Release of Virtual WFC 2020 Program Attracts Criticism

World Fantasy Con 2020 has added a Program page to its website with panel titles and descriptions, the times and participants to be added later. The virtual convention will be held October 29-November 1.

The concepts of some panels and their descriptions have become the focus of feedback to the conrunners, and online criticism.

miyuki jane pinckard sent the committee an open letter with substantive comments, “The panel descriptions on the World Fantasy Con 2020 program are a problem” [Google Docs], which begins:

I want to draw your attention to your program, and in particular the panel descriptions, which are written in a way that alienates anyone who is not white and not cisgender and not heteronormative. If the goal is to welcome people, then the program as written fails. Everything about this program underscores that the expected audience is white and cisgender and heteronormative. I should be clear that I am speaking solely for myself and not on behalf of any organization or community.

I am concerned that BIPOC, queer, disbaled, and otherwise marginalized panelists who are asked to speak to these topics will be hurt, offended, harmed, and burdened with emotional labor to service a majority white audience for the benefit of that audience. This program has set up an unequal distribution of power and benefit which replicates systems of inequality in publishing as a whole.

After addressing many individual panel topics, the letter concludes:

Time and again, I and other marginalized people have had to endure uncomfortable and sometimes overtly hostile experiences on panels for a majority cishet white audience. It is part of your role to do what you can to protect us and support us, just as you do any attendee. It is my hope that World Fantasy Con can become truly for the world, and welcoming to all. 

The author of the letter also tweeted about her concerns in a thread which starts here and includes these observations:

Other responses at this hour include —

Jason Sanford’s criticisms, which attracted comments from several writers, start here.

Liz Barr writes:

Yiling Wang commented:

38 thoughts on “Release of Virtual WFC 2020 Program Attracts Criticism

  1. There are always at least two ways to respond:

    Oh. We didn’t even think about that. You’re right, we were inconsiderate. There’s time to change things, and we’d like to welcome everybody’s points of view to our con. Please get involved?
    We are totally good people and we tried to make concessions to you people but it’s clear that nothing we can do will ever be good enough for some kinds of people. Anybody whining about perceived injustices and slights is a crying whinebaby who cries.

  2. This is not as bad as I thought it might be. The program ideas need work, but it looks like the WFC program committee was trying to do the right thing, they just haven’t gotten there yet. miyuki jane pinckard’s open letter includes many points that are substantive and helpful. One should keep in mind that this WFC is in Utah, and it might be good to have at least a few “101” program topics.

  3. I’ve responded to Ms. Pinckard privately, but would also like to comment here. I truly do appreciate the input she provided, and the time she spent on her thoughtful and thorough email. As some have commented, we have tried very hard to create a program that demonstrates our desire to host a convention that celebrates and gives space to the vast variety of perspectives that make the fantasy and horror genres so rich and beautiful.

    Prior to publishing the program we did seek the advice of a trusted advisor who is an activist for equity in the arts. He said he thought we were doing some good things, and was happy with the steps we were taking. He offered some feedback, which we applied. He concluded, “Is it enough? No. It is a start and by starting to make the changes and have the conversations that matter we make progress into making the space more inclusive.”

    (He is not available for comment at this time – he tested positive for COVID-19 this weekend, and is struggling with some disturbing symptoms.)

    Yes, it’s a start. I wish I could change the world with one convention, but that’s beyond my ability. Our committee has worked very hard to make sure this year’s Virtual World Fantasy Convention is a friendly, accepting, comfortable place for BIPOC, queer, disabled, and other marginalized writers and fantasy enthusiasts. I’ve consulted with several BIPOC writers on what a safe and accepting convention should look like, and have taken their advice to heart. We have sponsored 46 people of color to participate in the convention at no cost (so far – more to come I hope), and have worked very hard to ensure that every panel is comprised of people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives. The panelist list hasn’t been published yet, but when it is I hope the list demonstrates our commitment to equity and diversity. (And we’ve got some AMAZING participants this year!)

