26 Aug

Some thoughts on the herding of POC writers into diversity panels

Kate Elliott writes:

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.”

I seem to recall the token diversity panel goes back further than that. I sat on a panel at Conjose in 2002 called “Ebony Age of Science Fiction?” with Wanda Haight, Steven Barnes, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Bill Taylor. And it was incredible seeing a (slightly) more diverse audience than normal Worldcons come to that.

It was, in 2002, packed, by the way. People have been hungry for diversity for a long while, even as others shouted ‘no no no’ and put their fingers in their ears.

Future Classics, a fannish history site it seems, has a lot of panels from Worldcons up. I still remember catching a small piece of Vandana Singh’s Imaginative Fiction: A Third World Perspective panel in 2003 Noreascon. If I recall right, there were some corridor discussions there.

In 2009 I was on a panel at a Worldcon called Writing Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Geographic Terms. You can see a good write up here. If I recall correctly there was much angry aftermath when the panel was over by some people you’ll recognize as ‘sad puppies‘ today (that shit ain’t new).

So while I’m not sure there weren’t token panels before 2009, I do think Kate’s right that around 2009 due to Race Fail there started being more dedicated panels.

Oddly enough, it was about that time I started refusing to be on them due to a reason Kate points out:

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 have begun to agitate, among those who will listen to me, to propose panels with large numbers of PoCs that have nothing to do with diversity. At a couple of cons, I’ve conspired to suggest putting PoCs on futurism or science panels and shock the audience by then proceeding to not talk about race but all the cool shit the PoCs are interested in about said topic.

The one place we managed to get this done I heard was a success, and while some people in the audience were a bit confused, it was a lot of fun.

When I went to Det Con recently I took myself off of diversity panels and their like and asked for hard sciences and futurism. I was on almost no panels with any people of color. At *Detroit Con.* When appropriate, I represented PoC books and media about the future and science to the audience, which I doubt would have been done had I not been explicit about making sure I was on those non specialty panels.

And then, when I was out walking around, several times, people asked ‘oh, hey, I was surprised I didn’t see you an [diversity-related panel X].’

Which is why I did it that way.

I’m not lecturing PoC panelists, by the way, to start spreading around. No, the diversity panels are great. But some day, at a Worldcon, or any other con, I hope to be on a panel of with a large number of people of color that talks about Developments in Near Space Access.

Mainly because I’m trying, in small ways, to fight back against the ‘diverse books book displays’ issue, where a bunch of diverse books are stacked together in a specialty display that… people ignore as they come in.

I think there is a place for that. But I also think honestly representing that diversity means including it not just in cordoned off spaces. Yes, we need diversity panels, and suggestions for diverse books for those of us looking for that. But if that’s the only place we’re showing up, or that a panel-creation committee automatically thinks to stick us… then we’re always going to be in an echo chamber.

So I myself, while championing what others are doing and supporting the diversity panels and sometimes being on them, am trying to more and more to get some PoC friends on a panel with me to talk about other topics, to make those panels diverse just by who is on them.

I haven’t gotten very far with it, it’s still all nascent, but there you go.