I was supposed to start with something nicer, rounding up my Continuum 13, but all I can really think about is the racial micro aggressions PoC experience at Australian conventions, particularly the micro aggressions experienced by our PoC Guests of Honour, and the ways in which con goers can prepare to have our backs (our own, and the backs of others).
And so, beneath the fold: some racial micro aggressions, and some ways to prepare to call them out.
Micro aggressions and the other things we say; or, First Aid for paper cuts
In this post, I’m using the US-American-centric term ‘PoC’ (or Person of Colour) to refer to people who are CALD, or non-white, or whatever. We don’t have a great word in Australia to umbrella us and I don’t really like the term PoC but I need an umbrella term for this post. If you want to suggest a better one please do.
(I have started using Fae of Colour to refer to PoC SFFH fans which makes me laugh but is a bit TOO levitating for this post so please note that for future.)
I fucking love Continuum, okay? So this is not a Continuum-specific post. It is just that it’s the most recent con I attended, and also the one I’m currently the most involved in. I can link you to some other examples of these sorts of things.
Look, it’s hard not to name names when Continuum has only had four PoC guests of honour. It’s pretty obvious who I’m talking about with regard to who has experienced some things. And I’ve talked about previous incidents on previous posts.
Sometimes micro aggressions are subtle and gentle. They’re so tiny and insignificant that I’ve called them paper cuts since before I knew what micro aggressions were.
The thing about micro aggressions, though, is that you have to be on guard for them; and sometimes you’re on guard and they happen anyway, and they cut and cut and cut, and all you think of when you look at that project paperwork is bleeding on it.
That’s what it’s like, to be non-white at an Australian con.
And sometimes they’re blatant. Take this experience, experienced by Mia, who was our local Guest of Honour this year at Continuum:
I’m so sorry that this needs saying; but I’m only sorry to those of us like me. I’m sorry to Mia, and Ambelin and Nora and Queenie before her, and to every non-white Melbourne fan (and beyond) who’s popped into Continuum either on my request or through their own research, and been turned off.
This is not appropriate. These are things that should never be said, and I’d thank anyone who thinks it’s appropriate to stay away from all of us.
On twitter, after the Con, I declared it was time for PoC fans to create the PoC GoH Defence Squad, because I can’t in good conscience continue to advocate for the inviting of PoC guests if this is what they have to put up with, if this is the experience I’m inviting them to endure.
Anyway, it’s me and the also loud and amazing Creatrix Tiara so far (you should always want Tiara on your Defence Squad), and we’re going to join the kaffeeklatsches of PoC GoH and be in their audiences and speak up when we need to speak up.
I get that sometimes it’s hard to speak up, especially if you are not One Of Us (and even if you are). I have heard, anecdotally, of other situations at this year’s con where people wanted to speak up but weren’t sure how, in the moment. This included one time where someone was actually on the panel and wanted to speak, but wasn’t sure how.
Sometimes you freeze, you know? And sometimes you’ve already made a lot of changes and don’t want to seem overbearing; and sometimes you don’t know if it’s your place.
(It’s always your place, to speak out in the moment; to let others know that you are trying to create a safer space; to let yourself know that you’re trying to create a safer space.)
So I am here today to talk you through being prepared. Because I want you to be prepared, whether you are PoC or white. I am specifically talking about racial micro aggressions, but don’t think that our problems in Australian fandom are merely about ethnicity, they are about disability and they are about gender and they are about all sorts of things. But this is my area of yelling expertise, and what I most often disagree with others about when I’m at conventions, so this is what I’m talking about today.
(Speaking of micro aggressions, you’re aware of the queer and African-American coding on the “evil” characters in The Lion King, right?)
This is especially important for our white friends who are not sure what they’re doing and claim to be allies! You’re on a panel about world building in space opera, and you, a white friend, plan to talk at about exotic constructions of the future. It’s pretty controversial. So think about all the ways in which culture is stereotyped, what it means to be other and exotic, and hold them lightly in your hand. It might be a long list, it doesn’t have to be complete.
Then think about what you might say or do if someone is like ‘and because Japan is such a good representation of where we’re going, it’s a good shorthand for the future and I love how that works.’ Think about how that feels to a Singaporean on the panel, even, let alone a Japanese person, feeling all alone in front of people. It can just be a brief interjection, it doesn’t have to be a treatise.
Remember that it’s okay to say that something made you uncomfortable but you’re not sure why.
Speak up (on the panel)
“Ooh, wow.” (Let the silence fester for a second before you swing onto the next thing.)
“Yeah, no.” (Push in on this one.)
“You don’t think that’s a little bit racist?”
“I think there are some good points happening here, but it feels like we’re skirting towards some weirdly racist commentary and I don’t think we’ll have time to do the intersection justice.”
You can wait, if you like, and say something before changing the subject. If the topic has already moved on, you can go back and address it and then move on, too! I promise it gets easier, it’s not as awkward as you think it will be!
