Awkward Story About Adding Diversity To An Event

A while back I worked with a group that decided to throw a science fiction convention in the city of Detroit. This group was run by white suburbanites. Their normal events only had limited 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 black folk living in the city to be both participants and attendees.

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. Not fully 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 quite a bit.

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, music, and poetry 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.

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 great. 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 was she so sure? I knew lots of people who would find it fun.  Plus, isn’t this exactly how you welcome diversity into a fairly segregated group? Allow people to do their own thing? Perhaps it felt like too much of a wild card to the organizer, something too new for her own personal taste, but what does personal taste have to do with hospitality and inclusion?

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 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. The objective of this social media shaming was to create a more diverse convention, but ultimately it shamed the few black folk trying desperately to be involved.

So my analysis is that conservative risk adverseness, along with some white savior complex, combined to make people uncomfortable and chase talented people away. I know of multiple other people that refused to join or attend for similar reasons.

In my opinion the woman I invited to help 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 suburban community event had been throwing our events for many decades and was 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 the suburban events.

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. 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 all the black panelists. Other topics, not so much. This, I fear, was the result of assigning all non-whites to a diversity committee and then assigning that committee to a diversity track. 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 no matter their racial background? 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 couldn’t, because they were already on the diversity discussion track. Am I the only one that finds this, well, 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? Doesn’t that sound rather awkward? I would hope it does. 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 just seemed forced and awkwardness.

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. We worked together. 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, 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 with these people, and the people implementing this obviously couldn’t see how awkward what they were doing was. And I’m sure some people were happy to have been involved at all, even if 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 a norm, and so to me it rang as forced and awkward and I was fairly angry about it after it all happened. You don’t treat my friends like that. You don’t treat people like that.

Upping diversity at an event 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 put in some 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 because there’s something different about them. 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 should be celebrating what you have in common. Let them have input, let them discuss what they want to discuss, and invite them into discussions of all their topics of expertise.  Be respectful. There’s no need to make the whole experience awkward.

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