OTW and AO3 Racism Discussion (2020)

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Event: OTW and AO3 Racism Discussion
Participants: OTW
Date(s): June 10, 2020
Type: Racism in fandom
Fandom: OTW, AO3
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OTW and AO3 Racism Discussion is a fan conversation that was rekindled by the OTW's release of their newsletter "This Week in Fandom" on June 10th, 2020. It was the first time the OTW addressed racism within fandom spaces following the George Floyd protests that had been ongoing around the world. However, it did not comment on the OTW's own stance on racism within fandom, much to the dismay of some of its fans and users.


Historical Context: George Floyd Protests

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, was killed during an arrest after Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis Police Department officer, knelt on Floyd's neck for nearly eight minutes as three other officers looked on. Floyd's death lead to global protests against police brutality.

A popular parody of statements released during the protests

During this time many organization's posted messages of solidarity with Black communities and Black Lives Matter. Some also noted donations they would be making and actions they intended to take within their own organization to combat racism. Not all organizations made such promises however, and posts of solidarity were often met with heavy scepticism.

This Week in Fandom

As organizations continued to release statements in solidarity of Black Lives Matter, it became a talking point on twitter that the OTW had made no statements on their website or social media. On June 10th the OTW released their newsletter, "This Week in Fandom", which discussed some of the issues surrounding racism within fandom. However, they were heavily criticised for failing to address their own stance on racism within their organization or their platforms.

The newsletter also cited two scholars, Stitch and Dr. Rukmini Pande, on the topic of racism in fandom, however due to the OTW's lack of engagement with the topic they soon asked for those citations to be retracted. This was discussed around many circles on Twitter but also opened both up to harassment.[1]

The newsletter itself has 40 responses, the majority of which noted the absence of any acknowledgment of racism within the OTW, and some pointing out the lack of engagement with Stitch and Pande's work before it was retracted.

I find it interesting and distasteful that you avoid any and all mention of the way the OTW and AO3 contributes to racist discrimination that FOC suffer, as well as fail to lay out any material action that the OTW will take. It sincerely feels as though you haven’t read or reflected on the materials you are name dropping, by Dr Pande or otherwise.[2]

Fans of colour has spoken out often and eloquently on how the OTW fosters racist discrimination. This post does not mention any specific actions that the OTW will do to tackle racism on its platforms, or how it will work to become a greater anti-racist organisation, which is a horrible abrogation of duty. Has the OTW engaged with any of the people name-dropped in the post to understand what the OTW could do to be anti-racist?[3]

What changes will you be making the AO3 and Fanlore so they’re actively anti-racist institutions?[4]

This roundup is incomplete without a full statement from the OTW about how they intend to be better about the treatment of BIPOC and specifically Black fans on AO3. For one arm of the organization to speak out about activism when another arm is an active contributor to racism is inexcusable.[5]

Some took issue with these comments:

The comments here baffle me. What on earth makes you think it’s AO3’s or OTW’s job to fix racism?

They were founded on the principle that nothing that is illegal is censored or purged ever. Think-of-the-children crowd, please just leave. Stop using the services and stop trying to change the core essence. If you find THE fundamental belief objectionable then it’s just not for you.[6]

Open Letter

Following the release of the OTW's newsletter a group of fans and fandom academics created and release an Open Letter to the OTW on Racism in Fandom. The open letter urged the OTW Board to "take immediate steps to help make fandom a space where all fans, particularly Black, Indigenous, and ethnically marginalized fans from all over the globe, can thrive." as well as three suggestions for moving forward.

We urge the OTW Board to:
1. Immediately begin the process of hiring a paid external expert on racism, participatory culture, technology, and non-profit policy-making who can advise the OTW on how to become actively anti-racist. The OTW’s historical inaction on racism within fandom has alienated many Black, Indigenous, and other ethnically marginalized fans. The OTW must make a clear institutional commitment to antiracism, backed by organizational resources of money and time, before asking fans to volunteer in this endeavor.
2. Support the AO3 team in making changes to the Archive’s technological structure and abuse policies that address racist content with the same seriousness they currently accord to violence, sexual assault, and underage content.
3. Publicly apologize to scholars of racism within fandom, most prominently Stitch and Dr. Rukmini Pande, for highlighting their work as a resource without making any effort to implement their suggestions for the OTW in that work. This unsought citation exposed them both to harassment and denigration during a time when, as the original OTW News post noted, racist violence is already high.

OTW Statement

On June 20, 2020 the official OTW twitter posted its intention to properly address the criticism toward it and publish a statement on the matter.[7] Four days later, on June 24, the OTW released a "Statement from the OTW Board of Directors, Chairs, & Leads." In the statement the Board apologised to "anyone who has suffered from our inaction in making the OTW and AO3 a better environment for Black fans and fans of color." and outlined upcoming changes to the Archive.


The OTW's statement has 162 comments. Many commented positively on the OTW's commitment to maximum inclusivity of content.

This is a massive relief to hear.

Some of the suggestions made by people who’ve been vocal in their desire to see some kind of censorship being implemented have been extremely concerning. Yes, AO3 needs to combat racism and harassment on the site – but in doing so, it mustn’t become a place that limits creativity or implements well-meaning features that result in making it easier for antis to harass authors who post content they don’t approve of.

