Dear SF/F fans and conrunners,
There has been a lot of talk lately about race and representation at SF/F conventions, and many conrunners are looking for advice on what to do to create communities fans of color want to join. Before working on making fannish convention culture more inclusive, awareness of what the current culture is like is required.
What’s your nationality?
—I’m a US citizen.
No, I mean where are you from?
Dear Ms. X (Asian woman), we would like to invite you to present at our convention.
—I’m not Ms. X, I’m a different Asian woman, and I don’t look anything like Ms. X.
If you think this kind of thing could never happen, I am sad to say it can and does. I have had to explain to far too many people while they think my “exotic” looks mean I must be an immigrant, I am, in fact, a US citizen, and even if I had been born in Puerto Rico, I would still be a US citizen because Puerto Ricans have been US citizens since 1917. My Asian friend who is not Ms. X has been confused for other Asian women enough times it’s become a running joke. Several Black women authors have been confused for each other so many times they created a game show at a convention specifically to have contestants guess who was who.
Unfortunately, this is what fans of color experience far too often. We are interested in SF/F, so we try out fannish conventions, but when we have experiences like those above, we tend to not go back. If you don’t want your convention (whether you attend or plan it) to be yet another convention to which fans of color don’t return, then it is time to ask yourself some questions: Are you being as inclusive and welcoming as you think you are? If not, how can you change that?
There is no one–size–fits–all solution, but if you are committed to cultivating a convention culture such that people of color (POC) feel welcome and included, I have some suggestions for you. I can only speak for myself because even though I am Latina, I am not the Speaker for the Brown People. Nor is any other POC. We are a diverse group of people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, and no two of us will give you the same answer. But if you are committed to creating a convention culture that is inclusive in deeds, not just words, then here are some things you need to consider.
First, you must recognize fans of color exist. At the 2009 Worldcon in Montreal there was a photo exhibit of the important fans who had contributed to the fannish convention community. I searched through all the pictures, and while I don’t remember the name of the exhibit, I do remember of the 50 or 100 pictures, only two were of fans of color. If you had seen that exhibit, would you have thought fandom was a place where you belonged or should contribute to if you didn’t see people who looked like you being recognized for their work?
Instead of believing the claim “POC aren’t interested in SF/F,” ask yourself which POC in SF/F do you find interesting? If you can’t readily come up with a list, take some time to learn about the many talented authors, artists, editors, and other creators of color who win award after award for their SF/F work. Some excellent anthologies that can help you become familiar with the work of creators from a variety of cultures include: Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain edited by Andrea L. Bell and Yolanda Molina–Gavilán; So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan; Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora edited by Sheree Renée Thomas; Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction edited by Grace L. Dillon; and Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older.
Writers don’t write about things in which they have no interest, so it stands to reason if there are SF/F writers of color, there must also be SF/F readers of color, and they do indeed attend conventions. Examine your assumptions about who POC are before assuming they aren’t in attendance. At a convention I recently attended, a co–panelist counted me as White when discussing the demographics of the panel, even though I had included the fact that I am Latina in my panelist bio and introduced myself as a woman of color at the beginning of the panel. How would you feel if you were on a panel and you had to remind people that you were in the room when they were having a discussion about you? If you maintain demographic information on your convention attendees, you can review your data to find out who attends your convention, and then compare your numbers to other conventions, especially ones with high attendance by fans of color.
The choices fandom makes, especially conrunners, contribute to making your convention more attractive to fans of color. These choices include not just the convention chairs or department heads, but everyone on the convention committee (concom). To begin with, does your concom include fans of color? Several years ago, I was invited to join the board of the non–profit parent organization of a fannish convention. I had not thought to run for the position because I didn’t think I had the experience necessary and the job description said candidates must have made a “significant contribution” to fandom. I had no idea what that meant, but I was sure it would disqualify me. In reality, it did not, and I went on to accomplish quite a bit during my time on the board. If you have job descriptions for your concom and board members, consider eliminating exclusionary language or unnecessarily high barriers to entry. Instead, encourage newer fans to contribute their fresh perspectives and diverse viewpoints; ask them to help you grow and learn so you can keep your convention interesting and relevant. If I had read a job description like that, I would have applied to be a board member long before I was ever asked.
