My mother, God bless her (she’s still around, but still), grew up in a certain village in rural Nigeria. And to survive this upbringing, she had to adopt some beliefs, behaviors and coping mechanisms that would seem paranoid to untrained and Americanized eyes like mine.
One of these behaviors was continuously forbidding me and my siblings from accepting things and gifts (mostly food—for fear of being poisoned) from certain family and friends. I was always confused by this. I mean, we “knew” them, right? They were our friends. Our kin. Why the suspicion? Why the distrust?
Well, I finally got my answer one day when my mom made me throw away a perfectly good coconut-icing birthday cake that one of my play uncles had hand-delivered to me at church. I angrily asked her, “Why?” and in a moment I will never forget, she grabbed me by my shoulders, looked me squarely in my fat, brown eyes and said in her native tongue:
Not everyone who looks like you is for you.
I was puzzled by this, and I didn’t know how to process it, as this was the first time I was hearing it. But as time went on, I would hear her words again. Just in different forms. First it was “It be your own people [who do you dirty]” in high school ... which was quickly followed by. “Not all skinfolk are kinfolk” in college.
And these were the words that came to mind as soon as I heard Friday that Universal FanCon was “postponed until further notice.”
But to explain the devastation, destruction and heartbreak that Universal FanCon has caused over the last 72 hours, one must first explain the hope it sold—and promised.
Back in 2016, there was an idea to bring together a group of remarkable people. Black. Brown. Asian. Disabled. Aneurotypical. Femme. Queer. To see if we could become something more—together.
This idea was dubbed Universal FanCon and was the brainchild of “founders” Robert Butler and Jamie Broadnax. This idea—this dream, I should say—centered on creating a (safe) space and convention that was by the marginalized and for the marginalized. A con that centered us and was not hostile to our existence.
And many black people and other marginalized groups understand what I mean when I say hostile. Between the gross injustice and ableism of cons not being wheelchair- and ramp-accessible; the overt and covert racism that particularly black and people-of-color cosplayers face; and the physical, emotional and verbal harassment that female con attendees face for merely existing in these spaces, this con—Universal FanCon—was poised to be different.
And the idea of it, while extremely ambitious, was an idea that was born of love and community. At least in its infancy. And this was the very message and hope that was sold to hundreds of brave Kickstarter supporters as they rallied together to get this dream off the ground. The initial goal was a modest $25,000. But by Jan. 12, 2017,these supporters had doubled that goal and ended up raising $56,498.
We had done the damn thing. We had taken one colossal step forward for marginalized kind and were even closer to making this amazing dream a reality for our community.
But oh how quickly that dream would be turned into a nightmare. And how quickly the idea of “community” would be weaponized against all of us.
That nightmare arrived at approximately 4 p.m. EDT on Friday, April 20, for me. I was attempting to sleep off the stench of third shift when my phone started blowing up. My first instinct was to cuss out whoever had decided to wake me up. But when I saw a message that said, “Hey—what’s going on with FanCon?” I knew something was terribly wrong.
Like many of you who are reading this right now, I immediately ran to Twitter for answers, only to be met with carnage that was the equivalent of SpongeBob accidentally forgetting his name.
Thousands of people flooded the #FanCon tag demanding answers. And all they were met with was a poorly assembled pseudo-statement that expressed lots of regret and promised that more answers would be available “later today.”
Even though that in and of itself wasn’t an acceptable answer, I would learn later that while the general community waited, Kickstarter backers were sent emails about the event’s “postponement” around the same time. And in a move that would be an omen of the PR fuckery to come, hundreds of Kickstarter backers had their private emails exposed because the FanCon team couldn’t be bothered to bcc everyone properly:
More waiting. And more waiting on top of that. Everyone’s getting antsy. And at this point, revelations about and from the organizers were coming to light.
Former Director of Entertainment Group Melanie Dione shadily resigned right before FanCon’s official Twitter account made the “postponement” announcement.
Co-founder Robert Butler fired off anti-PR tweets that put the blame squarely on the hotels. And not to be slandered, one of the hotels confirmed with a Kickstarter backer that the rooms that had been booked through the Kickstarter rewards program had been canceled. And Kickstarter backers had received emails before the announcement, explaining that their reservations had been canceled. Some speculated that it was due to nonpayment, and then many a hospitality vet seemed to confirm as much:
At this point, we were six hours into the madness (since FanCon tweeted the news). Most of us were pissed and assumed no statement would be made. The rest of us concluded that the fraudsters behind FanCon were just buying some time to fabricate a believable story about why a con with $56,000 already at its disposal had suddenly been “postponed”—canceled, really.
