How (not) to talk about race: A critique of methodological practices in fan studies

Rukmini Pande

O. P. Jindal Global University, New Delhi, India

[0.1] Abstract—Fan studies, a thoroughly interdisciplinary field, has drawn on methodological strategies from such fields as anthropology, literary studies, cultural and media studies, and psychoanalysis, resulting in a wide range of analytical frameworks and methodological approaches that highlight the different aspects of the fan communities being considered. Yet a lack of attention to how (unmarked) whiteness underpins these strategies has led to persistent blind spots regarding the operation of race and racism within these spaces. An analysis drawing from cultural and postcolonial studies highlights some of the ways scholars can overcome these gaps. Nonetheless, the logics of white supremacy continue to influence both micro and macro issues around research in fan studies.

[0.2] Keywords—Cultural studies; Interdisciplinarity; Postcolonialism; Racism

Pande, Rukmini. 2020. "How (Not) to Talk about Race: A Critique of Methodological Practices in Fan Studies." In "Fan Studies Methodologies," edited by Julia E. Largent, Milena Popova, and Elise Vist, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 33.

1. Introduction

[1.1] As a thoroughly interdisciplinary field, fan studies has seen foundational studies use varied methodologies, drawing from anthropology (Bacon-Smith 1992), literary studies (Pugh 2005), cultural and media studies (Jenkins 1992), and psychoanalysis (Penley 1992). This has resulted in a wide range of analytical frameworks and methodological approaches that have highlighted different aspects of the fan communities under scholarly consideration. At the same time, a lack of attention to how (unmarked) whiteness underpins these strategies has led to some persistent blind spots regarding the operation of race/racism within these spaces. This is particularly true for research into Anglocentric fan communities that form around British and American media texts, which continues to operate as the default for the field. As I have argued in previous work, there is crucial research being done on transcultural/transnational fans and fandoms, but this continues to be othered within the discipline and is rarely included within lists of texts that are considered canonical to fan studies (Pande 2018b). Simultaneously, there is a lack of desire to explore whiteness as a racialized identity.

[1.2] Before moving on to my main argument, I would briefly like to deconstruct a popular methodological choice for fan studies, that of ethnography, though as Evans and Stasi (2014) point out, it has not been specifically identified as such in many accounts (Hills 2005). This hesitation can perhaps be traced to its identification with the operations of colonialism (Said 1978) and its implications for the relationship between the researcher and the fan community. Concerning the latter, fan scholars have argued that ethnography often necessitates taking an outsider perspective on the workings of a community, which simultaneously places the researcher in a position of interpretative power over it (Busse and Hellekson 2012; Freund and Fielding 2013). The relationship between researcher and fan community has been a sometimes fraught one, as the position of so-called unbiased ethnographer can be seen to produce work

[1.3] de-emphasizing the researcher's fan positioning and potentially colonizing the fan. Meanwhile, in fan communities themselves, "academic" positions have often been heavily managed and policed, where fans have reacted with concern about the possibility of being studied from the "outside." (Evans and Stasi 2014, 11)

[1.4] I would like to interrogate the idea of "colonizing the fan" itself from my particular position as a nonwhite scholar and, further, from a specifically postcolonial theoretical positioning. I would argue that the framing of media fan communities as subcultural and powerless vis-á-vis the producers of popular media texts has also allowed for their unproblematic slotting into a vulnerable site/space that can be exploited by a researcher for their own benefit. This usage of specifically decolonial/postcolonial critiques of disciplines like anthropology and practices like ethnography to characterize the workings of communities dominated by white female fans, who continue to hold considerable institutional privilege compared to the nonwhite fans within those same spaces, has had some very troubling effects. For instance, in an examination of American-centered fan activism, I found that fan campaigns that do not keep these intersections of identity in mind often reinscribe neocolonial power differentials in the name of philanthropy (Pande 2018a). This is made possible because the construction of fans-as-marginalized in contemporary fan studies rarely goes beyond considerations of gender and sexuality.

[1.5] My analysis in this paper therefore draws from my particular research background in cultural and postcolonial studies to highlight some of the ways in which scholars who are producing work in Anglocentric fandoms can work to overcome these gaps. I will be drawing from specific instances that have occurred in my research experience to illustrate how the logics of white supremacy continue to influence both micro and macro issues affecting research in fan studies.

