The past several years have felt like we’ve been careening from one massive catastrophe to another, with no one anywhere left untouched by the increasing awfulness around us.
2020 was a banner year for awfulness; it began with wildfires raging across Australia, and everything just… increased from there. The world was on actual and metaphorical fire, and you have a few key events to thank: the increasing visibility of climate change disasters, a ridiculously active hurricane season, COVID-19 and so many people’s refusal to behave responsibly in the face of ineffective government reactions, and uh… all the antiblack racism and police brutality worldwide.
With everything bad happening all at once, it’s no surprise that 2020 was likely one of the Archive of Our Own’s busiest years on record so far. When the fanfiction site shared its site traffic up to April of 2020, their data showed a jump in daily pageviews from the last week of February to the first week of April. A probable reason? People wanted to immerse themselves in fanfic as an “out” from the world around them, just another example of fandom as a source of escapism from a very stressful year. But who truly gets to escape into fandom?
In 2020, fandom thrived. We saw people return to their old fandom favorites like Twilight or Sherlock, play so much Animal Crossing and The Sims, and fall down the BTS rabbit hole (leading the group to their first no. 1 song in “Dynamite”). Escapism has literally kept people going despite all kinds of crises, and the use of fandom as a solace will likely only continue. It allows people a reprieve, to bury their heads in the sand and pretend for a little while longer that everything isn’t so terrible.
Which is great… to an extent. But all experiences of escapism are not created equally. Escapism isn’t actually possible for everyone because of the nature of both fandom and the world around us. The best-worst example of the limits of fandom escapism? Racism.
Racism is global, and it infiltrates everything that we do; it’s close to inescapable offline, and it’s just as common online. Fandom is no exception.
In 2019, Dr. Rukmini Pande did an interview with Henry Jenkins about her book Squee From The Margins: Fandom and Race. “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,” Pande said in the interview. “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.”
It makes sense that people would resort to fandom escapism following natural disasters, or to have something to do other than overthink their local government’s COVID-19 response. But what about the times we’ve seen people talk about fandom being their “safe space” from them dealing with or seeing viral video recordings of Black people being killed, as we saw in the summer of 2020? What about people in the U.S. delving into fandom so they don’t have to think about American politics?
No matter the fandom, fans of color can’t reliably escape into fandom, because people don’t stop being racist just because they like the same things that people of color do. There’s always a racist person in fandom. There are always racist fanworks. There are always racist creators. There’s always racism in the source material that people will defend in your mentions for days.
And of course, as a fan of color, you get to see people devote months or even years of their time attacking performers of color, people who look like you. Take the experiences of queens of color on Drag Race that have been subject to racist comments (including slurs) for years. Or how about the racism John Boyega experienced while working on the Star Wars sequel trilogy and from the fandom, which he said contributed to him going to therapy to deal with the aftermath and what he called “horrible personality traits, [such as] anger”?
Fans of color can’t escape into fandom when fandom is full of the same racism that floods the offline world and the rest of the internet. Black fans and other fans of color can’t escape into fandom when fellow fans on social media complain because they’re being “forced” to think about what’s going on in the U.S. instead of their favorite idol or the Switch game they’re writing fic about. They can’t escape into fandom when international fans think of Black Lives Matter as an American issue, as if Black people aren’t dealing with systemic antiblackness worldwide.
When it comes to making fandom a better and safer place so that fans of color can escape, too, you have options. Start with the University of Washington’s “Culture of Care” page and its anti-racism resources that can be turned towards fandom with some effort. Look at how author Talia Lavin talked about racism in online communities and apply that to fandom. Reach out to people in your social circle who are struggling to find a safe space in fandom because of racism and support them. Report racism and other forms of bigotry you witness in your fandom spaces to moderators, via social media report forms, or to the Abuse/Harassment team on a fandom-focused site you’re using. Here, the little things can go a long way to making your fellow fans feel like they’re welcome!
Ultimately, fandom should be a place where everyone can escape the stress of their offline lives — except for bigots, of course.