    I want this convention to be a model for equity and inclusiveness. That is one of my stated goals. So I shuddered when I read Ms. Pinckard’s email. Her perspective is one from which I need to learn. We are taking her points to heart, and as I told her privately, we will review our program descriptions in light of her insights.

    On a personal note – running this convention (my first!) has broadened my perspective in matters of equity. I’ve met some amazing people who have opened their hearts to me, and I’m more grateful than I can say to those who have helped me learn.

    Ginny Smith
    Chairperson, Virtual WFC 2020

  4. SIGH

    Maybe I’m missing something, but, pray tell, just how does one “…normalize the disabled…”? Come to think of it, as “normal” is overrated, how is that a desirable outcome? My disability is a single piece of who I am, albeit a significant piece.

    My life is far too interesting at the moment to write anything detailed, so I’ll close by pointing something I noted after reading all of ms. pinkard’s letter. The only typo I saw in an extremely well-written, articulate and detailed letter was “disbaled” rather than “disabled” (“disbaled” sounds as though it would hurt). I doubt it was her intent to injure anyone by making what is clearly a mistake, but it was still jarring.

  5. Robert Reynolds: Trying to score off the author of the open letter by attacking a typo — to borrow a judgement from Monty Python — is not an argument.

    And that you typoed your log-in, which I have fixed so your comment will post, is Muphry’s Law in action.

  6. Mr. Glyer:

    It is, of course, your privilege to score off whomever you care to score off, this being your yard and your ball as well. But it was not my intent to score off of anyone. I thought my full remarks would have made that clear (one doesn’t typically compliment the author of a letter and state-twice- that it’s a typo/mistake if the intent is to score points in that manner).

    I mentioned it because I’m disabled and seeing that typo knocked me out of the flow of the letter. I’m in one of the groups marginalized, I commented on the description of one of the program items which was not touched on in the letter to underscore her point about the descriptions in addition to commenting on the typo.

    All you apparently noticed was my remarks on the typo.

    As to my mistake, I apparently had the wrong auto-fill on a field and didn’t notice. Thank you for correcting the error.

  7. ROBERT REYNOLDS: A comment that starts with a big capital letter SIGH as yours did is not signaling a “compliment” or even empathy with the object of the comment. It is signaling privileged disapproval.

  8. Mr Glyer: The sigh was directed at the “normalize the disabled” bit taken from a panel description which wasn’t even referenced by the open letter.

    I actually read the panel descriptions as well as the letter, in full. Way towards the bottom of the list of panels ms. pinkard’s letter was referencing, they list a panel on disability in fantastic fiction, where the description includes the phrase, “normalize the disabled”. It’s in my opening paragraph and it should be clear from my comments on the concept that I’m not a fan of that wording.

    People with disabilities aren’t “normal” and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. So they try to make themselves feel better in various way-one of them being congratulating a person in a wheelchair for engaging in activities like “normal” people.

    There’s a structure to an argument, with arguments separated from one another, typically by sentences, followed by paragraphs and so on.

    I’m beginning to think you skimmed my first paragraph, if you read it at all, and assumed what you wanted to assume.

    Everything I’ve said can be verified by simply reading through the list of panels all the way to the end. I know my own intent far better than anyone else here ever could. I know what you’ve assumed about my post is incorrect-because I actually constructed the post, understand what I was sighing at and why.

    I understand full well that being a cishet white male confers privilege. I understand ms. pinkard’s argument and my first paragraph was designed as an example of the problems with the phrasing of a panel description relating to my out group.

    Pity that you missed that paragraph.

    I’m not trying to change your mind. I don’t expect to change your mind. But if I’m to be attacked for what I post here, I’d prefer to have it be for what I’m actually saying, rather than a mischaracterization of what I’ve written

  9. I didn’t mischaracterize what you wrote. You chose to start with a big, stand-alone SIGH. You could have chosen to make a nuanced statement, but instead said in that same comment, “My life is far too interesting at the moment to write anything detailed…”

    If you’re willing to do that now, keep moving forward. It’s a waste of verbiage for you to claim you did that work in the beginning.

