This was the only panel I attended that wasn’t majority white and male. Over half of the audience were cosplaying to various degrees, including one audience member, Shyaporn Theerakulstit, who won Friday night’s costume contest with his Khan.
The panelists were award-winning writer N.K. Jemisin, games writer and critic Jeffrey L. Wilson, Emmanuel Ortiz, who runs Nerd Caliber, Muse en Lystrala, a writer and classical musician, Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad, the founding editor of Islam and Science Fiction, and two cosplayers, Ger Tysk, cosplaying Evil-Lyn, and Jay Justice, cosplaying Scarlet Witch. The moderator, Diana Pho, is an Editorial Assistant at Tor Books, blogs for Tor.com, and maintains the Beyond Victoriana multicultural steampunk website. She was wearing a gorgeous outfit she called “Asian Steampunk,” and had, unbeknownst to the audience and panelists, just been accosted by a group of men who were using fake business cards to “interview” cosplayers. Her remarks on this incident have fed into a larger debate about gender and representation at the Con, and in the geek community as a whole, that shows how much we need conversations like the one I’ve tried to capture below.
First of all, this panel was easily the best I attended at Con, and I say that having watched Doc Hammer swing dance to “Greased Lightning,” and hearing Judy Greer scream “You’re not my supervisor!” into a microphone. What made this panel truly great was that there was no divide between the panelists and the audience, it really felt like we were all having a conversation.
It’s absurd, in 2013, that this panel even needs to happen. It’s absurd that the geek community isn’t welcoming to everyone. The point of our community, at its heart, is to give a home to people who feel like outcasts in other areas, and it needs to do as much to serve people of color as it has done to serve the white and nerdy. Now, as one of the few non-POCs who attended the panel, I feel like the best way I can tell you about it is to get out of the way and let the panelists speak.
Pho started the panel with what she called the “Geek debriefing,” asking the panelists to tell us “what’s geeky in your neighborhood?”
Wilson: “I’ve been a gamer since the age of 5, which would be…1979.” (A few people in the audience murmured woooow…) “Our faces aren’t very represented in video games at the moment. I’ve spoken with people in the industry, and they say that it’s about money… but I will say that in 2012 and 2013 there were some big characters who were minorities, so it is getting better.” (I heard a few people name Franklin, from GTA V, but at least one person countered that he’s a stereotype.)
Jemisin: “I live in Crown Heights, and there’s a Doctor Who bar! But speaking about writing in the fantasy community, there’s not a lot happening, but that is beginning to change. I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t know anyone like you was writing this stuff! I didn’t know we were allowed to read it!’ We weren’t welcome. But I’m seeing more and more movement, and more questioning of stereotypes. People are not embracing, say, Game of Thrones, or those unusually un-diverse medieval Europes! I’m seeing people question it. You see writers who can write about elves and dragons—and I always say, Why do you think black characters are harder to handle than dragons and elves?!”
Muse: “I’m a classical musician, and I write horror and modern fantasy. And when I first started writing, I finally had to ask myself: ‘Why don’t I write characters of color?’ I had to think about that, hard, for awhile.” (The audience murmurs and nods) “You know, will it be accepted?”
Jemisin leaned in: “We all have to figure that out.”
Muse: “I live in Albany, and it’s among most diverse places I’ve lived, but it’s still very segregated. There is a thriving geek community, but it’s very separatist.” (She paused here, and took a breath.) “I like having people be nice to me when I go to buy games and comics.” (She paused again, obviously upset. The audience murmured again, and some clapped.) “I’m seeing a bit more acceptance. But people react with… extreme surprise when I tell them I play D&D and magic, and read comics.”
Justice: “I’m a costumer, I read Punisher when I was 4, and I loved it.” (The audience breaks into ‘wows!’ and applause) “I promote literacy, because kids can have fun but also expand their vocabulary by saying excelsior and reading about Spider-Man. And I just wonder, at what age do we have to tell our kids ‘You can’t be the character you want?’ It’s not cosplay racism—it’s just racism.”