If you have managed to put together a diverse concom, put their talents to good use and work with them to create programming that appeals to a wide range of fans. Instead of recycling past program items, ask what types of program items would they like to see included. You can also ask potential attendees—instead of trying to create programming from scratch, add a request for ideas to your website, post a call for suggestions on your Facebook page, and Tweet you are looking for fresh ideas for programming. A friend of mine (the same oft–mistaken Asian woman) proposed an in–depth discussion and workshop that was two and one–half hours long instead of the usual 45 minutes. The convention took a chance of the different format and the workshop went well.
While soliciting program ideas, solicit new program participants in the same way. Remember, many people will assume they are not qualified to be on programming; you have to let them know they are, and you want them to participate. When matching program participants with program items, please keep in mind that while fans of color can be great panelists on race–related programming, they can also contribute in many other areas, so don’t miss an opportunity to have an extraordinary program. Take full advantage of their talents.
In addition to soliciting programming ideas from fans of color, you can also ask them to help you select a Guest(s) of Honor. Your choice of Guest of Honor (GoH) sends a message to potential attendees about who and what you value. Many conventions default to the same tired list of Old (almost dead) White Guys. While that list is carefully curated to ensure those included meet CRITERIA, and only those on the list are QUALIFIED to be a GoH, the CRITERIA for being QUALIFIED are not about inclusion. Instead, they are about honoring the past and neither take into account our present nor look forward to the future. Rather than defaulting to a list that is not in alignment with your values, create your own, ask who are the POC who embody your values of inclusion. If you want to draw fans of color to your convention, consider the many talented POC authors, artists, cosplayers, gamers, and other creators whom you could invite to be your GoH.
As with all new convention attendees, you need to make fans of color feel welcome and glad they took a chance on your convention. Some conventions include a “first timer” type of dinner meet–up where attendees can arrange to go to dinner together in their schedules; add a POC dinner to your convention schedule. This helps new people meet other fans like themselves and lets attendees know you want them to feel welcome and bring them into the community. I attend a convention that for several years has had a POC dinner. The first year I attended the dinner, there were fewer than 20 of us; last year, there were almost 75 of us. Every year I look forward to the dinner, knowing I will reconnect with old friends, as well as meet new people and start new friendships.
Attracting new attendees is always a challenge. If you always advertise or do outreach in the same ways you’ve always done, you are unlikely to attract people outside of your usual attendees. Branch out! Yes, it costs money to try new things and attract new attendees, and yes, your budget is tight, but your choice of where to spend money is one of the ways you demonstrate your commitment to a goal. If you want to be inclusive, it has to be built in to your convention, it can’t be an afterthought. One way to ensure fans of color attend your convention is to donate convention memberships to Con or Bust¹. Just as with any household budget, a convention’s budget includes items that are optional (having an ice cream social) and which won’t happen if there’s not enough money left in the budget after the must–have items are paid for. Must–have items include things like ConSuite, Opening Ceremonies, and microphones for large program rooms. The size and extravagance of each item is determined by your budget, but also by your commitment. If you choose to include Con or Bust memberships only if there is money left over after paying for everything else (including the ice cream social), it is almost certain there will be no funds left for memberships. If, however you choose to set aside funds for memberships just as you do for ConSuite and other must–have items, it sends a signal you value the attendance and participation of fans of color.
When you make choices based on inclusion and follow up your words with action, fans of color will believe you when you say that you want to create a welcoming convention for a diverse audience. If they see themselves reflected in the people who are present and included at all levels of your convention, including the decision–makers, programming that is relevant to their interests, and you back up your words with financial resources, they will be willing to take a chance on your convention and return in future years.
While repeat attendance is certainly an indicator you have been successful in creating a welcoming convention community for fans of color, the best way to evaluate that success is to ask what you did well and what needs improvement. Don’t send out a survey that asks if they liked the food in the ConSuite and if the dance was fun. Rather, ask questions that will let you know if your convention was a good experience for them. Ask if they felt welcomed when they arrived. Ask if they made new friends. Ask if they would recommend the convention to their friends. Ask if they have suggestions for next year’s GoH. Ask if they want to be on programming or the concom next year. And, most importantly, if they don’t want to come back, ask why.
Only when you start to ask questions can you learn from the answers. The most important thing you will learn is answers are not the end of the process of change, but rather, the beginning of growth. Asking questions and acting on what you learn from the answers is the best way to create a diverse, inclusive, and welcoming community. So I ask you, what are you waiting for? Go forth and start asking questions.
¹ Con or Bust helps people of color/non–white people attend SF/F conventions. It is a project of the Carl Brandon Society, a not–for–profit organization whose mission is to increase racial and ethnic diversity in the production of and audience for speculative fiction.
© 2016 by Isabel Schechter