Diverse folk diversely they demed;
As many heddes as manye wittes there been.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Squires Tale

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Racist Discourses in Fantasy Fandom

Amid the usual flurry of other things – not least organising session proposals for the 2014 Kalamazoo IMC – I have been thinking about inclusion and exclusion and how they work in fandoms. It seems to me that being a fan is not the same as being part of a fan community, or that at the very least, being the former doesn’t guarantee membership of any given iteration of the latter. In Textual Poachers (1992), Henry Jenkins wrote about the conventions of interpretation common to fan communities, and those conventions have been shown to be the basis of identity work within those communities – reading the ‘right’ way means you are in (e.g. Bury 2005). I’ve been looking at the ways that discourses which exclude people from fan communities get attached to discussions of race and racism on westeros.org. When threads which raise problematic issues around race in either George Martin’s novels or HBO’s Game of Thrones are raised, community members tend to respond by challenging the fandom of the original poster using discourses that align very closely with those identified by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva in his Racism Without Racists (2006). The eurocentricity of the fictional world is justified in a few main ways (in varying order):
1)    the personal choices of Martin as the creator of that world – the OP is constructed as not a real fan for criticising Martin’s choices.
2)    the monochrome Middle Ages argument which says that the works are based on medieval Europe which was populated by whites and that therefore only a majority white cast of characters should appear – the OP is not a real fan because s/he is more concerned with political correctness than the authenticity of the story.
3)    dismissed as unimportant without a reason, or on the basis that it’s made up and not ‘the real world’ – the OP is pathologized as an over-zealous, ‘rabid’ fan who cares too much.
4)    said to be non-existent – the OP is constructed as ignorant, or as having not paid enough attention to the text, and is, in either case, not a real fan because s/he lacks knowledge.

The first  and second fit very closely with Bonilla-Silva’s Abstract Liberalism framework which, he says, consists of “using ideas associated with political … [and] economic liberalism in abstract manners to explain racial matters” (28), “the idea of individual choice is used to defend whites’ right to live and associate primarily with whites” (36). This argument is used to justify writing and reading about whites and cultural heritage – the Middle Ages – which is identified as white. The second is a clear example the “Anything but Racism’ rhetorical strategy Bonilla-Silva identifies; history, rather than racism or exclusion, is used to explain eurocentricity. The third and fourth fit closely with the framework of Minimization. For Bonilla-Silva this “suggests discrimination is no longer a central factor affecting minorities’ life chances” (29); on westeros.org, minimization suggests that the experience of the OP, or any who takes that perspective, is either not important, or not real.

Westeros.org is far from the only fan site where this happens – I’ve found very similar patterns in other fantasy fandoms, especially on forums for games like World of Warcraft and Dragon Age. I’ve written before about using Bonilla-Silva’s work to explore RaceFail 09 – a project that’s on the backburner right now but will come to the front later this year I hope. It’s not that there are no voices challenging eurocentricity as the default setting in fantasy and the racism that results, but the arguments are ongoing, and in some places they are being fiercely resisted.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2006. Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. 2nd ed. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
Bury, R. 2005. Cyberspaces of Their Own: Female Fandoms Online. New York: Peter Lang.

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