Tysk: “In 2007-2008, when cosplay exploded, I was asked, “Do I need to look like the character to cosplay as them?” No, no you don’t. It doesn’t matter. Do what you love. This show came out, Heroes of Cosplay” (some cheers but more boos from the audience). “Some people really hated, some people really loved it. I don’t have a TV, but I was hearing about it, that there was a lot of discussion of race on it. First of all there were no Black cosplayers on it, but there were also apparently people saying that Chinese people aren’t really a minority? I found that offensive.”
Ahmad: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away—the United States, 15 years ago. Muslims were represented as the ultimate “other” But since then, people have spoken up. At Wiscon, a few years ago, a famous sci-fi writer whom I will not name said something about” (he put his fingers up to make airquotes) “‘Muslims being out to kill us.’ She was supposed to be the guest of honor, but her invitation was revoked by Wiscon. And now we have Nightrunner, we have a Lebanese Green Lantern. So it is getting better, because people are speaking up.”
Ortiz: “I’m a Puerto Rican, I grew up in the Bronx. I was misunderstood by my family. I mean, I liked heavy metal. Outside of my family, with all the messages of what you should be…you know, I had a hard time fitting in with people…” (he trailed off for a moment, then looked up at the audience and waved his hands) “But I’m OK now!”
Representation and Media:
Pho then asked about representation in general: “We weren’t represented much in the past but things are changing. Things seem to be getting better… do you think geek media expresses what it is to be person of color, as well as being a geek?”
Wilson: “Well, video game media—there are no people of color in it. We need more people like us in videogames, but the bigger issue is, there’s not enough of us developing video games. I know there are many roadblocks to getting into industry, there are cliques, and boys clubs, and lifestyle. But if you be a games writer, please do not quit—we need you.”
Jemisin: “I work at an engineering school, and I work with Black Girls Code, to help encourage more engineers of color. For me, it was reading my first Octavia Butler book that got me into this. I wrapped my fantasy books in textbooks to pretend not to be so geeky. But I realize, ‘Hey, we can write this, too!’ And knowing it was possible opened doors. In comic book media, the heroes let you know what you can do, how far you can go. The heroes we see who can achieve miracles so rarely look like us, and that lets us know that we can’t do it. But now we have a generation who have seen a president who is black, a Green Lantern who was black, and they’ll see possibilities we didn’t see. This next generation will demand it, until Hollywood can’t help but see it.”
Muse: “I got my first Nintendo ’cause my mom won it in an Avon raffle. I was raised by a white mom and a black dad, and I didn’t grow up with the idea that you can’t do certain things because of race. It wasn’t until I got older, and tried to deal with the gamer community. But anger doesn’t help anything unless you do something about it. I see a ton of people of color here cosplaying. You can’t be afraid to speak up. I stopped being afraid, but I still get angry. But now I see a room full of people who are not afraid to speak up. Sometimes anger drives me to speak or write, and my blog was my way of saying ‘this is who I am.’ I’ve gotten a lot of funny looks for my cosplay—I’m a plus size African American female. (Audience cheers) I’ve gotten a lot of, ‘You should only cosplay in your own ethnic group.’ Well guess what? I have like ten different bloodlines, so how is that going to work?”
Justice: “People think Black nerds are some exotic hothouse flowers! They don’t see black cosplay, ’cause people don’t promote it enough. If you live somewhere where you’re the lone poppyseed on a plain bagel, you have to put yourself out there.” (She mentions Cosplaying While Black and Wilson states that we live in a “post-Samuel Jackson/Nick Fury world.”) “I cosplayed as Nubia once, and a guy came up to me and said I was being disrespectful. ‘Wonder Woman is not Black.’ Well, this one is!” (Applause.)
Tysk: “I loved Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, but there are no Asians in those. But then when manga and anime exploded, I saw people who looked like me. And then when anime got popular Avatar showed up, and it was so good. But then the movie happened…” (M. Night Shyamalan’s Avatar: The Last Airbender gets a loud, prolonged boo.)
Ahmad: “In general women are better players than men. I can back this up with research papers. Within minority cultures, there’s a socio-economic element that gets ignored. We don’t have access to media. If people aren’t accepting us, well, all I can say is, haters are going to hate.”
