A while back I worked with a group that decided to throw an event in the city of Detroit. This group was primarily run by white suburbanites. Their normal events only had a small amount of racial diversity in their ranks and attendees, but because the event was being held in Detroit proper they decided to make it a goal to reach out to more blacks, particularly people living in the city, to be both participants and attendees.
In many ways they were successful. There certainly was a greater racial diversity present than the suburban events they’d thrown in the past. Yet I want to discuss how the way diversity was implemented felt so awkward to me. Not smooth. Not natural. Not quite respectful. I don’t claim to have all the answers concerning this topic, but I wanted to discuss the experience because I think it’s a valuable discussion, and quite frankly it really bothered me.
When diversity was announced as a goal for the event, I took this to heart. Our event includes literature and art discussions, so when a black comic book convention taking place in downtown Detroit was pointed out, I let the organizing committee know and tried to get people to attend with me. No one else went. I brought fliers for our event. I took free publicity photos. I talked with many people. It was a great time. I learned about the black comic book underground in in Detroit since the ’70s, and enjoyed an event filled with art and performances. I also managed to convince one of the organizers to come meet with us and hopefully join our team.
It was downhill from there. My daughter loves using the word “Awkward,” and that word seems so apropos to this discussion.
The head of our event assigned people she knew well to all department head roles. These were people that had done the job before. She knew they would guarantee the event ran smoothly. They were all white.
To make up for the whiteness of the department heads, a “Diversity Committee” was formed. From my observation, pretty much anyone that wasn’t white that volunteered to help with the event was assigned to the diversity committee to act as an advisor. This committee was headed up by a white person. The black event organizer I had brought in was automatically assigned to this diversity committee.
Now I had automatically assumed, based on her experience, she would have been put in charge of a discussion track she was uniquely qualified for. Perhaps one about the black comic book underground. Another role I thought would be useful was to have her help bring in excellent local artists for the art track, as she knew meny. She later confided in me that all of her suggestions were nixed and no one was interested hearing what she had to say. I wasn’t in those meetings, so I don’t know how they went. I told her I’d try to fight on her behalf. For example, one idea she had was to make the Friday night dance an Afro-Futurism dance with a DJ who lived and operated out of Detroit. I thought it a great idea. When I asked the head of the event about implementing this I was told that our attendees would never go to such a thing and it would be a failure. I’m not sure if this was an example of not thinking things through, or not taking diversity seriously, but if you are truly intending to reach out to the black community and bring new people in, isn’t this exactly the kind of experiment that might make people feel more welcome? Someone from the community representing the event by doing their thing? I suspect it felt like too much of a wild card to the organizer, something too new for her tastes, but that, to me, is part of integrating various groups. Something unique. Otherwise, why bother, unless it’s just for show?
Soon after this meeting a photo with all the event runners was posted on Facebook. A popular public figure called the event out for having no black faces in the photo even though the event was in Detroit. He was right, as the people we had on the diversity committee were not needed for the meeting that day. Making this a public declaration embarrassed the woman I’d been trying to get involved in the event. She felt embarrassed and insulted. She told me, “I refuse to be used as a token black woman for their photo ops!” This public shaming of the event caused her to finally just quit outright. If the objective of this social media shaming was to create a more diverse convention, well, no, it had the opposite effect.
So my analysis was risk adverseness, along with white savior complex, combined into a total mess.
My opinion is she never should have been made to feel this way. She was talented, hard working, and knowledgeable about black culture in Detroit. While she was not familiar with how our events ran, as our event had been going on for decades and is rather locked in its thinking, I still thought she was still a good fit for the event. An excellent candidate to run some programming.
The person that made the social media commotion implied it was wrong to be a “recruiter of people of color” and they would certainly not help with such a thing, but we should be ashamed that we didn’t have more blacks working on the event. Awkward.
As it turned out, the event did end up having an AfroFuturism dance on Friday. The DJ was a white guy with a steampunk setup. It was cool enough, and nothing against the DJ, but it seemed an awkward choice in relationship to diversity and the initial suggestion. The turnout wasn’t very good even with a Steampunk vibe. We’ll never know if a black DJ from Detroit would have done better or worse because it was deemed too risky. Awkward.
The event as a whole was still heralded for it’s diversity among my white friends. There was indeed an entire track of panels specifically about diversity. That’s where you saw nearly every one of the black panelists. Other topics, not so much. This, I fear, was the result of assigning all non-whites to a segregated diversity committee. Yes, we need to talk about diversity, but does it really need to be the only thing a black artist/writer is allowed to be seen talking about? Don’t talented people belong in all discussions? Every time I went to a non-diversity related discussion panel I kept looking up at the only white panelists while thinking about people that should have also been participating, but they couldn’t, because they were already on on the diversity discussions. Am I the only one that finds this awkward?
I wondered about the days when groups run only by men started to allow women to participate? Did they form “Women’s Committees” to advise the men who ran everything on what women would want to talk about, only to create special discussions just for those women, totally separate from all discussions the men had? These days doesn’t that sound awkward? I would hope it would, unless you are a member of a religion that does not allow men and women to mix in public. Now if people want to segregate themselves for special discussions related to their group that’s great, but having the people in charge make it happen is very different, and having almost no integrated discussions to me also just seemed awkward.
Of course, I’m just a white suburbanite, and I’m sure there are people ready to argue with me that there was nothing wrong with all this segregation, and that there was nothing “awkward” about it, and indeed was the appropriate way to run the event, but I personally think we could do better if we simply respected people for their talents, not just their minority status. My viewpoint is likely flavored by my life experience. I went to high schools and college in areas that were highly mixed race. In fact, in some cases I was in the minority race. People just did their thing. Black teachers didn’t teach only black studies. Black students in school didn’t only discuss diversity or only black history at the exclusion of every other topic. Sure those topics were discussed, and topical groups existed, but in the public schools and the university I attended I never saw people being “managed” solely based on race like this, and were certainly never kept out of general topics. This event was doing it for the first time, and the people implementing obviously couldn’t see how awkward what they were doing was. In a way they certainly were being more diverse, compared to their regular events, and maybe they fixated on “diversity” as a topic rather than diversity as a natural idea, and it all felt so awkward, to me at least.
Upping diversity at an event doesn’t have to be awkward. If it doesn’t exist naturally at your event, get out and search out talented people to work with. There is nothing awkward or offensive in doing so. I assure you great people are out there waiting to give their all, just don’t label and file them away. Welcome people in as people, dammit! Not just as “the other”, but as friends and associates. Take risks on newcomers. Work side-by-side. Know their experience may be different, and appreciate it. Learn from each other. If they want to focus on diversity let them, but don’t force their role to be solely about your cultural differences. Most of all, please try to be respectful, and just try your best to not make the whole experience awkward.