Diversity Panels: Where Next?

I’m writing this post not because I have answers but because I have questions.

I just returned from WorldCon 73/Sasquan, held in Spokane, Washington, from 18 – 23 August 2015. From my perspective both Sasquan programming and everyone who organized and volunteered for Sasquan as a whole did a fine job in a particularly difficult and fraught year. I say that to make it clear this post is not about Sasquan but rather about the general situation within the SFF field and the larger world of publishing and popular culture in general.

In the past SFF conventions have sometimes featured panels on “using foreign lands and histories to give new color and detail to your SFF,” a format I personally find appropriative (even though I can be accused of doing just that in my writing). Those aren’t panels analyzing and opening up for discussion the need for and presence of often-marginalized writers/artists and stories and characters, and how (usually USA) publishing (and Hollywood) culture supports or hinders these efforts.

In the wake of 2009’s #Racefail discussion, LJ blogger delux-vivens (much lamented since her passing) asked for a wild unicorn herd check in to show that people frequently told they don’t read SFF and aren’t present in SFF circles do in fact exist. In some ways I personally think of this as the first unofficial “diversity panel.”

Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo launched the Diversity in YA tour and website in 2011. At that time, featuring a diverse group of authors talking about the existence and importance of Diversity in YA seemed fresh. In 2011, when the World Fantasy Convention took place in San Diego, Lo wrote to the programming committee to offer to moderate a Diversity in YA panel for convention programming. Instead, WFC programming scheduled a panel titled “I Believe That Children Are the Future” whose description began, “How do we convert YA fantasy readers into adult fantasy readers?”

These days, more conventions & comiccons feature panels on diversity: what it is, why it matters, how we can support it. I’ve seen examples of these being absolutely packed, especially when they first became features of the con and library landscape, because they addressed a pressing need to discuss how the publishing industries too too often marginalize many as they highlight the same few and provide more publicity and visibility to certain kinds of stories while neglecting others in a systemic way.

Now, however, without in any way suggesting that the need for discussion is over or that we have solved the problems, I am wondering to what degree the “diversity panel” may be beginning to become less effective and perhaps even to exacerbate the problem.

I’m not the first person to bring this up or ask these questions, not by a long shot. [Please feel free to link to related discussions in the comments.] I emphasize I don’t have answers; I only have questions, and I’m writing this post not to suggest solutions but because I am wondering what people think and what their own experiences are.

For example, at Sasquan I was on a Diversity in YA panel with Fonda Lee, Cynthia Ward, Cassandra Clarke, and Wesley Chu. First of all, Fonda Lee did a fantastic job moderating: She prepared for the panel by emailing us a list of questions she planned to ask and a course of action she planned to take as moderator to cover as much ground as possible in the 45-minute time frame we were allowed. The panelists all had smart things to say. But let’s look at the line up.

Ward was placed on the panel because she and Nisi Shawl wrote a well-known and much cited work on “Writing the Other”. Lee and Clarke have both published YA (Young Adult) novels, Zeroboxer and The Assassin’s Curse, respectively. My YA debut fantasy Court of Fives was released the week of Worldcon. Chu, however, has not written YA or MG although his debut novel, The Lives of Tao, did receive a special citation from YALSA as a novel that could also work for teens. As Chu himself pointed out, there really was no reason for him to be on the panel except that he is of Asian ancestry and thus fits in an obvious diversity box.

Chu’s fourth novel Time Salvagers was published in July, a straight-ahead SF time travel story, yet at Worldcon he was not placed on any of what I’ll call “mainstream” science fiction programming items in which he could discuss, as a writer with other writers, writing science fiction, science fictional ideas, and the use of science fiction to comment on trends and futures. This strikes me as the very opposite of what we might hope to accomplish with an emphasis on more “diverse” programming.

In this same fashion, besides a reading, autographing, and Kaffeeklatsch (small group meeting), I participated in five other programming items: two I proposed (a dialogue with Ken Liu (The Grace of Kings) on world building and a powerpoint lecture on Narrative Structure and Expectation), one last minute (and really fun) Ditch Diggers live podcast (hosted by Matt Wallace and Mur Lafferty), and two “assigned by the convention,” which were both YA panels, one on world building and the other on diversity. I was also offered a panel on Teen/YA Romance, which I asked to be taken off of.

