(Vid slightly NSFW – language)
By Arturo R. García
You think we’re being racist, my Mom said so many times as I was growing up, when we went round and round about these weird books and movies. I heard an accusation. But what she and my Dad were trying to make me hear was their question: Why do you love a thing that won’t even let you exist within their made up worlds?
– Pam Noles, “Shame” (via Racebending)
The debacle this week surrounding some fans of The Hunger Games made it painfully clear, once again, that geekdom has a major problem with many discussions–or even acknowledgements–of race as part of our day-to-day existences. One would like to think that the new ventures of geek celebrities Felicia Day and Chris Hardwick can, eventually, help with that process.
But the early indications aren’t promising.
Let’s start with Hardwick’s Nerdist YouTube Channel, which he says represents the “full spectrum of Nerdist culture,” even as the clip above showed the most limited of perspectives. The only people of color shown were Asian-American cosplayer Linda Le (who wasn’t even identified) and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. There was also no mention of the channel’s only other contributor of color, Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani.
The second trailer for the channel is even more disappointing:
To recap: there’s 30 white people shown, and maybe only four people of color in that trailer; the cast of “Nerdterns,” composed of interns at Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles, did not identify itself. But even counting some of its’ members as POC, that’s four out of 34 total people on camera–an 11 percent staffing rate. In any other industry, the “full spectrum” of Hardwick’s vision would come across as very limited, indeed.
The inclusion of a member of Finnish stunt team The Dudesons as the host of “Weird Sh-t From Japan” points to something just as problematic. With that title, it’s not easy to imagine the show doing anything more than reducing the country that gave us Akira, Akira Kurosawa, Captain Harlock, Cowboy Bebop, Robotech, Macross Plus, Ninja Scroll, Battle Royale, 13 Assassins, and the original Godzilla, King of The Monsters, to name just a few examples of works with their own devoted fandoms, to random clips from some “wacky” game show.
And The Dudesons already have their own show on the channel. In the wake of the whitewashing nonsense that derailed film adaptations of both Avatar: The Last Airbender and Akira, was the Nerdist creative team really unable to figure out that perhaps a more respectful look at Japanese contributions to pop culture–or at the very least, an Asian-American host–might have been an easier sell to a bigger audience?
Day’s YouTube channel, Geek and Sundry, will also feature at least a few POC, if perhaps only briefly: Mythbusters‘ Grant Imahara appears in the trailer above for Wil Wheaton’s program “Tabletop,” and the inclusion of Day’s webseries The Guild will mean exposure for at least two characters of color. But none of the shows announced so far for her channel are hosted by a person of color.
Which isn’t to say, of course, that either Day or Hardwick are bad people or individually prejudiced. But while it’s good that Hardwick’s channel includes a show featuring Tyson, as well as How To Be Black author Baratunde Thurston appear on Hardwick’s podcast for a discussion that included race, it has to be said: conversations about race, gender, and culture have to take place outside of Special Episodes.
It’s not enough anymore for people of color and members of the LGBT community to be presented as the Special Guests, or the (x) Friends of the Host, or the Supporting Players. There’s more than enough proof online that our experiences as fans are not automatically divorced from our experiences as members of minority groups, and that there’s many of us looking for more safe spaces in which to discuss them. If some geeks of color don’t want to discuss sensitive topics, that’s fine; that doesn’t mean none of us ever should.
Because while it’s all too easy for people to distance themselves from those racist Hunger Games fans, those viewpoints don’t appear out of thin air, either.
When woman-oriented sites like The Mary Sue don’t report on Issa Rae getting assailed by racist tweeters after winning an industry award, that contributes to the problem. When a sci-fi heavy site like IO9 is content to let Jezebel report on the Games controversy, that contributes to the problem. When Marvel Comics would rather publish stories about the umpteenth version of Dark Avengers than about a group of black Avengers, that contributes to the problem. And when only 11 percent of someone’s YouTube channel talent is made up of people who are not white, that contributes to the problem. Unintentional marginalization is still marginalization.
We are way past the time when Day or Hardwick–or any party wanting to bill itself as a representative of geekdom–can hide behind the explanation that “we couldn’t find anyone” or couldn’t spot content online that might deliver a more inclusive version of geekdom to viewers. Does Hannibal Tabu need to wear Sith t-shirts? What does it say about gaming and that fandom when gamers who aren’t hetero white cis males are made to feel like they should hide their identities? Should the folks at The Border House start podcasting in Klingon to get consideration for a shot in one of these channels?
The near-dogmatic focus on “staying positive”–code for avoiding the topic entirely–does no one any good when it’s just Cheryl Lynn Eaton pointing out that Marvel Comics currently has no black writers while sites like Newsarama and Comic Book Resources keep quiet. That silence, intentional or not, sends the same kind of message to our subcultures as it does to the world at large:
There is an expectation that we can talk about sins but no one must be identified as a sinner: newspapers love to describe words or deeds as “racially charged” even in those cases when it would be more honest to say “racist”; we agree that there is rampant misogyny, but misogynists are nowhere to be found; homophobia is a problem but no one is homophobic. One cumulative effect of this policed language is that when someone dares to point out something as obvious as white privilege, it is seen as unduly provocative. Marginalized voices in America have fewer and fewer avenues to speak plainly about what they suffer; the effect of this enforced civility is that those voices are falsified or blocked entirely from the discourse.
And as this week has reminded us all, geekdom is not immune from any of those problems. Our various communities have been part of fandoms from the get-go– no matter what industry narratives want to say–and it’s people like Day and Hardwick who became stars outside of the traditional studio structure, who are in a prime position to help circumvent those boundaries and create more truly inclusive visions of geekdom. But that’s never going to be until the people who purport to give us the “full spectrum” of our fandoms start facing up to the realities–and privileges–they’ve been content to sweep under the rug for way too long.
- “The White Man’s Burden, Not The Black Man’s Dream,” by David Brothers
- “‘Mad Men,’ ‘The Hunger Games,’ and the Need for Consequential Characters of Color,” by Aymar Jean Christian