White Worlds

I was at Nine Worlds this weekend. Most of it was absolutely fucking awesome and I would like to thank everyone who came to the panels I was in (and my fab Monsterhearts group!).

However, the part that was not awesome was REALLY FUCKING SHIT. Shit enough to trigger a flight or freeze response. Shit enough that when somebody in the audience actually supported me I cried. Shit enough that I am now feeling angry enough to write over 2000 words about it.

Strap in.


THE BACKGROUND

Let’s start before the con. Myself and some friends realised that there was a panel made up entirely of police officers talking about good policing. This made us all feel incredibly unsafe and disappointed.

Before I go any further, I apparently need to make two clarifications:

  • this does not mean we don’t want police to be at Nine Worlds in an attendee capacity, just mingling.
  • this also does not mean that we want to ban talking about police/policing.

The concern was that there would be police speaking on a panel in their capacity as police.

Do not strawman me. I have no patience left for it.

Having discussed it, we decided to go and raise our concerns in person at the Future of Nine Worlds panel.

WHAT HAPPENED

An announcement was made that one of the main organisers would be stepping down. To reassure us that next year’s con would still be going ahead, all members of the organising team who wanted to stay involved were asked to get on the stage.

I had several issues with this, but for the purposes of this blog, what I noticed was that almost all the team were white. So when I had the opportunity to ask a question, I brought this up to lead into my concerns about police.

From memory, what I said was something like this:

“Hi! I have a really complex issue to raise so I’ll try to be concise. Nine Worlds has a problem with the representation of POC. An example of this is that when you just had everyone on the stage, almost all of you were white.

Part of the reason for this is that you rely on unpaid volunteers, and most POC often do not have the time or resources for this. They also do not have the energy to step into such a white environment where they don’t know the people or how they’ll be treated.

The lack of POC at organisational level means that things like a panel of police happen, which means that we feel uncomfortable. Marginalised people, especially in London, have an extremely fraught relationship with the police. So I would like to ask what you are doing to address this.”

(If anyone remembers what I said differently, please do let me know. It was probably less coherent than the above.)

After agreeing with me that yes, volunteers should be paid but there wasn’t much funding, the response I got was…very hard for me to articulate to you now, because it was mostly avoidance.

Partly this is because the person answering my question was stepping down, so maybe didn’t feel he should dictate anything (though in which case I’m not sure why they were answering questions); partly it’s because what I asked was probably a very hard thing to hear; and partly I think the problem genuinely wasn’t understood by this particular organiser.

He is a white man. He has not had to go through the painful revelation that his skin colour means he is automatically more of a threat in the eyes of the police. He has not seen the deaths of POCparticularly black peopleat the hands of the police go unpunished, and had to recognise that these unjust deaths could just as easily have been him. He has (probably) never been stopped and searched multiple times for no reason, or had unnecessary force used against him by the police. He has not had to read hundreds of comments justifying why people like him deserve to be treated brutally by the police.

In short, he probably feels safe around police. He probably feels that they are there to protect him. A lot of marginalised people do not feel this way.

Anyway. This initial response was Bad because it didn’t answer the question. He was also clearly trying to consider both sides, which meant he seemed to be suggesting that POC feeling able to attend 9W was equally as important as having the police there. At one point he said “That question needs to be answered”, which I did find amusing as that was obviously why I’d asked it, but wasn’t actually getting an answer.

Myself and my friends pointed out that he wasn’t answering the question, and pressed him on it. He began to say that he didn’t feel it was entirely his place since he was leaving, so I asked the person who had just volunteered to take over the con to answer. They didn’t answer either, or couldn’t; I was a bit distracted, but others have said that they tried but were cut off.

One of my friends tried to explain what was happening, pointing out that a non-answer was not acceptable, but this didn’t do much good (though was very much appreciated).

The gist of the “answer” we were getting was that everyone had to be considered, that we needed to look at who Nine Worlds was for, and that there couldn’t be a concrete answer at this stage. At one point, ‘no platforming’ was brought up, which I feel implied that I was being unfair and – if you’ll forgive the irony – attempting to police the con.

I also remember it was said that the con was meant to be about bringing people together, which again was darkly amusing considering that most of the time when POC and the police are “brought together”, we get hurt or killed.

By this point I was having a flight/freeze response. I desperately wanted to run out of the room, but couldn’t move. I think I was asked if that answered my question and I just said yes, because it had: the person answering me didn’t actually understand what I was saying, and therefore probably wasn’t going to change anything.

They wanted police to feel welcome, and if POC and others felt unwelcome, it seemed like that was our problem. That was my answer as far as I was concerned.

THE REACTION

There is a positive side to this. There was another comment from the audience praising Nine Worlds for its inclusivity in terms of non-neurotypical people (which it is indeed very good at), but this was followed by someone backing me up.

Whoever that was, thank you so much. I cried with gratitude that somebody was taking me seriously.

