Reimagining fan studies in the age of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter

Aya Esther Hayashi

People's Theatre Project, New York, New York, United States

[0.1] Abstract—We in the United States are living in the midst of two pandemics: Covid-19, which is affecting communities of color at an absurdly disproportionate rate, and a renewed spate of murders of Black people at the hands of police. They reveal the depths of racial inequity and injustice in our country. This is a crisis—a turning point where many of us are wondering what we can do better and how we can be better. For us in fan studies, will we finally face the white supremacy embedded in our discipline and take steps to become an antiracist discipline?

[0.2] Keyword—Antiracism

Hayashi, Aya Esther. 2020. "Reimagining Fan Studies in the Age of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 34.

[1] What a year. We in the United States are living in the midst of two pandemics: Covid-19, which affects communities of color at an absurdly disproportionate rate, and a renewed spate of murders of Black people at the hands of police. They reveal the depths of racial inequity and injustice in our country. As we try to grapple with this moment, there are several overused words to describe it: the new normal, unprecedented, crisis. It's the last one that I'll explore more.

[2] The word crisis comes from ancient Greek krisis, which translates to "decide," a word with no positive or negative connotation. It was simply the moment where a decision or judgment was made—or, in late Middle English, the turning point in a disease where patients either recovered or died. It is only recently that the word took on a negative meaning—as in, for example, "the 2008 financial crisis."

[3] This premodern view gives me hope. This is a turning point, a moment of judgment where we have the chance to do better, to be better. This possibility has been explored elsewhere (Wright 2020), but I wonder how we can leverage this moment for the sake of our discipline.

[4] Cue: "Yo! Who the eff is this?" (Miranda 2015).

[5] My name is Aya Esther Hayashi. I am a Japanese American cis woman, musicologist, and fan studies scholar who escaped academia for the nonprofit theatre industry in New York City. I am the development manager for the People's Theatre Project (PTP), a Latina-led antiracist organization that creates ensemble-based theatre with and for immigrant communities to strengthen the movement for justice. All staff are required to take an antiracism workshop within six months of hire, and we frequently discuss how to dismantle racism with our work in arts education and theatre.

[6] The verb reimagine appears in many of our written materials because it reminds us that we are creative beings who can (re)imagine and (re)create. By sparking our collective creativity, we work to remake our world into a more just one. The concept of reimagining resonates with me on multiple levels: it is the common thread between my work and faith to why I pursued a fan studies topic in the traditional (read: white) discipline of music history.

[7] As noted already, fan studies has a whiteness problem (Phillips 2019). Actually, scratch that. Fan studies has a white supremacy problem. I define white supremacy as the ideology that assigns the highest value to white people's thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and actions, and ranks those of BIPOC (note 1) in rough descending order of yellow to Black. Fan studies is a white supremacist discipline, but I do not mean in overt ways like the KKK, racist hate crimes, or slurs; rather, I mean in the covert ways like tokenism, BIPOC erasure, supposed color blindness, "protecting" the fan, and not recognizing the difference between intent and impact.

[8] White supremacy manifests in fan studies when we apologetically write that race deserves to be written about, but we didn't have the space (Fiske 1992). White supremacy manifests in fan studies when we exclude BIPOC scholars from our critical genealogies (Wanzo 2015). White supremacy manifests in fan studies when BIPOC scholars are policed when calling out racism in fan art (Pande 2020) or when posting to Twitter (Nadkarni 2019). White supremacy manifests in fan studies when roundtables about race/racism are derailed when racism is wrapped up in other issues of inclusivity. White supremacy manifests in fan studies when it makes conflicts about race into interpersonal issues rather than focusing on the context and histories in which violence against BIPOC scholars is nurtured. White supremacy manifests in fan studies when BIPOC scholars choose not to submit to Transformative Works and Cultures or exit the discipline because they would have to choose between career advancement and calling out racism. White supremacy manifests in fan studies when I, an Asian American scholar, write this piece instead of a Black scholar.

[9] Fan studies' white supremacy does not exist in a vacuum. White supremacy is baked into academia. Diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts continue to be thinly veiled tokenism, with departments hiring a BIPOC scholar and "seeing what they will do" to help the university become more diverse (note 2). Furthermore, whiteness is the unspoken norm in many corners of fandom; racism and white fragility manifest in spectacular ways (as in RaceFail '09, summarized at the Fanlore wiki at or in a multitude of subtle ways (Pande 2020). The latter includes BIPOC fans who say that racism doesn't exist in fandom (i.e., internalized oppression). As acafans, we are guilty of diverting the conversation rather than addressing and rooting out the racism embedded in our field.

[10] I say "we" to include myself, to acknowledge my participation in upholding white supremacy. In my dissertation on musicking in media fandom, I noted but did not engage with the fact that everyone I interviewed was mostly white. Whiteness was the norm, and I did not challenge it. I sidestepped it. My bibliography featured predominantly white scholars. By my silence, I helped to uphold white supremacy in fan studies, musicology, and academia.

