Conventions, hierarchies and forced diversity

Blog / Monday, August 18th, 2014

This past weekend, I was at Worldcon in ExCel London. Despite my love of scifi TV and film, my taste in books/literature tend to veer towards crime, horror and however else one chooses to classify Haruki Murakami’s books so I’ve never given Worldcon much thought (and have generally aimed towards San Diego Comic Con instead). Worldcon – or Loncon 3, as it’s known this year, also has an academic track: a conference within a convention. And this is the first time I’ve ever experienced Worldcon, as well as attending a convention which has an academic track running through it. I was contacted by a friend and colleague who asked if I would be interested in submitting a pre-consituted academic panel to celebrate the 10th year anniversary of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. Our panel was accepted, and I was also asked to speak in several of the fan panels. I thought it would be interesting, given my research has always been centred on online fandom; that this is a wonderful opportunity to be surrounded by fans who frequent conventions and to learn new things. I was put into panels on social media and celebrity/fan interactions, and on researching fans, all of which made sense given my research. There were a couple of initial panels that I said no to as I didn’t really understand why I would be assigned them in the first place (given the exhaustive volunteer form we had to fill in detailing our interests and expert knowledge). But, it’s a big convention, and I don’t envy the organisers the momentous task of assigning everyone into panels they were all suited for. So I appreciate the complexity of the work, even when I was hearing from numerous participants (as well as throughout the different panels during the convention) about being placed into panels they have no expert knowledge of.

Granted, I was only there for 2 days out of the 3 I had originally planned due to personal reasons. But what follows is a personal experience of Worldcon, and I think it prudent that I should reflect on what some of the exchanges made me feel. As an academic, as a fan, and as someone who is obviously non-white.

One of the panels I was initially asked to moderate, and later to speak on was a panel on racial representations and whitewashing. It was scheduled to be on a day I wasn’t going, so I had declined anyway. I had also declined because I’m usually someone who engages with media texts more socially and culturally rather than say, “racially”. So as an academic, I didn’t think I have anything constructive to add to the panel, when I feel it should be reserved for other speakers more knowledgeable and more passionate about the subject than I. But when I had to reject being on the panel three times, I can’t help but think that the only reason why I was continually persuaded to be on the panel was because my surname is Chin instead of Smith. That, by virtue of my skin colour and ‘exotic’ name, I then MUST HAVE something to say about racial representations and whitewashing in the media. Because, how dare I do not?!

I did get out of the panel eventually, but not without it leaving a bad taste in my mouth. As if I’m now confined by how I appear to others, so if I want to make a valuable contribution, to be listened to, then by god, I need to talk about issues that has been decided for me to be important. Because at the end of the day, who’s interested in my research and in what I have to say because I haven’t been given permission to speak about that! And this coloured (no pun intended) my anticipation of the convention, which wasn’t helped by a separate incident that occurred. I was with fellow academics on Saturday evening, and after obtaining drinks, had proceeded to one of the ‘fan tents’ manned by a big, fan organisation for a bit of a wind down after a long day. Upon walking in, our party was immediately asked if we were there for the “Asian meeting” (and bear in mind, this was a party of 1 Asian, 1 half-Asian, 2 Welsh and a Dutch). Granted, there was a scheduled “Asian meeting” at the time (which I found out after the fact) but at that point, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to feel offended or included.

For that matter, are we (as Asians) so stereotypically shy and intellectually starved that special efforts have to be made to make me feel welcome into the strange new world of science fiction conventions? Or for that matter, the strange new world of arts and humanities? Because, you know, being stereotypically Asian, I should only be skilled in science and mathematics (I failed my way through maths class, by the way, thanks for asking). I have been to many academic conferences around the world (and a couple of comic and scifi conventions in the UK), and more often than not, I’m usually the only Asian/East Asian person in the group but never have I felt more discriminated against more than at a convention that was promoting diversity as its theme. My ability and desire to say something, to speak up, should have no bearing whatsoever on the fact that some people suddenly decide I’m less privileged and suddenly need rescuing. Or worse, have a path cleared for me in order to be able to speak! I do not need permission to speak, and you can turn around and accuse me of having the privilege to be able to have that voice because I have accrued enough social, cultural and educational capital but I do not need anyone’s permission to do anything!

And this was something that appears to be continually driven through over the weekend, or at the very least the panels that I’ve sat and spoken in: the ageism, sexism, racism, anti-academic-ism, hierarchism and various other -isms. I have no doubt Worldcon means a lot to the people who have been going to the convention throughout the decades it has been running and has forged a community there. I even understand the protectionism that they feel when hordes of media fans invade, because yes, sometimes we haven’t read the book or appreciate the fight to be legitimised back in the day but does that make our experience less valid, and therefore devalued? I mean, truth be told? If you’re wondering why your attendees/supporters are aging when younger fans are heading to other conventions, then it’s time to take a step back and do a little bit of navel-gazing. Over the course of the time I was there, I’ve witnessed:

  • a young female panelist, a professional like every other speaker on the panel talked over and mocked because she was young and did not have the “40 years worth of experience of being in fandom”
  • a panelist – an author from Star Trek fandom who had turned pro, callously disregarding LGBT issues by calling it “LGB whatever”. So much for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, or perhaps she’s not a fan of the Vulcan philosophy…
  • a panelist being called a racial slur, threatened and stalked but organisers did not remove the offender from the convention itself (which still perplexes me).
  • one of the panels I was speaking in, an audience member snapped their fingers at the speaker to get her to stop talking because she wanted to disagree

Frankly, I did not pay a considerable sum of money to voluntarily speak at a convention only to be yelled at, have fingers snapped at me or have disdain shown me when I introduce myself as an academic. I’m pretty sure younger con-goers aren’t interested in going to a convention where they don’t feel welcomed, when the insinuation that their objects of fandom are moronic and inferior are thinly veiled. Bad behaviour is bad behaviour. And I know organisers can’t control how the audience reacts in a panel, but perhaps the Code of Conduct should also include a clause that says panelists shouldn’t be hurled abuse or shouted at. As with everything – and I remember saying this at my panel on social media and celebrity/fan interaction to a question on celebrities with problematic politics – you can always choose to walk away and not engage. Especially when you know nothing good or productive can come from it. I know, empty words, seeing as this is how flame wars always happen.

As for the diversity thing? I don’t know. As I said, no one can control how other con-goers behave. I can only reflect on how I felt about the matter, and if you know me well, you’d know I’m usually the last person to be offended at something. So take it as me being unusually sensitive over nothing or just me being a jerk. But I would have appreciated that my reasons for saying no to a panel are respected, because anything more was going to be unnecessarily awkward.

This was my first Worldcon. It will very likely be my last (not because I had a bad experience; just that I don’t foresee myself flying to a specific location to attend it). Although, thank you for ensuring that the observations I made on fan hierarchies in my PhD thesis is still extremely valid though.

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