Ortiz: “Comic books were the first medium I enjoyed. In my neighborhood, the libraries were too dangerous to walk to, but there was a comic book shop! So I went there. Cap was my hero of choice. I didn’t see too many male role models, but Cap was awesome, he was an outsider, a man out of time, who was trying to do the right thing. But still, representation in comics is not enough.”
Jemisin: “One of the things we also have to do, we have to look out for each other, look out for other groups who are being discriminated against. My first novel was about a biracial woman, white/Indian-ish—at least, the equivalent of Indian in the world of the story. And people asked, ‘If you don’t write black characters, who will?’ I completely understand that we have to represent ourselves, we can’t rely on white people to do representation, but we should demand it. And we should represent all creatures—alien races etc., all as human, developed characters. I get flak for talking about feminism instead of race, as though I’m able to divide the parts of myself. You can’t expect people to stand up for you if you don’t stand up for them. White writers can write about anything, and get called universal. We cannot—and the way we can change this is by writing everyone, and then expecting them to meet us halfway.”
How Do Various Identities Mesh with Race?
Pho then said: “We’re not just defined by race, but by gender, abilities, religion, sexuality, etc. How do other identities mesh with your race in fan communities?”
Wilson: “I’m writing a comics script with a black female character, and I’m doing it because I don’t see them in the media. Now I’ve been wanting to write comics since I was a kid, and now people want me to give her blonde hair.”
Jemisin: “She can have blonde hair…” (gestures to a blonde woman in the front row, audience laughs.)
Wilson: (laughing) “Their blond hair comes with other things as well…” (audience murmurs.)
Muse: “I was talking one day at school, and a white girl said, ‘You only care about social issues cause you’re black!’ And this same girl, I mentioned a week earlier that I was going to Con, and she was stunned. I went to a club with my band, and the bouncer told me I’d have to wait outside during soundcheck. I’m like, ‘But I’m the singer?’ and he was amazed that I was a singer in metal band.”
Tysk: “Cosplay characters from a place of respect. I’ve had people ask about, like, darkening their skin to cosplay.” (audience gasps and boos) “I’ve had people say to me, ‘I don’t see what’s wrong with it, people in Germany do it!’” (audience laughs) “So I’d just say, be aware of issues that are going on, and be respectful.”
Ahmad: “In many narratives, it can come down to Arabs and Westerners. Or Africans and Westerners. There needs to be more interaction between non-European characters!”
Ortiz: “I get people on my site saying, I wish I wasn’t Puerto Rican, I wish I wasn’t black.” (Audience gasps.) “I just try to tell them, ‘You are unique, and wonderful. Please don’t hate yourself.’”
What Can We All Do To Create a Stronger Community?
Finally Pho asked everyone to give an example of one physical, concrete thing we could do to help. She gave her own answer, which was to give NYCC itself feedback on the panel, and ask them to give us more panels like this!
Ortiz: “Take time to look at the issue, and know thyself. Ignore the media’s negative stereotypes.”
Ahmad: “Read about, and talk to people, who belong to minorities, so you don’t carry the stereotypes that the media has fed you.”
Tysk: “Don’t be scared. I was told, ‘As an Asian person, you can’t do certain things,’ but it wasn’t true. Don’t be afraid to do anything you think you can do.”
Justice: “If you’re part of a majority, don’t exert your privilege on people who don’t have it, and if you’re a person of color, don’t let the majority tell you what you can be.”
Muse: “Ask questions, and don’t be afraid to speak.”
Jemisin: “Get angry. It’s OK to get angry. Anger is why I decided, “Goddammit I’m gonna be a writer. And I write what I fucking want. I write what I feel like.”
Wilson: “If you are writing a story that’s centered on a person of color, try to hold onto your vision.”
To Sum Up:
As I said, I’ve tried to present this panel as faithfully as I could, but what I can’t capture here is the spirit of the room—the applause, whoops of support, boos followed by shared laughter—all the things that made it a real conversation. I do want to say that I’m happy to be part of a community that can have a discussion like this, but I know that it has to go much further, and get much louder, so that everyone will feel welcome. So I’m going to get out of the way again, and invite you to continue the conversation in the comments!