[11] Why did I remain silent, and thus complicit? In my music department, I felt constant pressure to justify my topic. As an interviewer, I hesitated to bring up the lack of diversity, even in the wizard rock community, which prides itself on its social activism. I needed my committee to find my work—and me—worthy of a degree. It was my fear and desire for approval that held me back. In fund-raising language, I was responding out of a deficit-based narrative: my default position was one that assumed my lack of power, resources, and ability to approach the issue of whiteness in the communities I was studying. This leads me to wonder what deficit narratives the fan studies community as a whole has also created and lived in.

[12] Fan studies is a weird discipline. It's simultaneously part of reception studies, anthropology, media and communication, queer studies, literature, theatre, and music, yet none of these things. Early in the first wave of fan studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, fan studies scholars challenged boundaries and value judgments. In some cases, we argued that academic research interests paralleled fannish passion. As time went on, we set up conferences and edited collections. We established specialized journals with double-blind peer review. We structured our ethnographies in a standard fashion, struggled with our own identities as fans and scholars, and sought to justify our work through the application of dense theoretical texts. Only recently has the discipline breached the hallowed grounds of the university press.

[13] We are trained to work all the time in graduate school and our early careers. Rest seems impossible in the face of the task of writing a dissertation or a book. We are taught to give our time as unremunerated service, and the adjunct teaching system steals our time while underpaying us. Journals profit from our labor and tell us to be satisfied with the publication credit alone (note 3), all while stadiums are built and administrative salaries skyrocket. It is an exhausting dance to copy academia's systems in order to obtain its tacit approval.

[14] When I first read Tom Phillips's post on the Fan Studies Network (FSN) blog about fan studies being a "discipline overrun with whiteness," I placed it in the above context, having no knowledge of the role that Rukmini Pande, Nicolle Lamerichs, Samira Nadkarni, and others played in the events leading up to it. Three months after the FSN post, Nadkarni published a response:

[15] [The FSN statement] attempted to obscure the work Rukmini and I already did to make subversive racism evident while building off it…

[16] Erasing the work is part of how whiteness forces us to reestablish a baseline. Erasing work is how work fails to proceed, is hampered at five minutes out the gate, and is then termed simply "too personal" for academic note. Erasing the work is how exhaustion or anger are framed as aggression too early in a set of responses that one side has been repeating for decades together while the other claims an innocent lack of awareness. Note that only one side gets to claim innocence in this and it isn't the side being harmed.

[17] The statement begins by noting that a statement was made by a fan scholar on 8 February 2019, yet the scholar in question—Rukmini Pande—remains unnamed. No link is provided to her tweet itself, and no attribution offered to why this intervention by #FSN2019 was necessary. No mention is made of Nicolle's tweets or the responses in the aftermath, and no effort has been made to document the events in question…Our names are erased. Our work is erased…This deliberate act of erasure preserves whiteness and white feelings…

[18] The statement goes on from there to refuse any culpability, locating those within the Fan Studies Network board as all precarious academics…As such, this statement shifts from erasing and dehistoricising the twitter events affecting a brown cis woman acafan in India (Rukmini) and documented by myself (also a brown cis woman scholar in India) to centring white precarity in the Global North. (Nadkarni 2019)

[19] White supremacy manifests in fan studies through vague statements by the FSN. At the risk of seeming like I am supporting FSN's precarity defense, I offer an idea that I have gleaned from my own antiracist learning: that white supremacy robs everyone, BIPOC and white people alike.

[20] My inclusion of white people might seem wrong because white supremacy benefits many of us, myself included. To be clear, I am not saying it harms us all in the same way. There is much more physical and emotional trauma inflicted on Black, brown, and Indigenous people. While I'm assuming the will to change is in you as it is in me, white supremacy keeps us trapped in a system that eats our time, starves us of community and resources, and paralyzes us from making change.

[21] BIPOC scholars have added burdens. In tokenistic fashion, these scholars are granted the opportunity to decenter whiteness and are told to be grateful for it. There is little community of like-minded BIPOC scholars to help bear the burden. Burnout is inevitable. Thus, in our collective fatigue, it is easier to mimic systems that we know and set up hierarchies of power and decision making that further uphold white supremacy in academia.

[22] Nothing I have said is new. Even now, a voice in my head asks me what I think I could possibly add to this conversation. Others have said these things better than I have, and no change has occurred. Even as I raise my voice in this space, I feel guilty that I have been so tardy to take up antiracist activism; I feel incapable of addressing the enormity of the task of dismantling racism. I fear that white scholars will use the idea that white supremacy robs us all as justification for the trauma they have caused BIPOC scholars. I fear that I have not gone far enough for the BIPOC scholars who spent time in dialogue with me on this issue.

[23] However, there is power in naming our fears. We must recognize the pernicious ways that the established system continually reminds us that we must do things according to the way it's always been done. My white colleagues must reflect on their complicity but also remember that the system works to rob them of the ability to be strong allies. In this moment of crisis, we have a decision to make. We can let things be as they have always been, or we can work to become an antiracist academic community.

[24] I do not have the answers, but I believe that we together have answers. PTP artistic director Zafi Dimitropoulou often talks about the collective genius in a room when she directs the PTP Company. Individuals carry their own trauma, but when they gather together and share their stories, they find healing, making art that stretches imaginations and ignites social change.

