Featuring the theme “The Imperial Republic of the Cyber Age,” No Such Organization (NSO) held their 13th annual convention this past weekend. With video game tournaments, cosplaying events, tabletop and role playing games, improv shows and guest speakers, NSO hosts members of Vassar’s community as well as the greater Hudson Valley area.
One new addition to this year’s convention was a panel on diversity in nerd culture, something that has not been addressed in conventions past. With an assembly of alumnae/i from the Poughkeepsie area and guests from outside of the College, NSO facilitated a discussion ranging in topics from personal experiences with discrimination within nerd culture to gender and minority depictions in the media.
Featuring panelists Michael Mulat and Mary Ellen Iatropoulos from the Poughkeepsie Media Project, Director of the ALANA Center Luz Burgos-López, author Jim C. Hines, Cosplayer Elliot Henderson and Residence Director at Westfield State University Chris Richard, the forum attracted roughly 60 attendees.
Moderator Anveshi Guha ’15 asked this group of panelists to discuss how and why different marginalized groups are mistreated, and how this mistreatment can be addressed.
Explained Guha, “I wanted this panel to happen at No Such Convention this year for two reasons, the first being that I am a queer agender/woman of color interested in ‘nerd culture’ and working within No Such Organization, and so diversity in nerd culture is very relevant to me.”
They continued, “Secondly, Vassar spends a lot of time discussing issues without really getting anywhere; diversity and related buzzwords often float around campus, without there being deep criticism of how diversity is approached by different communities and without action being taken to encourage diversity.”
The panel discussed how being a part of a marginalized group can affects one’s perception of media and nerd culture.
Said Richard during the panel, “I think what that really speaks for me as an African American male [is] when I kind of jumped into nerd culture and experienced the facets for myself, there’s really a disconnect in terms of who I can level with, who I can see myself connecting with in these shows I love dearly.”
On the subject of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, he said, “For example, it’s that one moment where [I’m] invested in a movie and I’m looking around at, say, ‘The Two Towers,’ and I look around and say, ‘There’s not one black person in this entire army?’ And I start to think, ‘Why is that? Just at least one?’ It sends me down that pathway that severs the connection”
He continued, “So it’s one of those things as an African American male I struggle with some elements even though I felt like I processed this when I was fourteen.”
Muat spoke of his own experiences with media, especially concerning the addition of people of color (POC) into minor roles in films. He expressed his exasperation with POC casting in an effort to attract certain demographics or make a claim to diversity. He used the example of the controversy surrounding the casting of Idris Elba in the “Thor” movies as the Norse God Hemidal.
“I wanted Idris Elba to be Black Panther,” he said, “or someone who was actually black, who could have his own story, as opposed to someone to bring black audiences to the movie.”
Others spoke to their experiences within nerd fandoms themselves, and the discrimination they have experienced based on their status in a marginalized group.
Iatropoulos was one speaker who recounted her experience as a woman at these conventions. People in the past have discounted or refused to believe what she has said simply because she is a woman. She points out the hypocrisy of these biases in a community such as the nerd culture.
The formation of a nerd culture intersects with broader questions of exclusion. She explained, “I think one of the things about trying to pin down a definition of nerd culture is that, especially within the larger context of diversity and social justice, is that a lot of folks identify with nerd culture through a sense of some sort of persecution or discrimination.”
She encouraged others to ask themselves the question, “Can we be part of a marginalized culture, that is in tension with mainstream culture, while also producing the same categories of exclusion that mainstream culture does?”
Burgos-López continued on that thought. “We know what it feels like to be hurt, isolated, kept away from everything; so when we find a culture that welcomes us, or at least feels like welcomes us, we forget that we are doing that exact same thing for other people who are trying to get in,” she said.
She went on to speak about how this line of thinking has led to her own hesitancy in entering these nerd communities. She explained, “Literally the idea of stepping into the realm, not so much because I might not be not familiar with a lot of things that are there, it’s just a community deciding whether I belong there or not, because I am a woman, but also because I am a woman of color.”
The panel lasted about an hour and a half with a half an hour for questions. The panelists spoke honestly about their own experiences within the fandom and with the media itself. Moderator Guha was happy with the audience turn out, but was especially pleased by the conversations the panel engendered. Conversations which they hope will continue after No Such Convention.
Guha added, “More importantly than the numbers, though, I think the event was well attended in terms of engagement. The audience presented some really insightful questions and responses.”