Dear Conference Organizers: A No-Fooling-Around Note About Diversity

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Dear conference organizers:

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak at your conference. I would love to make this happen if it’s possible! I like speaking at conferences: I like meeting new people and re-connecting with old friends, and I especially enjoy meeting with organizers of local community groups. And, of course, I like selling books. 🙂 I’m happy to speak at local conferences, regional conferences, national and international conferences. My honorarium is low, and my travel requirements are pretty minimal. If I can fit this event into my schedule, I’d love to do it.


If your speaker lineup is overwhelmingly white, I am not willing to speak at your conference.

And when I say this, I mean it. I am not fooling around. Specifically, I mean this:

If you send me a confirmation with a list of scheduled speakers, and that list is overwhelmingly white, I will withdraw from your conference.

I’m sorry to come across like a hardass. But experience has taught me that I have to be. Experience has taught me that if I don’t say something ahead of time, I will often wind up on an overwhelmingly white speaker lineup. Not always — a lot of conference organizers already get this, and are on it — but often. Experience has taught me that, even if I do say something ahead of time, I will still sometimes wind up on an overwhelmingly white speaker lineup. We will then have to have an awkward conversation, where I explain that I’m withdrawing from the conference and why.

Here is a list of prominent atheists of color, and organizations of atheists of color. Many of them are excellent speakers, as are many of the organization leaders. Many of them, like me, have low honoraria and minimal travel requirements. If you book me for your conference, and you then put together an overwhelmingly white speaker lineup, you will have an open slot in your schedule. Please consider filling it with one of these people. Better yet: Please look at this list before you start putting together your speaker lineup, so you have a diverse lineup to begin with.

I understand that event organizing is very difficult, and conference organizing is especially difficult. I understand that it’s hard to co-ordinate schedules, balance content, and arrange for travel and honoraria that will fit your budget. So here’s a tip: When you’re putting together a speaker lineup, START with diversity. START by inviting African-Americans, Latinos, women, disabled people, transgender people, people of Asian descent, people of Middle Eastern descent, other people of color, lesbian and gay and bisexual people, people who have left religions other than Christianity. Don’t just invite the usual suspects, fill up three-quarters of your lineup — and then go, “Crap! Diversity!” and scramble to fill in the last two or three open slots with people who aren’t white, middle-class, college-educated, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, ex-Christian or lifelong-atheist men.

Again, I’m sorry to be a hardass. Generally speaking, I’m an easy speaker to work with: again, my honorarium is low, my travel requirements are pretty minimal, and I try to be as flexible as possible. But this is an extremely high priority for me. In my opinion, this issue — making our communities more welcoming and more supportive of a wider variety of people than are currently participating — is the most important issue currently facing organized atheism in the United States. Diverse speaker lineups at conferences isn’t the only thing we need to do to address this issue, of course, or even the most important thing. Very, very far from it. But it’s one of the things I can do something about. So I’m doing it. Thanks for understanding. Hope we can make this work!

Greta Christina

P.S. This also applies to harassment policies/ codes of conduct. I won’t speak at a conference that doesn’t have one. That’s been less of an issue lately, though — almost all atheist and skeptic conferences have them now — so I didn’t feel a need to write a whole thing about it.

Note: Yes, this is in reference to a specific event — and no, I’m not going to tell you which one. It was a private conversation, and I’m going to respect that.

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Coming Out Atheist
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Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

Dear Conference Organizers: A No-Fooling-Around Note About Diversity

10 thoughts on “Dear Conference Organizers: A No-Fooling-Around Note About Diversity

  1. 1

    Well, and it’s their own self interest not to stupidly limit the conversation so strictly. I got bored after my second conference, becasue I had heard all the old white guys who were regularly being booked speak twice…why bother going again?
    A little diversity helps keep the material fresh.

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    I have a concern about diversity initiatives like this, which is that they tend to focus on the spectre of structural discrimination within the group lacking diversity with such zealous focus and self-assurance that they often overlook exogenous causes.

