May 242017

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. A greater racial diversity was certainly present compared to the suburban events they’d thrown in the past. Yet how diversity was implemented felt so awkward to me. Not smooth. Not natural. In some ways, not 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 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 I was attending and tried to get people to attend with me. No one else went. I brought fliers for our event. I took free publicity photos for their event. I talked with many people. It was a great time. I learned about the black comic book underground in in Detroit that has existed 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 all 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 the department head roles. These were people whom 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 volunteered to help with the event and wasn’t white 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 brought in was automatically assigned to this diversity committee.

Now, I had automatically assumed, based on her experience, the woman I brought in would at least run a discussion track or panel. Perhaps one about the black comic book underground, which I thought would have been a great talk. Another role she offered was to help bring in local black artists and writers, as she knew many. She confided in me that all of her suggestions were being quickly nixed. She felt that no one was interested in 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. 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 told the head of the event I liked the idea I was told that our attendees would never go to such a thing and it would be a failure. This left me confused. How do you know if you don’t try? Isn’t this exactly how you welcome diversity into a fairly segregated group? Allow people from the community to doing their own thing? I suspect it felt like too much of a wild card to the organizer, something too new for her own tastes, but that, to me, is the fun of bringing new people in.

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, and only the department heads were in attendance. 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 is conservative risk adverseness, along with some white savior complex, combined to chase talented people away. I know of multiple other people that refused to join for similar reasons.

In my opinion she never should have been made to feel this way. She was talented, hard working, and knowledgeable about 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 thought she was still a good fit for the event. An excellent candidate to run some programming and bring in talented locals who never attended before.

I quietly contacted the person that had made the big social media stink about all the white faces on the committee, explaining how it was scaring people off instead of bringing them in, and asked if they would instead encourage people to join and attend. I was told they were not a “recruiter of people of color,” they would certainly not help with such a thing, and I was told we should all be ashamed that we didn’t automatically just have more blacks working 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 was not 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 black panelists. Other topics, not so much. This, I fear, was the result of assigning all non-whites to a 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 professionals belong in all discussions? Every time I went to a non-diversity related discussion panel I kept looking up at the all white panelists while thinking about other people that should have also been participating, but they couldn’t, because they were already on the diversity discussion track. Am I the only one that finds this awkward?

I wondered about the days past 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 and create special discussions just for those women, totally separate from all discussions the men had? These days doesn’t that sound rather awkward? I would hope it does, 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 part of their identity 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 forced and 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 this segregation, and that there was nothing “awkward” about it, and it was the appropriate way to run the event, but I personally think we could do better if we simply respected people for their talents. My viewpoint is likely flavored by my life experience. I went to multiple high schools, college, and have worked in areas that were highly mixed race. People just did their thing. Here’s where what I’m going to say is a “Duh” moment, which is my point. Black teachers didn’t only teach black studies. Black students didn’t only discuss diversity or black history at the exclusion of every other topic. Sure those topics were discussed, and should be discussed, but in the public schools and the university I attended I never saw people being assigned tasks solely based on their race, culture, sexual orientation, etc.. I get that this event was encouraging more diversity for the first time, and the people implementing this obviously couldn’t see how awkward what they were doing was to those new people being brought in. And I’m sure some people were ahppy to have been only on the diversity track, but that’s not the point either. While the event certainly was more diverse compared to their regular events, they definitely fixated on “diversity” as a topic rather than diversity as normality, and so to me it rang as forced and awkward.

And my point is upping diversity at an event that’s stuck in its ways doesn’t have to be awkward. If it doesn’t exist naturally at your event, just get out and search out talented people to work with. They likely won’t know you exist, so you need to put in effort. 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 these people away. Welcome them as the talented people they are, dammit! Not as “the other”, but as friends and associates with something to add, who likely live nearby though cultural walls have oddly kept you apart. Those walls can be destroyed, just be careful about using the bricks to build new ones. Take risks on newcomers. Work side-by-side. Know their experience may be different. Appreciate it. Talk about diversity, but don’t force anyone’s role to be solely about their cultural differences when you could be celebrating what you have in common. Be respectful. There’s no need to make the whole experience awkward.