Thank you for your clear and measured response.[8]

“AO3 was designed specifically with maximum inclusivity of content in mind, and we remain committed to that principle. When it comes to which fanworks are allowed on AO3, there will always be significant tension between maximum inclusivity of content and making the Archive a welcoming space for all fans.”

Thank you for continuing to stand up for those of us who had our fics reported and deleted by LJ, FF.net and all other places that led to the foundation of the OTW. It means a lot to hear this in these times when antis turn so many fandoms toxic.[9]

Others reinforced their support of the OTW reaching out to advocacy groups.

You definitely need to contract a Black advocate familiar with the platform for advice. Most of the proposals you plan to put in place serve creators of racist content more than Black fans.[10]

Thank you. I do think the idea of advisers is a good one. There are a lot of balls to juggle here, especially as I think maximum inclusiveness is still an important goal, and given the long history of oppressors co-opting tools intended to make spaces safer. But I also think there are likely ways of working that fandom could integrate into our daily routines that we haven’t engaged with yet. I’d recommend some First Nations people be included as advisers when you go forward with that part of the plan. Their voices are too seldom heard, and they are the most at risk when it comes to racism.[11]

Some called for a concrete timescale for the implementation of the listed features the OTW was looking into.

I appreciate this post, but I’d like to know when we can expect updates on the steps outlined, especially for new archive features. Obviously development takes time, but I think a lot of us who love the archive and want to see meaningful change would appreciate a roadmap of planned technical changes (including timeline estimates and dates when progress will be reported to users). Will this be part of the mentioned strategic plan?[12]

I appreciate the statement, but I urge you to listen to fans of color. Please, please, please listen to the ones you’ve namedropped. I also ask that you hire professionals to construct antiracist policies for AO3 and determine how to implement changes that black fans and other fans of color are asking for.

Regarding changes to the warnings—we need a more concrete deadline, not just “oh, this might happen sometime in the future.” I urge you to use this space to give announcements on the expected timeline for changes to be implemented. Please keep us apprised of the progress. Please be transparent in this.[13]

Censorship vs. Antiracism

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I would like to mention how concerning I find the conflation of censorship, antis, and antiracism to be. Asking AO3 to implement antiracist policies, asking AO3 to support fans of color—these things are not about silencing people or weaponizing morality. Fans of color deserve to feel as safe and welcomed in fandom as white fans do. Racism in fandom is insidious; its history is long and awful and shameful. Too many fans of color burn out and leave fandom because of racism.[14]

It is possible to love ao3 and be against censorship of fanworks and see that the OTW needs to make a formal comment about anti-racism. And, most importantly, take on board what people of colour are saying about how the architecture of the site enables racism and the need for changes to things like archive warnings and the abuse policy..[15]

Archive Warnings

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Much of the discussion before and after the OTW made an official statement revolves around the possibility of adding new archive warnings on AO3. Two of the main suggested warnings were for slavery and racism. There was pushback by some on the idea of implementing off such warning.

Why should slavery be a major warning when the archive is multicultural and slavery as described in your post is an issue/historical event that is mainly anglocentric? I understand it might be insensitive to say this, but many nations and ethnicities have experienced slavery and racial injustice worldwide. I know the impact of those isn't felt as strongly (or at all) in the west, but it's still profound and felt nonetheless, and I don't think it's ao3's place to decide what qualifies as a major enough historical event to warrant its own major warning tag.

Alternatively, if ao3 were to add a general racism archive warning, wouldn't that subject authors to harassment of the you didn't do all your research on this or that custom/I disagree with your portrayal of this character therefore it's racist, i'll report you sort? It's very easy to know if something is non-con or underage or violent or if the main character dies or not, but how do you quantify racism? People already tag for things like racist language and themes, and racial harassment and violence, but those aren't the only forms racism can take and determining what sort of racism qualifies as the proper kind of racism for an enforced archive warning tag would put ao3 in a position where they have to define billions of people's lived racial experiences and tell them whether that's racism or not. That's not their place, and I would argue it's not even a specially selected committee's place. This is probably the reason there isn't a racism archive warning tag and I imagine it's also the reason there isn't a sexism archive warning tag or a homophobia archive warning tag, etc, etc.[16]

Others were frustrated that the discussion about racism on the AO3 was being boiled down to debates about archive warnings, as there were other conversations surrounding the topic being had.

Folks, if you are shorthanding the whole discussion about racism on the AO3 to "people want a racism Archive Warning," you are really very far behind the times on this discussion and need to explore more about what's actually being said TODAY, RIGHT NOW

Some folks have called for an Archive Warning for racism. Others think this would be ineffective and would prefer a more specific warning (e.g. for slavery). Others prioritize other changes entirely. There's no monolithic single opinion here.

There are plenty of people who are personally stridently against the use of themes like slavery in fic, who still aren't arguing that they should be banned from the Archive. This isn't just about purity culture. It's about creating a fandom space in which everyone can take part.

Some of the proposals definitely have bad knock-on effects, like enabling more harassment. But that doesn't mean we have to shut the conversation down. On the contrary, it means we need to look harder for ways to make the Archive a usable space for everyone.[17]

Further reading

See also: