An Unpopular Opinion about Diversity Panels

You guys, we need to have a conversation about diversity panels.  And you aren’t going to like what I have to say.  In fact, by the end of this you’re probably going to think I’m an asshole.  And maybe I am.  I probably am.  Either way, that’s okay, as long as we can get the conversation started.

So here we go:

Diversity panels do not help further the cause of diversity.  They just don’t.  They are nice and I love hearing marginalized folks share their experiences.  But they suffer from an echo chamber effect that diversified panels, panels where a member happens to be from a marginalized group, do not face.  Diversity panels make conference organizers feel like they’re doing their part to further diversity, but all they really do is further ghettoize diverse authors and marginalized voices because the audience for those panels are the people who are ALREADY LISTENING.

And that is the problem.

Think of it this way: penicillin is great, but no one really thinks about the awesomeness of antibiotics until they have syphilis.  Meaning, it takes a deviation from the norm for people to reevaluate and reconsider their prior actions and thought patterns.  Without that confrontation, change does not occur.

Newton's First Law of Motion:  a body at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force acts on it, and a body in motion at a constant velocity will remain in motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an outside force.  This holds true for social issues as well.

And I know right now you’re thinking:  OMG, Justina, did you just compare diversity to syphilis?

Well, I actually compared it to penicillin, but let’s just go ahead and move on.

I witnessed what happens with diversity panels first hand at a recent conference.

The We Need Divers Books panel was early (900AM) and although it was attended, it wasn’t FULL.  Which is what we want with panels, right?  Standing room only?  Especially diversity panels.  The folks there did a magnificent job, but from the audience questions you could tell these were attendees who had made an effort to be there, individuals who already cared about diversity, or who wanted to reminisce about the early days of the fight to increase the representation in publishing and books across the board.

You guys, that is NOT who the audience for diversity discussions needs to be.  People of color already know racism exists, they face it every stinking day.  The conversation about racism is for white folks who either don’t know about it or are apathetic to the entire issue.

This is the case for discussions of increasing diversity and representation.  You don’t need me to hear it, you need the people who aren’t already thinking about the subject to hear it.

Which is why it was exciting to see people talking about this issue in other places.  Steph Kuehn brought it up at her panel on gender and publishing, pointing out that a book tour of all young, white women is just as problematic as a book tour of all white dudes and insisting that feminism must be intersectional, otherwise it is just a new form of oppression.  I brought it up at my writing Spec Fic in YA and MG panel, to the shock of the people sitting in front of me (it’s amazing the range of expressions people’s faces go through when you say “if only white people survive your apocalypse, you have a problem”).  Brandy Colbert brought it up during her panel on YA and the female body.  And Swati Avasthi brought it up during a panel on writing trauma in YA in relation to Hinduism, saying “Be careful what you call ‘mythology’. Because it isn’t mythology to the people who believe in it.”

These were important discussions to have, a small piece of diversity, seamlessly (or in my case, loudly) inserted into conversations about other issues people were interested in.  And a lot of those people came to the later Race in YA panel, not because it was a priority when they arrived to the conference, but because they’d heard something about it from us earlier in the week so they wanted to hear more.

And that panel was packed.

This friends, is how real change happens.  Hashtag activism is important and the We Need Diverse Books folks are doing very hard, thankless work twenty-five hours a day.  Don’t think I’m slamming their work (I support the work they’re doing! They are amazing people! I have panels with them coming up!).  But to get the people who don’t care to start thinking about diversity you have to put it in front of their face when they aren’t thinking about it.  You have to slip black beans into their brownies and only tell them about the benefits of what they ate after the fact.

How do I know this? Because a bunch of people (okay, only like ten) told me after the Race in YA panel, “I wasn’t really thinking about diversity, but then I heard you say that funny thing at the spec-fic panel so I came here instead of that other thing I was going to see.”  And that matters a great deal.

Because that is how a movement grows.