What's up with the AO3 and racism?

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Title: What's up with the AO3 and racism?
Creator: naye
Date(s): June 17, 2020
Medium: online
Fandom: AO3
Topic: Race and Fandom
External Links: blog post on dreamwidth
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What's up with the AO3 and racism? is a blog post by naye concerning criticism of AO3 and its handling of racism on its platform and within their organization.

Points Discussed

  • The founding of AO3 following Strikethrough
  • AO3's content warnings system
  • Corporate response to Black Lives Matters


Starting at the beginning, the AO3 was founded by a group that was mostly women. They worked on feminist principles and instituted things such as the amazing tagging system and the opt-in Warnings: Major Character Death, Graphics Depictions of Violence, Underage and Non-Con. It's easy to see how those four were picked: they are subjects that can easily hurt (and when I use that word I mean do actual harm to) readers. To protect our fellow fans, we authors on AO3 have the option to make sure people don't even have to see things like the title, tags and summary of a fic that contain those kind of fics. Which is great!

Now here's the thing: the subjects of racism and slavery are incredibly painful to a lot of people. I think we can all agree on that. But the founders of the AO3 didn't think to make it one of the major warnings on the site. Why? I don't know. I wasn't there. But it strikes me that this as a decision by a group mainly made up of people who have never personally experienced racism, and who weren't actively working towards anti-racism at the time.

So that's one facet of the racism issue. Another is how bad the AO3 is at handling abuse, and how people facing racist and other hate and harassment have been raising this issue for years. What I was completely unaware of until like, this week, is that the AO3 is one of the places people in fandom are most vulnerable to abuse. On Twitter you can lock your account and block users from interacting, on Tumblr you can block people, on Dreamwidth you can lock your posts and block people - but on AO3? When it first started you couldn't even moderate comments. This is a thing now, and you can lock your stories to registered users only. But for authors who have protected their other social media accounts, AO3 is where their harassers can get to them. Of course harassment can happen to anyone, but it disproportionately affects people of color and other vulnerable minorities. Making sure they can feel safe should be a priority, and again: silence.

One of the good things that changed recently after input from concerned users is that the AO3 made it possible to reject gifts and opt-out of being listed as co-authors. Before that what was happening was that awful people were writing horrifying "fic" - like stuff straight up written to traumatize the target of their harassment - and then gifting it to them, or even making them co-authors on it against their will. From what I heard, it was difficult (if not impossible) to get the AO3 to shut that sort of thing down.

On June 10th they finally broached the issue of racism - but in a way that really amplified that silence about their own organization. The entire newsletter is written in a way that was very much "Look at all the racism fans are fighting elsewhere". This is a huge missed opportunity to address all the points made above, and acknowledge that people have been talking about these things for a long, long time. The OTW cited two noted scholars on the topic of racism in fandom who were so disappointed in the framing and in the lack of engagement in these questions that they asked for those citations to be retracted. I'm trying not to riddle this with links, but the text of their request and the OTW's response can be found here, and is very enlightening.

So this leads us again to the fact that there was a news roundup that acknowledged fandom's involvement in anti-racism, but the AO3 - who have a news section, and banners for fundraising, and other channels of communication - have made no public statement about any anti-racism as of today, June 17th 2020. Not one thing.

Reactions & Commentary

When the most recent issue with AO3 first arose, I had no clue about the frustrations that had been simmering with them for a while, and because I remember RPS fandom in the turbulent days pre-AO3, unfortunately, I think my instinct, which was to defend them, inadvertently made a fellow BIPOC fan feel worse about the situation -- and of course that's on me, and I'm trying to make amends by reading up on things as much as possible. I was directed here, and am finding your list and compiled resources very useful and also fair-minded. Thank you.[1]

A few days later, Open Letter to the OTW on Racism in Fandom was created.