That’s three YA panels. Now in one sense I believe the programming committee was kindly acknowledging that my YA debut was out that week, and yet I couldn’t help but notice that although I have a new epic fantasy series whose first volume comes out in November (not so far away) and although I have under my belt multiple multi-volume series, I was not asked to be on a panel titled “Writing the Multi-Volume Series” (populated by four male authors all of whom, I hasten to add, are bestsellers). This isn’t the first time in recent years I’ve been given programming in diversity or gender and not in multi-volume series and/or epic fantasy, which has been my main sub genre for — oh — all of my career.

I understand the desire of a convention committee to present bestselling authors on their panels (or much beloved older authors at Worldcon given the importance of fannish history). People naturally want to see them! I do too! Yet at the same time if they are the only ones consistently tagged for such panels, the practice ends up highlighting the visibility of a limited number of (often already very visible) people.

I wonder if the “diversity panel” is in some circumstances becoming a way to “fulfill” the pressure to have the diversity conversation while meanwhile funneling it off to one side in a way that prevents actual diversity from fully integrating into the “regular” “mainstream” discussion.

I’m not saying this happens deliberately on the part of organizers but rather that people may need to pause and reflect on how decisions like this get made. The need for discussion remains acute, and a diversity panel may be an effective way to introduce people to concepts they haven’t thought much about, yet discussion only takes us so far. Dismantling the systemic biases embedded in our culture is the ultimate goal but obviously is a vast, complex, and long term endeavor.

Meanwhile: Visibility matters. Action matters.

Here’s a final observation from Sasquan. My world-building dialogue with Ken Liu happened to be scheduled back-to-back with the Diversity in YA panel, in the same room. Ken and I had a full room, while the Diversity in YA panel (which took place in the next time slot) had perhaps a third of the audience. While I understand that most who came to the world building panel were writers hoping for insight, I can’t help but think that people are increasingly looking for diverse panels rather than diversity panels.

What have your experiences been with diversity panels? Where next?

 


END NOTE:

The diversity conversation includes many voices. I list a very few here:

21 thoughts on “Diversity Panels: Where Next?

  1. Diverse panels do feel like a way to check the box on diversity, rather than actually having diversity on panels across the board, in my experience.

    This reminds me of a slightly declining but still prevalent tendency of cons in regards to women on panels in particular–where women wind up on panels about women authors and women’s issues in particular, with nary a thought about how they could be on the general run of panels with, you, know, men.

    Its absolutely frustrating.

  2. If there is a diverse range of panellists covering a variety of topics, you definitely don’t need a general ‘diversity’ panel – and as with the ‘women in sf’ panel, I think we should be a long way from needing such things.

    Things I love about convention panel programming: being on an all female panel where the topic is not specifically female-centred, being on a panel with people from different countries or cultural perspectives (LonCon was wonderful for this – I think every panel I was on represented 3-4 different countries), and diversity/equality themed panel topics that are interesting and specific rather than generic.

    Like, absolutely let’s talk about diversity and culture and feminism and intersectionality and all those crunchy things, but let’s move on past the 101 material to look at some of the next level stuff.

    I’ve been to a lot of conventions lately that have been working hard to do better about these things, and to make sure that their participants aren’t (for whatever reason) stuck talking about the same things, year after year, as if they have nothing more to offer.

  3. What Paul said. It’s like ONLY the Diversity Panel or Women in SFF Panel or [fill in the blank group] Panel are required to be diverse. Every other panel is right back to the way it always is. How many times have we seen Epic Fantasy Panels with no women? Or then there’s the “Obviously Segregated by Gender Epic Fantasy Panel.” Yes. I honestly saw that at a convention I was at in Houston. They had multiples of the same topic, but one version would be all women. [bangs head on table]

  4. When will these organizers realize they’d do more for diversity by including nonwhites in the mainstream discussions, rather than simply setting them aside in the diversity panel?

