Fandom, Conventions, and Race

Over the past two weekends, I’ve been a Guest of Honor at Penguicon and Mo*Con. I had a great time at both, and would like to publicly thank both cons for all of their work, and for making me feel so welcome. Penguicon gave me a pocketwatch! Mo*Con wouldn’t stop feeding me! At both conventions, I got to hang out and talk to amazing people, and I’m grateful to all of the volunteers and attendees who helped me to feel welcome.

But these two cons also drove home something I’ve been noticing. Earlier this year, I was on a panel about inclusion in fandom at a different convention. One of our panelists insisted that fandom had always been welcoming to everyone, adding that she preferred the colorblind approach, welcoming everyone as individuals.

Mary Robinette Kowal beat me to the response by 0.6 seconds. Mary stood up and asked everyone in the audience who was white to raise their hands.

The entire audience raised their hands, with the sole exception of the partner of the panel’s one black panelist–a gentleman who, I believe, had been invited specifically to attend that panel.

That’s what “colorblind” looks like.

Most of the conventions I’ve attended are like this.

Data on race and ethnicity in the U.S. is a little messy, but in 2010, our population was roughly 72% white. So why do so many conventions seem to be between 95% and 99% white? And it’s not just in the midwest that I’ve seen this, either.

Mo*Con was an exception to the rule. There were times this past weekend I wish I could have been colorblind, because in the back of my mind, I kept looking around and wondering, Why can’t more conventions be like this?, and that frustration took away from my ability to just relax and enjoy myself.

We’ve had this conversation before. I don’t believe anyone is deliberately or consciously trying to limit convention participation along racial lines. Nobody’s setting a quota of at least 97% white folks. We’ve seen some conventions beginning to talk about trying to more actively look for nonwhite guests to invite, as opposed to thoughtlessly recycling the generally white status quo.

I’m not saying nobody should ever invite white guests of honor to their conventions. But I don’t think white men should be the default, the automatic choice, when there’s such a broad range of amazing writers contributing to our field.

But that’s just a part of the picture. One of the things I noticed at Mo*Con was a sense of genuine welcomeness. I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s not that I’ve felt unwelcome at other conventions; but Mo*Con had a sense of warmth and inclusiveness and appreciation for everyone that I haven’t experienced at most cons. Some of that might have been the smaller size and the focus on people and connections, but whatever the reason, I want that at every convention.

I want everyone to have that, dammit.

And it’s not enough to just tell the concom to invite more nonwhite guests. The entire convention needs to be a part of creating that inclusiveness. I need to be a part of it, of inviting and welcoming and listening. When conventions promote, where do they focus their outreach? When we come back to the real world and talk about what a great time we had at a con, who do we talk to? Who do we try to invite along to the next one?

Lots of people will protest that they don’t discriminate, and they don’t judge based on color. They’ll argue that they welcome everyone, and they do so in a way that’s fair and non-racist and colorblind. But we’ve seen what “colorblind” tends to create. We end up recreating and reinforcing our preexisting circles, building a convention that might be welcoming to us, but isn’t necessarily welcoming to everyone.

That needs to change. Because dammit, the world is bigger than that. Our genre is bigger. We should be bigger.

Related Link: The Carl Brandon Society runs the Con or Bust fundraiser, actively working to help fans of color attend conventions.