And then, suddenly, after nearly nine hours of waiting, FanCon released its “official statement.”
And my, what a flippant statement it was. The initial statement—since this statement was unsurprisingly and unethically edited in real time—contained blisteringly ignorant explanations that amounted to:
Sorry, we’re bad at money and mishandled yours. And now it’s gone. Our bad! Sorry if you can’t get your personal-time-off days back or if you aren’t able to get refunds on your hotel bookings and plane tickets. Hope you can cancel those. We also lost some of our own money. Did you know that? Toodles!
P.S. Oh, and you can totes still come see Infinity War with us.
Obviously, the statement was trash, and pissed everyone off, as it had just served to pour salt on the already festering knife wound the FanCon organizers had caused by stabbing us all in the back.
Anger aside (and justified), the hurt set in. And we were all flabbergasted. And traumatized. To put it succinctly.
We had placed our trust and money (an extension of our trust) into the hands of these people, these friends and colleagues, whom we had thought were trustworthy. We had expected them to treat us with dignity and honor our collective investment in this dream.
Instead, they abused our trust, exploited our sacrifice, and didn’t even think we deserved the goddamn courtesy of being informed that FanCon was in trouble. Nope. Instead, they canceled it. Boldly. While it was only a week away.
And these community members we trusted offered no real explanation of what happened. And even worse? All of them—who hadn’t ghosted—dodged culpability and accountability.
Butler tweeted his asinine, blame-deflecting tweets and locked his account. Rob of TheBlackGeeks went ghost on his Twitter and has not been heard from since. Jamie Broadnax, FanCon co-founder and editor-in-chief of Black Girl Nerds, falsely demoted herself from co-founder to “member” in her own dishonest statement—even though she was somehow (funny how that works) going to get a cut of the profits if the con had been successful. And she offered no other explanation—nor did she take responsibility—besides saying, “I didn’t know.”
Neither Butler nor Broadnax responded to requests for comment for this story. But this—for a lot of us—was the toughest part to swallow.
For better or worse, Broadnax had been part of the community for years. As the editor in chief of the social media behemoth Black Girl Nerds, Broadnax and her brand had helped to foster a community where all kinds of nerdy black women, along with other nerds, could come together and commune and bond over shared, nerdy interests.
As bitter as I am right now about what has happened with FanCon, I wouldn’t even be on Twitter if I hadn’t been introduced to Black Girl Nerds by my colleague Valerie Complex. I wouldn’t even know as many wicked smart and nerdy black women as I do today. Hell, maybe I wouldn’t even be the same person.
Still. The bitterness remains.
Mostly because this important figure in our community seemingly damaged said community behind the scenes while she ascended in it. And this not only culminated in the implosion of FanCon, but was also compounded by useless apologies (barely) and basic denials of culpability that were accompanied by the abandonment of her own writing staff and employees to the wolves and the court of public opinion …. all while the reputation of her brand steadily declined over two days.
And if you can believe it, things got worse. What many of us assumed was the result of well-intentioned incompetence and buffoonery quickly took a turn for the sinister.
Thanks to the collective investigative prowess of a nerd community scorned, it was quickly revealed that one of the board members of the con, Thai Nam Pham, had allegedly been linked to several failed cons in the past. And per the verbiage on his own LinkedIn, he was allegedly described as having been somewhat involved with the financial part of FanCon.
FanCon’s Instagram account would go on to commit another PR fuckup by getting on social media and attempting to deflect from these new allegations by attempting to clear Pham and only Pham’s name (let’s be honest, he probably wrote that shit himself).
But the damage was already done. It was becoming more and more apparent that not only was incompetence and hubris (let’s be real, had pride not gotten in the way, people like Butler and Broadnax—who knew something was afoul around April 3—would have let us know that something was amiss and that changes needed to be made) to blame for the missing $56,000 and thousands more that had gone up in smoke at the expense of conventiongoers, panelists, vendors, performers, speakers and other people who believed in this dream, this lie we were sold, but so was gross negligence, in that these people we trusted (allegedly) hired an (alleged) con artist to their board and couldn’t even be bothered with vetting him first.
I’m sure your mouth is on the floor by now. And I’m sure you’re probably just as shocked and disgusted as I was when I saw these revelations unfolded in real time. And you’re probably as angry as I was over realizing how many marginalized people had been swindled and hurt by this. But rather than tell you who exactly was hurt and how they were impacted, I would rather you hear from them yourself:
From Leslie Mac, an original Kickstarter backer:
As a longtime large-event planner (including coordinating the over 1,500 person [Movement for Black Lives] Convening in 2015), I fully understand the intricacies of pulling off an event the scale and scope of Universal FanCon. As someone who backed the Universal FanCon Kickstarter the day it was announced, I have empathy for the organizers as it’s clear things went wrong that they did not prepare for. Where my frustration sits is in their lack of both transparency and urgency with regard to communication with attendees, vendors and talent.