[25] Now I'm calling on the collective genius of the fan studies community. Let us bravely name the stories that have defined us for too long. What can we do to make TWC and other journals not just accessible but equitable? What practices can we introduce at conferences that don't tokenize BIPOC scholars? How can we make and reflect antiracism as a core value of our discipline? Building an equitable world requires us—we who have benefited, and continue to benefit, from white supremacy—to step up and change the system so our BIPOC colleagues can flourish. We must build a scene that reflects them and says that they belong too.

[26] At a meeting that I attended with members of NYC's Culture@3 collective (Pogrebin and Paulson 2020), a colleague noted three stages in becoming antiracist: learning, analysis, and strategy. Too often we get stuck in one phase or jump too quickly to a later phase. We must be willing to jump between the stages multiple times—for the rest of our lives. A couple of suggestions follow on how we could start this work.

[27] Let's reflect. How have we benefited from fan studies being the way it's always been? White supremacist narratives have a hold on our lives because we do not confront them with intention and because we let them exist in the subconscious and inform our actions without question. We must abandon our self-congratulatory tendencies to say we understand racism already because of the historical attention we have paid to issues of gender, sexuality, or transcultural studies. We must identify the things that trigger our defenses. Stop. Breathe. Listen to understand—not to make a counterargument—to the BIPOC scholars who have already done so much work, risking their careers and relationships to call out racism in fan studies. Select texts from the numerous antiracist reading lists out there. Attend an antiracism training (note 4). Repair relationships with BIPOC scholars whom we have harmed.

[28] Let's complicate the narratives we weave about fandom. I still find that many of us tend to fall back on arguments made in first wave fan studies, leaving whiteness in silence. Let's address the racial inequity in our past and present writing. Let's decolonize our teaching and bibliographies (Yanders 2019).

[29] Let's diversify editorial boards and conference planning committees. This requires white scholars who believe that they have earned their places on these committees to step back. This requires other people to step up. Perhaps we can set up term lengths or another way of rotating who participates in these positions of power.

[30] Let's diversify who is published. Let's refuse to release issues where every author is white. This might mean making adjustments to the double-blind peer review process. As a scholar of color, I sometimes hesitate to identify myself in a peer-reviewed space because of the unspoken pressure to sound serious. But autoethnography is one of the beautiful features of work in fan studies. Young scholars of color should feel safe to insert themselves into their writing, even if it destabilizes the review process.

[31] Let's create alternative funding for conferences and journals, to transform these practices from unremunerated service activities to activities where labor is honored. Maybe this means we set up a fund to which we contribute a monthly membership fee, say $10 to $25 per month, with the funds used to support publication efforts and pay authors for their labor. Maybe funds can be used to allow young BIPOC scholars to attend conferences. Could we establish a nonprofit whose mission is to diversify our discipline? As a nonprofit fund raiser, I am willing to research options and use the resources and connections I've acquired to shift these dynamics.

[32] I recognize that doing any of these will require more free labor on our part. But how much stronger will we be if we name the practices needing change, collaborate with people to accomplish them, and delegate labor? I long to see fan studies become an antiracist space. This is a vision I am willing to work toward. Are you?


1. BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and people of color. This erm acknowledges the vastly different experiences that Black and Indigenous people have experienced, primarily in the United States, compared to other people of color.

2. These words were said to me in a postdoctoral fellowship interview in Texas in 2019. Before my most recent adjunct hire in 2016, I was told that they needed me because the adjunct staff was all white and male.

3. Case in point: when I coedited issue 4.2 of the Journal of Fandom Studies in 2016, we sent multiple emails to the publisher on behalf of our authors, simply asking that they be sent their complimentary copies of the work they created. Did they ever receive them? No. Did I pay for my own copies? Yes. Did I fail by letting the matter go even though we never had our request honored? Yes.

4. For those in the United States, I recommend the "Undoing Racism" workshop offered by the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB).


Fiske, John. 1992. "The Cultural Production of Fandom." In The Adoring Audience, edited by Lisa A. Lewis, 30–49. New York: Routledge.

Miranda, Lin-Manuel. 2015. "Non-Stop." Hamilton: An American Musical. New York: Atlantic Records.

Nadkarni, Samira. 2019. "'A Discipline Overrun with Whiteness': #FSN2019 and Making a Statement—A Guest Post." Stitch's Media Mix, May 13, 2019.

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.

Phillips, Tom. 2019. "#FSN2019." Fan Studies Network, February 11, 2019.

Pogrebin, Robin, and Michael Paulson. 2020. "The Daily Call that 200 Arts Groups Hope Will Help Them Survive." New York Times, May 12, 2020.

Wanzo, Rebecca. 2015. "African American Acafandom and Other Strangers: New Genealogies of Fan Studies." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 20.

Wright, Paul. 2020. "How Pandemics Wreak Havoc and Open Minds." New Yorker, July 20, 2020.

Yanders, Jacinta. 2019. "Workshop: Decolonizing Research and Teaching." Fan Studies Network—North America Conference. October 26, 2019.