liked dressing up and comic book stuff always had costumes! But it’s a great entry point to figuring out who you like and why you like them. Being in it for so long, you get used to some things, but you change with the fandom and then you also change on an individual level. So, the way that I interact with it has changed from just being a participant to being a content creator to also examining it and scoping in and out of the culture.
Could you give me a snapshot of your workshop and what it will cover?
T: It will be a Black-centered space in the middle of a geek event, which is usually a white-centered space, and it’s an opportunity for white people to interact in the space and not be the focus of it, not be the priority, not even have a voice in it. A lot of times what happen is—and this is a safety thing for Black people—we aren’t completely honest about what racism is like, about how it is to experience it, what it is to be immersed in it. We don’t tell them the truth because we know it’s dangerous for us. This is a chance for us to create a safe space for Black people to attend, to talk about the real shit that happens and not be penalized for it in the way they might be socially. So, it’s two-fold—it’s going to have a white audience and non-Black people of color who want to be more engaged, but we’re going to be showing them how to be more engaged without being the focus of that engagement.
L: There’s this really strange thing in fandom spaces, because so much of it is positioned as ‘counter culture’, and so—
T: But it’s not!
L: No, it’s not, but I’m just talking about this idea, right? The idea behind being a nerd, a geek, all of those kinds of things, and so what you’ll find is that white people often retreat to fandom spaces because they feel safe there. So, part of what the goal of the workshop is would be to show them how this ‘safe space’ created for themselves is incredibly harmful to non-white people, and what they means, and what the responsibility of showing up differently in those spaces should look like.
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Safe spaces for white people are harmful for non-white people. That is our existence in a nutshell. Does the workshop also address gatekeeping in fandom communities, and how racism and misogyny contribute to it?
L: There’s a whole section called ‘Anti-Blackness is a Helluva Drug’ just to give a little sneak peek. We talk about anti-Blackness and misogynoir, and we give examples in pop culture and fandom spaces. Like ‘the magical negro’ and who gets sacrificed (the Black martyr) and all of those types of things. We will bring some examples of how entire white male fandoms have pushed people of color out of some spaces because of their toxicity. We talk about how community is built outside of the lens of white supremacy because I think that’s something white people really struggle with, it’s so baked into white supremacy around them and in them and in their interactions that they can’t really conceive of what it looks like to create connections with people outside of that. We’ll also do some small group exercises with them around how they map power in fandom spaces, because one of the things that’s really important to both of us is that people leave with tangible things they can change and do after the workshop. We’re not there to just talk at people for the sake of talking, and we really want it to be useful in a way that will hopefully affect the fandom spaces that the attendees are in for the better.
T: One of the things that I definitely want to talk about with them is showing them the way that Black people have been, not just pushed out of this culture, but even pushed out of our own narratives, and how many of the stories that they love and think are great are really stories about Black struggles, but it’s all been whitewashed for them. How we get a lot of bait and switch, with the way that colorism plays into this. How Blackness is treated—treated horrifically!—and they don’t even acknowledge it. Basically, here are real-life examples, and here’s how we see it on the screen, here are how these tropes continue to play out throughout every part of it.
“The Hunger Games” is a great example of taking a story of Black struggle and whitewashing it. Most robot uprisings in science fiction do the same… So, was the concept for this workshop born out of your personal experiences at cons and other geek/nerd/fandom spaces?
L: Initially, TaLynn and I got the opportunity to work together with Safety Pin Box. Last year, we collaborated on the Allyship in Fandom box for SPB. While the content in this workshop is not directly from that box, this idea around anti-racism content in fandom spaces was born out of that. She goes to a lot more cons than I do, so I’m also reading her reviews, reading her in-the-moment responses, seeing her experiences at them. I’ve spoken to so many other Black people about their experiences at cons as well, and so slowly this idea started to emerge. I was like, what if we put something together that addresses these issues and bring it to these toxic con spaces. What would that look like? What would we want to impart to people? What we want to say to them? Because I think that there’s this idea, especially in con spaces, that they want to be ‘diverse’ but they’ve done nothing to make the space any safer for those diverse people. So, the idea behind this is to give people some tools to actually make diversity, not just a possibility or idea, but to actually move the needle in terms of making these spaces more comfortable for non-white people.
TaLynn, do you have an experiences you’re willing to share from you time at cons that helped you to think about these ideas that are going to show up in the workshop?
T: I’ve been doing panels and talks at conventions for the past two and half years, addressing these issues, specifically making spaces that are safe for Black people to talk about these issues. A lot of it, for me, has been on the cosplay side. The lack of Black characters to cosplay, or the way that you are kind of pigeon holed into only dressing up as Black characters who look like you, which is a development that happened after cosplay became popular. Prior to that, you just did whoever you wanted and no one really cared, but the result of the advent of social media is that you have so many more eyes on you from all over the world being able to see you and comment on what you’re doing, and these rules suddenly popped up.
