There Are No Safe Spaces in a World Built by Predators
For the first time in 15 years, I didn’t attend DragonCon. There is a list of reasons why I didn’t, but mainly it was because I realized that I have no interest attending the event in the same way I’ve done in the past. It’s time for me to reconsider my place in that space and I’m still figuring out what that means. I figured that taking some time off would help.
DragonCon was always a staple for me. People would ask if I was going and my answer was always “of course!” That was true up until June of this year. I was recording a new episode of the New Wakanda Podcast and said that I went to these predominantly white geek events to make them safer for other Black people who wanted to go. I remember kinda flinching after I said it, but it wasn’t until I listened to the playback that I realized what I said and that what I was doing was fucking dangerous.
Yes, dangerous. Because american society is dangerous. Because whiteness is dangerous. And american culture is mined from the bodies of Black and Indigenous people and it is the blood of our ancestors flowing through its veins. This practice of whiteness cannibalizing races and cultures never ended. It’s now a model for success. It is why white people own Afropunk and Shea Moisture and why Black entrepreneurs are groomed to minimize Blackness in their branding. These are not accidents — they are the financial reward that white supremacist capitalist patriarchy rewards those who accept their “ownership.” There are intentional structural barriers in place to limit our access and growth until we conform. This is how oppression functions.
I sat there, listening to myself say how I wanted to help make these geek spaces feel safe for Black people, as though I’d forgotten how these spaces grew from a need for white male geeks to feel safe in their fandoms only to become spaces rife with abuse and exploitation. I remember hearing about groups and cliques that had appeared at DragonCon, and how there were applications to be a member and that membership had privileges. It’s no secret that one of the founders is a convicted pedophile, who has only been removed from their board within the last six years. There are stories of sexual assault by photographers and cosplayers attached to various events and open racists in attendance. They have invited guests, like author John Ringo, who they KNOW are racist, sexist right wing eugenicists all under the guise of being “ fair and non-judgmental”. There is always a quest for power and it is always at someone’s expense.
Then I thought about BlerDCon, the Black cosplay convention whose name I wish to banish from my vocabulary. The very name BlerDCon claimed to center the Black geek nerd experience. Then I heard its founder literally erase Blackness from BlerDCon during a panel marketing the event and I was disgusted. Despite that, I still went to BlerDCon and had a great time because the attendees made it great. It felt like it should have been a haven for Black womxn like me, but it wasn’t. Stories surfaced of exploitative practices and Black womxn being used as invisible labor while actively being denied leadership roles. There were instances that reminded you that the people behind the event were a more melanated version of the ones running a typical geek event, one where I KNEW I wasn’t safe. It’s one thing to know whiteness is gonna cannibalize you. It’s another when it’s the people who look like you doing the cannibalizing.
There are times I wonder why I expect different. The nature of conventions is exploitative at its core. Without volunteer help, most of these events couldn’t happen. When they become popular and profitable, they still rely on volunteer help to function. Volunteering isn’t simple — it’s hard work for no pay, and yet people line up for the opportunity. The downside of capitalism is that everything costs money, including labor, so the seemingly easier way to build something when you aren’t already wealthy is to convince people of the merits of building it for free. I’m part of a group that feels guilty getting paid for our work, so the programming works. And it’s fascinating to watch and depressing to understand.
They are all exploitative. They are all power grabs. They all opt-in to the highest level of oppression they can and enact it through the structures they create. So how could I refuse to support, market, or attend the Black-run con while celebrating the white-run one? The truth is, prior to this year, I hadn’t really thought about it. And when I finally did, I realized that I can’t. I can’t support either of them and I’m trying to figure out what that means.
Someone I know attended DragonCon this year only to encounter multiple white men yelling “n*gger” in the crowds. This is just one of may racist things that happen at conventions and on multiple occasions Black people have had their issues dismissed. Conventions claim to be zero tolerance of oppression and abuse but what they really mean is they can’t be bothered with it. As Black people, Black womxn, and any intersection of oppression, the message is clear: enter at your own risk.
I learned a long time ago that if I went out alone and something happened, it was my fault. If I dressed a certain way, whatever happened was my fault. If I date anyone who isn’t Black, everything bad that happens is my fault. If I get sick while I’m fat, whatever happens is my fault. Our society is so overrun by predators with power that victim-blaming is the default and anyone who isn’t a cis-het white, able-bodied, christian man is guilty of the abuse and harm inflicted on them. And when you are Black, expect the maximum punishment they are capable of inflicting because each and every one of us is an example of someone who didn’t remember their place at the bottom.
We live in a society that makes bulletproof backpacks for children and trains them to escape active shooters in school. We live in a country where a white man can actively rape an unconscious woman and have the judge only give him 6-months in prison so that it doesn’t ruin his life. People are inventing products to help test if your drink has been drugged by some rapist and his rapist friends. We are cautioned to travel in groups because it makes us a more difficult target for predators. And we follow this advice, take the precautions, wear the backpacks, test our drinks all the while knowing that while we may save ourselves, the predator continues until he finds a better victim. And should the predator be caught, it takes more then eye-witnesses, cameras, or even admission to get justice because those handing out justice, our law enforcement and judicial systems, identify more with the predator than the victim. “Innocent until proven guilty” is something that exists for white people to convince themselves their behaviors aren’t monstrous unless enough other white people say they are.
American has a whiteness problem that it refuses to deal with and instead keeps handing more power until it completely cannibalizes itself.
Every time I leave the house, I am at risk. As a fat, Black womxn, I cannot trust white people, men, or “straight-size” people to respect me or my autonomy. Misogynoir and fatphobia are the norms of everyday life and because I am low in the social hierarchy, I’m always somebody’s prey. And because I am heterosexual, cisgendered, and visibly able-bodied, along with some other unnamed privileges, I could make others my prey.
This is no way to live and it’s been a hard road to travel. I have a lot of happy memories of my convention life. DragonCon was the birthplace of my cosplay and congoing self. I met my S.O. at DragonCon ten years ago and got engaged to him there nine years ago. I gained a better love for myself through cosplay. I learned to see my beauty and accept my autonomy by choosing to cosplay despite the opinions of those around me. I don’t know if any of this would have happened if I hadn’t chosen to attend DragonCon for more than a decade.
The truth is, DragonCon is just one of many conventions that have a lot of work to do behind the scenes to be inclusive. I’ve heard the horror stories of Colossalcon’s owners, Nostalgia Conventions. Nostalgia Conventions runs 14 different conventions/fan events and the only people speaking out against them are folks in groups online. Online pressure from victims has led to some small progress like with Anime Matsuri and the ongoing saga of Vic Mignogna, but the victims are often targeted and punished for speaking out. And anyone supporting victims is gaslit to hell and back, which I know from much personal experience.
People with privilege and power have an accountability problem that we all need to address. We need to address it with ourselves and with each other. This thing where we pretend everything is great and only talk about the happy shit is serving no one. All it’s doing is making you easier to ignore when the shit you dismissed happens to you.
We gotta do better than this, people. We CAN do better. I see some individuals do it all the time. This is no way to fucking live.
But we can make it better. Own your shit. Reflect. Repent. Reform. Grow. Actually make the world a better place instead of adding some gloss and forcing that to be good enough.
We can do this. We have to. We don’t want to keep letting this grow, right? Right?
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Originally published at https://talynnkel.com on September 9, 2019.