When a person of color tells conference organizers their conference is too white
You could say I asked for it, that I knew what I was getting into. Still, I went. To the San Miguel de Allende Writers’ Conference. I wrote about it in a previous post. I’d long known about the conference. And I’d long wanted to experience San Miguel de Allende, its picturesque cobblestone streets, its markets, its artesanías. I did love the city.
I did not love the conference. I didn’t hate it either. I got what I expected, what some had warned me about. A very white conference in the heart of Mexico. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I attended some very useful sessions, but there were others that were a reminder of its whiteness, its clueslessness about racism and cultural appropriation.
I sat with the experience for weeks when it occurred to me to return to the conference website. The deadline to apply to be faculty for the next conference was a day away. Having attended a half-dozen sessions at the recent conference, I was convinced that workshops I’d taught at other venues were of the caliber of the San Miguel conference. I submitted my proposal and emphasized my intent to use examples from works by writers of color, noting the lack I’d encountered in my recent experience at the conference.
A couple of weeks ago I received my rejection letter from the conference. A form letter, of course, that lamented the need to turn down so many of the 250 proposals that were submitted for the 70 sessions. They suggested I apply again next year.
I get it. I’ve been rejected many times for many things. My response most often is to shrug it off and move on, or as I was invited to do, to apply again. But there was something about this rejection that I couldn’t so easily shrug away. I decided to write back to the organizers and tell them why I had been compelled to submit a proposal.
I wrote about what it felt like to be one of the few writers of color at an overwhelmingly white conference. I described the unsatisfactory response from the all-white agent/editor panel when I asked what they were doing to increase representation in the publishing industry. I described the racist text one faculty member used to convey an example of humor. I talked about the missed opportunity in the travel writing workshop to discuss colonialist or racist perspectives when white people write about being in countries of brown or black people. I wrote that I had wanted to bring my perspective as a writer of color to the conference. I ended by saying, “Of those proposals that were accepted for the 2019 conference, I’m hoping there were some from writers of color. Otherwise, your conference will continue to be representative only of white writers and white experiences – a white bubble of American privilege in a country of brown people.”
I got a reply the next day, bubbly and breathless in its defense of their desire and efforts to be diverse. She listed all the brown and black people they had featured as keynote speakers over the years. She assured me that the list of general faculty was even more impressive. She described the Spanish-language element of the conference and its Mexican faculty. She expressed regret that “Unfortunately, we receive very few proposals from African American or Asian writers.”
She ended with, “If you know of writers of color whom you can encourage to apply to teach at our Conference, please do encourage them to apply. We need more applications from people of color.”
Could I possibly let this go? I wrote back that their response was lacking because their effort was lacking. I made the following points:
- The Spanish language aspect of their program taught by Mexican faculty was fundamental for any conference held in Mexico and was separate from the issue of diverse representation of general faculty and participants.
- A look at their website is evidence of how few faculty of color outside of the Spanish-language program they invite.
- A genuine effort to diversify their faculty would involve getting to know writing communities of color and actively recruiting their members to teach at their conference.
- Saying “Unfortunately, we receive very few proposals from African American or Asian writers” is lazy and shows a lack of commitment to true representation.
- A commitment would involve a public statement on their website of their intent to increase diversity of both faculty and participants. The statement would include assurance of respect for race, culture, and class so that the racism and microaggressions, which I mentioned in my email but which they failed to acknowledge, would be rarer and would be addressed when brought to their attention.
- Diversity doesn’t happen by wishing for more applications from African American or Asian American writers. Nor does it happen by asking someone whose application they rejected to do the work for them by asking her to encourage her colleagues of color to apply.
I got no breathless and bubbly response this time. I got no response at all. When conference organizers say they’re working hard to be diverse and you as a person of color who has experienced their conference tells them, “No, you’re not,” and tells them why they’re not, and the conference organizers stop talking to you, well, what else is new?
As for the photos in this post, they’re indicative of the fact that I took hardly any photos at the conference, focusing my camera instead on the sights of interest outside of it.
Thank you for making the effort to educate the conference organizers — I’m sorry they didn’t recognize the gift you offered them.
I am appalled but not surprised. Your article did not encourage me to travel from Merida, Mexico to San Miguel Allende to participate in the writers’ conference. It did, however, inspire me to buy your book, Hola and Goodbye: Una Familia in Stories. White people are fortunate when a person of color takes the time and effort to explain how to become more inclusive. Once given that knowledge the lack of inclusivity and lack of genuine effort is indefensible. I will be passing on this article to a group that passively would like to be less white. Thank you for writing this.