The unbearable whiteness of conferences

Dear library conferences, you need to diversify your speakers, your delegates and your committee. That’s a lot I know, but it’s necessary…

As we come to the end of conference silly season, the wonderful Ka Ming and others have raised the issue of the diversity of conference delegates and speakers. DILON asked CILIP about their policy for the recent CILIP Careers Day and received this response, although no details or acknowledgement that the event was actually diverse were received. You can look at the speakers here and decide for yourself.

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This is a big issue for us here at DILON and whilst I don’t think I can magically change the landscape with a blog post, the temptation of writing a list and complaining (two of my favourite things) is too much to bear.

So here are some suggestions and honestly, conference committees and organisers, if I can sit here and come up with some suggestions in my pjs then you can do it with some minor effort, kay?

Race is not a bad thing to talk about, it’s a guaranteed part of life so just be open about it! 

You can discuss how white you are you know, and you can be open about why this is wrong and that you are looking to rectify the situation – plus a real apology for your past lack of diversity and a commitment to making a change would go such a long way (as I write this, I can’t believe I haven’t seen anyone openly do it).

Be open and transparent about your applicants and speakers, let us know what efforts you have made to diversify and again, hold your hands up if it doesn’t work out the first time. I for one am not going to bitch about a conference that makes a real effort.

Don’t ask your one POC member…

This is a big problem that people of colour face every time they question the whitewashed status quo – well, what do YOU suggest we do?

I genuinely would not want to join a committee that was looking for a non white member because they wanted to diversify their conference – that sucks. And I know this because I was asked this very thing this week (I declined)! It’s lazy, insulting and passes the buck to someone else. If you are the chair of the committee, make it clear this is everyone’s responsibility and follow through by devoting time and resources to sorting out the problem. It’s great if you are trying to diversify your committee because it’s the right thing to do but not if it is to get an ‘expert.’*

Don’t have old man white speakers as your keynotes and panels!

One more time for those at the back.

It’s the first thing I notice and it makes me so tired and sad – these are leaders, idols, gods. What does that say to me as a young brown woman? When you plan a conference you are deciding whose voice to silence and whose to amplify so put some thought into it and don’t be afraid to say no to these people. They have taken up enough of our stage.

Again, will it take more effort to find a more diverse range of speakers? Possibly yes. But if you are going to tell me that it’s not worth it then you’re really dismissing my entire existence as not worth the bother. Even if you have POC in the lightening talks, you are are still creating a hierarchy that says hey, this is where you belong and this is where they belong. You have a responsibility here and so far you have failed.

Don’t have one or two POC and pat yourself on the back.

This is a long term commitment to structural change. So many times I have pointed our the lack of diversity in a group/conference/workplace etc. and the impression is that if I am there, it can’t be lacking in diversity.

People of colour are themselves incredibly diverse** ; I am so sick of being typecast as Scary Spice when all the other girls had four different types of white women to choose from. Take it from me, however diverse you think you are, it’s probably not enough.

Think about your bursaries and call for papers.

I don’t know how many times white librarians have thrown their hands in the air and said well nobody of colour applied so it’s not my fault. We spend our whole lives being told by society that we are not good enough and seriously, if I don’t see non white speakers and leaders and keynotes and committees, why would I think it was a space where I was welcome, why would I put effort in to apply when it looks like I wouldn’t be good enough.

Why not have a BME/POC bursary? If you are afraid that this will discriminate against white people then can I suggest you stop reading here and go and do some research to better educate yourself. If you are afraid that others will accuse you of discrimination so you do nothing, then you are failing us.

Create a formal policy or framework or action plan or whatever bollocks you want to call it.

Ask for help on this, do some research and share resources with each other. Use it to determine how you select speakers (you must already have a set of criteria?) and make it publicly available so we can see if we would like to apply. Review this after the conference and use it to plan for next time. Isn’t this what we do in libraries, I honestly feel like I shouldn’t have to say these obvious things.

If you ask POC to be your keynotes or on your panels and they say no (which is what the LILAC committee said yesterday) build something into your plan to address this – they didn’t turn down your invitation for nothing. Apologise, don’t make excuses.

*

One of the main reasons I set up DILON was because I was sick of hearing people talk about the white male panel but still planning conferences with these panels and amplifying their voices even louder. My hope for the network is that we can call out conferences who do not make a concerted effort with their diversity and bring these issues into our workplaces, social media and meetings, because I have been on an otherwise all white planning committee before now and I know that if the person of colour doesn’t raise the issue, nobody else will even think of it.

This isn’t to say that nobody has done anything! If you do have resources, ideas, examples, cfps, vacancies or apologies, please share and contact/tweet us.

I would also like to add to this blog a list of BME/POC people from all sectors and at all stages of their career who would be interested in speaking at conferences. So if you are out there, let me know, you don’t have to be a DILON member or based in the North! I can’t have a list with just my name, that would just look sad 😉

And lastly but importantly, the above applies to other minorities, protected classes and disadvantaged people.

Jen Bayjoo

* please excuse me as I throw up

**hope you are excited about a forthcoming blogpost on this and why POC is a shit term…

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