When I first started, it was like, Oh my god! I love that fandom! I love that you love it! Later on, it became, You don’t look anything like the character. I don’t know why you’re out here. That character is supposed to be white! You just find yourself marginalized in this community that is supposed to be for all the outcasts. Oh no, we just meant the white ones and the hot ones, and the rest of y’all can go… This was just a transference of power, that you never felt like you had in mainstream culture. The whole thing is gross.”
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Exercising a power that they don’t feel they have access to in mainstream culture is a key point for me. One thing that I have learned in all my time studying white supremacy is that white people’s relationship to power is one that is nearly always informed by violence, and so if they can’t execute that power in one space, they’ll find a way to do it in another, and the people who always lose in that scenario are non-white people, especially Black people. I’m curious about why you chose to premier this important workshop at GeekGirlCon.
L: The short answer is that they reached out to me, based on the content from the Allyship in Fandom Safety Pin Box. So, I reached out to TaLynn and said, Hey do you want to come present with me? But also they are paying us. They’re paying for us to get there and taking care of our stay while we’re there, which was a requirement that I had. There’s this layer of being invited to speak in spaces (and educated white people) and those spaces not being accessible. Tomorrow, New ComiCon or San Diego ComiCon could call us and ask us to come but say we have to pay for everything, and that’s just not feasible for people who do the kind of work that TaLynn and I do.
I know you have plans, or at least hopes, to expand and take this workshop elsewhere. Would you say this feels like an opportune time to have this conversation directly in these spaces, considering how racism and misogyny showed up in social responses to films like “Black Panther” this year and “The Last Jedi” last year, and also considering what happened with Universal Fan Con?
L: There are already people going into these spaces doing similar work and trying to push this work forward, but I don’t think that it gets the institutional support that it should. Commitment to diversity and to examining what it looks like to have more Black people at cons isn’t just a numbers game. I think that white people really just see it as that. If there’s more Black faces, if there’s more Brown faces, if there’s more trans faces, then we’ve done our job. When in reality, all they’ve done is open up more marginalized people to potentially be harmed by attending the event without actually thinking about what needs to be changed about the event to make the diversity sustainable and worthwhile for the people who go. And this isn’t to say that Black people don’t already exist in these spaces. Black people go to every single con that’s out there. They have an amazing time, they connect with each other, they get to see all of their favorite things. I’m not saying that’s not the case, but I will say that I have found the approach to the issues of diversity at cons to be really lacking.
T: I agree about the lack of institutional support. There are people who are doing this now. They’re doing it, but it feels performative. DragonCon, for the first time, has added as ‘diversity track’. But it seems like the people who are doing these talks are so fearful of the opportunity getting snatched away that they are being too careful with the material. They police themselves, they hold themselves back, under a certain type of self-scrutiny, and they’re careful about how they phrase everything, which means they take these spaces that are supposed to have that institutional support and try to make them ‘safe’ but it really just makes them unsafe for Black people.
And you have no intentions of being careful, huh?
L: I think that them reaching out to me, knowing the work that I do and the way that I show up in spaces, just shows that they’re at least open to trying this and seeing how it works, and I think it’s going to be really well-received. The attendees are going to get a lot more out of it than they probably think. When we had our first meeting about this, I said, Let’s engineer what the perfect con space would look like for Black people and work our way backwards. That’s the headspace we were in when we put this together, thinking through what we wanted to impart to people. Knowing that we would have a mixed crowd, we wanted to make sure that it was a space for marginalized folks to have the floor, to talk, and for white people to just shut up and listen.
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One of the reasons that I haven’t gone to a large con myself is because, well, I don’t really like crowds, but also because I’m well-aware of how these spaces can be so uncomfortable and even dangerous for people who look like me. As you spoke to earlier, diversity without safety is hollow. The only one I’ve been to is WakandaCon, but I would like to go to more in the future. I’m glad to know that you and other people are doing work to make these spaces safer.
L: It was great to go to WakandaCon this summer. I had never been in space like that before and it helped to inform ideas around this project. It’s good to know that a space like that is possible, and even if we can’t create something like WakandaCon at every con, we can at least try. We’re really just asking people to do better.
T: I watch the ways Black people shrink themselves down, and hold themselves back, and hide themselves because they afraid they’re going to be ‘too Black’ for all the white people who are around. It’s important to create spaces where they’re not going to be ‘too Black’, where they actually feel empowered to say the things that they’re going through and talk about the issues, and even learn about how to manage some of them, finding resources for dealing with them. I’ve had panels where people have started crying and said, I didn’t know all of this was here. I didn’t know that there were creators doing this type of content that I could find. I didn’t know there were Black people doing whatever they want in geek spaces. The last thing that we want the workshop to do is to say, ‘Hey, Black people, you’re allowed to be yourself. You don’t have to hide. You don’t have to lie.’
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