Diversity Panels Are the Beginning, Not the End

Recently I attended Wizard World Chicago, and for the first time since 2012 when I started doing convention panels, I wasn’t on a single panel specifically focused on diversity–related issues in geek culture. It was an odd feeling, sitting in the audience of a panel about racism at one of my two home cons, rather than being up on that podium.

I’d be lying if I said that didn’t involve more than a small amount of relief.

After dozens of cons and countless panels critically analyzing, explaining, and arguing for the need for greater inclusion and better representation in geek communities, it feels like I’ve spent a lifetime talking about these issues. It can be exhausting, and sometimes all a nerd wants to do is nerd out over the fandoms and activities she loves. It was a refreshing change to instead be on panels where I got to show off my nerd trivia knowledge, talk about why I adore the animated DC universe more than the DCCU, and host a discussion about what goes into being a nerd organizer.

I don’t think I’m off–base in wondering how much of that had to do with the fact that out of the sixteen panelists I worked with over three separate panels, only two were heterosexual cisgender white men. Turns out that diversity can not only exist outside of diversity focused panels, it makes for stronger, more vibrant discussions on all kinds of topics—at least when it’s done thoughtfully. But what does that actually mean?

Nerd culture seems to be making a slow but inexorable shift to embracing diversity, but the jury’s still out on whether or not we understand what that actually looks like. The proliferation of panels about what it means to be women working in comics, or people of color writing SFF, or the need for better QUILTBAG representation in gaming, or how to make cons more accessible to attendees with disabilities, demonstrates that nerds and geeks both need and want to have these conversations. For many marginalized fans and creators, being a part of these panels can be a validating and cathartic experience.

While diversity panels are steps in the right direction, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that panels highlighting marginalized experiences aren’t enough, and having a plethora of diversity panels is not the same as bringing diversity to a larger stage. As Kate Elliott has noted:

“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.”

To put it bluntly, too many cons are resting on the laurels of having diversity–themed panels and treating them as the endpoint of creating programming that accurately represents fandom and geek culture, when in fact having diversity–themed panels is just the beginning. Yes, highlighting the need for better representation and pushing back against stereotypes are worthwhile discussions, but that is not all marginalized people are capable of talking about. In too many instances, creating diversity on panel programming stops short of actually creating diverse panels by focusing on putting marginalized people on diversity panels, rather than diversifying panels overall.

Relegating marginalized people onto diversity–themed panels poses several problems by reinforcing, however unintentionally, a number of highly problematic assumptions:

1) The only thing of value marginalized people have to contribute is their experience as marginalized people.

Shockingly, fans and creators from marginalized backgrounds do have expertise and perspectives to share beyond that of being marginalized people in geekdom. We’re fans of Star Wars and Star Trek, steampunk enthusiasts, cosplayers, comic book collectors, SFF novel nerds, and Tolkien trivia buffs. We write SF/F, we create art, we’re actors, gamers, developers, producers, editors, convention runners, podcasters, and community organizers. Which is why every time a con makes the news because of yet another All Straight White Cisgender Male panel and the explanation given is “We wanted a diverse panel but this handful of Usual Names weren’t available and we don’t know anyone else,” I have to keep my eyes from reflexively rolling out of my head. Assumptions like this are part of the reason why we still get articles, even ones supportive of greater representation in geek culture, resting on the premise that marginalized creators and fans in geek culture are a new presence, rather than a long–existing one that’s been systematically erased and ignored. Contrary to popular opinion, finding marginalized people who are experts in these areas is not the equivalent of questing for unicorns.

Many of us have a tendency to create associations based on similarity—with regards to everything from race, ethnicity, religion, class, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity—so it’s not a surprise that creating actual diversity requires a greater, likely challenging effort to expand those networks. However, those efforts are absolutely necessary if you want to avoid unintentionally tokenizing your participants. Tokenism, even when unintentional, is what lies at the root of the “You’re only adding diversity for the sake of diversity” argument. In talking about producing diverse anthologies, Nalo Hopkinson astutely notes what’s likely to happen when organizers take the “‘one of each so long as there aren’t too many of them’ approach—you will more likely than not end up with a dog’s breakfast of a volume in which it’s clear that you selected writers for their optics, not their writing…”

In other words, you need to do the work to look for diverse panelists and select who to work with based on both their expertise and an awareness of the need for diversity. If you do, you’ll be more likely to find engaging, knowledgeable panelists who better represent the faces of geekdom. That kind of consideration (or the lack of it) shows, and believe me, most of us know when we’re being asked to be on a panel because of our identities rather than our professional backgrounds—which have been shaped, in large part, by our experiences as marginalized people. Experiences that are, unfortunately, often used to question our inclusion and bolster accusations of “pandering” or political correctness. Which brings us neatly to Assumption #2.