  10. Mx Smith (as I hope the use of “chairperson” in your response indicates),

    You say

    Our committee has worked very hard to make sure this year’s Virtual World Fantasy Convention is a friendly, accepting, comfortable place for BIPOC, queer, disabled, and other marginalized writers and fantasy enthusiasts. I’ve consulted with several BIPOC writers on what a safe and accepting convention should look like, and have taken their advice to heart. We have sponsored 46 people of color to participate in the convention at no cost (so far – more to come I hope), and have worked very hard to ensure that every panel is comprised of people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives. The panelist list hasn’t been published yet, but when it is I hope the list demonstrates our commitment to equity and diversity.

    I have to wonder: Did you ask any of the BIPOC people you know to look over the programming descriptions? Did any of them have input as to what would be on the programming schedule? This is “a start”, sure, but it’s a start circa 2005, and something that’s woefully blind to the culture we exist in today.

    As to the 46 people you have lured to the convention: The programming descriptions have made it abundantly clear that the expected audience of WFC is a straight white cis person, probably male. How will you make the convention a safe place for these 46 people you’ve brought in? What will you do in the inevitable occasion one of them is insulted or harassed or made to feel otherwise deeply unwelcome or like an object of curiosity?

    It is not enough to “listen” to people of color. The problems with your programming schedule were pervasive and covered nearly every axis of marginalization – disability, LGBT+, not to mention the multiple and myriad ways non-white people were othered. In one particularly galling case, it was heavily implied that people from immigrant backgrounds should “Go back where they came from”.

    I am aware you replied to Miyuki Jane’s comments privately. I would appreciate a public statement that addresses these concerns beyond “But my advisor and some of my non-white friends said we were trying”.

  11. @Robert Reynolds

    For what it’s worth, reading the comments before the links, I also got the (apparently mistaken) impression that your whole comment was a critique of the open letter.

  12. K. Tempest Bradford wrote a Twitter thread that she reached out to WFC when they first announced this year’s con would be virtual.

    But I want you to understand something: She was warned. She was counseled on what to do to avoid *exactly what is happening now* and she ignored that counsel and also acted like I was attacking her for being white because I said to her: You are white.

  13. Lis Riba: Bradford is also saying people should boycott the WFC and POC should return their free memberships, which is the latest extension of Bradford’s reaction to the WFC over the past few years. It’s one thing if you think the WFC deserves the death sentence, but if somebody wants to run one it’s not a surprise that they didn’t put their lives in her hands.

  14. How about Nisi Shawl, then? She also reached out. Or Yilin Wang, whom they esteemed enough to invite to be a panelist then dismissed her criticism? As a result of this, she has declined to be a participant, as is her prerogative. And asking for and following up on feedback and input is hardly “putting their lives in her hands”. It can be challenging to hear criticism, but if the giver is an expert in their field, it would behoove them to at least follow up.

    The WFC seems to be hellbent on writing and executing their own death sentence as far as any kind of cultural relevance is concerned. They don’t need help.

  15. Dromeda: And asking for and following up on feedback and input is hardly “putting their lives in her hands”.

    miyuki jane pinckard invested a lot of effort in making substantive comments on the WFC program. She didn’t have to do that. She didn’t really want to do that, according to the letter, but she sacrificed her time to do so. That’s the kind of investment that earns trust and makes people want to listen.

    People who are outraged and/or don’t want to make that investment in WFC have been given plenty of provocation, no doubt.