The vendors at this con in particular represent among the most marginalized creatives in fandom. They put their trust and hope in the organizers of Universal FanCon because for so long they have been treated as less than and an aside at mainstream con events. So this situation goes beyond just the cancellation of an event, what has happened is that those most vulnerable in this community have been harmed and thus far zero actions have been taken to address that harm and to offer solutions to reduce the financial impact of what amounts to poor planning and terrible communication.
It is disappointing to say the least that no efforts have been made to put together an online marketplace for vendors to still sell the merchandise they created for the con to the general public. Why were no efforts made to create an online day of content interface for attendees to enjoy remote panels and talks while the organizers sort out what needs to happen with the in-person event in the future? The reality of Universal FanCon being “indefinitely postponed” was a difficult enough pill to swallow, what has followed in the wake of the announcement is nothing short of a catastrophe. —Leslie Mac, organizer/activist
From Jay Connor, a performer:
Universal FanCon’s mission to produce the first-ever large-scale fan experience for diverse and inclusive audiences was not only in line with our own vision, but presented us with the unique opportunity to be a part of history. So naturally we were amped when they invited us to perform at their event. And as a special treat to fans of our show, as well as those in attendance, we invited Eunique Jones Gibson, founder of Because of Them We Can, to join us for a special live recording of our podcast.
However, with the callous and abrupt nature of this cancellation, not only have the organizers of Universal FanCon spit in the face of the very community they claim to be championing, but they’ve put attendees, vendors, guests and performers such as ourselves in a serious bind. I’ve spent the entire weekend reading horror stories of vendors losings thousands of dollars in inventory, combing through flippant and dismissive responses from UFC organizers, learning about attendees losings hundreds in travel accommodations, and spending an absurd amount of time putting out fires related to the cancellation of our own show.
While fans of our podcast have expressed disappointment with this unfortunate unraveling of events, they’ve been extremely understanding of these circumstances. That being said, our podcast isn’t a hobby. It’s a business. So as a result of this abrupt cancellation, our relationships with key sponsors and brands has been jeopardized. —Jay Connor, founder of the Extraordinary Negroes
From Sistah Geek, a creator:
I’ve seen how other cons lack safe spaces for black women like me. As a cosplayer, I’ve experienced firsthand how a con’s mishandling of the “Cosplay Does Not Equal Consent” can have lasting negative impacts on one’s psyche. I saw Universal FanCon as something that offered more: a place to be safe, accepted and able to cosplay in peace.
Not only did I back UFC, I also purchased airfare from Seattle to Baltimore, reserved a hotel room (non-UFC-affiliated) and reserved a rental car. On top of all that, spent months on designing a cosplay that I would debut at the con.
It’s just been a roller-coaster ride of emotions. I understand [that] as a cosplayer, the cost associated with putting together the outfits is on me. That is not anyone else’s responsibility. But the time, energy, blood, sweat, tears and money put into my Dora Milaje cosplay for UFC ... can never be recouped. The dreamed-of audience is not there. The audience that embraces the black woman cosplayer is not there. That’s what hurts my heart. —Sistah Geek, cosplayer
From people with con experience:
Communication was sorely lacking and it became clear that a few months before the convention date, they were having issues. They wanted to do too much in their first year without taking advice to scale it back. Too many promises were made with no money coming in. —An organizer with a convention in its seventh year
I’ve had people question my integrity, and the lack of transparency from the board has made all of us involved in any capacity take the hits.
I live in the South, all the cons I attend are extremely white, so a convention that was for people that look like me by people that look like me, that was amazing. And I wanted to help bring that to people that felt the same as I did.
The biggest concern is for all the fans that believed in the mission of the con and put their trust in these “leaders” who have done nothing to be transparent and make it right to thousands of people. —A volunteer with five years’ experience with an established convention
Like many affiliates of FanCon, I was beyond excited at the prospect of a convention by us, for us. The mission and spirit of FanCon aligned with Disability Visibility Project, and I believed that it would be a truly inclusive, diverse and accessible event. It is an understatement to say that I am horrified and pissed off about the cancellation of FanCon at such short notice and the lack of transparency. Disabled folx expend a lot of labor just living and surviving. For multiply-marginalized disabled folx of color, there are major expenditures in time, energy and money involved in attending a con.