    Take the representation of women in the comic book industry. Some of this is owing to endogenous, structural factors to be sure (e.g. exclusive atmosphere of the related work-spaces, corporate structure of both the studios and the publishing houses, etc), but some of the lack of gender diversity in the comic book industry certainly stems from the historical nature of comic books and the market that they cater to, namely, something like the prototypical male who has a sweet-tooth for grotesque tales of power, combat, glory, and sex. Female aversion to these bedrock comic book tropes is not only predictable, it’s also probably healthy.

    Returning to the topical instance, atheist conferences, we have to ask what it is that entices its own attendees in the first place, and be willing to ask ourselves whether attending such a conference is just a matter of prizing free thought (something that people everywhere do), or whether the enticements go beyond this and meet a demand that is more culturally rooted, perhaps one that is not necessarily laudable like the impulse to advertise one’s destructive wishes to undermine group cohesion, just to take an extreme case.

    Keeping factors like this in mind will allow us to see something we would otherwise have missed, that perhaps a lack of diversity at atheist conferences says something positive about the motivations of the people who are uninterested in attending. In any corner of human activity lacking diversity, we should expect that we will find a mixture of causes and that some of them are not good candidates for diversification initiatives.

  3. 3

    Organizers themselves would be better for it if they were personally more aware of all the potential divers viewpoints in the first place. And if they are, but drop into straight white guy gear “for the job” because that is what they think an organization or their community wants, then they are limiting heir organization and community. But of course, if you like your clubs more exclusive…

  4. 4


    The suggestion to start with diversity is a very good one, too. I was watching a production vlog earlier today talking about how so many grant-money film projects will start by budgeting for camera and location and equipment and so on, and after all that won’t have enough money left to pay their crew well – and the creators of the project decided up front that they were going to reverse that priority order. This strikes me as similar, and wise.

  5. 5

    Female aversion to these bedrock comic book tropes is not only predictable, it’s also probably healthy.

    oh, I’m just dying to know how aversion to something can coherently be separated into healthy and unhealthy by gender. Seems to me that if something is so shit it’s “healthy” to be averse to it, it shouldn’t be promoted to anyone.
    Of course, I’m also just dying to hear the explanation for how “power, combat, glory, and sex” are things women are somehow averse to, health issues aside; and how “”power, combat, glory, and sex” are somehow prototypically male interests; and how this monolithic stereotype of an audience somehow doesn’t require diversification.

  6. 6

    Christopher Day @ #2: I am giving you a warning: You are skating on very, very, very thin ice.

    Believe me, when the question arises of “Why is our group so male/ white/ middle-class/ otherwise homogeneous?”, nobody is ever allowed to ignore the possibility that there might be some answer other than sexism/ racism/ classism. In fact, the opposite dynamic is much more common. There will always be plenty of people eager to rush in with some explanation of the homogeneity that is absolutely anything other than sexism/ racism/ classism. And every other possible explanation, even the most contorted and absurd, will have to be considered and rejected before sexism/ racism/ classism are considered to be plausible. All this is true, despite the fact that sexism/ racism/ classism are extremely well-documented, in thousands upon thousands of ways and situations and contexts. So when you say, “Gee, have you considered the possibility that there might be some explanation for this imbalance other than the extremely common, extensively documented phenomena of privilege and marginalization and oppression?” — you are bringing nothing new to the table. Yes, we have considered that possibility. We have never once been allowed to forget it.

    In addition: We know — because it has been extensively documented — that structural discrimination exists, and is so widespread as to be essentially universal. So why on Earth NOT address it, with measures that are known to work? Yes, it’s theoretically possible that even if every single piece of sexism/ racism/ classism/ etc. were somehow miraculously erased from organized atheism, there might still be some gender/ race/ class imbalances in the community. But there would certainly be better diversity than there is now. And what on Earth is the harm? What’s the downside? “Gee, we made ourselves better people for no reason!”

    And finally: What is with this notion that “culturally rooted” factors somehow don’t have anything to do with structural discrimination? If a community is homogeneous because it isn’t appealing to people from different cultures — isn’t the failure to include and support those cultures a perfect example of the very structural discrimination we’re talking about?