2. (In)visibilizing whiteness: Approaching fans, fandom, and fan studies

[2.1] In their review of methodology in the field, Evans and Stasi (2014) note that fan studies has been influenced by cultural and media studies in its suspicion of categorization and definitions, instead "emphasizing flexibility and fluidity with the aim of proceeding as a bricolage collective of methods, theories, ideas and concepts" (8). While this stated aim is laudable, it is also essential to trace what absences and erasures have persisted across this collective. For one, it is significant that despite the roots of the field being firmly in the work of the Birmingham School and cultural theorists such as Stuart Hall, work by nonwhite scholars is still to find an undisputed place in essential reading lists and indicative bibliographies, particularly when it comes to establishing its core concerns. This erasure is part of the structural whiteness of the field and also ensures that the methodological choices that upcoming scholars are exposed to remain limited.

[2.2] As scholars like Rebecca Wanzo (2015) have pointed out, studies such as Jacqueline Bobo's Black Women as Cultural Readers (1995) and Jeffrey A. Brown's Black Superheroes: Milestone Comics and Their Fans (2000) are rarely seen as relevant to fan studies papers and research proposals by peer reviewers and research supervisors. I would argue that, in contrast, knowledge of Nancy Baym's (2000) work on (white) women soap fans online is seen as indispensable. I have no wish to argue against the inclusion of Baym's work but rather want to underline that such patterns are not neutral. As Wanzo (2015) points out, this needs to be seen not as a product of ignorance; rather, "one of the reasons race may be neglected is because it troubles some of the claims—and desires—at the heart of fan studies scholars and their scholarship" (¶ 1.4). Another effect of these erasures is that any scholar wishing to engage with race/racism in the field must work considerably harder to find methodological and theoretical frames that are simultaneously productive for analysis as well as broadly recognizable to institutionalized modes of peer review and publication as "real" fan studies work. To give the example of my own experience, I frequently have to spend considerable time explaining my theoretical models, such as my application of postcolonial cybercultural theory and critical race theory to fandom spaces. This is because while knowledge of the ideas of Bourdieu or Foucault is seen as essential to be taken seriously in the discipline, a knowledge of Said or Spivak is not.

[2.3] Indeed, the simultaneous presence and absence of race as an analytical category within fan studies as a discipline is glaring. This has been noted with increasing frequency in contemporary scholarship. Building on Wanzo's (2015) critique, Woo (2017) has called race a "yawning void" (245) in the fan studies canon. In my previous work, I have described whiteness as an "unexamined structuring force" (Pande 2018a, 13) in work on media fandom. In the editorial of the recent special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, De Kosnik and carrington (2019) also affirm, "That fan studies was founded, and has been dominated up to this point, by white scholars is indisputable" (¶ 1.1). Henry Jenkins (2019) has called the present stage "a moment of reckoning" for the field as it struggles with these critiques (¶ 1).

[2.4] Despite repeated affirmations, acknowledgement of the gaps and silences around the topics of race and racism is certainly not universal within the field, and there is very little consensus around what concrete efforts the discipline needs to take, if any, towards remedying these elisions. As I will lay out now, the responses to these calls to action have followed three broad trajectories, each of which also run the danger of further reifying white supremacist logic through deferral, disavowal, and deflection. The first impulse has been an increase in the attention to work by scholars already working on issues of race/racism in fandom spaces. This is certainly a necessary and important step, but it can also cause an impression that, due to the hypervisibility of some scholars, who are still in a minority and whose work is still seen as "new," the problem is now fixed. It is therefore vital to trace in which aspects of scholarship emergent attention to race is being paid most clearly and where it is seen to be less urgent.

[2.5] It is clear that the issue of race is seen to be relevant to an analysis of fandom only when there is either a controversy that entails overt and identifiable racist behaviors, such as Gamergate; that includes the targeting of nonwhite actors such as Kelly Marie Tran or Leslie Jones; or when the fans or fandoms under analysis are explicitly framed as nonwhite, such as Bollywood (Desta 2018; Punathambekar 2005). Crucially, this kind of scholarship is then seen only to be significant to similar studies rather than fan studies more generally. This is not to slight the scholars who have gained canonical status, whose work is indeed critical, but to point out how the logics of whiteness structure the assumptions of both fans and scholars in these spaces. Therefore, while work on nonwhite fans and fandoms has certainly proliferated over the past decade, it is important to recognize the contexts within which such work is being circulated.

