'White privilege: [I'm] Soaking in It': White Queer Female Aca-Fan Doing Scholarship on RaceFail 09
In her monograph Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics Wendy Chun argues that, despite the early utopian marketing promises, people participating in online communities do not leave their races (or racisms) behind. The utopian promise of the internet was that users "escape" from the problems (of race, of flesh, of gender, of age, of handicap). As Chun argues, what was being sold was not truly freedom from discrimination, but the chance, if one wished, to pass as an unmarked white male. The claim that marked bodies could not be "seen" (would be invisible) in a text-only environment was based on the same essentialist belief that difference is carried only by and on the body, as opposed to a sociolinguist belief that culture is created and "embodied" in part through language. The text-only internet has changed to a graphics-heavy environment, but more important than even the issue of visual representations online is the refusal of fans of color to "pass," and to allow unchallenged racist assumptions, attitudes, language, and behaviors to pass in fandom(s).
Most earlier fan scholarship has been published by white academics. Fan studies, as well as the predominantly female community of media fandom, has been immediately and centrally concerned with questions of gender from the start, constructions of sexuality, race and ethnicity, and class have not yet become as important a focus. The internet which has falsely promised to 'mask' identity, by claiming identities are shown only by bodies, has only added to the complexities of who identifies as a fan and in what spaces.
The title of this paper is a remix of the title of an icon created by two LiveJournal anti-racist fans, Jonquil & Laurashapiro. The text of the title itself is a remix, building on the old Palmolive commercials in which a manicurist, Madge (a white woman), told (white) customers that they were soaking in Palmolive, a dishwashing soap. It is one of many icons that anti-racist online media fans have created to comment on discussions of race and racisms in online fandoms. The phrase "white privilege' occurs in a number of anti-racist discussions, drawn from academic and feminist discussions of racial privilege, specifically from a much recommended article by Peggy McIntosh on "White Privilege." This icon was made by Laurashapiro based on an anti-racist post by Jonquil. The concept of white privilege is presented as a bath, and the icon directly addresses a reader who is not aware of her white privilege; the original text read "You're soaking in it."
I propose to examine the ethical issues raised as a result of my work as a white queer female aca-fan on Racefail 09. Racefail 09 is the umbrella term for a three-month debate that took place online from January through March in 2009 about cultural appropriation and racism in science fiction and fantasy fandoms and publishing. However, the fact that the date is given reflects the reality that fans of color and white allies have been discussing racisms in fandom for decades in both online and offline fandom spaces.
This work requires me to acknowledge that my white privilege, which is not trumped by my lack of privilege as a queer woman, is inescapably part of my academic work; as a result, ethical and political issues exist in addition to the ones I always have to fandom as a member of the community, as well as an academic. Not only must I work to avoid harming anyone, I have the additional responsibility of doing all I can to avoid oppressing or exploiting fans of color while realizing there is unavoidable situational exploitation when any white academic presents scholarship about the work done by people of color. I hope to undercut the idea of a unbodied and unraced or objective scholarship and to draw attention to the marginalization and invisibility of men and women of color in academic discourse in general, not only in areas of fan and audience studies, rather than center myself in inappropriate ways due to white privilege.
I do not expect my work on Racefail 09 or this paper to be the definitive or final word on the topic(s), nor can I claim I am 'originating' this work. Rather, I hope to encourage more scholarship by beginning a dialogue in academic spaces about the work already being done in fan spaces. Fan writers, artists, and meta writers (fans who write fan scholarship) have been engaged in anti-racist and social justice work in fandom for decades. Academic scholarship has not yet begun to deal with race and racisms in fandom space, or the ways in which an aca-fan's identity might be complicated by racial constructions and attitudes: we cannot be all fans together in a utopian space whether online or offline.