I never could have imagined that my perspectives, beliefs, and world views would be broadened and challenged when I landed in Boston one cold, dreary March evening. That weekend of Anime Boston 2016, opened my world beyond just fantasy and cartoons, but also to interpersonal and intersectional ideas of race, gender, sexuality, and ability, and how nerd and geek culture emanates or displays these themes and concepts.
In part, it is because of my interaction with Diva, the panel creator of ‘Black Nerds Matter: The Intersection of Race and Otaku Culture.’ Her panel opened up a lively discussion at one of the largest anime conventions on the East Coast. The room was filled with fellow nerds, intently listening to Diva’s questions, challenges, and thought-proving insight on racial barriers within the convention community. I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions, so please enjoy!
Occupation: Barista and aspiring academic
Black Nerd Problems: Would you rather live in the Star Wars universe or the Cowboy Bebop universe?
Diva Williams: I would choose the Cowboy Bebop universe hands down. Every anime nerd has that one show that defined the trajectory of their life, and for me, Cowboy Bebop is it. It’s a world I’ve always wanted to live in. It’s gritty and complex and real. I grew up with Star Wars, but it’s more of a grand legend than a place I’d actually like to be.
BNP: Please tell us a bit about yourself!
Diva: I have a Bachelor’s degree in English and I hope to become a college professor one day. I want to use literature to teach people how to better understand the world and themselves, and to teach people the skills needed to analyze and understand life and make informed choices that will make the world a better place. I know it sounds corny, but great literature really can make us better people. I want to focus on cultural studies, and treat the stories that anime, manga, graphic novels, movies, and video games with the same critical eye as I use with traditional literature. These mediums are full of depth, artistry, and insight that deserve to be discussed.
BNP: What does nerd and geek culture mean to you, and has it influenced your life in any way?
Diva: I’ve been a nerd my whole life. I grew up a bookworm honors student with no friends and a love of anime. I grew up being called weird, ugly, loser, and a freak. The media that I enjoy was my refuge from the scorn of my peers as well as the destitute state of my home town and the abuse and dysfunction that prevailed in my home.
In elementary school, I found a team of heroes in short skirts who each had virtues and talents to be admired, as well as faults that did not detract from their ability to change the world for the better. In junior high, I watched a group of teenagers climb into giant robots and fight against an oppressive regime, dreaming of the day that I could stand against oppression in the world I live in. In high school, I watched a woman whose humanity was forever in question delve into the depths of philosophy, history, and sociological phenomena. In college, a young and strange girl who was god, broke my brain into pieces so that I could put it back together in the best way. Every other moment was filled with fiction that talks about reality better than any purportedly factual account ever could, or grinding through whatever Final Fantasy I could get my hands on, since back in my day reading all that text was as good as picking up a book anyway.
At every step of life, I have found myself in books, anime, manga, and video games. I have gained a greater understanding of the world, been challenged to consider various points of view, and had the opportunity to flex my literary muscles through thought, analysis, and some inspired wring of my own. The insults thrown at me as a child are points of pride for me. Nerd, freak, weirdo, dork, call me whatever you want. It’s my favorite thing about me. Nothing can take that away.
BNP: What are some of the issues you have witnessed within the convention circuit?
Diva: I suppose the main issues I’ve encountered are the stop-and-frisk type interrogations that the gatekeepers to the nerd kingdom like to perform. I have brown skin and a uterus, so an absurd number of people think they have the authority to challenge my right to occupy spaces like cons and arcades.
The nonsense I dealt with in the game room in college was just… Well, I’d need an entire article to myself to cover it. I was left out of group cosplay plans because there were no black characters in the anime they were considering and it “wouldn’t look right” if I were part of it. I have been called irrational while delivering a perfectly legitimate, factual argument about problematic themes in games, anime, and movies. I’ve lost track of how many times I was discarded by “friends” who suddenly unveiled their desire to date me and were politely but firmly refused. I was ostracized amongst the first group of people I ever found who liked the things I liked. I experienced these things in college, which is when I started going to cons.
I quickly realized that instead of dealing with all of that amongst a dozen or so people, there were several thousand folks pulling that nonsense all at once. Moreover, the nonsense that crops up amongst people you know can come to a head in such close quarters. Between jerks I knew and jerks I had never seen in my life, all of whom thought they had some meaningful understanding of who I am and what I know based strictly on my mammary glands and melanin, I had to learn a “take no shit” approach to keep this stuff from ruining cons altogether.
BNP: How would you explain the rapid rise of racism and sexism in there community, and how do you think we should combat it?
Diva: Racism and sexism in the cosplay and convention community is proportionate to racism and sexism in our society. They follow us everywhere we go, and cons are no exception. If we don’t work to end injustice in all parts of our lives, it will be in full effect in every part of our lives.
Cons are, in my experience, a great place to start anti-racist and anti-sexist work. (Don’t let “the work” overwhelm you. Just talking to people and having real conversations make a difference!) Despite all the open discrimination I have experienced, I have also had the most open exchanges of meaningful ideas about oppression at cons. I feel like everyone’s guard is lowered in a way, because we’re all walking into the convention center thinking- and yelling- “Yes! Finally, I am among my people!” People are quicker to say nasty things about other’s appearances and so one, whereas in “real life” they would keep their mouths shut.
However, people are also quicker to talk about other things that people in “real life” consider weird. I mean, I’m already standing here in a latex, skintight dress covered in zippers with a hem line about half an inch above my booty cheeks. I might as well go all in, right?
Total strangers have opened up to me about their gender identity, sexuality, mental illnesses, poverty, abuse, trauma… And I have told them about my own struggles in all of the same. I have gained understanding about people that I never even knew I needed to have because of the people I’ve met at cons and their willingness to inform me about their experiences and support me in my own.
Even on a basic level, there are a million opportunities to touch the lives of others at a con. We take the time to be kind to each other, to talk, to help. I gave Sailor Moon a pad and held her spot in line so that her cosplay wouldn’t get ruined. I told like 20 different strangers per hour how great they looked and they said the were scared to do it because they thought that they’d look awful and I yelled at them all about how perfect and cute they were. I got on my knees and bowed before someone for hand embroidering their cosplay of a semi-obscure Tolkien character that only people who read The Silmarillion could name. All the filters are gone, and the opportunity to pump in all of the knowledge and positivity and meaningful exchange of information can be seized. If we take advantage of that openness and use it as an opportunity to raise awareness, raise consciousness, to collectively stand against bigotry in all its many forms, then thousands of people can walk out of a convention as better human beings than they were when they walked in.
BNP: If you could brunch with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
Diva: The Major. No hesitation, no runners up. That would be the greatest conversation I would ever have in my life! We could talk for a million hours straight and not run out of things to say. When I watched Stand Alone Complex as a teenager, I kind of seriously wanted to be her when I grew up. Looking at myself today, I kind of am in my own way. I’d like to find out just how much the two of us really have in common.
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