Making Diversity Structural, Not Topical

In the programming schedule of any modern genre fan convention, you're guaranteed to see at least one discussion panel on "diversity in the _______ industry." At some larger cons, you might see a dozen or more variations on this panel idea. There are even entire conventions devoted to creating safe and welcoming places for all kinds of fans. Overall, this is a great thing; diversity truly does matter in all aspects of the creative arts. On-screen/on-page representation of minority cultures is hugely significant, as is diversity in hiring practices and respectful recognition of creators' race, gender identity, orientation, disability, national origin, etc. Fans of all kinds should be able to see themselves represented in the works they love, and should be able to gather together without fear of feeling excluded or unwelcome.

However, discussion panels are only that - discussions. To put it bluntly, a lot of con guest lineups are still chock full of straight white cisgender males. Now, before any Josh Denny fans come after me for using "straight white male" pejoratively, let me clarify: there's nothing wrong with straight white males or having them as con guests. The problem arises when they're the overwhelming majority of the guest lineup, and the guests who are non-white, non-male, etc. get relegated to token status, doomed to a weekend of answering questions about what it's like to be an Asian author, or a female comic artist, or a transgender film director. In my experience, people in this position tend to handle it graciously, and often enjoy the opportunity to talk about their unique experiences for the benefit of the audience. But at the same time, they also want to be (and should be) recognized primarily for the quality of their work, not for the ways that they as people are different from the historical majority of the industry.

So, how can we do better? Let me go back to my assertion that con lineups should not be overwhelmingly made up of straight white cis men. Well, why shouldn't they be? The answer to that question can be found in the list of the recently-announced 2018 Nebula Award winners. In case you don't know, the Nebula Awards are some of the most prestigious awards given to writers of speculative fiction - these winners are the best of the best. This year's five winners for works of fiction do not include a single straight cis white male. I've read the winning works, and each one absolutely deserves its high praise. What's more, the same diversity extends through the list of nominees who didn't win this year but who all produced truly exceptional works of speculative fiction. Seriously, go click that list and read everything on it, you won't be sorry. I'm definitely not saying cons should exclude straight white males as guests, but if con-runners invite who's producing the best work in their genres today, it should be nearly impossible to end up without a broadly diverse guest lineup. 

The point is: if genre conventions truly want to foster diversity, we have to do more than schedule panels and talk about it. We have to reach out to different fan communities to make sure they know they're welcome and wanted. We have to write, post, follow, and enforce policies (accessibility, anti-harassment, non-discrimination, etc.) that ensure the safety and enjoyment of our attendees. And we have to walk the walk when it comes to advancing diversity in con culture, rather than merely discussing it. We'll get a step closer every time if we focus on inviting a range of qualified guests who truly reflect the myriad faces of fandom.