  16. Pingback: World Fantasy Con 2020 Apology for Program Draft Seeks to Stem Participant Attrition | File 770

  17. Tempest is advising people to return memberships not because she is somehow a mean meanie who means to be mean or trying to stoke outrage, but because she has been offering genuine assistance and advice to WFC for literal years, (always in conjunction with people who DO want the con to succeed) and that advice, from multiple sources, has been disregarded at every turn. There comes a point when one’s conclusion has to be that the repeated failures are wilful and deliberate, if not on the part of the unfortunate newcomer trying to run the con this one year*, but on the part of the people backing her who DO have the legacy memory and could say “We had these problems with programming in the past. Here are ways to avoid them”.

    I would be advising people to skip WFC from here on forward, and have been the last couple of years. Does this mean I have no place saying they have screwed up? (I have no place advising them, but that’s because I am a cis middle aged white woman and thus defer to BIPoC and people from more marginalized areas of the LGBTQIA+ on the topic of representation.)

    other PoC sources say several of the Utah folks themselves have been involved in a convention which they find exceedingly unwelcoming. I don’t know if this is true of Ginny Smith specifically.

  18. I am terribly disappointed in the way the complaints were leveled at WFC. First – these cons are run ENTIRELY by volunteers who devoting hundreds if not thousands of hours to make things happen. I know because I’ve run or helped run state writing conferences. I have professional experience in management, many con volunteers do not and still manage to create something magical in the end.

    More than that – I’m disappointed that social media has become the sword used to destroy good people.

    Ginny has worked pretty hard on this and I know – having done this in the past – that you will give up a year or more of your life in planning. So to have to shift to a virtual conference on short notice, renegotiate hotel contracts you may not get reimbursed for (one organization I’m associated with lost thousands of dollars in cancelled contracts) is terrifying. Worse, that a handful of members use their own perspectives to create an environment that shifts the balance to their own views is worse. How is this different than what is going on in our political landscape. It’s not about compromise, it’s about destruction and “my way or the high way” mentality.

    Cons are not populated by a single person. I am part of the BIPOC community and while there are many things to be angry about (215,000 people dead from a preventable virus for starts, millions out of work and can’t pay bills is another) – this isn’t one that rises to this level of vitriol. The descriptions and titles were easily fixed. The hurt and outrage and psychological damage from the methodology used to complain about the volunteers is not.

    In planning a conference I’ve learned you can’t please everyone. I’m planning on going and I’m planning on bringing friends with me – virtually.

  19. @Christine Taylor-Butler–Many of the commenters here, and many of the critics of WFC have worked on conventions, large and small. I’ve even worked on a World Fantasy, though at a low level quite a few years ago, now. We know exactly how much work goes into putting a convention together and making it run well.

    That “these cons are run ENTIRELY by volunteers who devoting hundreds if not thousands of hours to make things happen” is not news to any of us, and is not a shield against all criticism–especially when many of the same issues keep coming up, again and again, for years.

  20. @Lis Carey

    While it’s not a shield, we need to step back and gain perspective. I’m watching a local con struggle because one side wants it one way and another wants it another way. That wasn’t meant to be condescending. What it was meant to say is that there’s “internal” struggle and there’s “Call out” culture the latter of which is getting meaner by the day. From what I could see – this wasn’t about invited guests, it was about programming titles and descriptions. That’s fixable.

    But the scorched Earth approach is disheartening. On the other side of those “virtual” attacks are real human beings with feelings. There are objective ways to make the same point.

  21. @Christine Taylor-Butler–Yes, you were intending to be condescending, trotting out your not very relevant “professional” experience. You just didn’t expect to get called on it.

    For con-running and con-going fans, this is our culture, into which we have poured years of work, and thought, and care, and which we are trying to make better and more welcoming to broader and more diverse groups of current and potential fans, some of whom are also the writers we love.

    WFC has had some ongoing issues, many all too common in fandom, which did start as an overwhelmingly white, male subculture. Lots of cons have made a lot progress, though with still a lot of room for improvement; none of us is perfect or expect perfection. WFC has gotten years of polite, contructive suggestions, commentary, criticism. Offers of assistance. Volunteers wanting to help.

    And the same thing happens when the new program comes out.