It pains me that my support of this con may have encouraged folks to make plans only to face disappointment and financial hardship. I hope that Kickstarter backers, ticket holders, vendors, presenters and creators will be made whole by the FanCon organization.
Another thing that stings is the amount of free labor and consultation so many people, including affiliates, provided to FanCon because we wanted to build something amazing together for our diverse nerd communities. I gave a lot of advice (along with others) all last year on accessibility and there’s nothing to show for it. Betrayal tastes super salty. —Alice Wong, founder and director, Disability Visibility Project
I’m an affiliate and a panelist. Now, none of us were privy of the money. That wasn’t part of the affiliation aspect of it. For me as an affiliate, I also was a part of the accessibility services.
One of the reasons why I wanted to be a part of FanCon was to ensure that disabled folx had what they needed. ’Cause I was very aware of how other cons basically fucked up when it [came] to accessibility and inclusion of disabled folx. And for me, FanCon was supposed to have been different.
Later on that night [Friday, April 20], we did have our scheduled meeting. And it was there that I realized [that] these people didn’t know what the fuck they were doing. I was astounded at the naiveness. Foolishness. Of putting an event together when discussing the business part. I just really sat there with my mouth open when they were explaining how we got here.
They’re deep in the hole. Deep in the hole. To the point where I don’t know where they’re going to get the money to do anything.
The impression that I have is that some of the decisions made were made out of ignorance, out of ego, out of pride, out of just ... carelessness, cluelessness, and being overly ambitious.
The thing that gets me is that ... many of the affiliates, they’ve been the one[s] trying to put out this fire. Answering questions. Putting out statements. Putting out information. Coming together, putting on an alternative event. That’s not our job. That’s not what we signed up for as affiliates. And to me, that’s the most disrespectful thing is that you have us out here trying to rectify the situation and we don’t have any information to give these people.
And it really shows the gall of the leadership—supposed leadership—who are willing to let anybody just ... be out here looking foolish. And not stepping up to take responsibility. —Vilissa Thompson, #DisabilityTooWhite Creator, founder of @RampUpYourVoice, advocate
From a former Black Girl Nerds writer:
As someone who worked with BGN, I think the leadership took too long to not only address FanCon guests and attendees but also BGN staff. Nothing was done to assure us that we would be protected. The lack of communication and blatant disregard for people’s feelings is horrible and shows a lack of empathy by all of the organizers. —former BGN writer
But somehow ... it wasn’t all terrible. Because when I expected the narrative to get even worse, something beautiful happened: Our community came together just as a community does.
Social media superstars came together to boost the cash links of vendors, performers and panelists who had lost money. Groups like the Nerds of Color and Black Heroes Matter assembled a pop-up con called #WICOMICON (slated for this Saturday, April 28)—in 48 hours—for people who were still headed to Baltimore and needed a place to commune and sell their merchandise, something the organizational team of FanCon took two years to do and failed miserably at doing.
Social media superheroes Kat Calvin and Angelique Roche showed us what black women are really capable of when they came up with a virtual artists alley and put out a vendor survey to account for everyone who may have been affected by the con’s postponement, and to minimize the time and the money that had been lost (along with Catrina Dennis, who put on a Twitch livestream of #FanCon panels). And writers who were familiar with the freelance game gathered around our abandoned BGN writer colleagues to say, “You are not alone.”
Basically, amid the greatest modern betrayal that had rocked the nerd community from head to toe, this very community, my community, stood up, linked hands and essentially said, “If no one else got us, we got us.”
I have never cried so much in my life.
I’m still crying over this, really. Part of that has to do with mourning a dream that was never realized. Part of that has to do with the anger of being robbed like mad by people who look just like you (because let’s be real—if any of these organizers were colonizers, we would be calling for their heads on a platter like John the fucking Baptist). Part of that has to do with knowing the spirit of community was perverted, and that all your friends and loved ones were exploited because of carelessness and incompetence and because someone was trying to make a quick buck off of the disenfranchised.
Now, I won’t lie to you. I am pissed. This is going to sting (for a lot of us) for a long time. We may forgive (which is still very far off), but we definitely will not forget (I am a Taurus; I will probably die and still hold this grudge). Which is unfortunate for anyone who seeks to do some good, in a way that may be similar to FanCon’s mission, in the future.
And our community is certainly damaged and broken. Trust will have to be rebuilt from scratch, and there is now a huge wound that we are all going to have to work very hard to collectively heal.
If that unification and healing look anything like the goodness, solidarity, and display of community that I have seen in the past 48 hours ... then we’re gonna be all right.