[2.6] The second impulse adheres to what Sara Ahmed (2004) has termed a politics of declaration of whiteness. Such a politics may take multiple forms, but here I will discuss two strands. The first is when scholars, usually at the beginning of their presentations or papers, declare an absence, deferral, or footnoting of race in their analysis. As a rhetorical strategy, this implies that race as an analytical category, while important, does not intersect meaningfully with the aspects of identity (usually gender and sexuality) that they do discuss. This is demonstrably inaccurate, as has been established by decades of critical scholarship (Bailey 2012; Barnard 2004; Bérubé 2001; Frankenberg 1997; Hull, Bell-Scott, and Smith 1982; Moreton-Robinson 2000; Thomlison 2012). Of course, this continued elision is only possible when the same logics continue to structure publishing practices, with white research supervisors, peer reviewers, and editors both failing to push back against such assumptions and reinforcing hierarchies of citation. This is a strand that I will discuss in more detail further on in this article.

[2.7] This ties into a third impulse, that which Stanfill (2018), amongst others, has called the "unbearable whiteness" of the field, which is maintained by fan scholars' refusal to name it as such. That is, white scholars continue to claim that they are unequipped to talk about race or that it is not their place to engage in these discussions. This has the effect of (re)establishing whiteness as a default and ignoring the fact that whiteness is also a racialized identity, one which has a key effect on their research (Frankenberg 1997; Hill 1997; Dyer 1997). Ironically, this has the effect of placing the burden of making whiteness visible squarely on those scholars who wish to engage with questions of nonwhiteness, especially within the Anglocentric fandoms that have formed the core canons of the field.

[2.8] At the present moment, race is rarely taken into account when discussing aspects of fan identity. While gender and sexuality are often emphasized, the whiteness of participants is neither mentioned nor seen to have an important impact on research findings. In effect, while scholars who talk about nonwhite fans must foreground participants' racial identities, those who discuss survey results or interviews of queer or women fans often position their research as universally relevant within these identity categories. This problematically reinforces whiteness both as default and as neutral in fandom spaces, a documented effect of the logics of white supremacy (Crenshaw 1997; Shome 2000; Nakayama and Krizek 1995). In this context, the move towards naming whiteness can be a radical choice, as it forces both researchers and respondents to reckon with difficult questions regarding systemic patterns of erasure within fan communities.

[2.9] I will illustrate this by examining a recent case study in which whiteness as a racial identity was foregrounded in a supposedly neutral research environment. In April 2019, Fansplaining, a popular podcast hosted by longtime media fans and researchers Elizabeth Minkel and Flourish Klink (2019), conducted an online survey in which about seventeen thousand fans weighed in on what they felt about the practice of shipping characters in media texts. The survey was not explicitly about fan identity, but the demographic data that was collected (on a voluntary basis) included gender, sexuality, and race. This resulted in a very rich dataset that Klink has discussed in detail on their blog (2019b). I will pick up on one thread of the discussion regarding the relationship of shipping with the representation of marginalized queer identities in media. This is something that has been emphasized repeatedly in fan studies, so it is perhaps not surprising that a lot of survey participants made the same connection (Busse, Lothian, and Reid 2007; Casey 2015; Fathallah 2014). However, in a crucial departure from the trends in the broader literature, Klink and Minkel also made it a point to foreground the (unstated) whiteness mediating the responses. Klink (2019a) noted:

[2.10] Most people who wrote in a free-response follow-up said they were excited to follow canon ships which improved representation of various marginalized groups on TV. Many responses were extended meditations on how representation interacts with individuals' shipping practices. Respondents were mostly concerned with queer representation (other types, such as race, were rarely mentioned, supporting the argument that fandom is preoccupied with white queer issues at the expense of all else).

[2.11] Once this discussion was published online there was an immediate pushback to seeing this whiteness as either relevant or significant to the survey results. One fan argued that since the survey was about shipping and not about racial representation, fans were predisposed to thinking along romantic/sexual orientation. This argument once again reinforces the idea that unless a specific question about (nonwhite) racial identity is asked, whiteness does not play a role in how fandom approaches questions of romantic/sexual orientation. Klink (2019b) pointed out in their response to such arguments that the survey did not link shipping with ideas of representation, queer or otherwise, so this was very much a reflection of what a majority of participants thought was important to their fandom activities. They also stated, "For fans of color, the issue of race in shipping is often very important" (Klink 2019b).