  5. I have always thought that panels about diversity sort of defeat the purpose of having them in the first place. Wouldn’t it be better to ensure that most of the panels feature a diverse range of authors? It comes down to that basic law of “show don’t tell”. Show me diverse panels, don’t have a panel telling me about diversity.

  6. *bookmarking and sharing*

    I think you’re right: the “diversity” panel like the “woman in SF” panel allows for a tidy collecting of all the Dangerous Types in one place, leaving the infrastructure relatively solid. (In academia, in the parts of the US I know about, the first response to the civil rights and feminist movements in the 1970s was to make a single class, or add on a week or two at the end of “Literature” courses, or whatever else was being taught–and the “multicultural” term was used a lot).

    In sf and academia and elsewhere, like the corporate world, I think “diversity” is the same neutered concept as “multicutural” turned out to be. (On my campus at least, the administrator hired for “diversity” has turned out to be really good at administering “strengths quests” in meetings–he hasn’t done diddly squat for what we actually need which is a faculty that isn’t predominantly white).

    For those lucky enough not to know what a “strengths quest,” is, prepare to be enlightened.

    I’ll add to the “diversity” problems, the concept of “leadership”: I am nearly 60, am an out queer and intersectional feminist on my rural Texas campus, teaching ALL the weird stuff, and I refuse to have anything to do with the “Women in Leadership” program they started a few years ago (for students). It’s all the lean-in, promote leadership, etc. that boils down to a FEW people who aren’t the dominant group will be allowed in, but nothing foundational will change.

    Um, I perhaps am a bit grumpy and going off topic.

    But yes, the rhetoric of diversity, if not matched with concrete measurable actions, is empty.

  7. I was on the appropriation panel on Sunday and we all determined I was the token white person. I made typical white person mistakes (like for some reason calling the microphone a “talking stick” on a panel of Native Americans, which I have never done before). I apologized profusely and reminded the audience “I did? Oh my god! People, DON’T BE ME!”

    I did perform one vital function. When some white folks kept pretty much asking “But what if I (appropriate your culture like this) instead?”, I was the white person who was able to say, “Look, no!” And they listened.

    Wesley Chu needs to be on the panels that pertain to what he writes. Likewise women and all marginalized folks, because the only way to normalize marginalized folks is by treating them like normal folks.

  8. Kate, I attended the panel on multi volume series and wondered why you weren’t on the panel. As I walked out, a fellow writer asked what I thought of the panel. I said that I was wondering why it was all men on the panel. My companion hadn’t noticed the skewed makeup of the panel and was puzzled as to way I thought the gender of the panelist was relevant. I have mostly questions. I wonder how the writing and perception of series structure relates to gender. I attended your excellent presentation on narrative structure. I think I ecall you saying that romance ends with “yes” and SF ends with “maybe.” Multi-series panel also talked about “maybe.”. Because of or gender we are often expected to write either romance or YA. If the expectation of the reader is of romance the author’s discussion to end with “yes” or with “maybe” can become critical. I have mostly questions. I would have liked for you to have been part of the discussion. I particularly admire how you incorporate romance in epic fantasy.

  9. Panel parity goes a long way towards tackling this. I know this for a fact because we committed to it for the 2013 UK Eastercon which I chaired.

    We publicized this well ahead of time and made a concerted effort to get new people (who turned out in large part to be PoC, women, other customarily unrepresented groups) to volunteer for programming. Their confidence that they actually had a shot at getting some programming was increased and so they stepped up.

    We also asked on our participation questionnaire – what do you NOT want to do by way of panels? And the overwhelming answer from women, PoC, others was – please for the love of whatever, don’t put me on yet another panel about writing SF while black/gay/female/whatever. I want to talk about The Writing!

    So we did that – and achieved panel parity across the convention programme overall – though not every individual panel was rigidly 50/50

    And yes, the pushback ahead of the event was huge – from the ‘but we just want the best voices’ and ‘it’ll mean unqualified tokens pushing out the best voices’ and so on and so forth.

    Oh, and just for giggles, when the programme was published we got a kicking from the other side about ‘But there’s no diversity programming!’

