Tuesday, May 31, 2011

White Dude Panels: Another Example of White Privilege

Good Media brings us today's topic: white dude panels at conferences.

This story is in the context of I Want Media's upcoming conference. The "Future of Media" panel will feature only white men. In a conference like that one, the panelists are specifically invited. As the author of the piece notes, it's not as though they necessarily knew that they were going to be on the panel with only other white dudes. It shows a lack of awareness on the part of the coordinator, certainly. Should these guys give up their chance to speak on this panel in the name of making it more diverse?

Yes. Yes, they should. As author Cord Jefferson notes:
After watching this happen again and again, something occurred to me: Why don’t the white men who are asked to engage in this nonsense simply stop doing it? The boycott is a protest with a long history of success. If white, male elites started saying, “I will not participate in your panel, event, or article if it is all about white men,” chances are these panels and articles would quickly dry up—or become more diverse.

Exactly. White men have to realize that they have had enormous privilege given to them based on their white maleness, and this is one way in which they can start to counteract their white privilege. The panels would become more diverse, it's true - and, other white men would have a role model for disinvesting from the privilege of being white men. I think this is enormously important as part of an anti-racism agenda.

In the kinds of conferences I go to, panels are not usually put together this way. There are a few, maybe, in which speakers are invited. At the last two AERA conferences I went to, the program chairs for my division were invited to put together presidential panels. In both cases, the panels were diverse (Disclosure: I know both of the program chairs well, and they are both committed to diversity beyond tokenization). In fact, at this year's presidential session, the only white person was a woman.

Most of the time, though, panels and papers are submitted anonymously and accepted or rejected based on the quality of the research. We have to attempt to make sure the topics reflect an array of subjects and ideas, so that not all of the research is on, say, middle class straight white people. It is entirely possible to have panels consisting only of straight white men. In that case, I'm not sure what the immediate solution is, as the papers are selected without the committee's knowledge of the authors' identities. The long-term solution, as I will return to in a minute, is to increase access within the field so that the field itself becomes more diverse.

It is certainly good for a person's career to be asked or selected to participate in a panel for one's professional organization. Letting that go because of the demographics of the panel might sound not only silly, but overly harsh. I don't think it is, though. If we are people committed to diversity, I argue that we should live that commitment. I also know this is easy for me to say - as a queer woman, I will up a panel's diversity points twice. I could be the token that lets the white dudes breathe easy. But I'm not letting myself off a hook I'm willing to put other people on. If I see the conferences and panels I'm involved in getting too "white," I'll speak up.

This goes beyond who presents at panels, though. This is about who is getting the props in the field, to be sure, and it also speaks to who has access to whatever it takes to succeed in the field. If you, as a conference organizer, are trying to track down women and people of color to be part of a panel, and you can't find any... well, that certainly raises questions about what your field looks like as a whole. Something is going on to prevent non-white non-men from getting involved. We need to figure out what that is, if it's a problem we can all identify in our lines of work.

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