Conventions, hierarchies and forced diversity

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.

15 thoughts on “Conventions, hierarchies and forced diversity

  1. Thank you for sharing your perspective, I feel like I’m having such mixed feelings about the event – having been to a previous Worldcon I can see how much has improved, but there was also so much that could and should be better. That you were forced to say no to that panel 3 times is ridiculous. What was the panel with the young woman being talked over, if you remember?

    1. Thanks! That panel was The Role of Fandom in Contemporary Culture (ended up not having anything to do with contemporary culture…). And as I said, it’s my first Worldcon, so it’s not exactly the best thing to encounter first hand perhaps.

      1. I suspected you meant that, I was that panelist and it was really hard to judge from up there if I was right about feeling like that was happening (it moves so fast!). And yes, I was so frustrated by how hard it was to move it to contemporary culture! Part of that was us losing one of our panellists who was to be more on that side. But the shoddy moderator who seemed to find certain audience member’s points more important than mine was also totally unhelpful. Having people in the audience interrupting to tell me my personal experience was wrong multiple times was so frustrating.

        1. I thought, under the circumstances, you did exceptionally well, and I really wished you had more of an opportunity to speak! And it was really unprofessional of them to interrupt you while you were speaking since you are the panelist. Why go to a panel if you only want to hear yourself speak! But yes, there’s also been a lot of discussion about how unprepared some of the moderators were, especially in terms of handling more difficult audience members or during panels with more controversial subject matter. I hope they do learn something from this experience, and will make amends to creating a safe space, not just for attendees, but also for panelists as well!

          1. Bad audience behaviour is a regrettable constant in fandom, mostly because there is a deliberate (and in my opinion positive) effort not to have a distinction between professionals and fans. The more successful panels I have been to have been dialogues between panelists and audience, but that of course can easily degenerate into the Mad Audience Member Derailing, and there are also the Moderator With An Agenda and the Panelists who Discover They Hate Each Other. The heckling usually is far rarer but it looks like the size of the convention amplified the problem this time. I know of at least another incident.
            I have heard multiple reports of the racial slur panel, and I assume(d) the convention took action, if not immediately.
            The code of conduct totally and absolutely applies to everybody, no matter what their role is, member, staff, or even outside staff. A lot of the issues you experienced seem to me to be violations of the code of conduct, some of them no doubt made with the best possible intentions, but the code of conduct was not there to hit people over the head, it might well be that what needs to happen is education and self reflection.
            I volunteered at the con as a listener, a perhaps unclear definition which led people to think we were a sort of counselling service. We were actually the designated point of contact for code of conduct violations. We got some reports but far too few compared to the problems that have been reported, which makes me think that we need to be much more proactive in making our presence and function known.
            The fact that not all reports came to us or were reported to us, because the convention acted swiftly as soon as they became aware of problems (at least two people had been ejected for code of conduct violations as of Sunday), means that I cannot give reassurances about what actions were taken in specific instances, which troubles me a little, but I was just a small part of the machine.
            There might well be problems that were not acted upon because nobody became aware of them, but Pat MacMurray (Ops) made it clear that the convention still exist and can still take action, and he can be reached at Patrick dot McMurray at loncon3 dot org
            And of course, there are certainly instances in which the convention simply failed.

            1. I’m curious as to whether the racial slur woman was ejected (I was at the panel), and from what I heard, went on to stalk and harrass Mark Oshiro on Sunday. I heard she wasn’t, so I don’t know.

              And see, I didn’t even realise there were ‘listener’ volunteers at the con.

      2. Oh wow, I think I was supposed to be on that fandom in modern culture panel, but illness prevented me from attending the convention – perhaps it was for the best, in the end :(

        I’m very sorry you had a such negative experience at the con, and I appreciate you sharing your perspective with us.

        1. You’re most welcome. I debated making this post public, because I didn’t want to make it into an issue. But I think, if anything, if there’s a slight chance the organisers will take it to heart to make the convention space even better for future con-goers, and to, I don’t know, implement better strategies in future, then this is a minor inconvenience. :)

          At the end of the day, it was an interesting time for me, as an academic, to learn and to observe as well. And I had an opportunity to catch up with friends and meet new people, so that’s always a plus in my book.

          Sorry to hear you were ill and couldn’t attend the con though!

  2. Thanks for the review, Bertha. I think there is a lot of sensitive stuff in here, so thanks for being brave enough to share with us! I especially found it sad that people had to make an assumption that you MUST have an opinion on race because you are not white Caucasian. It’s not bigotry but it is a misguided ignorance of the fact that, like all human beings, we have interests in different things and issues that are close to our hearts, and they may not always be related to the colour of our skin, our sexuality, our religion, etc. I am what I am and that doesn’t mean that I HAVE to have an opinion on it. I mentioned it in my comment on Bethan’s review of Loncon, but I’ll say it again here – the more I think about it, the more I believe that having these academic panels in a fan convention was likely to blow up in some form. Fandom itself is such a contentious issue and its factions so often at war with one another that the panels were bound to open up vulnerabilities and unhealed wounds. It’s good that we could talk about it; but maybe we should all have protected ourselves more.

