Ama-Con: Diversity in Pop Culture panel report

Ama-Con 2018 panelists for "Diversity in Pop Culture".
(l-r) Nnedi Okorafor, Sabrina Symington, Ronald L. Smith, Edward James Olmos (who is beckoning to
people in the back of the auditorium to come forwards).

Unlike a lot of geekdom, I didn't go to Gen Con this weekend.  Instead, I attended the local convention, Ama-Con, which is put on by the Amarillo Public Library.  I rarely attend the panels, spending most of my time socializing in the dealer room, but I decided I needed to make an exception for this one.  I didn't take extensive notes on this, this post will mainly be the moments that stood out to me (plus stuff I looked up later while writing this, to supplement my memory).  Basically, my notes were "comments I made on my facebook page after posting an uncropped version of the photo above."

The panel was moderated by Angela Allen, West Texas A&M University's officer for diversity and inclusion.  (WTAMU is in Canyon, Amarillo's sorta-suburb.)  In the order of the picture, the panelists were:

Nnedi Okorafor: SF/F author of American birth but Nigerian heritage, who is going to be writing a new Shuri comic for Marvel ("unlimited" series).

Sabrina "Bria" Symington: Webcomic creator of Life of Bria, as well as a GN First Year Out, which is about her experience coming out as a transwoman.

Ronald L. Smith: Author of children's literature, including the novel Black Panther: the Young Prince.

Edward James Olmos: Actor in a lot of roles, notably (for Fifth World sorts of things) Gaff in the Blade Runner movies and Admiral Adama in the Battlestar Galactica reboot.  Olmos also gave the keynote speech for Ama-Con, "USA: The World I'm Living In."  (I didn't attend that.)

The moderator asked the panel several questions to start with, before opening the floor to questions.  Interestingly, a sort of pecking order sorted itself out on its own during the opening questions, with almost every question answered in the order of Symington, Smith, Okorafor, Olmos.  (The very last question broke the order.)

The main thing that stood out to me during the opening rounds of questions, aside from the order of answers, was the contrast on the matter of whether things are getting better.  The three younger panelists all felt that things were improving, if slowly.  Olmos felt that things were just as bad as when he started, we're basically still treading water.  Practices have gone under the table, but as far as he's concerned tokenism and "we got one Latino, that's enough" style quotas were still the rule.

I asked Nnedi Okorafor about how Marvel planned to market the Shuri comic, given that even by the standards of genre fandom, comics fandom is incredibly insular and the main demographic looks kinda like me: aging white dudes.  Her approach personally is going to be to not worry about that and just write the stories.  "I could spend all my time figuring out the marketing, or I could just write."  (Quote approximate.)  Marvel, she said, was "flying by the seat of its pants" in terms of marketing, but had managed to make some inroads into non-traditional markets nonetheless.  She also said she'd be taking an approach where the old ways of doing things weren't likely to work anyway.

The most edgy questioner had the premise that pushing for diversity could sometimes be a bad idea, that it was better to whitewash than to "force it."  Symington admitted that John Carpenter's The Thing worked best with an all-male cast, but otherwise no one was buying it.  At one point the questioner pushed it again in an attempt to get at least one panelist to admit he was right, and for a moment Olmost looked quite perturbed, but calmed down and reiterated the importance of making our entertainment look like our citizenry.  In the end, everyone agreed with Okorafor's summing up, "Diversity is just normalcy," and that it is "adding, not subtracting."  That, in fact, it was the lack of diversity in pop culture that was forced.

Most of the other questions were fairly low-key, such as a Coco character cosplayer (I think she was dressed as Imelda) thanking Olmos for being involved in that movie, or someone thanking Symington telling her story and helping the querent cope with her own transition.  One notable question involved The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, which Olmos claimed no one had ever asked him about before at a convention.  Given that I'd never even heard of it before today, that's not surprising.  (The question was "Were you specifically offered that role, or were you just asked to be in it in general and you asked for that part?"  The answer was that he specifically wanted the role he played, the "vamanos guy," as Olmos described the character.)

In the wrap-up, the panel generally agreed on the following points:

  • Diversity is normalcy.
  • It'd be nice to not have to push for diversity, but for now we still need to.
  • Don't try to "pass," even if you can, be true to yourself in your work and you'll be glad you did.
Olmos capped off everything by spending a few minutes talking about the Youth Cinema Project, in which grade school and high school students get twice-weekly mentoring in all aspects of filmmaking (including how to set up an LLC).  The goal isn't to churn out filmmakers, but to use the context to teach critical thinking, creativity, and other useful skills.

Dvandom, aka Dave Van Domelen, is an Assistant Professor of Physical Science at Amarillo College, maintainer of one of the two longest-running Transformers fansites in existence (neither he nor Ben Yee is entirely sure who was first), long time online reviewer of comics, five-time attendee of Ama-Con, is an occasional science advisor in fiction, and part of the development team for the upcoming City of Titans MMO.
Ama-Con: Diversity in Pop Culture panel report Ama-Con: Diversity in Pop Culture panel report Reviewed by Dvandom on Monday, August 06, 2018 Rating: 5
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