Diversity Panels at Conventions

Why they're good, and why we need to be careful about them

I just filled out another con programming survey (for a virtual event, in this day and age), one of many I’ve filled out now as an author.

The first few times I did one of these, I said “Yes! Put me on anything! All the things!” I’d seen authors expressing dislike of “diversity” panels, and I didn’t think I would be one of them. After all, I like talking about representation in media. But it turns out that by about three conventions in, I was writing the following: “I’m willing to do ‘diversity’ panels, but please not more than one, and please only if I’m also on other programming.” Because, as it turns out, doing regular panels is fun and energizing for me — whereas doing diversity panels is exhausting. I’m willing to do it because I think it’s important, but I really need some of the fun stuff, too.

That’s not the way everybody feels, of course, but it turns out there are quite a lot of reasons diversity panels can be harder than than most other programming. I want to talk for a minute about why they’re important, but also why they’re hard, and why some extra consideration needs to be taken with putting together these types of panels.

Diversity Panels: Why We Still Need Them

So why even have diversity panels? Panels about female characters, or queer people in SFF, or race-related tropes in fiction? Well, because they’re still needed.

The inequities in publishing are still extreme, and new people are entering the field all the time eager to learn and try to make things better. Diversity panels are a useful way to educate and spread perspectives.

But notice what this is — education. We often say in SFF that we need to value and compensate people in minority demographics when they educate. Conventions don’t generally compensate their panelists monetarily, but I think the way to think about this is respect. Respect panelists’ choices to do or not do diversity sessions, don’t pigeonhole us into them, and put “diversity” panelists on other panels as well.

I definitely don’t think diversity panels should go away, but I do think they should be thought of a little differently from regular programming, almost as an “extra” the panelists are doing as a service in which they’re compensated by getting other programming.

That’s the tl;dr version of what I think are the best practices here. But why do a lot of people dislike doing them, and why can they be so hard? Here are some things to remember about what makes diversity panels different.

1) We talk about painful things.

It can be upsetting — even traumatic — to dig into some of the stuff we get asked to pry open on diversity panels. Personal experiences, personal pain. A lot of people have very fraught histories with the subject and with the questions that will come up. You’re asking panelists to willingly go to that painful place for an hour and try to make powerful, professional communication out of it. It can be hard and tiring.

2) The moderation can more easily go off the rails.

This can happen in any panel, of course, but with difficult subject matter, there are more possible chances for the conversation to derail into bad places. A good moderator can shut that down, but it’s a distinct worry when the topic is already a painful one.

3) Audience members in the demographic in question expect the panel to be all things to all people in that demographic (with reason!).

I’m definitely not criticizing audience members here. It makes perfect sense that a person in a given demographic who goes to a panel about that demographic wants to see their experience reflected, at least in broad strokes. That’s a reasonable expectation.

But things run into trouble when the panel isn’t diverse enough within the demographic it represents (for example, a panel about women that’s entirely cis, straight, white women). Usually there is nothing the panelists could have done about this, although some panelists are speaking up in such situations—but it’s not even always immediately obvious there’s going to be a perspective missing. I’ve been on some extremely diverse “diversity” panels, in which the con did a great job bringing together people from all different backgrounds—and we still had people upset there were some experiences we didn’t end up addressing. And it’s the panelists who have to navigate this criticism in the moment. More times than not when I’ve done a “diversity” panel, someone in the audience has ended up unhappy with it, and told us so.

And usually, I’m perfectly sympathetic to what they’re saying! But simultaneously, it’s exhausting to try to be all things to all people. In an hour. When we’re not writing the questions being asked or at all in charge of who’s on the panel or what they’re going to say.

It’s just tiring.

There’s no good answer here — the audience’s needs are very understandable, but the limitations of a finite, human panel are also an unfortunate reality. Because demographics aren’t monoliths, and we need enough of us around that only a small handful aren’t being asked to represent everybody.

Unfortunately, we’re not there yet.

4) We don’t want to be pigeonholed.

This might be the most common reason I hear cited by underrepresented writers for why they don’t want to do diversity panels. We don’t only want to be recognized for the color of our skin or our gender identity — we want to be recognized for our prose ability, our business acumen, our knowledge of the field. We don’t want to be only on lists of “Writers of XYZ Identity;” we want to be on lists of writers.

It’s a bad feeling when a con gives you panels that are only about your identity and not your interests or accomplishments. And yeah, it’s happened to me, even after I started putting the explicit statement in my programming surveys that I wasn’t on board with that. (It was a whole other tiring thing to get it fixed.)

And the best part about putting people from underrepresented demographics on lots of different panels — panels that are unrelated to identity — is that we make those panels better. There is such a variety of perspectives when the panel has varying backgrounds. Take, for example, the science and ethics panel I was on that was able to dig deeply into inequities in scientific studies and public health results that are a consequence of prejudice in healthcare. Or take the panel on worldbuilding and names I was on that was half POC and half queer people, in which we had so many different models of family and naming to bring to the table, and it very much enriched the discussion.

So definitely keep making the diversity panels — and put minority authors who are okay with it on them — but also enrich the rest of the con by putting us elsewhere, as well!

Addendum

Again, not all underrepresented writers have these feelings about diversity panels. There are authors who really like doing them, or who otherwise want to be asked. By all means, ask them! The key here is respect — recognize these panels can be in a different category for a lot of people, respect the requests an author makes on their programming survey as per their individual feelings. And in general try to mix things up, so you aren’t giving the minority authors 3 diversity panels each and the majority authors 3 non-diversity panels each. Instead, make sure you’re making the non-diversity content — or at least, the not directly diversity-related content — have fabulously diversified panelists as well, and you’ll be on a solid path.