The Same Old Same Old

This past weekend, I attended the Skepticon 5 conference in Springfield, Missouri with a large group of fellow atheists from Chicago. Despite a nine hour drive both ways, it was an absolute blast. The best thing about conferences for me is not necessarily the speakers on the docket, but getting to see friends that I usually don’t get to see at any other time. This movement has made  it so I know people all across the country, and so only occasionally do we get to come together in the same place. Especially getting to hang out with Debbie Goddard and Ed Brayton was fantastic, as they are two of my favorite people in the entire world. For that reason alone, Skepticon was worth the effort. Also, getting to meet Stephanie Zvan of Almost Diamonds was an enormous pleasure. Not only is she a wonderful writer and thinker, she is a really nice person, and spent a lot of time with Kate, Miriam, and myself.

However, as ever in the atheist movement, there were issues with the weekend. Many of them are summed up well by this blog post, though in terms of actual participation in the Friends Against Hunger event happening next door, Stephanie does contradict some of his claims. However, the starkness between the two events was definitely noticeable.

In my case, being one of them big city liberals and all, I did feel out of place to a certain extent in Springfield. It is a very small town by my standards, and was not exactly bustling aside from the 1,600 conference attendees; on Sunday morning, Kate and I found ourselves to be the only people walking around the downtown area because all the locals were in church. The morning before, on our way to a coffee shop nearby, we had to walk through a Veteran’s Day parade that was far more conspicuous for the number of Confederate flags on display than for its celebration of service. All around the area were buildings that were unoccupied, and appeared to have been so for a long time; it was a stark reminder that all is not well in our country, despite talk from the political establishment on how the economy is getting better.

The problem for me arose in the fact that the conference attendees did not exactly diverge much in appearance from the people waving the stars and bars. During the whole weekend, I remember seeing a grand total of seven people of color, one of whom was Debbie Goddard, there tabling for the Center for Inquiry, and two others, Tony Pinn and Hemant Mehta, were speakers.

Now, I know this con took place in a state not known for racial diversity. But the fact of the matter is that such a startling lack of it from a community like ours, which has been having this conversation for ages now, and from organizers as fantastic as those who run Skepticon, simply is not excusable. Particularly when Tony Pinn, a renowned scholar and excellent speaker to boot, was placed as the very last person on the schedule for the entire conference, at 5:30 on Sunday, by which most people, myself included, had left due to having finals the next day.* Add to the fact that he was speaking on diversity, which historically is the topic that speakers of color get pigeonholed into talking about above all else, the near-utter lack of non-white faces should be viewed as a true embarrassment to Skepticon.

I am not going to go on in this post and tell you all the reasons why diversity and concern with social justice should be important. I have talked about it plenty of times before. Many people more eloquent than I have talked about it at length. We as a community need to stop discussing diversity and start doing something about it.

*According to Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism, as well as Stephanie Zvan and Jesse Galef, Dr. Pinn had a scheduling conflict and that is why he was the last speaker, not because of the organizers’ planning. Noting this, I believe my critique still stands.

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14 thoughts on “The Same Old Same Old

  1. FYI, not to contradict your point in any way, but Pinn had originally been scheduled to open the conference. I believe his was one of the many events originally meant to happen Friday that didn’t happen as planned because of post-Sandy travel problems.

    Also, y’all are a great deal of fun.

  2. “But the fact of the matter is that such a startling lack of it from a community like ours, which has been having this conversation for ages now, and from organizers as fantastic as those who run Skepticon, simply is not excusable. Particularly when Tony Pinn, a renowned scholar and excellent speaker to boot, was placed as the very last person on the schedule for the entire conference, at 5:30 on Sunday, by which most people, myself included, had left due to having finals the next day”

    Quick comment – I’m under the impression that Tony Pinn was scheduled to be at a different, more prominent time slot but that his travel plans changed and the organizers had to shift things around. I’m not positive, so it might be worth checking with them about it – I bet sending Micah a message call to see if that’s true would make sense.

  3. Andrew, always great to hang out with you as well. And it was great to finally meet Kate. I never did get the chance to meet Miriam, though. And I agree with the point you’re making: Skepticon is an awesome event, but it could be even more awesome if efforts were made to make it more diverse. It’s something we’re working on for Freethought Blogs as well.

