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.