    I don’t know. I’m aware I’m sliding slowly into rant mode, so I will end on a happy note and say that it was great to finally meet you guys and have a laugh in RL. :)

    1. My convention highlight was definitely meeting you as well (finally!). :) And thank you. I debated whether to make this post public for a few days, and finally decided to, after talking about it with Bethan and Lucy (Bennett). I think the first step is to be able to talk about difficult and sensitive things, even if it’s coming from a place of (initial) anger and disappointment. One of my frustrations with fan studies is the tendency to only focus on the ‘good’ side and ignore the less positive emotions, but as we saw with our own eyes at the convention and experience it with our own fan communities, fandom isn’t homogenous and sometimes it’s fraught with tension, and we need to be able to talk about those emotions too. So if I can’t blog about this, if there’s no space to talk about this, then we can’t move on and grow as a field.

      But I agree with you, it’s a slippery slope to try and manage both academic and fan panels. I know Worldcon has done it before, and Comic Con has done it this year as well (although on a much different capacity) – I think it’s a matter of balance. I still think at the end of the day, if they’re going to have a Code of Conduct on how people behave towards cosplayers, that courtesy should also expand to panelists. And moderators have to do more to moderate at the end of the day; it’s not an easy job (I’m usually more stressed about moderating than I am about presenting because you do have to be stern) and I think they should have put more thought into these panels. Getting people to propose panels is an option; at least you’re not putting a bunch of strangers together, which for some panels I’ve seen can be terribly awkward. But in doing that, you also lessen the possibility of meeting people outside your social group, so it’s hard to navigate. I don’t envy the organisers! ;)

      Anyway, all good points raised! And I do hope we can continue to talk about this. I’m still surprised that I decided to take that step and post it.

  3. I do think there was some “tone deaf” approaches to diversity at LonCon – the kind of thing where I get the impression that the programme planners were given the instruction to try to improve panel diversity – which I approve of – but no idea how to go about it. It’s unforgivable that you were asked 3 times about the same panel: way to reduce you to no more than perceived racial affiliation!

    I agree about some appalling mod choices for panels. I went to the being a fan of problemautic things discussion and there was a mod who had no idea what he was talking about, happily referring to himself as “old-fashioned” in relation to “sexism” (seriously, you could almost see the air quotes!) He then allowed the discussion to get off track and stay there. I had similar experiences in other panels.
    _
    And I had no idea LonCon hadn’t followed their code of conduct. So, really pointless to have it, eh? *shakes head*

    (Here via Kate Elliot’s plug kn Twitter)

    1. Yeah, that “Being a Fan of Problematic Things” panel was a train wreck. My friend, Bethan Jones was one of the panelists. I know it was mentioned that moderators were volunteers as well, and were sometimes placed into panels they weren’t particularly skilled at handling. There seems to be a lot of that going around, and I think, despite it being a huge event, some thought should have gone into moderation, especially for panels that were going to cover sensitive or controversial topics.

      I was very disappointed that the person who was hurling racial abuse at the panelists weren’t removed from the convention at all. Maybe there were other things at play, but I definitely think more should be done to protect panelists as well.

      Thanks for reading and commenting! :)

  4. In answer to your question re the problematic fandom panel, yes. I was on the panel under my real name, and was the person who jumped in over the moderator. (Since you know Bethan, that narrows it down). I don’t know if you noticed him, but the guy who was standing at the side until the end of the panel was head of programming. He had heard about the incident via social media, and directly after the panel checked with all of us to make sure we were all ok, took those of us who were not due at panels (and wanted to come) back to the Green Room, and we debriefed and chilled. The audience member was given a warning (this required making an official complaint, per the Code of Conduct and other information circulated to attendees) and barred from attending panels where complainants had asked that she not be allowed to attend. Staff were actually on hand to make sure. After subsequent incidents were reported, she was banned from the con.

    re the moderation, I think a lot of work went into the decision-making, but it’s hard on paper to know if someone will have the right personality. I am guessing that you’ve experienced bad moderation at conferences, but the consequences are less weighty. I was both disturbed and pleased that the mod asked for an explanation of privilege and intersectionality. My impression — and this is not anything I heard officially — is that there was some attempt to make sure there were differing points of view on the diversity panels; clearly it didn’t always work, but I agree with the principle. It’s a weird thing. I am still having a hard time dealing with the fact that, as I jumped in, I was fully aware that I was using every bit of privilege I could draw on to shut that person down. Irony, we can haz it.

    After a different panel, someone came to me and asked if they could get my take on whether something that had happened was worth reporting. I took her up to the wrong place for the right thing — I knew there were listeners, but I had forgotten where to find them. All of the info was available to all of us, in the con guide and in the extra stuff they sent to participants. I had read it, but by Sunday, I only remembered the options, not the correct procedures. But in any case, I think it’s unfair to say the con didn’t put the info out there. On the other hand, I think that there should have been more reminders, and perhaps mods/chairs should have been encouraged to be more proactive about safe spaces and triggers.

    I hope this doesn’t sound like I am trying to discount anything you’ve said about your experiences, or anyone else’s. It’s just that there seemed to be places in your comments where my own experiences might help give more of the picture. My impression is that a lot of this comes down to excellent intentions, but uneven, untrained handling of things. And yet (and it was my first big con, too), I still kind of feel it was a big improvement. I also wonder if part of the reactions are down to the fact that these conversations are much more open than they might have been even a few years ago, and are being taken more seriously. Boggling at the whitewashing panel, though. Just… Wow

  5. “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…”

    Wasn’t there, so don’t know, but I wonder if maybe she was instead ESPOUSING the philosophy. The acronym DOES keep changing, and the B and T additions as “standard” have only happened (separately) within the last five-seven years. Maybe what she was instead saying was ‘Whatever your sexual orientation happens to be’…

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