Our Space For Everyone initiative continues this week with a spotlight on Hilton George, the creator and CEO of BlerDCon, an annual inclusive convention held in Crystal City, VA.
With its portmanteau of “black” and “nerd” right there in the title, BlerDCon was the first convention experience developed with a focus on the often under-represented Black nerd populace. We chatted with George, “Head Blerd-in-Charge,” about his experiences, the need for inclusive spaces like this and what’s next for BlerDCon.
I want to focus on the sense of safety that BlerDCon provides.
How do you ensure that nerd spaces, which have been predominantly white, remain a safe space for all expressions, all dimensions of Blackness?
George: I mean, you want to talk about a needle to thread within a needle to thread, that’s really where it is. On one hand, if you’re talking about the Black nerd community, we’re talking about a community that is still sort of in its inception phase where people have not yet found a uniform definition for Black nerd culture.
Black people are not a monolith and therefore Black nerds are not a monolith. And it sort of means something different to everyone. So, it’s regional, generational; it’s a difference in fandoms. Black nerd gamers have a different experience looking at white dominant spaces than, say, board gamers do. You know, I mean it’s a very fluid definition.
And I think there’s also the part that you mentioned about not just being Black nerds but still being dimensional individuals that are “Black nerd and-” as I’d like to call them. And that is Black nerd and LGBTQ+, Black nerd and biracial, Black nerd and veteran, Black nerd and disabled—you name it. There’s so many different things that make up the whole person, with any individual, even though the one thing that we really, really know that everyone is going to share somewhat in common is their relationship to Black nerdness—be they allies, intersectional, connected through family and friends, what have you—people are going to be coming in looking to be fully serviced as a whole individual.
The first thing I did was say, “OK, what can I, from my point of view, incorporate into this vision based on my experience?” And I’m really just a cishet Black nerd guy. And I really need to stay in that lane as far as what I’m going to put together, because someone comes in and is looking for something that resonates with their voice as an Afro-Latina or someone’s a member of the LGBTQ+ community as a Blerd, or they’re biracial or they’re part of a mixed couple—‘You know, I want my significant other to come and experience a Black nerd space…[I] have not had that opportunity in the past to show them this.’
These are the things we have to consider. So I went and partnered with several outside groups. For example, LGBTHQ was one that had a full pantheon of experience within the geek space with LGBTQ+ issues and discussions. They did panels and workshops, and to whatever degree they could, they included as many of their Black and POC members as possible to be the ones proctoring these discussions. But it is a mixed multicultural organization as you can imagine, so you know there are certain amounts of people who are not from the Black nerd space who are participating in this aspect over here. And you can then superimpose that over any group we partner with.
Nerdtino, which is the Latino nerd convention based out of Philadelphia, says, ‘OK, what would an Afro-Latina want to see in representation?’ as far as programming. And they would bring cosplayers, discussions, panels and workshops, as well as promoting their convention that was just a few miles away. You have to delegate and release and relinquish a certain amount of control in order to reach beyond your grasp as a con programmer.
Now, I might not be to blame for what might be said in a space that I relinquished to a group leader, but I’m still responsible for what is said and how it is portrayed and the context. So you know, we still have to keep some control. And when it comes specific to the white dominance in spaces, you know the things that we could control, like cosplay guests. I could control that. I can say, “OK, we’re gonna look at Black nerd cosplayers or we’re gonna look for Blerd celebrity guests.”
It’s not just what is being said at any given stage at a panel, but who is saying it. So we may have submissions of basically the same panel. And I would look and say, “OK, well, it’s important to me that the person having even this generic discussion, this multi-faceted discussion, about something neutral, race-neutral, culturally neutral—is a person of color.”
So, we can make the difference in being representative even if we’re not talking about certain very specific issues that are important to Blerds. They could be just talking generally about fandom or highlight some news: “Oh, here’s a new game I’m developing.” So, in all of those spaces we make deliberate decisions. We try to keep threading that needle and say, “Listen, what do we want the experience to be for anybody coming in?”
This question is for the non-Blerd folks invited to the Blerd cookout, so to speak. BlerDCon’s website states, “All are welcome to partake in the experience as we are an open community who love all the same nerddom.”
What does their participation look like in this Blerd-centered space?
George: We try to make it so that we are always in control of the cultural exchange. So if you are a non-Black nerd walking up to a table and observing Black art for sale, it is important that the Black artists standing behind that table are saying, “Hey, this is what I created and this is what’s indicative of me and my Black nerd experience or my Black experience, and I’m channeling through my art/cosplay this item that I’ve created.”
So when somebody comes in, they understand that they are there to learn, they are there to engage—and even to a certain degree, they are there to participate. But, they are not dominating the exchange. There’s gonna be so many things that are part of the Black nerd experience that this will be a unique experience for anyone—I don’t care how often you’ve been to cons or how many cons you’ve been to—you’ve never seen a barbershop at a convention before. I guarantee you that.
There’s a barbershop at BlerDCon?
George: This is year two of our Blerd barbershop. The whole trick is to try to find whatever ways we can to take in the Black experience and superimpose them or weave them into the nerd experience.
And let’s be honest, there is a joke, a meme, a trope, a stereotype, whatever you want to call it, about we Black men that we got a lot of hair right above our ears and we’re very—we’re not always faded up.
These last years have been…rough. What I wanted to know is why the nerd community, why do we turn to inclusive spaces like this during times of hardship?
Why is this form of escapism so important to us?
George: Well, it’s because it’s not escapism. Yes, we’re escaping, but we’re not escaping ourselves. The average person, you know we all have muggles in our lives, they kind of deal with the world as it is—go to work, have social friends, and they have pretty decent regularly structured lives.
And there’s us nerds that are kind of on this other end of the spectrum. It’s only in the con spaces that most of us are able to be our true selves. The actual cosplay is happening at work when we’re buttoned up and you doing the typing and answering ‘Yes’ and all that. That’s you pretending. That’s not you, right? Going to cons, dressing in these elaborate creations, cosplay—fashion—or just nerd gear and having discussions about seemingly obscure facets of society that the nerd space is—that is who we are and this is our tribe.
The pretending is actually happening six, eight weeks out of the year in between cons and then the weekend when we go to convention is when we can go [exhales]: I can be myself. Emotionally, psychologically, even physiologically we’re holding our breath when we’re not in the con space and then when we get there we feel free, we’re connecting…. So when tragedy strikes, and I count COVID as a tragedy, not just because of the lives lost and health of the economy, but also because of the disconnect that happened specifically for the nerd community [and] the whole world.
Our whole friend circle—almost everyone I know is in the con space. Nobody lives near me.
I take for granted the people who come to the DC metro area for four or five conventions every year. This is when I see them—and I spend intense time with them over the course of three or four days being members of the BlerDCon management team, staff, volunteers, friends and family—I thought wait a minute…I don’t have regular friends; like, everybody is from the nerd space.
And so on top of holding your breath, because you’re not able to do that nerd expression or expose that to the world outside of the context of the con, now I can’t even just go and have a burger with anybody. I didn’t have to work to connect with my friends as long as I was going to conventions. And I think that’s that story you can find with anyone in the nerd space—they just didn’t realize this was my physical interpersonal connective tissue was the con.
I never thought for a second that the con space would be threatened, no matter how long we’d been away—even though some cons have suffered fatal blows and will not be returning because of the financial burden of not having their convention was too much to bear—but the space and community will continue to thrive.