[2.12] This statement, as some fans pointed out, perhaps inadvertently implied that race is not important to queer white fans. However, the dataset demonstrates that at least 76 percent of the respondents self-identified as white and that the majority of the most popular ships, both historically and in the contemporary moment, were made up of white characters (Fansplaining 2019). A commentator, brownieth (2019), pointed out on Twitter that this is not a neutral observation, remarking, "White fans only being interested in white pairings only seeing marginalization as far as white queerness is concerned are not neutral choices. Because let's be clear for WHITE fans race in fandom is often very important. That is a true statement that is borne out REPEATEDLY in the choices white fans make in what ships they get behind."

[2.13] The pushback against seeing the survey results as influenced by race contrasted the eager acceptance of the possible correlation of the queerness of survey participants (80 percent) with the fact that a majority of the ships represented (cisgender) m/m or f/f relationships. In a conversation about the reception of the survey, Klink (2019c) made it clear that whiteness is not neutral and that scholars must stop enabling its presentation as such. They observed (2019c):

[2.14] From my perspective…one of the most frustrating things about this survey was writing, talking, and thinking about race and specifically the way that whiteness structures fandom and seeing the way people react to that simply because it made it instantly, unavoidably, and incredibly clear how defensive people are about their own whiteness and how much they don't want it to be a racialized identity.

[2.15] Another aspect of the workings of structural whiteness within the discipline can be seen in the way that its publishing practices and ethical standards operate. I have already discussed the concerns of scholars about exploiting fan communities. There has, in fact, been a longstanding robust discussion around best practices regarding the analysis and presentation of fan work within academic research. Some scholars privilege the rights of individual fans to withhold permission for their fan work to be discussed at all and therefore always ask for permission. Others avoid direct quotations or limit themselves to public posts that have gathered a certain level of visibility. The journal Transformative Works and Cultures itself has the following recommendations for submitting authors (Busse and Hellekson 2009):

[2.16] TWC is trying to protect fans by "strongly recommending" that submitters request permission. Although the editors of TWC are all fans, contributors may not necessarily be—or their fannishness may look very different. That's why we suggest that scholars contact the fan to check on the use of the artwork. We also think that we're protecting fans by discouraging authors from publishing direct hotlinks to sites such as Dreamwidth (DW) and LiveJournal (LJ), instead slightly masking them so that a one-click stop isn't available to the reader.

[2.17] There is certainly merit in aiming to protect fan identity and trying to contextualize content (particularly that of a sexual nature) that may be misinterpreted by unfamiliar readers. The post goes on to say that this is a strong recommendation and not a requirement both because researchers might have to adhere to different disciplinary requirements and because some fans may not be available to give permission. However, the implicit assumption of these guidelines is that fan scholars will largely take a positive view of the fan work they analyze. But what if one is discussing fan work that is racist or otherwise discriminatory? It is highly unlikely that most fan creators would permit scholars to characterize their work as racist or be willing to have it discussed with that framework.

[2.18] This question has provoked significant difficulty within the course of my own research, which has examined incidents of overt and covert racism in fan communities. How does my position as a researcher, with its ethical responsibilities towards the spaces and participants I study, intersect with my research responsibilities towards highlighting power differentials between them? This is a difficult question, as was illustrated by my experiences while working on a coauthored paper on racial dynamics in fandoms that have accrued around queer female characters (Pande and Moitra 2017). As we had provided specific examples of problematic fan art, which showed clear indications of racist and colonialist underpinnings, my coauthor and I received significant pushback from multiple peer reviewers who were uncomfortable with such specificity. Their contention, which was significant, was that this framing would highlight only certain individuals and perhaps open them up to negative repercussions beyond what was warranted for their production of problematic fan art in an online setting.

[2.19] My coauthor and I ultimately decided to remove those references, as the paper was not concerned primarily with fan art, however this process illustrates how the more troubling instances of recorded prejudice within fandom spaces are rarely discussed. Another implication of the discussion is that the possible discomfort of the fan artists was privileged over and above the ongoing discomfort caused to fans (including fans of color) exposed to the racist material circulating within fan spaces. This is in direct contrast with the established practice of fan scholars, who very often discuss specific pieces of fan work that exemplify fans' ability to subvert mainstream ideas of power and representation (Kustritz 2008; Coppa 2017). In effect, fan work that is seen to adhere to the principles of a progressive, radical, and inclusive politics is highlighted, and therefore, the association between it and transformative fandom activities is further reinforced. In contrast, problematic fan work is described in vague terms and never held up to the same scrutiny, allowing both fandom and fan scholars to dismiss such works as outliers and not representative of fandom.