Here, pause and practice now. “I think that’s an interesting point, but before I talk to it I just wanted to go back to when Gertrilda was talking about Firefly. She mentioned it’s normal for all the Chinese people to be offscreen because they’re more wealthy than people on the Serenity, but I’m not sure that’s right? Anyway, yes, Jupiter Ascending is an amazing movie…”
Part of the problem is that white people on panels at cons, and even off panels at cons, are used to speaking as if the groups they’re talking about aren’t right there tweeting angrily from the audience.
The thing is, we are right there, tweeting angrily. I don’t need to pay hundreds of dollars to experience micro aggressions and yet, here we are, where I pay hundreds of dollars to listen to micro aggressions.
For context, this tweet was during a panel on horror, and is actually a great example of a micro aggression.
You know what this panel was called? ‘Horror in the 21st Century’. Do you know what it was actually about? It was about Western Horror in the 21st Century.
The ‘Western’ is silent, assumed, and that’s what makes it a microaggression. The only mention of things not of Western influence were fleeting and inaccurate, and I especially bridled when a panelist talked about being excited about what changing themes we’ll see due to ‘world’ happenings – with no mention of the ways in which changes have been occurring in Southeast Asian horror since 1998.
Mia and I spent all weekend wandering around Continuum rambling about Asian, specifically Southeast Asian, SFFH, and here’s a panel on technological advances in horror stories and yet there’s no mention of the use of vlogging and mobile phone apps in ghost hunting and ghost stories in Indonesia?
This is a paper cut, because it happens all the time and we experience it and we’re supposed to brush it off, even when it’s a tiny thing upon a tiny thing upon a tiny thing.
I will be rambling more about Southeast Asian SFFH on another day, please stand by if you want to hear more about Indonesian ghost hunters and their use of vlogging and the Quran to tell horror stories.
Bring a friend
Especially if you are PoC, bring a friend who’ll have your back. It doesn’t have to be another PoC! I have half a dozen very close, like-minded friends who will gleefully text back and forth with me during a painful panel and then bitch loudly with me out in the hall afterwards, but I know that if I’m in a panel audience and I speak up, they will be speaking up right behind me.
I have had explicit conversations about this with these friends. It’s nice to assume, of course, but it’s good to be sure and have that confidence. Do it. It’s great.
Look, I get belligerent, and that’s not always the best option. I acknowledge that. But after years of cons, belligerence is how I protect my own, and I’m comfortable with that. It’s how I get defensive and argumentative fast, when I haven’t been prepared for it, and sometimes you just have to take a running leap and start stomping. It is uncomfortable to be in front of everyone and be stopping the flow of conversation and be getting worked up, but that’s okay, too.
Because if you were uncomfortable because of the thing that was being said, know that someone else was uncomfortable, too. And if nobody was – well, you need to make it uncomfortable for them.
In 2016 I nearly walked off a panel about using science to destroy the world because the moderator thought it was hilarious that I thought the North Korean example he was using was racist. Don’t be afraid to make it uncomfortable. Don’t be afraid to walk off.
Things to do as the moderator
Prepare for where it might go wrong; and remember that as the moderator you have the authority to stop the panel in its tracks. Don’t be afraid to rein in a panelist, or an audience member, and don’t be afraid to have them removed from the room.
Make it clear why you’re stopping a train of conversation or debate.
You are there to keep the panel going, yes, but sometimes you have to stop the panel, too.
Please remember, incidentally, that not only are PoC in the audience, but we’re also on panels. If someone is whitesplaining to a PoC on a panel, please feel free to interrupt that ‘splainer. You are the moderator, please just draw the panel back to where it needs to be. I don’t want a co-panelist to tell me why laksa is so amazing, and why it varies from location to location, but I might not want to come across as the belligerent brown person on a panel, so please feel free to do it for me.
Interrupting micro aggressions in a social setting
Sometimes micro aggressions happen in a panel, but sometimes they occur in the bar or in a conversation or in passing. No Award recommends a few techniques. These are applicable to both the people being aggressed at, and those friends who want to have our backs.
For the extremely non-confrontational or when you just don’t have the patience, go the non-sequitur and change the subject: “Do you like cats? Would you like to look at pictures of mine? Please tell me in detail about your pets.” Always have your cat pictures ready to hand for quick whipping out. You can do this one, I believe in you.
A bit more confronting: “Gosh, I wouldn’t have said that.”
Really lean on in to it: “Wow, that’s an anecdote. How would you relate that to the topic we’re talking about?”
Go for it: “Wow, that’s racist.” “Wow, do you think that’s appropriate?” “Wow, don’t ever talk to me ever again.” GO FOR IT. Make it uncomfortable. They already have.
Please manage this institutionally
This note is specifically directed at my white friends who want to fix the thing. It is also applicable if you are some other sort of not-marginalised voice, such as if you are straight. When you find something that needs to be fixed, please understand that it cannot be fixed by my friend, it has to be fixed by the convention committee. It cannot be fixed by my friend because that’s not how institutional change works. And when we talk about micro aggressions, when I talk about micro aggressions, I’m talking about institutionalised racism.
It’s nice that I have your friendship — and I really value it — but what I really want is the promise of the institution, not the individual.
If you would like to discuss your techniques in the comments, please do.