About six hours ago, a kind friend alerted me to a Tumblr post titled “My statement on Tolkien 2019” by Elyanna. The author has tagged it “ok to reblog,” and so I will, here, in its entirety — because I think it deserves as wide a readership as possible.
Elyanna’s experience and mine at Tolkien 2019 could scarcely have been more different (although to some extent I also had the feeling of being “already out of place and out of my depth” at my first Tolkien Society event). As an American and as an independent scholar, I was nervous that I wouldn’t be accepted, but my paper and my views were treated with respect and interest and polite questions. I soon felt welcome, and by the end of the week I felt like I truly “belonged.”
This is what I expected. And the luxury of this expectation is of course the very white privilege that people of color are talking about. I can just show up with a good paper, wear a tweed jacket, and speak with some authority on a topic that I’ve researched and expect that I’ll be welcomed politely, and listened to moderately attentively, at the very least.
Not everyone has this experience. I was not at Elyanna’s sessions, but it shocks me to learn that anyone’s remarks were “met with vocal disapproval … and visible signs of disapproval and hostile body language.” The idea of any comments at all, let alone comments of disagrement, being “shouted in between points” she was making is far outside my own experience — or even of my evening-before-I-give-a-paper nightmares.
People must not be let off the hook for this sort of behavior. If a response would be inappropriate were J.R.R. Tolkien himself speaking, it’s inappropriate when Elyanna is speaking. That’s just basic courtesy. Better, we should do everything in our power to make everyone who’s interested in Tolkien and who doesn’t have our privileged status feel welcome and listened to — genuinely listened to, without condescension or patronization.
On Facebook, the chair of the Tolkien Society has already announced some ways in which the Society will “better reflect the diversity of Tolkien’s readers and scholars.” We need to do what we can to help — and to insist that these welcome ideas are carried through and that they not be the end of the matter.
That some officials have responded so quickly and so well gives me hope, though comments of some others (who may or may not be members of the Society – anyone may join the Facebook group) do not.
Elyanna’s original Tumblr post may be found at https://itariilles.tumblr.com/post/621530027851415552/my-statement-on-tolkien-2019.
My Statement on Tolkien 2019
It has been incredibly difficult for me to speak on my experiences regarding my experiences of hostility and othering in spaces that I loved and still hold dear to my heart, and for that reason I have been silent. That is until now.
I have decided that now is the right time for me to come forward with my experience and statement regarding my negative experience as a person of colour engaging in Tolkien spaces.
I want people involved in the wider Tolkien community to reflect on their roles in the specific spaces they inhabit, and how you can foster a better environment for marginalised groups to interact and engage with those spaces in a safe and inclusive manner.
Take your time to listen and put effort into listening to fans of colour when they are speaking about their lived experiences and their grievances especially when they are speaking about a topic as personal as racism. Being critical of a work you love and the media surrounding it is not easy thing, but we need to recognise that these criticisms are valid and deserve to be taken seriously when it affects a collective of people across different backgrounds.
I want to preface this by stating that I am speaking only for myself and my own lived experience as a vocal young non-black POC in a predominantly white space. I acknowledge that my experience is by no means universal or indicative of all POC in Tolkien fandom spaces.
I also understand that real life interactions differ widely from interactions on online fandom spaces, but there are disturbing similarities across both online and real life spaces with specific regard to the environment and treatment of vocal POC in both.
The tragedy is many people do not realise their impact not only on the individuals involved, but on the wider attitude towards POC voices in fandom when the topic of racism is discussed. We need to build safe environments where critical discussions of diversity and race from the people most affected by them are taken to heart, not invalidated or spoken over as targets of microaggressions.
To give a bit of context, Tolkien 2019 was an in person conference organised by the Tolkien Society (which I was a member of at the time). The official website for Tolkien 2019 has been taken down but the Tolkien Society has a nice summary written in August 2018 breaking down the event here.
I was approached by the Education Secretary at the time about my possible involvement in a panel discussing the history and future of the Tolkien Society which I elaborate on further in my statement. It was the first time I had felt that I had a platform where I could freely express my voice as a diverse reader and consumer of Tolkien media who held diversity in Tolkien as a core value in the wider Tolkien brand.
I felt that as the only non-white member on the panel I had an obligation to speak out on the topic of diversity when it was raised. I tried to speak briefly about some of the points and discourses I had heard on portrayals of diversity in Tolkien media with as much nuance as I could manage at the time. In response to some points I had made I was met with vocal disapproval by some audience members and visible signs of disapproval and hostile body language from others.
This was made even more jarring when later during the course of the event when two white creators hinted at vague notions of diversity were met with a far greater degree of approval. The former instance was during the context of a panel regarding the upcoming LOTR on Prime series, and the latter was during a talk presented by the chair of the Tolkien Society.
I felt intimidated and reluctant to involve myself any further in the Tolkien fandom, especially in real life spaces as my experience at Tolkien 2019 had only solidified and reaffirmed my fears and unease I had engaging in a predominantly white fandom with few visible POC members and creators who tackle topics of diversity and racism in both the community and source texts.