[2.20] It also must be acknowledged that the establishment of what is and is not ethical best practice in the interest of all fans and the enforcement of those norms through processes such as peer review is neither neutral nor outside the structures of institutional racism. Indeed, the operation of institutional racism in academic publishing is a particularly fraught subject because it troubles foundational principles about its neutrality. As has been established by research in fields such as higher education studies, psychiatry, economics, and STEM disciplines, the logics of white supremacy continue to shape editorial policy and publishing practices in both overt and covert ways (Harper 2012; Leslie 1990; Stanley 2007; Tryer 2005). Such logics may be covert, as when the Oxford Internet Institute published a paper (Nguyen, McGillivray, and Yasseri 2018) claiming to be the "first systemic study of Urban Dictionary" ever done (Oxford Internet Institute 2018, ¶ 1) but which does not include a single mention of Urban Dictionary's commodification of African American Vernacular English (Natalie 2018). As Major G. Coleman (2005) has pointed out in his analysis of white supremacy in academia, the operation of such logics may also be as glaring as when the journal Social Science and Medicine allowed the publication of a blatantly racist paper by J. Philippe Rushton and Anthony F. Bogaert (1989) that linked a greater susceptibility to the AIDS virus to Black populations due to their genetically driven social behavior. Coleman observed that Rushton and Bogaert's paper in essence argued that Black populations' incidence of AIDS was due to their "lower intelligence and larger sex organs" (Coleman 2005, 765). When the journal argued that it had published the paper due to its having passed rigorous peer review, Leslie (1990) wrote a rigorous rebuttal pointing out its numerous flaws and maintaining that Rushton and Bogaert's "errors of fact and theory [are] not a sign of intellectual daring, bold new insights, original observations and new lines of thought. [They are] familiar racist thinking, a part of our popular culture" (103). Leslie (1990) concluded that the peer reviewers failed to recognize this racist thinking because "Rushton [and Bogaert]'s paper may have appealed to the reviewers because it affirmed a commonsense way of thinking about race" (104). The prevalence of institutional racism in "commonsense" ways of thinking combined with a paucity of nonwhite scholars in editorial positions and as peer reviewers enables this continuation of whiteness as default and the perpetuation of both overt racism and the gaps and silences discussed above.

[2.21] In line with this research, I argue that it is crucial to interrogate how knowledge is produced within fan studies and especially whose safe spaces and privacy are privileged by the broadly accepted guidelines implicated in the reinforcement of the status quo. We must ask what patterns of erasure and deferment are encoded into these practices. I include my own research output here, as I have continued to use only carefully generalized descriptions of racist conflicts and fan works without identifying specific events. This has been a compromise between the competing needs of individual privacy and solidarity, but one that I acknowledge continues to elide the specific controversies, actions, and discussions highly inflected with racism and the discrimination faced every day by nonwhite fans. I believe that part of the answer is to more deeply query the acafan identity that so many fan scholars occupy.

3. Aca/fandom as (un)belonging: Locating the self/other

[3.1] In order to query acafandom and its implication in institutionalized racism, I will trace the methodological discussions that have occurred within fan studies regarding the position of the distanced researcher versus that of the insider acafan. The former has been significantly complicated by successive scholars, while the latter is now a commonly used concept. Henry Jenkins uses the term acafan to acknowledge his dual identity and his affective investments when researching. On his blog, he states:

[3.2] The goal of my work has been to bridge the gap between these two worlds. I take it as a personal challenge to find a way to break cultural theory out of the academic bookstore ghetto and open up a larger space to talk about the media that matters to us from a consumer's point of view. (Jenkins n.d.)

[3.3] It must be noted here that the "us" in this construction remains highly generalized; it does not acknowledge the multiple intersections of identity that may fall under the rubric of acafandom. Continuing this trajectory, Hills (2002) questions the ways in which fan accounts were presented as largely uncontested fact by early fan studies researchers. For Hills, the results of early fan studies scholars' focus on pushing back against negative stereotypes of fans were, ironically, that their activities were framed almost dispassionately and that they did not recognize or acknowledge the biases and attachments informing their work. He observes (Hills 2002, 62):

[3.4] Given the fan's articulate nature, and immersion in the text concerned, the move to ethnography seems strangely unquestionable, as if it is somehow grounded in the fan's (supposedly) pre-existent form of audience knowledge and interpretive skill…Fandom is largely reduced to mental and discursive activity occurring without passion, without feeling, without an experience of (perhaps involuntary) self-transformation.