    Your example of comic books, and the assumptions you’re making around it, is a perfect example. Assuming that women have, in fact, typically been less interested in comics than men (something I’m not at all certain of), and assuming that part of the reason for this is that women have less taste for grotesque tales of power, combat, glory, and sex which many comics have catered to (again, not at all certain about that assumption) — what makes you think that this catering isn’t, in itself, sexist? What makes you think that there’s nothing sexist about the self-perpetuating circle of “We’re going to make a product for what we see as a male taste, ignore our female customers, and then rationalize our content choices as being customer-driven”?

    Similarly, if organized atheism is ignoring the particular social supports that African-Americans lose when they leave religion, and is then saying, “Our lack of diversity is just because of cultural reasons, African-Americans have different cultural and social needs” — how on earth is that not racist?

  7. 8

    Christopher Day, if “thin ice” is the main take away you got from Greta’s response, then you and I probably have a lot in common. What I mean by that is that not too long ago I might have said something similar to your original comment and then not understood a single word of Greta’s response. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I would guess you’re a straight, white, college-educated man – just like me. If that’s the case, then I would implore you to put a lot of effort into understanding the following two points:

    1) We don’t always see discrimination. When discrimination happens, often times either we’re not there to witness it or we’re just not looking. For example, a few months after one of my male coworkers quit for another job, two of my female coworkers mentioned to me that the one who quit was kind of sexist. I had no idea. Among many other examples, they said when he was in meetings, he would rarely address them directly; he tended to talk to the other men in the room, even when he was responding to things the women said. I didn’t notice this because I was focused on the work/discussion and not on how some people were treating other people (but I try to be more aware now). He also was a junior engineer, and though the two women are one junior and one senior, he treated them both in a sort of friendly-but-condescending way. When the senior engineer would question things he was doing, he would start to explain the really basic concepts involved almost as though he was her mentor. He didn’t do this with the other senior engineer on their team, who happened to be male. I didn’t notice this because I wasn’t part of these conversations.

    2) Because we don’t see it, we don’t take people like Greta seriously. By “people like Greta” I don’t just mean women, but rather people who try to shed light on their own discrimination. They’re claiming that some pretty awful stuff is happening all around us, but you and I don’t see it, so we tend to assume they’re mistaken…or worse. For example, when I was in college there was a protest by a black student group about “killer cops”. I thought they were being hyperbolic and overreacting. I thought “Cops have a hard job and while they should be held accountable for their mistakes, they’re not murderers and they’re not racist.” All I can say in my defense is that this was before the recent wave of videos on the internet of cops murdering young black men. Once the video evidence was shoved in my face, I believed it: there are killer cops out there, and then there are TONS of cops who are accessories after the fact when they help cover it up. But that’s a lame defense. Why didn’t I believe the large number of black people all saying the same thing? Why did I simply dismiss it as melodrama? When people claimed that the reality of their situation was different from how I perceived it, why didn’t I at the very least seek out objective evidence to settle it, rather than accepting my own perspective right from the start? It’s just human nature, but like our natural tendancy toward violence, this is one of the harmful aspects of our human nature we should try to resist.

    If you can wrap your head around these points, I think you’ll have a much better time understanding Greta’s original post and response to your comment.

  8. 9

    […] “Dear Conference Organizers: A No-Fooling-Around Note About Diversity“–“Generally speaking, I’m an easy speaker to work with: again, my honorarium is low, my travel requirements are pretty minimal, and I try to be as flexible as possible. But this is an extremely high priority for me. In my opinion, this issue — making our communities more welcoming and more supportive of a wider variety of people than are currently participating — is the most important issue currently facing organized atheism in the United States.” […]

  9. 10

    christopher day @2: So… “grotesque tales of power, combat, glory, and sex” are “bedrock comic book tropes”? Hmmm.

    I got two words for you: Archie Comics.

    In the United States, “comic books” and “superheroes” are pretty much interchangeable synonyms. But it hasn’t always been that way. Once upon a time, the US comicbook market included any number of thriving genres—westerns, adventure stories, SF, romance, ‘kid stuff’—and the superhero genre was but one genre among many. But things changed, so that nowadays, the general public tends to think of superheroes, and only superheroes, when someone mentions comic books. How that happened is an interesting question, but discussing said question would really be a serious derail on this post. Our Gracious Hostess has worked in the comicbook industry; perhaps she might like to write a post on said question sometime?

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