When Inclusion Becomes Erasure
No person is just one thing. We have a multitude of identities that define us and are often weaponized against us. As a woman, I’m told I’m too emotional in my decision-making. As a Black woman, I’m told that I’m too angry and aggressive with a perpetual victim mindset. As a fat, Black woman I’m told I take up too much space and should learn my place in this world, which is either unseen or behind a lot of other people. But I make myself seen while giving the finger to all these people trying to dictate who I should be…that is, when I remember to notice them. I’ve been hearing nay-sayers for so long that they’ve become white noise…not that I miss it when it’s gone, but still. It’s the ever-present buzz that constantly seeks to steer me out of the way.
So, when I see people and organizations promoting inclusion, my inner skeptic steps up to see what’s actually going on. Inclusion is a challenging thing to do because to do it, you must consciously define groups and then purposefully seek out members of that group, not as tokens but to provide a platform to elevate their voices. These identities are so nuanced that representation of everyone feels impossible, but every bit helps. And to do that, you have to keep pushing to include as much diverse experienced people in your events.
Which is reason one why the BLERD is the Word panel was so disappointing.
To provide a little background, a convention called BlerDCon will open its inaugural doors this summer. As of today, I’m a panelist at the convention where I’ll be presenting Cosplay in Non-Canon Bodies and Anti-Blackness in Fandom. My providing content for a convention doesn’t exempt them from scrutiny, though, which brings us to where we are today.
I attended BLERD is the Word with zero expectations. I had no idea what to expect from this panel, so when I saw the panel consisted of three Black men, I wasn’t bothered. That is, until they started speaking. The panel was about BlerDCon, a convention designed specifically for marginalized and underrepresented fans and cosplayers. The goal of the convention is to be inclusive. Which made it an interesting choice not to have any Black women on the stage.
The speaker began by defining the word “Blerd.” For the uninitiated, Blerd is a mash-up of Black nerd. Blerd is a word I’ve come to love, because, well, I am a Black nerd. I love that this word speaks to the unique experiences of Black people in nerd/geek culture, cuz it’s different. It’s specific. And while Black people are not a monolith, the discrimination and racism we face is global. Considering how little choice we have in choosing our identity, it’s awesome to see it prioritized in our fandoms and nerd/geek lives.
So, you can imagine my disgust when the speaker stated that anyone can be a Blerd. Anyone.
He said that being a Blerd wasn’t just for Black people. That it includes everyone…anyone who has nerd/geek interests. Blerd is universal. Yes, he did. He sure did say that. Yup.
As you can see, I’m still a little fucked up by the tone-deafness of that statement. I know what he was trying to say. I know his goal was to ensure everyone felt welcome at BlerDCon. But here’s the thing. Everyone isn’t going to feel welcome at a Black-centered convention. And they shouldn’t, because if they believe and support white supremacy, anything Black-centered is atrocious to them. And here’s the thing – BlerDCon’s core audience is Black. That’s why you chose the fucking name. How the hell you going to have a panel directed at your core audience and then erase them from the narrative? You didn’t have to name the convention Blerd anything if you wanted it to include everyone. But, you know, gotta make sure the white people are comfortable with Black folks to “succeed” right?
I was not the only one who had a strong reaction to that statement. A wave of discontent moved through the audience, too, but as the panelists weren’t taking questions at the moment, we moved past it. That is, until we reached the topic of whitewashing. Now, I’ll admit, whitewashing is a challenging topic, mainly because the film and television industry barely bother to create Black characters or hire Black or POC writers, producers, or filmmakers. That lack is felt throughout the industry in america. Without fail, in virtually every Black nerd group I’m in, there are Black people who defend this environment. They pull out the “create your own” argument. They talk about times where Black people and POCs were cast in roles that were assumed to be white. I am so tired of this conversation…you have no idea. And people’s perplexity about it takes me out because we know what it is. We know it’s white supremacy flexing its power to remind us, Black people and POCs, that we ain’t shit. We KNOW this. So, when Black people start talking about how these are financial decisions, I get exhausted. How many fucking shitty movies do we need to see white people lose money on, only to turn around and make more before we understand that the money is just another excuse to justify their racism? The money is irrelevant. They make the movies they want to make and they don’t want brown folks in them, except as expendable scenery.
This shit ain’t that hard to understand.
Yet, when the conversation turned to Ghost in the Shell, it was all the same shit. One panelist brought up the point that they took the movie to Japan and asked “actual Japanese” people what they thought. Like the Asian-American people who don’t see themselves represented on the screen at all and watch as every opportunity for a lead role is given to a white person don’t have final say in how fucked up this practice is. Like he/we have the right to speak for that community when they have done an amazing job speaking for themselves and their response was a resounding “that’s some fucked up shit.” They sat on stage and tried to legitimize racist white bullshit during their Black-centered panel, and that shit was unacceptable.
This was when I couldn’t stay silent anymore. I’d listened to them “all lives matter” the word Blerd, heard them struggle to be universal when none of the Black people in the room wanted that. I listened to their tone-deaf take on inclusion and their assumption that they were doing it right and decided to point out the fallacies in their monologues.
It did not go well.
I need to be clear here. My issues arose with only two of the three panelists. Barr Foxx, who is a friend of mine, was included on the panel last minute and learned the content at the same time we, the audience, did. The other two…well…here’s how that shit went.
One panelist took the condescending route. He tried to infer I didn’t know what I was talking about, tried to lead me down a path of thinking to his conclusion, and refused to listen to anything I said. He centered his opinion in the Ghost in the Shell discussion and completely erased the Asian American community who’d been the most vocal about it. At one point, he stated he approved of their argument, as though his approval was relevant or necessary. And, I was told later because I missed this, he called me “sweetie,” the most patronizing of the agree to disagree endearments. The other panelist just kind of let it roll but then later referred to me as “sister girl” as he praised the idea that he created a space where we could discuss these issues. As I am neither his sister or a girl, it just added fuel to the fire. But even I know a futile argument when I see it, so I ejected because, basically, the discussion was trash. Their points were trash. The panel was trash. And sadly, Black people are so hungry for inclusive spaces, they thought it was fine. Ok, not really. Several Black women approached me afterwards and thanked me for speaking up because they were on some bullshit.
I really felt bad for Barr Foxx, though. I don’t think he expected to experience so much casual sexism and anti-Blackness from his co-panelists, much less expected to represent a convention where everyone can be a Blerd, regardless of race.
Straight up fuckery.
And I know it wasn’t just me. I know that many people struggled with the messaging we were receiving from the most vocal of the panelists. It was just amazing to hear the creator of a Black convention work to minimize the Blackness of it, especially in a room full of Black people. Seriously, there was ONE white person in the room, something the panelists actually called attention to because heaven forbid we ignore the white person in the room.
All this is to say that I’m worried. I’m worried that the inclusion BlerDCon is promising is a lie. I’m worried that it’s going to be casually sexist because the people running the convention can’t see their sexism. I’m concerned that there aren’t enough women involved in the decisions making aspects of the convention. And I’m wondering if “Blerd” and “inclusion” are just buzzwords to appeal to a certain demographic.
Maybe I’m wrong and I hope that I am. We’ll see.