[3.5] To interrupt this process, Hills proposes that fan accounts be more thoroughly scrutinized in order to interrogate the "moments of failures within narratives of self-consciousness and self-reflexivity, and [their] repetitions or privileged narrative constructions which are concerned with communal (or subcultural) justification in the face of 'external' hostility" (66). I would argue that this is precisely what the Fansplaining survey, referenced above, and the conversations it prompted illustrate. In this case, the "moments of failure" do not come in the face of "external hostility" but rather through both recognizing biases within fandom and querying the dataset itself to emphasize its nonneutrality. Further moments of failure and hostility surfaced once the whiteness of the respondents was seen to matter. Framing whiteness as important allowed the largely triumphant and celebratory narratives around queerness and shipping to be opened up for further examination and highlighted nuance. However, this was only possible once whiteness was seen as racialized identity, a step much of fan studies research omits from its methodologies. While this framing certainly caused friction and discomfort within the fandom community that was surveyed, I argue that this is a necessary kind of discomfiture and conflict that exposes both privileges and erasures. This exposure uncovers productive pathways for fan scholars to explore and illuminates new methodologies that they can use in approaching their own research.

[3.6] Hills (2002) also proposed that a self-reflexive autoethnographic exercise be performed through which academic fans' "tastes, values, attachments and investments" (72) could be analyzed under the same rubric as their research subjects. Autoethnographers are asked to leverage methodological tools, research data, and existing literature to analyze their own experiences of cultural events, while also considering how other participants may experience those same incidents. In the autoethnographic paradigm, the use of personal experience and reflection is encouraged. Strategies employed to achieve these ends include the measuring of personal experience with either published research (Ronai 1995), or with interviews of participants (Tillmann-Healy 2001; Foster 2008), or with the analysis of germane cultural objects (Boylorn 2008; Denzin 2006). It is easy to see then why this methodology would be an attractive one for fan scholars, many of whom are committed to blurring the researcher/subject divide.

[3.7] In a slightly different positioning to Hills (2002), Busse and Hellekson (2012) also encourage an embrace of multiple positionalities by the fan scholar so as to "treat the academic and fannish parts as equally important" (24). There has been some discussion of whether the loyalties of the scholar must be split evenly, as a split positioning might also serve to paper over power differentials within fan communities (Chin 2010). As I have suggested, such a splitting can also serve to de-emphasize historical tensions around race, ethnicity, religion, class, and national identities, amongst others. It also must be noted that there has been disagreement between scholars in the field about the ways in which such implication is read in terms of gender. For example, as Bury (2011) has observed, it has been much less fraught for (white) male scholars to acknowledge their positions as compromised by their investments in popular media texts than it has been for (white) women. Nevertheless, autoethnography has emerged as a particularly popular methodological choice for fan scholars (Couldry 2007; Jenkins 2007; Pearson 2007). Monaco (2010, 1) observes that though this methodological choice has often being termed "self-indulgent,"

[3.8] In drawing attention to the scholar-fan's vulnerabilities that are often silenced in published accounts of fandom, autoethnographic writing complicates realist conventions of representation and the ways in which textual strategies construct the authorial voice in relation to the "other." I argue for autoethnography's advantages by exploring some of the ethical challenges of conducting fan-audience research and by making explicit rather than implicit the ways in which locations of identity and emotional registers inform research choices and processes.

[3.9] Autoethnography is clearly a very powerful tool to chart the complex positionalities that fan researchers must negotiate during their research. It is indeed a methodological tool that I have used myself. However, it also must be acknowledged that its confessional space can, and has, worked towards the disavowal of certain other power differentials between fan and researcher and indeed amongst fans themselves. I refer specifically to the operations of racial identity within fandom and fan research.

[3.10] As I have argued, race, when mentioned at all within fan studies scholarship, is commonly disavowed or deferred in the same breath. The rhetorical strategy of maintaining that race is, of course, an essential axis of identity to be considered yet one that is never considered with the same urgency as sexuality and gender is employed quite frequently in the introductions to anthologies, papers, and conference presentations. There is also sometimes an acknowledgment of the lack of attention paid to racial identity in a particular piece of research, which is then explained away by the researcher's own whiteness and perceived lack of authority to speak on the subject of race. Of course, this is also a repetition of what I have already discussed: the failure to acknowledge racialized whiteness. I draw on Ahmed's (2004, 54) analysis of what she terms to be a "politics of declaration," wherein such declarations of culpability/implication within axes of privilege function as a tactic of deferral:

[3.11] These statements function as claims to performativity rather than as performatives, whereby the declaration of whiteness is assumed to put in place the conditions in which racism can be transcended, or at the very least reduced in its power. Any presumption that such statements are forms of political action would be an overestimation of the power of saying, and even a performance of the very privilege that such statements claim they undo. The declarative mode, as a way of doing something, involves a fantasy of transcendence in which "what" is transcended is the very thing "admitted to" in the declaration: so, to put it simply, if we admit to being bad, then we show that we are good.