    In the event, we had what was widely acknowledged as one of the best programmes for very many a year – thanks to the infusion of new voices and the inclusion of different viewpoints on even good old standard panels – because as I was told repeatedly by Sunday/Monday – ‘it’s so great, not just the same old voices saying the same old things!’

    Even one of the (older white male) die-hard opponents of panel parity as faddy nonsense pandering to political correctness came up to me in the Green Room on Sunday afternoon to say he was having one of the best conventions he’d had in years because his panels had been such interesting conversations.
    (No, he appeared entirely unaware of the irony…)

    So that was that. Simple.

    Which is by no means the same as Easy.

    It was a MASSIVE amount of work with almost of the committee rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck in – by which I mean two day long (10 am – 8pm, if memory serves) planning sessions at a committee members house, with associated hours of travel for the rest, and then a couple of four-five hour group skype sessions fine-tuning as we approached the convention.

    That was after our head of programming had devoted pretty much all his spare time for a fortnight or so to sorting through the volunteer forms and programme suggestions to rough out a framework to start with.

    Plus swathes of email conversations in between times.

    So it’s doable. If a concom is committed to doing it. Amid all the very many other things they absolutely must do to ensure the event even happens – alongside running their lives, families, jobs etc. Believe me, I do not underestimate these demands.

  10. Eastercon 2013 got very good press for doing that.

    I agree with Paul – Pat Cadigan and I rebelled on a ‘women’s’ panel and we all talked about exo planets instead. It’s a way of putting women writers into a nice little box and keeping them safe and not exhibiting the full and scary and bizarre range of their ideas. (A friend of mine apparently just got into trouble with the Daily Mail for saying ‘fuck’ on Late Night Women’s Hour and talking about self lubricating alien anuses: she’s a religious affairs professor. I’ve never been so proud….)

  11. I was just about to mention 2013 Eastercon as (I think) the first one I got to go on a panel that wasn’t about The Wommins! Nine Worlds has always been good about it too (to me at least… though I understand that may not be the case for everyone?)

    But anyway, yes, I concur — the whole point about diversity should not be “Oh you’re female/LGBT/POC, here talk about that and only that”. The discussions still need to be had, but for the love of Odin, we can talk about, you know, other things too. All the panels should be diverse, in some shape or form. Diversity needs to be diverse across everything, not just in pockets otherwise you’re talking the talk, but not walking the walk.

  12. i seem to recall Samuel Delany saying while he enjoyed being on panels with Octavia Butler that they wrote very different stuff so it was clear theirs was rhe Black sf session.

  13. Hi, I’m a stranger and I hope this comment isn’t an imposition, but this is an issue I’ve been seeing and thinking about a lot in my own area, academic art—in conferences, in student bodies, in faculty representation. Most people I talk to are now of the same opinion as you, I think: that “diversity initiatives” per se are a distraction from real, systemic, more difficult problems. The goal at this point is, to throw out some buzzwords, non-assimilative integration—to increase the number of different backgrounds and perspectives on every level of any given organization. That happens institutionally, on the back end, through recruitment, intelligent programming, and modeling behavior through increased representation (where I, as a straight middle-class white guy, am less of a help) and not through entry-level initiatives. After a point, the main effect of those initiatives are to keep diversity at an entry level—which, it must be said, is where a lot of established people feel comfortable with it.

  14. I’ve never managed a con, but would one solution be to require that anybody on a diversity panel is required to be placed on a mainstream/General Writing panel as well?

  15. Kate — interesting post, thanks for writing it. It raises some issues which have been on my mind recently. I am the panel programmer for FantasyCon in the UK this year. (You were one of our GoHs last year, and did a fabulous job — I hope you enjoyed the event as much as we enjoyed having you.)

    We have a panel on Diversity at this year’s Con. We had quite a few folks wanting to speak on this subject and I think there is still much ground to cover, but I agree that having a panel titled ‘Diversity,’ or something similar, can be an issue in itself — the danger being that this is simply flagging up the theme in big, bold letters that amounts to saying: ‘See, we got it covered’ — as a means of closing off any possible accusation of being non-inclusive.