2) Privileged perspectives are seen as universally applicable while marginalized perspectives are still seen as appealing to a limited audience.

When we participate on panels about fandom, craft, and creation, we are already bringing our experiences as marginalized people with us just the same as heterosexual white cisgender able–bodied male panelists do. However, you rarely ever see heterosexual white cisgender able–bodied male panelists asked how being any of those things has affected their perspectives or experiences as a fan or creator, because it’s already understood and assumed, and thus considered “neutral” (asking panelists to interrogate how coming from a place of privilege affects their experiences, on the other hand, would highlight those assumed defaults). The perspectives of anyone marginalized, however, are considered inherently politicized and thus suspect of bias.

It’s a hallmark of privilege that one doesn’t have to fight to prove the validity of one’s own perspective. The truth is that “heterosexual, white, cisgender, male, etc,” are also biased political perspectives, precisely because they are privileged and considered the cultural default. When diverse voices take part in panels about generalized subjects, it challenges the assumption that privileged voices speak for everyone. It also lessens the burden of expectations on marginalized panelists when they do find themselves the lone marginalized voice on a panel. Which highlights the problem of Assumption #3.

3) Marginalized people are a monolith.

One of the most frustrating things about speaking as a marginalized person is that you’re often perceived as speaking for an entire group of people, rather than speaking as an individual with her own unique set of experiences and opinions. Women are not a Hive Mind. What it means to be Asian or Asian American is different for each of us—some of us are sourcelanders while others are of the diaspora, and what it means to be Chinese is not the same as being Laotian or Filipina or Sri Lankan. One of the most freeing things about being on panels where I’m not the only marginalized person (it’s a banner day when I’m not the only Asian American woman on a panel and it’s not an Asian American–focused topic) is that I feel more like my perspectives are actually being perceived as my own, rather than being seen as representative of all Asians everywhere. Especially when that panel isn’t about a diversity/representation–focused topic.

A benefit of privilege is knowing that your words and actions are more likely to reflect upon you as an individual. For marginalized people, our appearance often carries the burden of people’s expectations about what people who share our identity should say or do, particularly when we’re the only asexual black woman, queer Asian man, or trans woman with a disability in a sea of privileged panelists. The more people of marginalized identities are seen to speak on topics not directly focused on diversity issues, the more normalized our voices become, and the more we’re able to speak to a multiplicity of experiences. It also demonstrates that having multiple panelists of marginalized identities speaking about a topic doesn’t mean that panel is automatically about diversity, which segues neatly into Assumption #4.

4) Any panel with marginalized participants will automatically become a panel about being marginalized people.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that a panel with diverse panelists will become a panel about diversity, and yet the perception that including marginalized people on panels means those panels will become “yet another panel about diversity” persists. Bill Willingham’s opening remarks at GenCon’s now infamous “Writing Women Friendly Comics” (which had initially announced an all–male panel line up and later added two women in response to criticism) neatly (if frustratingly) illustrate this misperception: “This is NOT a women in comics panel… A certain rabble–rousing website [The Mary Sue] with no journalistic integrity whatsoever tried to redefine this as a women in comics panel…”

The fact that Willingham felt it necessary to make it clear that just because the panel included women it would not be a panel about women rests on unexamined assumptions based on the previous two points: marginalized people have nothing to offer besides talking about their experiences of marginalization, because their perspectives, unlike that of privileged identities, are inherently political and speak only to a select subset of people. It’s not as if those women could have anything of value to add to a discussion about writing comics, particularly comics that might appeal to women, right? All they can possibly talk about is what it’s like to be women in comics and geez, haven’t we talked about that enough already? In that context, Willingham’s assumption that having women on a panel about writing comics meant that he had to stop them from hijacking the panel to be about them (not to mention the inclusion of women on that panel was something to be annoyed about) makes a terrible sort of sense (nevermind the irony that the panel was essentially hijacked by Willingham and became an attempt to educate him about privilege and internalized biases).

On the one hand, by all reports the crowd at the Writing Women–Friendly Comics panel was generally less than receptive to Willingham’s behavior, and despite his actions, the panel managed to have a decent discussion. On the other hand, it does raise the question of just who was in the audience, and how much of an impact that panel actually had beyond people who were already predisposed toward understanding why behavior like Willingham’s is a problem. Which brings us to Assumption #5.

5) The people who attend panels about diversity issues are the same people who need to hear about these messages and perspectives.