[3.12] This rhetorical strategy of deferment also plays a key role in situating racial identity as a rubric of analysis whose specific effects can be isolated to extraordinary incidents. This has certainly been true in fan studies, in which the few times race/racism have been discussed have usually been in the context of moments of crisis, such as Racefail '09 (note 1), when the operations of white and nonwhite racial identities have been made painfully visible (Klink 2010). I have already outlined one strategy of combating this, that is, by naming whiteness. Another strategy is to rehistoricize the accepted narratives of media fandom so as both to highlight the historical and ongoing presence of nonwhite fans in fandom and to register their participation in the development of widely lauded (and assumed white) fandom infrastructure projects, such as the development of Archive Of Our Own. I have attempted to disrupt whitewashed histories of fandom by highlighting the nonwhite fans' historical participation in fandom in ways that encapsulated not just controversies but also nonwhite fans' material contributions to fandom spaces both online and off-line (Pande 2018a); further work within this decolonizing project would be welcome.

[3.13] A brief autoethnographic reflection, rooted in the writing of my dissertation, seems relevant here, as it is vital to reflect on the ways in which my own awareness of the deep racialization of media fan spaces/fan works formed extremely gradually, even while I engaged with these spaces within a critical academic framework and even while my personal experience had trained me to be alert to structural hierarchies, especially within popular cultural texts. Today, my hesitation to engage with race/racism in fandom and fan studies seems almost incomprehensible, but I recognize that it was rooted in the awareness acknowledging race/racism would require me to definitively give up my claim to belonging unproblematically within fan spaces. Such a lack of belonging would not be due to pretensions of academic elitism but rather the final recognition of fan spaces' structural rejection of all aspects of my acafannish identity. This experience is in stark contrast to the more generalized concern in fan studies scholarship around the split between fan and researcher that I have traced in this section. Unlike those scholars, my discomfort was not produced by an inherent incompatibility between my academic and fannish identities but rather caused by the acknowledgement of my equal alienation from both due to my identity.

[3.14] To expand, online media fandom communities gave me a way of interacting on the internet that, as a young girl from a small town in India in the 2000s, felt almost revolutionary. It was in these spaces that I could geek out with fellow fans and not be judged about my Western popular cultural obsessions. My introduction to fan fiction was similarly eye-opening, as I could interrogate my own notions of gender and sexuality in ways that were not a topic of discussion in my home. For an extremely long time, I didn't feel the need to bring my own, particularly Indian forms of fandom into these spaces, as my engagement with these spaces and the fans therein was on different terms. My racialized identity was compartmentalized neatly in my head as a topic not suitable for discussion in fan spaces. Fandom also taught me digital skills, such as how to navigate the various byways of the internet even as I struggled to access those byways on painfully slow dialup and then broadband connections.

[3.15] Nonetheless, I can recognize now that my participation in these spaces remained at a remove. I passed as someone fluent in the language of media fandom, both in terms of English and in terms of popular cultural knowledge. There was no reason for me to "other" myself. Of course, this was not how I framed the matter to myself at the time. Instead, I felt there was simply no need for me to identify myself as anyone but a fangirl. It was only very gradually, through the recognition that there were other people within these same spaces who were talking about their identities and how it impacted their experiences of fandom, that I realized that I could stop curating my own identity quite so selectively. It was through flashpoint events like Racefail '09 and the move to dialogic platforms like Twitter and Tumblr that I saw, for the first time, nonwhite fans unapologetically boosting characters and stories that were important to them. I also observed how these activities challenged my own internalized assumptions about which narratives were important and which characters were automatically considered to be the most popular foci of fan works. Therefore, when I maintain that whiteness is a structuring mechanism of fan studies and fan communities, this conclusion has been arrived at through both my research and a self-reflexive questioning of my own unconscious biases.