    It is also challenging to assemble a panel that is itself diverse — however you might want to interpret that. Writers that are PoC may well feel that this is a topic they feel strongly about and have opinions but may well also feel jaded by ALWAYS being asked to sit in on the Diversity panel. (A case of: ‘How come I never get asked to join the panel on sword-fighting / comic books / vampires / designing spaceships, just because I’m non-white? I write about those things too.’) I can understand that it must grate somewhat.

    The approach I’ve taken is to broaden what we include in the conversation around diversity. Our panel this year discusses portrayals within SFF of:

    – women & feminism – ethnicity & ‘other’ cultures
    – sex & sexuality – disability & illness
    – wealth/poverty & class – age & experience
    – language & dialect – religion & spiritual beliefs
    – ideology & political beliefs – appearance & physicality
    – family & parenthood

    Programming panellists could be quite a task. How do you represent this breadth of possible perspectives? I wouldn’t dream of asking an author to state their age, or sexuality, for example. And if an author I approached to participate happened to be gay, or disabled, or fiercely Republican, or Buddhist, or whatever, would they feel I had done so because I want them to ‘represent?’ I certainly don’t think of myself as ‘typical’ of anything that I might be defined as.

    I didn’t approach anyone to join this panel but waited to see who volunteered. Ultimately I’m happy that we have a strong panel of authors from a range of backgrounds, writing in a range of genres, primed to engage with the theme of diversity, in a broader sense than perhaps the ‘Diversity 101’ panels of recent years at Cons.

    This is my first crack at Con programming so I will no doubt make mistakes. I definitely don’t have all the answers. But hopefully, our panel on Diversity will raise some of the right questions.
    kind regards,

    Richard
    @RaW_writing

  16. Grad school, mid 90s, I read James Banks. He wrote about the additive approach which is what was being done, then–and clearly, now. There was lot of writing about superficial ways of addressing imbalance, misrepresentation, omission, etc. People were saying they were being multicultural, but it was token use of the word and idea. Response was for a critical multiculturalism. Some names to look for in that frame are Botelho/Rudman for children’s lit, and overall, Peter McClaren, Stephen May, Christine Sleeter. I learned from all of those readings. Key ones though, are those that didn’t hold back, that gave examples, that helped me see what I couldn’t see… The Anti-Bias Curriculum by Derman-Sparks; anything by the Council on Interracial Books for Children (books/newsletters from the 60s); and specific to my work, Through Indian Eyes by Slapin and Seale.

  17. I want to thank all of you for these excellent, thoughtful, and knowledgeable comments, all of which I have read and pondered over.

    At the moment I am swamped with revisions on a tight deadline, which is why I haven’t replied to any — and normally I would not open up a topic like this unless I was around for the conversation, but I had so many thoughts after Sasquan that I wanted to get this down right away.

    Thank you all for reading and commenting. I will try to reply in more detail next week, if I get my revisions done.

    Kate

  18. Thanks for the post and for the conversation.

    This sort of concern is one reason my interest was piqued by a recent suggestion (not sure who originated it): use the verb “desegregate” rather than nouns and adjectives like “diversity” and “diverse” when talking about making better conference programming.

  19. You are right on the money with this one.

    Too many of the panels I attended on SF/F lacked diversity in their panelists, yet the panels on diversity or diversity based topics lacked attendees.
    I will admit that I was surprised that the panel on low-grav’s affect on the body actually had a female panelist!

    The problem is that we need to do more than talk about it. It’s difficult to call for action when few are willing to listen, let alone act. In what ways can we ensure diversity among panelists on ALL topics? Is it simply the folks in charge of programming, or is it programming catering to the expectations of the masses?

    I don’t want to be pigeon-holed into “the writer on all the diversity panels” anymore than anyone else does. I’d rather be known for what I write, rather than my gender, disability, etc. But I certainly don’t want to NOT talk about it either.

    I’ve pitched panel ideas before and been turned down with a “we already have a diversity panel” response. Rather than seeing the panel as “another diversity panel,” why not look at it as diverse people talking about writing ______? This is an interesting issue–one that I do not have the answers for. :/

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