While panels about representation and diversity issues draw engaged and considerable crowds, are the people who would benefit most from hearing these messages and internalizing them actually the same people who are attending? More importantly, if people who attend diversity–themed panels are already interested in and supportive of these issues, are these panels actually amplifying the need for greater representation and visibility of marginalized people, or are they creating a well–intentioned but ultimately limited echo chamber and providing cover that maintains, rather than challenges, the status quo?

When marginalized voices are relegated to speaking on panels about diversity only, both they and audiences are robbed of opportunities to expand their horizons. For working professionals, this can be one more barrier to progression in a field that’s already riddled with more than enough obstacles. It’s incredibly easy for marginalized creators to be pigeonholed into writing or otherwise creating “issues–based stories or articles” when we’re capable of doing so much more. For audiences, it further cements the perception that diversity is A Thing That Exists Over There, rather than a natural, vital element of the communities they belong to, and that if they’re not interested, all they have to do is ignore those panels because they won’t be confronted by potentially challenging perspectives elsewhere.

So the underlying question is: do diversity panels help or hinder the cause of creating greater representation and diversity in geek culture?

The first part of the answer requires understanding that these aren’t mutually exclusive prospects. Are diversity–focused panels at all helpful? In a world where virulently regressive movements like GamerGate and the Sad/Rabid Puppies still exist, absolutely. The GamerGate and the Sad/Rabid Puppies ethos are deeply rooted in the perception that marginalized voices are outside the norm and must justify their presence in geekdom. Panels that highlight diverse voices, experiences, and creative visions are one way of pushing back against that perception. Marginalized people still struggle with the notion that we’re not a part of fandom, and seeing discussions focused on the concerns and experiences of fans and creators like us can be incredibly validating and galvanizing. But we can’t stop here.

The second part of the answer lies in how diversity panels are viewed as a method of creating a more representative program. The problem is when we look at diversity themed panels as the finish line in creating a more diverse, widely–representative geek culture, rather than as one of the first hurdles in a longer journey. The inescapable fact of cultural inertia means that having diversity–themed panels isn’t enough because we simply can’t assume that “If we build it, they will come.” Some people won’t get the message that diversity is a part of our everyday experience that we need to foster unless it’s put down right in front of them. Or as Justina Ireland put it, “You have to slip black beans into their brownies and only tell them about the benefits of what they ate after the fact.”

Despite the best of intentions, having panels about diversity without also making a conscious effort to offer panels with diverse speakers only serves to reinforce the status quo and harmful assumptions about marginalized people’s contributions and place in geek culture, as well as mainstream culture. Because what happens in geek spaces doesn’t happen in a vacuum—while mainstream values trickle down to subcultures, so too do the changes in geek culture filter back up into the mainstream.

We must commit fully to diversifying panels as well as offering panels about diversity issues. This means doing the work to not only reach out to find new people, but build new connections with different communities as well. It means learning to navigate spaces like Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook to look for emerging voices, and doing the legwork at cons and online to learn more about people you might want to work with. It means interrogating our internalized biases toward where we look for speakers, who we consider qualified to talk about topics, and why. It means admitting that we aren’t doing this perfectly, that we’ve made mistakes (and will continue making mistakes), and committing to learning, making amends, and doing better each time we move forward.

Marginalized people should be able to speak and be perceived as individuals because our value lies not solely in our identities, but in expertise and experiences, which are shaped in part by our marginalization, just as privilege shapes the expertise and experiences of non–marginalized people. Diversity panels are only one way for us to participate in larger discussions about fandom’s history, our chosen crafts, and the future of geek culture. Without diversified panels, those experiences and perspectives will remain Othered and easily avoided by those who aren’t interested in listening. Truly integrating a wide range of panelists into discussions about more than diversity topics is one more step to breaking the spell of a cultural default that says only a specific set of perspectives is worth listening to outside of special circumstances, and sends a message that both marginalized people and people of privilege desperately need to hear: “Our experiences are normal and worth talking about, too.”

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Michi Trota

Michi Trota is a writer, editor, speaker, communications manager, and community organizer in Chicago, IL. She writes about geek culture and fandom (and occasionally food), focusing primarily on issues of diversity and representation, on her blog, Geek Melange, and is a member of the Chicago Nerd Social Club’s Board of Organizers. Michi is a featured essayist in Invisible: An Anthology of Representation in SF/F (edited by Jim C. Hines). She is a professional fire spinner, often performing with the fire/flow+bellydance showcase, Raks Geek, and at the Chicago Full Moon Jams. Her secret mutant superpower is to make anyone hungry just by talking about food. Michi is also the managing editor for Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Follow her on Twitter at @geekmelange.

Photo credit: Vincent Giovannone

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