Following this event I was approached by an affiliate of one of the attendees who very kindly took the time to listen to me and suggested that I should write a statement in response to my experience. To my knowledge, my statement has not been shared or published on any platform yet and this will be the first time I have ever spoken about it publicly.
Since then some of my thoughts and opinions on certain aspects of Tolkien fandom and meta have shifted or evolved which I will hopefully expand on in the future, but I wanted to share my initial unchanged statement I wrote reflecting my immediate reaction to my experience.
I want to be seen as a Tolkien creative and critical thinker above anything else, but I cannot move forward with my work without speaking about my lived experience in a space which has been consistently hostile to me and so many others for across different Tolkien spaces for so many years starting with my account of this one experience.
I hope my statement finds itself in good hands and I will always be willing to engage with others about my experiences so long as you engage with me in good faith.
The statement I wrote on 25/09/2019 is as follows:
From the 9th to 11th of August of this year I attended a conference held by the Tolkien society aptly named “Tolkien 2019” that advertised itself as the “largest celebration of Tolkien ever held by the Society” in which I both spoke as a panelist and independant speaker. The event itself was a mixture of both formal and informal panels, papers presented by selected members of the society, and evening social events.
My invitation to speak on the “History of the Tolkien Society” panel was presented as deliberate choice made by the panel organiser as a gateway for discussion about diversity and representation in Tolkien. On the official programme, the panel was described as a discussion concerning “what the Tolkien Society and Tolkien fandom in general may become as it encounters digital spaces, issues of representation and diversity, academic interest and a myriad other factors that make up our lived experience today”.
Although there was much excitement and anticipation on my half in the weeks and days leading up to the event, it soon turned to dread when the tone and climate of the discussion dawned on me when I took my seat alongside five other panelists ranging from seasoned Tolkien scholars, long-time members of the Society, and a member with a leadership position within the Society. On that four person panel, I was the only one racialised as non-white. In fact, I was one of only three people in a room of approximately fifty to sixty people racialised as non-white.
It wasn’t long before the true motive of placing me — a young, new member of the Society, who felt already out of place and out of my depth even being offered the opportunity to participate in the first place — on a panel of what I perceived to be more seasoned members of the society.
When the topic of diversity and representation in the Tolkien fandom was raised by the moderator, I saw it as an opportunity for me to share my own experiences as a young fan who predominantly consumed Tolkien content online, as well as some observations I had made regarding the current pop-cultural perception of Tolkien as being heavily influenced, if not wholly entered around the Peter Jackson trilogies and being deeply ingrained with the issues that seep from those interpretations into our overall perception of the Tolkien brand.
One of the talking points that seemed to have caused the biggest uproar and dissent was one in which I referred Tolkien’s description of Sam’s hands as brown in two instances — the first in the Two Towers, and the second instance in Return of the King and how this has been translated into film as both literal and symbolic interpretations. The former in the Ralph Bakshi’s the “Lord of the Rings” released in 1978 in which I noted that the decision to portray Sam as more ethnically ambiguous compared to the other Hobbits was deliberate choice, whereas the latter was depicted in the recent Peter Jackson trilogy released in the early 2000’s took the description symbolically and cast the white American actor Sean Astin in the role.
The backlash I received for this was, I believe, absolutely disproportionate to the views I expressed. I saw members frown and grunt in disapproval, as well as some visibly shake their heads at me. In spite of me parroting how I saw both interpretations as equally valid as a defence mechanism in the face of such an aggressive response to what to me seemed like an innocuous observation made by a young person of colour who did not see many portrayals of people of colour in Tolkien.
Comments such as “I don’t care who they cast as Sam whether he’s black, brown, yellow, blue or green!” and “Tolkien’s message is universal I don’t see how race factors into this!” were shouted in between points I was making, and countless others were made as an effort to dismiss the effort I put in to hopefully start an open dialogue about the lack of diversity in adaptations of Tolkien and how it has coloured our perception of the overall brand, and perhaps fantasy as a whole.
Some other talking points I decided to mention included Peter Jackson’s Easterlings (coded as being North African or Middle Eastern in the film) as being appallingly Orientalist and damaging in a post-911 world, as well as referring to Tolkien’s vague descriptions of certain characters and people groups that can be interpreted as ethnic coding or perhaps hint at a more diverse cast than the popular brand of Tolkien that may have us believe. I iterated that it is the responsibility of consumers of Tolkien and Tolkien related media to push for different interpretations of the text in order to break the perception that Tolkien’s works are entirely Anglo and Eurocentric with no place for people of colour in the vast world he had created in my opinion as a love letter to his own.
A month later it is still difficult for me to fully wrap my head around what I had experienced during the conference, much less articulating it in a statement, but if there is a note I would like to conclude on it would be this: it was never about changing Tolkien’s works, but reinterpreting his 20th century text littered with colonial artefacts and reimagining the foundations of his work through a 21st century lens in an attempt to decolonise the interpretation of his works in popular culture.
To change the way we read, write and depict the Tolkien brand is to fundamentally change the landscape of the entire genre of fantasy which has and still derives so heavily from Tolkien’s works and the global Tolkien brand.