Conference diversity in 2017

Recently the topic of diversity in conference speakers, specifically among radical Christian folk, came up on my Facebook when the website for The Peace of the Gospel was launched, and of the twenty speakers nineteen of them were white. I saw a few different things happening in the discussion, and I was reminded of some things I’ve learned.

The first defensive response I saw was this: the conference is actually about the work of René Girard (although the website never mentions this, and at least most of the speakers are not PhD level scholars in anything, much less the work of Girard), and because of that there weren’t enough people of color available.

This is a common response to this topic. There’s always the assumption that there aren’t enough people of color (or women, or indigenous people, or LGBT folk, or differently abled people, or whoever is being underrepresented) that are relevant to the topic. The organizers tried so very hard to find them, you see; it just didn’t work.

I think this deserves a lot of questioning. I’d like to examine some of the questions it raises for me. I’m considering it specifically for this conference, although I think it applies broadly as well.

Are there enough people of color who have something relevant to say here?

The answer to this question, in my opinion, is almost always yes. Whatever the topic is, in 2017 it is overwhelmingly likely that there are people of color who are working on it. This conference is clearly not an exclusively academic conference, as I mentioned earlier. I know of the work most of the people speaking there do, and I’m friends with some of them. They all no doubt do great work with Girard, but again many of them aren’t academics. They’re not known for their work on Girard; they’re known for their work on church, contemplation, psychology, history, political theology, etc. and they no doubt bring Girard into that work. Which is great. But to assume that there are only a few people of color they could ask to also do this (assuming this happened), and then giving up when those few were unavailable, is lazy.

Do you, as an organizer, know any people of color who have something to say?

This is, I think, the slightly deeper issue. We remain a deeply segregated society in many ways. While it is essential for people of color to know white people and engage with us, the same is not true for us as white people. The research here is clear and consistent (for example) — most white people only have white social networks.

This means it’s entirely possible that conference organizers don’t know any relevant people of color to invite to their event. It’s even more possible that they only know a few, and that they really did ask all of them and they weren’t available. The fault here, though, isn’t with people of color for being unavailable, unskilled, irrelevant, invisible. It’s with white people for ignoring their presence. It’s not okay, in 2017, to stop a pursuit by saying, “oh well, I asked the people I knew and they weren’t available.”

Do you, as an organizer, have connections to any people who know people of color?

This is a harder one to answer. I think it’s likely that most progressive Christian conference organizers do know people who could introduce them to more people of color. Maybe not, but probably. Maybe they’re even very loose connections; Facebook friends or Twitter followers or whatever. Maybe there are even several degrees of separation. There are countless possible scenarios here, I think.

But the thing is, dealing with those connections is literally the job of an organizer. That’s why it’s a job. People who organize conferences have the responsibility to make and find connections between people, often people who don’t know each other. This is as true for getting speakers as it is for getting attendees.

I’m not an organizer, to be clear. I understand this is hard work. But it has to be done. Organizing as a skill is at the forefront of many of our minds today, as we watch the work of the Movement for Black Lives, Native pipeline resistance, immigrant defense, and the more broad marches like the Women’s March, Climate March, Science March, and so on. Some of these groups have run into the same criticisms.

How these groups have responded to them is revelatory, I think, both of their priorities and also of how good at organizing they are. The Women’s March (for example) was good enough at organizing to find women of color to whom they could give leadership, even if there weren’t direct connections. Certainly the march received deserved criticism for centering whiteness more than it should have, but it made intentional efforts with specific results to address this, and the group (at least the national one) has continued to do that work since the march happened.

Conference organizing is not like protest organizing, of course, but the skill still applies. If you are a conference organizer and you don’t know how to find qualified people just because you don’t know them, I think it’s necessary to become a better organizer.

If there are literally no people of color available, why is that?

If you can get past the above issues — if you discover that you know all of the people of color who have something to say about Girard, and none of them are available to speak at your conference — I submit that the organizing work is still not finished. It’s time to ask why it is that they aren’t around.

The church is well equipped to examine this issue, if it can stop and think for a minute. The church in America is famously segregated, of course, dating back to slavery when black people had to start their own churches, and then Jim Crow when they had to start their own everything, and the various white denominations split over their own positions.

The black church doesn’t exist in America because black people were unqualified to be ministers and theologians. It exists because they were shut out of the white church, and so they compensated for it by creating their own structures. Consequently, these structures dealt with their needs and issues in unique ways, giving rise to the spirituals, the blues, jazz, gospel, and of course the Civil Rights Movement, among other things. They followed this by giving rise to black liberation theology, which has a unique, essential voice not only for black people but for white people if we have any interest in pursuing our own liberation. Black liberation theology, to this day, gets written off as “contextual theology” as if the theology done by white people isn’t contextual. This treatment is unfair and ridiculous and harmful to the many brilliant black theologians, of course, but as I say it also keeps the white power structures away from their own liberation.

I submit that this is a pattern that has to be engaged if, somehow, we determine that there are really no people of color in a field who can come speak at our conferences. If that’s true, what have people of color created on their own while we were ignoring them, shutting them out, minimizing their relevance (it doesn’t matter whether our actions were intentional or not)? In the specific example here — the peace of the gospel — the examples of people of color with something relevant to say, both historical and contemporary, both academic and popular, are staggering.

We could, and no doubt should, have conferences where white people exclusively listen to people of color talk to us about peace. When we consider the history of the US, we have minimal historical legs to stand on, as a group, while they do. I still think it’s likely that many more people of color do examine Girard than might be assumed, but if they don’t it’s time to figure out what they created in place of examining Girard and what its relevance is.

Once we, as white people, find out what people of color created on their own, it’s time to find out how we can invite them to engage with us. That becomes the question for conference organizers. How can our understanding of the peace of the gospel, whether specific to Girard or not, be enriched, expanded, challenged, and turned upside down by what people of color have created? Where does our peace lie in engaging with their peace?

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