[3.16] Looking back, it was my interviews with nonwhite fans for my dissertation project that definitively opened up my theoretical horizons, as the interviewees recounted journeys much like mine. Again and again, these narratives registered the surprise of recognizing that others like them existed in fandom, as well as the alienation that came from attempting to talk about issues of erasure and being dismissed. That is not to say any one coherent thread of experience emerged through these interviews. Indeed, considering the diversity of identities within my respondent pool, it was comforting to see a very wide range of responses to my questions. As Ahmed (2010, 1) cogently argues:

[3.17] Writing about whiteness as a non-white person (a "non" that is named differently, or transformed into positive content differently, depending on where I am, who I am with, what I do) is not writing about something that is "outside" the structure of my ordinary experience, even my sense of "life as usual," shaped as it is by the comings and goings of different bodies. And so writing about whiteness is difficult, and I have always been reluctant to do it. The difficulty may come in part from a sense that the project of making whiteness visible only makes sense from the point of view of those for whom it is invisible.

[3.18] I would add to this that that writing about nonwhiteness also places a unique burden on the researcher, because it almost enforces a process of simplification and essentialism in order to be coherent in one's critique. While structuring my interview schedule, I was keen to facilitate an adequately inclusive data-gathering instrument in order to reflect the very many facets of identity that my respondents might wish to record. By making this instrument as open-ended and respondent-led as I could, I managed to get a truly staggering level of nuance and specificity in identity markers. I also foregrounded the limitations of categories such as "nonwhite," "fan of color," and indeed "racial identity" itself.

[3.19] Nonetheless, while I endeavored to fully reflect the messiness of such engagements by choosing appropriate theoretical structures concerned with these engagements' nonlinearity, at times, the strictures of academic writing and presentation meant that some simplifications were unavoidable. For instance, at one point, I tried to craft a figure that represented the different ways in which my respondents interacted with issues of race in fandom, but it became unreadable when all the twenty-five different self-classifications of identity were included. The process required that I come up with broader categories, such as "Asian-American," which not all my respondents had chosen for themselves, in order to make all the data legible in a representative figure. My struggles are emblematic of the difficulties of such research, but they are, nevertheless, very necessary points of reflection as regards accepted methodologies and modes of expression within fan studies scholarship.

4. Conclusion

[4.1] I hope to have demonstrated some of the ways in which structural whiteness shapes the institutions of fan studies and the ways in which the status quo is maintained. It is thus vital for fan researchers to build robust, varied methodologies that reflect the diversity of fan narratives around supposedly race-neutral issues such as representation, escapism, self- and cross-identification, and the discursive framings of their own and others' experiences as fans. It is also vital for researchers to acknowledge that whiteness is a racialized identity within fan communities, and its effects must be reflected in their research findings. To do otherwise is to actively participate in the reentrenchment of whiteness as default/neutral.

[4.2] In the case of my own research, it was productive to balance Hills's (2002) caution to not take fan talk as direct evidence of fan experience by foregrounding the ways in which fan accounts often clash and disagree with each other while also highlighting where they interrupt more accepted histories of fan cultures. By privileging multivocality over any one singular thread of easily mapped analysis, I have aimed to be adequately reflective regarding the complex operations of race/racism within contemporary fan communities. I hope that the case studies examined in this paper will provide a model for researchers approaching these spaces in the future and that whiteness will no longer be treated as invisible and unmarked but rather as the racial identity marker it is.

5. Notes

1. Racefail '09 refers to a series of events in SF/F fandom triggered by a blog entry by popular author, Elizabeth Bear, on the subject of "writing the other"—she was lauded by her fans and peers for tackling the issue in a sensitive manner (Matociquala 2009). However, one fan, Avalon's Willow, responded slightly differently, discussing Bear's own novel Blood and Iron (2006). Her "Open Letter: To Elizabeth Bear" was a brutal juxtaposition of what Bear advocated in her post and how she had actually chosen to "write the other" in her work (Willow 2009). Bear initially accepted Willow's critique, but soon, some of her other fans and fellow authors jumped into the debate, implying that it was merely a failure to read correctly on the part of Willow and other critics, a familiar rhetorical tactic used to suppress such critique. The subsequent heated exchanges went on to prompt hundreds of posts by both fans of color and allies, as well as those who were resistant to the ideas put forth by them. The latter group unfortunately also included a discouragingly large number of professional SF/F writers and publishers (Somerville 2009). Racefail '09 is seen as a significant event because it lead to broader discussion of the issues of race/racism in SF/F fandom spaces, which also spilled over into media fandom at large.

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