  4. Anthony- regarding Dr. Pinn’s scheduling conflict, your critique most certainly still stands. This was a problem only because the convention invited only a single token speaker. Had the diversity topic been represented by a broader collection of speakers and representatives (as it should have been), this would not have been a problem.

  5. Hi, Andrew.

    My name is Micah Weiss and I am program director for Skepticon and I am in charge of speaker selection and recruitment. Please forgive my laziness as parts of this have been copied from my comments on Zach Moore’s blog. If it seems rushed, it is. This is the second time a blogpost has filled my inbox with jokes of “the Internet says you’re racist.” I know you don’t think that, but I think you’ll understand the drive to give some context to your objections.

    First off: thank you for your honest, negative, thoughtful, feedback. This the most useful kind of feedback and if you have more of it, I would be happy to hear it. In fact, anyone who registered should expect a feedback request by email in the near future. Everything will be read. Everything.

    On Tony,
    Tony Pinn is a BAMF. Our original schedule has Pinn speaking for our opening night. Why the switch? We are not the only ones who think he’s a rockstar. This October, Tony was elected to the board of AHA. Unfortunately, his new duties caused a schedule conflict and we had to switch his time. He closed Skepticon 5 because we like to end with a bang. JT Eberhard closed Skepticon 4 and left the audience in tears (http://tinyurl.com/a833qk7). He was originally set to close this year. Addicted to audience tears, he wanted to end this year’s talk by proposing to his girlfriend. Switching the two made a lot of sense.

    Now you can argue that if we had more people of color, this switch wouldn’t have caused any problems. You would be right. I could argue the comparative difficulty of organizing the largest skeptical conference in the US to finger wagging, but I would be as right as I would be off topic. The simple truth of the matter is that we are as responsible for the narratives we communicate purposefully as those accidentally. The was a narrative communicated that “Skepticon doesn’t take diversity seriously”. That could not be farther from the truth, but the fact that people got that idea is entirely my fault.

    This is my first year in this position and I have learned a lot. There are lists of non-white speakers. Unfortunately, I didn’t know about them until speaker selection was largely done. The method we used was very community driven and used a lot of word of mouth. This worked well for finding who and what was important to our attendees. Unfortunately, it also affirmations of the status quo as attendees and friends think of people like themselves.

    Demographic homogenization can cause privilege to become systemic. This is one of the most challenging problems we face and we take it very seriously. Like hell if we are going to let Skepticon turn into a circlejerk.

    On Springfield,
    Welcome to the Thunderdome. This town is a pressure cooker for activism and that skin crawly feeling that you felt is the galvanizing force for Skepticon’s existence. Springfield is home to the HQ of Assemblies of God (Palin’s church and the world’s largest Pentacostal denomination). On the race front, the only city bigger and whiter than Springfield is Portland. Four blocks west of our convention center is a memorial to a 1906 hate crime so atrocious that all blacks left the region for decades. Even today, Springfield is almost 90% white. Things are getting better but the challenges are massive.

    On Meals A Million,
    We know that there were attendees helping because our registration desk explained and directed them to the event. In fact, we plug their event right on our schedule (skepticon.org/schedule). There were some cases of attendees being turned away, but we have known that some of their sessions would be full. Our executive director, Jeffery Markus, has been talking to them this since we found out about them this summer.

    I am deeply disappointed that Meals a Million was turned into a Christians vs. Atheists story. Especially in light of the lovely thank you we received from their director:

    “Jeffrey,
    Thank you for encouraging your attendees to volunteer at Meals A Million. We were able to ship over 1 million meals. We packaged 960,000 and included raw ingredients to allow them to make more meals another 150,000 meals. 308,000 meals were shipped to the east coast for victims of Hurricane Sandy. Another 120,000 were distributed in and around Springfield at area pantries and feeding programs and the remaining meals were shipped out of the country.
    Sincerely,
    Karen”

    In conclusion,
    We take diversity issues seriously. It is something passionate about it. That is why I have been working with the NAACP and the Ozarks Interfaith Alliance. Hopefully, we can create some dialogue and educate ourselves out of our biases (on both sides). Our challenges our enormous, but if a heart attack, cancer, and a hurricane didn’t stop us this year, I don’t think anything can.

    Thanks for reading,
    -Micah

    P.S. I am also emailing this to you because I want to hear more from you. Communication can fix some problems and prevent more.

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