NYCC Panel Recap; Geeks Of Color Assemble!: Minorities in Fandom

by Kendra James

The Geeks Of Color Assemble!: Minorities in Fandom panel featured friends of the R activist, academic, and steampunk blogger Diana Pho (who acted as moderator) and fantasy author N.K Jemisin, a friend of mine, cosplayer Jay Justice, cosplayer and prop maker Ger Tysk, writers Jeffrey Wilson, Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad, and Emmanuel Ortiz, and writer, blogger and classical music student Muse En Lystrala. As we’ve already covered it was one of the few panels to feature an all POC lineup and subjects of discussion. It also proved to be popular enough that several people waiting in line were unable to attend in the end. Hopefully this roundup helps ease the pain for some of those who were unable to get into this excellent discussion.

Before we dive into the questions and answers presented, it’s important to take a moment to emphasise a point Pho made towards the end of the evening.

If you attended the panel and you liked what you heard, if you wanted to attend the panel but couldn’t, if you wanted to attend but were turned away, or if you simply like what you read of the discussion in this post: Please let those who run New York Comic Con know that you want to see more varied and diverse content at future events. You can rate the panel on the NYCC phone app, you can tweet at them @NY_Comic_Con, or you can write an email to Lance Fensterman and his staff at lance@email-reedexpo.com as I plan to. Anything you can do to make your voice heard is a positive step toward bringing in some change next year.

With that said, let’s get to the panel under the cut:

Q: Tell us what’s considered geeky in your personal neighborhood or community.

  • NK Jemisin laughed and pointed out that there’s a Doctor Who themed bar in her Brooklyn neighborhood. She went on to point out that it took her awhile to discover that the science fiction and fantasy genres were open and welcoming to people of color.
  • Jeffery Wilson has been a gamer since he was 5 in the 1970s. But despite the fact that PoCs have always been part of the video game buying public, 2012 was the first banner year for video games featuring PoC characters. He cited the latest in the Assassins Creed series as one of the year’s biggest sellers.
  • Muse En Lystrala is a classical musician who also writes horror and fantasy. She realised as she developed as a writer that she wasn’t writing characters of color. “I had to think about that hard for awhile,” she admitted.

Q: Does geek media effectively express what it means to be a geek of color?

  • Ger Tysk discussed struggling with the question of whether or not it was okay to cosplay as characters outside of her race and the controversy of the show Heroes of Cosplay where Asian cosplayers were not deemed a minority because of their perceived prevalence in the cosplay community. The show also failed to feature any Black, MENA, or Latino cosplayers. The irony in this, she pointed out, was that Cosplay only became as popular as it is now because a small group of people (Asians) were finally seeing themselves in popular media (anime) and had an outlet to turn to. By trying to minimise the minority presence on Heroes of Cosplay they effectively silenced the importance of the hobby’s origins.
  • Jay Justice said, “the media doesn’t promote us, so we have to promote ourselves.” Taking onto Tysk’s comments she pointed out that up to a cetain age society seems to have no problem with children dressing up in costumes outside of their race. It’s something we often see, for instance, in elementary school Halloween celebrations.Yet at some point we start facing the “why are you, as a non-white person, trying to portray that white character” questions. Justice asked, “at what age are we supposed to start telling children that they can’t play certain characters?”
  • Jemisin notes that the current generation of children is the first to grow up with a prominent Black superhero in the majority of DC media: Green Lantern John Stewart. She also mentions that groups like Black Girls Code are helping to change the face of the technical side of geekiness. Most importantly she says, “My first novel was about a biracial woman, white/Indian-ish—at least, the equivalent of Indian in the world of the story. And people asked, ‘If you don’t write black characters, who will?’ I completely understand that we have to represent ourselves, we can’t rely on white people to do representation, but we should demand it. And we should represent all creatures—alien races etc., all as human, developed characters.” The theme was reiterated throughout the panel: we all have to support and look out for each other.
  • Wilson said that even though PoC characters are appearing more in games, “there’s not enough of us developing video games.”
  • Muhammad Ahmad adds in the often overlooked socio-economic factor of getting involved in geek media and fandom. It’s expensive and often people simply don’t have access to media. If you need further proof check out how much these cosplayers spent on their costumes.
  • Emmanuel Ortiz’s take was slightly different, but I enjoyed it: “Comic books were the first medium I enjoyed. In my neighborhood, the libraries were too dangerous to walk to, but there was a comic book shop! So I went there. Cap was my hero of choice. I didn’t see too many male role models, but Cap was awesome, he was an outsider, a man out of time, who was trying to do the right thing. But still, representation in comics is not enough.”

Q: How do other facets of your identity conflict with race in terms of fandom participation?

  • En Lystrala gives two examples: In one she recalls how a white classmate told her that she only cares about social issues because she’s a Black woman. Earlier on the same girl expressed shock to hear that she was attending NYCC. Those assumptions are of course part of the reasons why she cares about social issues!
  • Tysk says, “Cosplay from a place of respect,” as she describes the debate over whether or not it’s alright to darken your skin for a costume. “Be aware of the issues going on and be respectful.” Like most activities, cosplay doesn’t exist in a post-racial vacuum. (On that note, I only saw two headdresses being worn by white people and one Short Round with slanted eyes over the weekend, an all time con racism low for me.)
  • Ahmad pointed out that there needs to be, in all mediums, more interactions between Western and non-Western characters.

What’s one concrete thing we can all do to help being a geek of color in everyday life?

  •  “Educate yourself and ask questions.”– Muse En Lystrala
  • “Take time to look at the issue, and know thyself.”– Emmanuel Ortiz
  • “If you’re part of a majority, don’t exert your privilege on people who don’t have it, and if you’re a person of color, don’t let the majority tell you what you can be.” – Jay Justice
  • “Get angry…. Anger is why I decided, Goddammit I’m gonna be a writer.” NK Jemisin
  • “Read and talk to people who belong to minorities, so you don’t carry the stereotypes that the media has fed you.” – Muhammad Ahmed
  • “Don’t be scared. I was told, ‘As an Asian person, you can’t do certain things’. Don’t be afraid to do anything you think you can do.”– Ger Tysk

On a final, personal note, I have to say that even with the near hour wait in line, this was probably the best time I had during the entire con. I waited for and watched the panel with a friend, but even if I’d been alone the results would have been the same. We saw and met several awesome people in line (shout out to the guy who was cosplaying as Captain India and the couple who showed up dressed as Alisha and Curtis from The Misfits) and the energy inside the room was positive, enthusiastic, and diverse. It was the perfect mix of a participatory crowd and one who was clearly there to listen.

Not only do I hope that this panel is held again next year, I hope it’s given a larger venue and that more programming like it is added to the con. Minorities in Fandom took place after a long convention day (on Saturday, the busiest day) at 6:30PM. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was exhausted and ready for some fresh hair. But even with that, the line for this panel was so full that people had to be turned away. Clearly, a good chunk of con-goers were looking forward to this panel and we should do everything possible to make sure that convention organisers know that.