There were soon multiple comments along the same lines, supporting me and saying that we should be listened to, as well as other people saying that they were also not comfortable with an overt police presence on the panel. This was incredibly comforting for me, and showed real solidarity from my white LGBTQIA+ family. It felt really validating for others to bring up that they too were from communities that felt unsafe around the police.

However, I still felt that the response from the organisers had put me into a position of causing trouble; I felt judged, and incredibly exposed. I felt that I had become the focus of the panel.

At one point, someone on the stage who hadn’t spoken to me before, attempted to be helpful. They summarised the previous answers as “we definitely need to do better and it’s something for the next team to address”. Then they asked me directly if that was better.

Doing this did not help. I can’t remember exactly how I phrased it, as I was in a state of quiet panic (I find it almost impossible to show negative feelings in public, so if I came across as calm that was actually me shutting down).

I think I said something like:

“Yes, that is a better answer, but I feel I need to clarify that we’re not saying ban all cops, we’re saying don’t put them on panels where it’s only them speaking about policing – there is no discussion there. And I also feel that I have been put in a bad position by having to justify myself to a panel of white people – not just as a black woman, but a queer black woman who has been kettled by the police and intimidated by the police. I feel really singled out and put on the spot.”

Something like that, I think. Thankfully, I did get an apology for being put on the spot like that, and I could tell it was sincere.

Then the conversation moved on, and there were some really excellent suggestions made by someone who I very much hope is on the organisation team next year.

THE AFTERMATH

Sadly, it doesn’t end there – though this will be a relatively short section of what is now more of an essay than a blog post.

After the panel, my friends and I were quickly surrounded by well-meaning, mostly white people. Some of them were people I recognised as supporting me earlier, which I really and truly appreciated. Thank you so much for calling it out.

Some of them apologised for what had happened (though the main person who had been speaking did not). I appreciate that as well – but please be conscious that in apologising, you are often putting someone on the spot to accept that apology and make you feel better. I was absolutely not in any emotional position to respond to someone’s apology with the truth, which was “well, I still feel like shit.” because of the further heavy conversation that would cause. Besides, once again, I had ended up with an audience to witness any potential breakdown or argument.

Some of them came over to attempt to continue the discussion. Here is a tip: when a tense conversation has been had, and somebody has already said that they are feeling singled out and have had a flight/freeze response, do not come and bring it all up again. Or at least ask if it’s okay to talk about it.

I just wanted to leave. I couldn’t. I was too busy participating in conversations I hadn’t asked for.

CONCLUSIONS

Listen to me now. I knew, before asking this question about racism and the police at Nine Worlds, what the likely response would be.

I am a black woman. Everything I do and say is automatically regarded as more aggressive, more angry, more scary than if a white woman was to do or say it.

People who have met me sometimes praise my patience, my calm, my bubbliness, my friendliness, my wholesomeness – traits which I have recently been feeling may not be innate in me. I fear that these traits, which I am often proud of, have been built as a survival tactic. I am wondering how much of my personality has developed through me trying to be as un-scary as possible so that white people don’t think I’m a threat and hurt me.

I mention this as some kind of proof that I don’t think I came across as being ‘the angry black woman’. But that stereotype happens to me anyway, regardless of what I do.

I was nervous. I didn’t know the organisers, and I had never been to a Future of Nine Worlds panel before. I had no idea whether anything to do with race had ever been brought up. But I said it anyway.

I was dismissed. I felt humiliated. I experienced the common microaggression of a white man thinking that me asking for my comfort to be considered was too much. I was reminded that the needs of marginalised people are automatically bottom of the list when those needs are inconvenient to the people who could and/or should fulfil them.

I was reminded of this post, which I highly recommend:

‘I have been thinking more about the problem of how you become the problem because you notice a problem. When exposing a problem is to become a problem then the problem you expose is not revealed. For example, when you make an observation in public that all the speakers for an event are all white men, or all but one, or all the citations in an academic paper are to all white men, or all but a few, these observations are often treated as the problem with how you are perceiving things (you must be perceiving things!).’

I was made to feel like the problem.

That wasn’t right. And it shouldn’t happen to anybody, least of all at a convention claiming to be inclusive.

One thing that occurred to me on the way home was this: why wasn’t this panel moderated? That could have made a huge difference.

A good moderator would have meant that the burden would not have been on me and my friends to point out that our questions were being dismissed and to press for an answer. A good moderator would not have (well meaning or not) put me in a position where I felt forced to explain why my safety was as important as police being allowed to speak.

For a convention with an incredible amount of emphasis on the importance of good moderation to not have this at its own panel about itself is absurd. Especially when the questions from the audience are likely to be challenging, and the people on the panel may feel personally attacked by concerns and questions (which I suspect may have been the case, considering the personal sacrifices that have been made to keep Nine Worlds going).

Anyway. As things stand now, I’m not going back unless there are major changes over the next year. I am hopeful that there will be.

Do better.

H x

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