Race and the classroom: Resistant fan practices


Fanworks are increasingly integrated in pedagogical practices, especially in the disciplines of English and Cultural Studies, and more broadly, in the Humanities. These engagements are usually textual in nature, as reflected in the survey question itself. But fanworks cannot be divorced from the communities that produce them. Fan scholars from Jenkins (1992) to Hellekson and Busse (2006) have stressed upon the self-reflexive nature of media fandom communities, which has spurred the production of subversive fanworks that reframe dominant societal norms.

These analyses have so far primarily revolved around the practice of slash fanfiction, but I would like to talk about how the interventions of non-white fans to combat the lack of diversity both in source texts as well as mainstream fandom practices can offer strategies to teachers who wish to tackle the difficult topic of race in the classroom.

It is no secret that to talk about race and racism in any context is to enter extremely dubious territory. In classrooms where white students form a majority, studies (Martin 2010, Haltinner 2013 have repeatedly shown that conversations about race are framed in either antagonistic terms or met with uncomfortable silence. While in most cases it is important for us as educators to create safe spaces in which to explore “dangerous” topics, what happens when it is necessary to introduce discomfort into the equation? How can students be encouraged to confront their own privilege in a way that engages them? I found my inspiration in the fannish practices of racebending and re-casting.

The long established practice of “live-casting” a canon text with one’s favourite actors (once found in book fandoms but now common to most media texts) has gained new currency with tumblr as a fannish platform driven by visual material. Fans re-imagine a source text in all sorts of ways, often genderbending characters to forcibly include more women in a given narrative. Racebending occurs when fans attempt to counter the dominance of white characters.

My tutorial on Race and Popular Culture deployed a number of strategies. I asked my students to read Peggy McIntosh’s marvelous essay, “The Invisible Backpack”, to frame the discussion in notions of privilege. I played a short video where Nelson George discusses the problem with movies like The Help, which are ostensibly about racism, but buffer the audience from discomfort by setting the narratives in the distant (and safe) past. The last exercise I did (taking inspiration from a live re-casting  of The Lion King I saw on tumblr) was to ask my students to come up with names of actors they would cast if making a live action version of the film.

The tutorial went quite smoothly, almost too smoothly, as students nodded along to the points made in the essay and also expressed disapproval at Hollywood’s racist strategies in filmmaking. I could see, however, that the problem of race in popular culture was still on the “outside,” practiced by “other people.” It was when we got to the casting exercise that things suddenly got a whole lot more engaged. As I asked for casting suggestions and wrote them down, it became increasingly obvious that majority of the names suggested were of white actors. When I asked why there were so many white actors in a story very clearly set somewhere in Africa, suddenly the reality of racist casting practices went from something done by “people in Hollywood” to something enacted by the students themselves. The rest of the class, while not smooth at all, produced an extremely engaged debate as students had to confront their own biases.

Did everyone walk out of that class feeling comfortable? I would say no. But I think that discomfort was productive. Fan communities often get “disturbed” when fans of colour start to point out the biases in a beloved text or indeed, in fannish practices themselves. It is from this disturbance and discomfort that I believe new forms of engagement can form, both within fandom and in the classroom.



Busse, Kristina and Karen Hellekson, ed. Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of The Internet. NY: McFarland, 2006. 

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fan and Participatory Culture. NY: Routledge, 1992.


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