October 18, 2016 / Graham Joseph Hill

It’s Time to Stop Organizing All White Male Panels and Conferences

Is it time to stop organizing or speaking at conferences with all male and white speakers? Graham Hill. Missio Alliance.

Is it time to stop organizing or speaking at conferences with all male and white speakers? Graham Hill. Missio Alliance.

Here’s a question that plagues me: If we are truly the church of Jesus Christ, why are we excluding so many groups from meaningful contribution?

I can’t tell you how often I look at a conference and panel line up and think, “Where are the women speakers? And why on earth is this line up so white?”

Females and persons of color make up somewhere between 90 and 95% percent of the world’s population. White men make up much less than 10% (probably more like 5%, when you look at the stats). So, we are not talking about a small group in the population being ignored or marginalized, in way too many conferences and panels.

Are you telling me that no-one in that 90–95% of the global population has expertise or competence in the area your conference or panel is addressing? I don’t believe it.

And, why is it that white men seem to have expertise in everything?

Females and persons of color make up between 90 and 95% percent of the world's population Share on X

What’s Going On With Christian Conferences?

In 2013, Jonathan Merritt examined the largest 35 or so Christian conferences in the US, and showed that 81% of the speakers were male. The vast majority of them were white men. In fact, the real data is worse than that, because the 19% female representation was inflated by 1 or 2 conferences that worked to include women speakers. If you take those out of the sample, you are looking at more than 90% of the speakers being male (mostly white men).

In a following column, he then showed how racially exclusive these conferences are. 87% of the speakers at those conferences had a “white” background. Only 13% were people of color. 13%! Just let that sink in.

Now, I hope these conferences have listened to this feedback, and have taken action to change since 2013.

But here’s something else that worries me greatly: I think what we see in these large conferences is replicated in thousands upon thousands of smaller conferences and panels and gatherings right across the world.

Clearly, there is something going on here that has absolutely nothing to do with expertise.

Some of it is about theological commitments. But, even there, these groups should be pushing toward ethnic diversity.

What really concerns me is all those groups that talk about gender and ethnic diversity, and say they advocate for women and POC speakers, but then don’t deliver.

So, some of this is about theological commitments, but much of it is about unexamined (and, I think, genuinely unintentional, but deeply entrenched) gender and ethnic discrimination.

The church is full of brilliant, capable, godly, talented, and inspiring communicators, who also happen to be female and persons of color. They are hard to avoid! They’re in churches, seminaries, colleges, businesses, everywhere! Open your eyes!

87% of conference speakers are white. Something's going on that has nothing to do w/ expertise. Share on X

Is Diversity Just a Pragmatic Move?

Too often, diversity is co-opted by pragmatists for the sake of cultural relevance (or for “political correctness”). Too often, diversity is just about reflecting the concerns or values of society.

Diversity is often co-opted by pragmatists for cultural relevance or political correctness. Share on X

But the church needs to do better than that. We must incarnate the value of diversity for biblical, theological, and missional reasons.

As the church, we need to confront this situation head on, building a biblical and missional theology of diversity.

God’s mission is to reach every tribe, people, ethnicity, and nation. The church joins in that mission—the intercultural mission of the gospel. And we need to reflect the extraordinary mosaic that emerges from the mission. (Acts 17:26–27).

God is reconciling the world in Jesus Christ, calling every ethnicity, and both women and men, to join together in that ministry of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:14–21, and Galatians 3:28).

God is calling his church to be a multiethnic, redemptive community, that shows the world what the world looks like in its redeemed state. Women and men, of every ethnicity, joining together in mission, ministry, worship, and community. A light to a divided and broken world. A witness to the world as it breaks down the dividing walls of animosity, hatred, fear, and discrimination. (Ephesians 2:11–22).

God is shaping the local and global church in the church of every nation, tribe, people, and language. One day we will all worship together before the throne of God. And we sign to express this future in our life together today. (Revelation 7:9–12).

