Fandom’s Race Problem and the AO3 Ship Stats

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Title: Fandom’s Race Problem and the AO3 Ship Stats
Creator: centrumlumina
Date(s): 13 August 2016
Medium: Tumblr post
Fandom: Pan-fandom
Topic: Race and fandom, racism in fandom shipping, AO3
External Links: https://centrumlumina.tumblr.com/post/148893785870/fandoms-race-problem-and-the-ao3-ship-stats (Archived version)
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Fandom’s Race Problem and the AO3 Ship Stats is a 2016 Tumblr meta essay by centrumlumina, the author of the AO3 Ship Stats series. It analyses data, collected as part of the Ship Stats series, on the most popular ships on AO3 and the race of the characters they feature. centrumlumina uses this data to draw various conclusions about fandom's attitude to race and why fandoms of every kind privilege white characters with unerring frequency.

Context

The AO3 Ship Stats project originated in 2013 as a list of the most popular ships on AO3 by fic count. The original 2013 list was more focused on the gender of the characters involved in ships, and there was no race data included;[1] however, beginning in 2014, centrumlumina began to also highlight the race of the characters in each ship, using the following categories: White, POC, and Ambiguous.[2] Refer to Race Categorisations for more detail on these categories.

In a FAQ about the 2016 edition of the AO3 Ship Stats, centrumlumina wrote that "the data [in the Ship Stats posts] is presented in order to highlight the lack of fanfiction focused on women, F/F pairings, and People of Colour."[3] This was the first year in which she explicitly mentioned highlighting race as one of her motivations for assembling the list (the previous year, she simply directed readers to her analysis posts Misogyny? and Why M/M? for more on her opinions about the data), suggesting an increasing desire to focus on the issue of race in shipping.

Race Categorisations

In the guide to the 2014 AO3 Ship Stats post - the first to include race categorisations - centrumlumina explained the categories used in her data as follows:

POC indicates a character of colour, White indicates a white character, and Ambig indicates a character of unspecified or ambiguous race, including characters played by POC who are narratively treated as white.[4]

The following year, she expanded on this in the FAQ for 2015's ship stats, writing:

How is the race category determined?

The categories for race have changed slightly since last year, and thus some characters have moved category. The current definitions are below.

White - Any character/person described as white and/or portrayed on-screen by a white actor. (Please note that this includes ethnically Jewish characters/people, such as Erik Lehnsherr or Adam Lambert. This is due to the limitations of the White/POC categorisation system.)

POC - A character/person described as a person of colour (black, Asian, Latin@, mixed race, etc.) and/or portrayed on-screen by an actor of colour.

[...]

Ambiguous race - A character whose race is not described or is stated to be ambiguous, characters of non-human races, video game characters whose race can be chosen or changed by the player, and/or characters whose race varies between adaptations of the work. Please note that real people cannot be racially ambiguous.[5]

centrumlumina added in the 'The Data Set' section of 'Fandom’s Race Problem and the AO3 Ship Stats' that she would be "ignoring the racially ambiguous category and focussing on the characters who are canonically POC".[6]

The established race categories from the AO3 Ship Stats list were then broken down into more detailed sub-categories for the purposes of the post, using "either the actor’s race or, in the case of animated roles ... a best guess based on character design and my knowledge of the fandom". A new "Unknown" category was created to encompass three characters from the Dragon Age franchise "who belonged to fantasy non-white races with no clear real-world analogue".[6]

Excerpts From the Post

After four years working on my AO3 Ship Stats project, and having previously addressed issues of misogyny in this data set, I feel like it’s past time to talk about the elephant in the room:

Fandom is kinda racist.

Disclaimers Etc.

I am white. I am writing this post because I have a particular knowledge of these statistics, not because I have any particular first-hand knowledge of racism. Commentary on this post from Fans of Colour is welcome. I will be trying to make it clear what in this post is fact and what is opinion, and my opinions should have no particular weight in this discussion.

(I am also not American. I am merely focussing on American culture because that is where fandom focuses its attentions. Because of this I sometimes conceptualise race in a different way to what Americans expect, although I have tried to keep things US-friendly.)

Discussion of fandom’s prejudices can be frustrating for some people to read, and I have often encountered the attitude of “Well, what do you expect me to do about it?” I have already written my response to this as part of the essay Why M/M?, and invite anyone struggling with this feeling to go and read that essay.

This has been a consistent trend for the last four years: the top pairings on AO3 - the shipping juggernauts of fandom - are overwhelmingly white.

This is particularly problematic because the number of works written for a pairing relates to its place on the list via an inverse power law: typically, a place twice as far down the list will have about 2/3 of the fics. This means that the number of works is much higher for the top few spots on the list - in This Year’s list, the top 10 spots account for 29% of the fanworks covered, and 6% are for the #1 pairing alone. In the Overall list, those figures are 37% and 8%.

It then becomes clear why I am choosing to focus the bulk of my analysis only on ships from the past year: because every year that this trend continues, its effect on the Overall list compounds. Fandom is growing slowly more inclusive - the number of POC on the Overall list has more than doubled since 2014 - but due to the volume of existing fic, even if fandom stopped writing white characters tomorrow, a new POC ship would take a whole year just to break into the bottom of the all-time top 10 - and three more to top the list.

Colourism and White-Washing

When I first started including race on the list, one mistake I made was assuming that I could tell the race of a character if I had watched the show in question. In fact, I quickly found that a number of characters I was familiar with - some in shows I had watched for multiple seasons - were portrayed by light-skinned actors of colour, even though I had assumed they were white. In the past three years I have posted this list, there have always been comments about who is listed as a POC. Two of the most common examples of this are ‘Since when is [X] not white?’ and ‘I’m glad this list acknowledges [Y] is a POC, since most of this fandom doesn’t.’

There is a definite trend for the POC featured on this list to be lighter-skinned - often mixed race and/or Latin@ - and those who fit this trend are often treated by the fandom as white characters, in spite of the actor’s heritage. It is no great surprise that the majority of celebrities conform to Eurocentric beauty standards, but I feel that there is a particular undercurrent of anti-Blackness in fandom, which has left Black characters severely under-represented in the Top 100 lists, even in comparison to other marginalised races. I also feel it is noteworthy that, of the two Black characters who do appear on the list, neither is part of the largest pairing for their fandom.

References

  1. A ranked list of the most popular relationship tags on AO3. by centrumlumina via Tumblr. Published August 17, 2013 (Accessed July 14, 2019).
  2. 2014 Top 100 List by centrumlumina via Tumblr. Published July 14, 2014 (Accessed July 14, 2019).
  3. AO3 Ship Stats 2016: FAQ by centrumlumina via Tumblr. Published August 4, 2016 (Accessed July 14, 2019).
  4. AO3 Ship Stats: Guide by centrumlumina via Tumblr. Published July 14, 2014 (Accessed July 14, 2019).
  5. AO3 Ship Stats 2015: FAQ by centrumlumina via Tumblr. Published July 7, 2015 (Accessed July 14, 2019).
  6. 6.0 6.1 Fandom’s Race Problem and the AO3 Ship Stats by centrumlumina via Tumblr. Published August 13, 2016 (Accessed July 14, 2019).