    Yeah, people get pretty fed up.

    And the response is often, basically, “But how can you be so MEAN?” That’s not a response that encourages greater patience.

  22. Christine Taylor-Butler: The descriptions and titles were easily fixed.

    Apparently, they aren’t so easily fixed, when this is an ongoing problem year after year.

    Outrage Greets 2016 World Fantasy Con Program

    Also, you might want to consider how it comes off when you come to an online community full of fannish conrunners and lecture them about Conrunning 101.

  23. I’m sure that a large part of this is Ginny and her team reaping the consequences not solely of their own actions, but those of prior WFC concoms. I’m sure that feels unfair. However, Ginny et al also had the exact same access to information about the failings of previous years as the rest of us and could have taken that as a reason to make extra effort to seek help/advice/sensitivity checks/diverse volunteers/whatever, and if they did so – as far as I’m aware they did not – it hasn’t shown up in the results.

    When you take on a travelling convention like WFC, you gain from their reputation and membership base but you get the institutional flaws and negative history as well, and when you perpetuate those flaws you really shouldn’t be surprised when people think you’re part of the problem – because you are. You failed to prioritise mitigating them. People are entitled to feel hurt and frustrated by that.

  24. I’m curious how the 2020 program items were generated. Part of my process when I do programming is to solicit topics from the participants. That’s a grassroots approach to finding out what people think ought to be talked about, and what they feel equipped to talk about. And I find that the suggesters are likely to be more sensitive than I am to appropriate wording for the topics.

    (Taking suggestions is just one part of my process. I only wonder if this built-in resource was used by the WFC programmers.)

  25. K. Tempest Bradford has an excellent and extensive blog post detailing how yes, indeed, Ginny Smith et. al. are indeed reaping not only what previous WFCs have sown, but also what they have sown /this cycle/. Blog post here.

    WFC’s issues regarding programming are glaring and blatant and repeated year after year after year. We are long past the point that this is “an innocent mistake”. To continue to dismiss offers of help, to be actively ignorant of criticism of past years, to be determined to repeat the mistakes of history is a conscious choice at this stage.

  26. Mike, tonight I will post an open letter on the WFC 2020 blog with an explanation (NOT a defense) of how the program came to be. Yes, we solicited topics from panelists. But my understanding is that the topics themselves are not being questioned. It’s the descriptions that are insensitive and offensive. And those are what we are taking steps to rectify. Plus we’ve added some new panels to the lineup. I’ll send a link to the blog post when it is up.

  27. Yes, I understand it’s the descriptions. But only if one has solicited input from the participants to begin with is there a possibility to consult them about the shaping of the descriptions.

  28. Both “illegal alien” and “undocumented immigrant” might be considered misleading.

    As best as I can determine, a large percentage of immigrants present in the United States without governmental approval entered the United States legally, and then overstayed their visas – which is not a criminal offense (but rather a civil one). John Derbyshire, science fiction fan and writer on mathematics overstayed his visa to the United States for several years and suffered no penalties, for example (in fact, he was later able to become naturalized). Another significant percentage of immigrants present without governmental approval were brought to the States as young children, and cannot be considered to have committed a crime themselves. To call either visa-overstayers or people who immigrated as children “illegal aliens” falsely suggests that they broke a law by entering the United States, so “undocumented immigrant” seems more accurate.

  29. Ginny Smith: Mike, tonight I will post an open letter on the WFC 2020 blog with an explanation (NOT a defense) of how the program came to be.

    I hope that you’ll refrain from making further bogus claims about how your committee are all inexperienced at conrunning. 😐

  30. @Andrew (not Werdna)

    I think you’ve accidentally posted in the wrong WFC thread. 🙂

  31. Pingback: Barkley — So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask: A Column of Unsolicited Opinions #54 | File 770

  32. Pingback: Virtual World Fantasy Con 2020 Updates Program; WFC Board Announces They Will Add Member to Review Future WFC Programs | File 770

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