As we embrace this theological and missional vision, we offer a compelling witness and life together in the world. The church needs a compelling vision of a healed and whole Christian community (and a redeemed Christian social imagination). And the church needs fresh postures before a watching world.

What’s the Panel and Conference Pledge?

I’d like to make a modest proposal. And I hope you’ll take up the challenge.

Please stop organizing conferences or panels where all the speakers are male and white.

I think we should make this pledge:

I will not organize conferences or panels where all the speakers are male and white.

Some of you who are speakers may even choose to go further and pledge, “I will not speak at conferences or on panels where all the speakers are male and white.” Imagine the difference it would make if conference speakers made this pledge too!

Take the Pledge: I will not organize conferences where all the speakers are male and white. Share on X

Now, we need to be very careful here. We’ll never address racial injustice with tokenism, pragmatism, cultural accommodation, or window dressing. Merely replacing white male leaders and speakers with women and people of color won’t solve any problems. In fact, it’ll just entrench the problem.

We need longterm, systemic, and theological solutions.

We need to address the underlying issues, including the internalized racism and the diseased and disfigured Christian imagination. We to get to the root of racialized, individualistic, privatized, and rootless identities. We need to confront this head on, systemically, and theologically. And we need to embrace and express a compelling, biblical vision of the church.

Only this way can we truly be “the new humanity in Christ.” Only this way can we truly be the church. Only this way can we be a social ethic and strategy. Only this way can we show the world what God intends the world to be. Only this way can we embrace a compelling vision of a healed and whole and multiethnic Christian community.

God calls his church to be a distinct people, with a distinct ethic, a distinct story, a distinct peace, a distinct community, a distinct diversity, and a distinct witness. As Hauerwas says, “The church doesn’t have a social ethic – the church is a social ethic.”

Making pledges about how we organize or speak at conferences is a start. But it’s only a start, and we need to go much deeper, pursuing the theological and ethical work needed.

So, What Can We Do to Bring Change?

But we need to begin somewhere. So, if you organize gatherings, conferences, or panels, please take this pledge with me:

I will not organize conferences or panels where all the other speakers are male and white.

Personally, I love the commitment that Missio Alliance has made to this. Missio Alliance gatherings are a celebration of ethnic and gender diversity, and I really love and respect that. The #SheLeads Summit, and the forthcoming Awakenings gathering, and their diversity of speakers, are clear examples of this.

And many of you, like me, will also make this commitment:

I will not speak at conferences or join in panels where all the other speakers are male and white.

Here’s a few practical things we can do from here:

  1. Commit to developing a rich theology of diversity, that deals with relevant biblical, theological, and missional themes.
  2. Make one (or both) of the pledges I’m suggesting.
  3. If you’re concerned about the viability of my panel-pledge proposal, please suggest concrete alternatives in the comments section.
  4. Suggest names of people of color and women who can speak at events.
  5. Make introductions to conference organizers, once or twice a year.
  6. Make sure that women and POC are involved in speaking at conferences and panels, and planning those events. Make sure they are serving in positions of power, and have equal access to attending the conference and building dynamic networks.
  7. If you’re a conference organizer, work harder for diversity. Look for speakers at seminaries and local churches, to make a commitment to increase diversity in the next 4 years. Without a real commitment, and measurable goals, no change will happen.
  8. If you’re a conference speaker, it’s time to process if you are willing to make the sacrifice of losing / sharing your spot for the sake of the church hearing another voice (there’s always a danger when such change begins, that we indulge in self protectionism).
  9. Listen to the voices and concerns of women and POC about this issue. How do they feel about what’s been going on? How have they experienced marginalization, neglect, discrimination, etc.? How do they feel about the proposal I’m making?
  10. And, finally, register for the April 2017 Missio Alliance Awakening’s gathering. Together, let’s explore how the Holy Spirit is the presence and power of God at work among us unto the redemption, reconciliation, and recreation of all things.

Let’s work hard, together, for change. Let’s find approaches that get to the heart of this issue.