Generic “diversity panels” are boring.
Header image: “Backstage” by Gabriel Garcia Marengo. CC-BY.I get it: you schedule “Women in Gaming” and “Disability in Genre Fiction” with the best of intentions. You know these are hot topics of discussion in the fandom community right now, and you want your con to add to the conversation.
But these generic panels don’t so much add to the conversation as recap it. It’s impossible to go into a subject as broad as “Race In Science Fiction” in any depth in a one-hour slot, and without knowing how well the audience has educated themselves on the topic, the panelists generally just end up summarizing the background reading.
What makes this worse for panelists is that, as members of underrepresented groups, we’re in high demand for this kind of “diversity homework.” We get scheduled for these panels instead of panels on subjects related to our actual expertise or current projects. While folks with more privilege get scheduled for memorable topics that will help them raise their profile and promote their work, we’re stuck explaining Empathy 101 to folks who could just as easily look it up on Tumblr.
So if ignoring diversity topics completely isn’t the answer, but including diversity programming isn’t good enough either, what’s a programming head to do?
The very best thing you can do is make sure you have a diverse concom, especially on your programming and safety teams. A diverse team can help you develop engaging panel topics and recruit underrepresented panelists.
But getting underrepresented people to volunteer when you don’t have many to start with can be tough. Developing panel topics that will actually contribute meaningfully to ongoing conversations about diversity in the SFF community is a good first step.
A good diversity panel doesn’t try to tackle the entire ‘diversity issue’ in a single hour. Instead, choose a more focused topic that will give panelists a chance to share their perspective and experience while grounding the discussion in something concrete, so it’s accessible to an audience that hasn’t necessarily done all their homework.
I asked folks on Twitter for some examples of diversity panels they’d like to see, and we came up with some examples.
Instead Of Disability In Genre Fiction:
- Accessibility in Futuristic Societies
- Re-Inventing The Wheelchair: Assistive Devices in Science Fiction And Fantasy
- Positive Portrayals of Neuroatypicality in Genre Fiction: who’s doing it right and what we’d like to see
- Protagonists With Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Medicine After The End Of The World: Managing Chronic Conditions and Serious Illness After The Apocalypse
Instead of Gender In Genre Fiction:
- Marginalized Perspectives On Mass Surveillance
- Science Fiction and the Future of Childbirth (careful not to be cis-normative!)
- Beyond The Boob Window: Practical and Stylish Fighting Clothes For Your Intrepid Heroine
- Toxic Masculinity As Villain (This panel was proposed and led by @Sinboy at Readercon. Check out the full panel description here. Or watch the panel on Youtube, courtesy Scott Edelman. (h/t @rosefox))
- Saving The World After Fifty: Celebrating Genre Fiction’s Silver-Haired Heroines
- Standards of Beauty in Secondary Worlds. Beauty/fashion is always related to a display of wealth. Think past slender and fair.
- The Female Gaze Is Coming For You: Romance’s Assault on Patriarchy
- Men In The Post-Patriarchy: Inter- and Intra-gender Friendships, Collaborations, and Rivalries in Societies that Don’t Dehumanize The Feminine
- Female Characters In Video Games: What makes a female character fun for women to play?
- Hell Hath No Fury: Ways To Motivate, Impede, and Change Female Characters (That Don’t Involve Rape)
- Queer Identities After The Apocalypse: Trans Health Care and Queer Reproductive Choices In Post-Apocalyptic Worlds (h/t Kelly Szpara)
Instead of Race In Genre Fiction:
- Marginalized Perspectives On Mass Surveillance
- The Future of Racism: The past’s virulent racism against the Irish has now faded to linguistic artifacts like “paddy wagon” and “red-headed stepchild.” What traces will present-day racism leave behind, and what new forms of racism will emerge?
- The Colonialism of Fairytales
- Colonialism in Secondary World Fantasies
- Describing Race In Secondary Worlds
- Religions of the African Diaspora in Genre Fiction: Beyond Zombies and Horror (h/t India Valentin)
- But Where Did This Chocolate Come From? Even Fantasy Cultures Don’t Exist In Isolation
- Creating Imaginary Races Doesn’t Erase Racism: How Real-World Racism Bleeds Into Secondary Worlds
- “But Her Race Isn’t Important To The Plot!” and Other Terrible Reasons not To Include Non-White Characters In Fiction
- Language, Dialect, and Code-Switching
- Beyond The Hero’s Journey: Non-Western Narrative Structure in Genre Fiction
- Alien Cultures That Don’t Dehumanize: creating original alien societies without portraying real minority races, religions, and cultures as literally not human
- Defense Against The Dark Arts: Dealing With Internet Trolls (I give a forty-five-minute talk on how marginalized people can keep themselves safe, and how others can help protect them. Invite me to give it at your con!)
- How to Fail Gracefully: You’re going to make a mistake. Here’s some things that will keep an error from turning into a Fail.
Special thanks to Mary Robinette Kowal, K. Tempest Bradford, and Natalie Luhrs for helping me generate panel topics. Feel free to use any of these topics for panels at your cons. I ask only that you be conscientious about who you put on these panels, or any other diversity programming you schedule. Finding people who’ll volunteer for these panels to talk about what great allies they are is easy. If you really want your con to move the conversation forward, make it a priority to seek out and center marginalized voices, and folks who can speak to these topics from their personal lived experience.
Are there diversity panel topics you’d like to see? Feel free to suggest them in the comments below.
Edited to Add: Michi Trota of Uncanny Magazine has an excellent post up about diversity panels, and how underrepresented panelists deserve to be included in all kinds of programming instead of being sidelined: Diversity Panels Are The Beginning, Not The End. I highly recommend it to everyone involved in con programming.