How Many Black Guests Are There at Anime Conventions?by Evan Minto,
A few weeks ago, amid the global Black Lives Matter movement against racism and police brutality, this screenshot made the rounds on social media:
Tweet from Professional Bald Nerd @Proz, posted on June 4, 2020.
Tweet 1: We got tagged asking why we don't bring out POC industry. I'll tell you why. We get tagged and constantly requested to book sexual predators and popular asshole divas. That]s what people want to throw their money. Show up by the hundreds with cash to see POC then I'll book them.
Tweet 2: There's a convention in Waco who specifically focuses on POC fandom industry run by POC staff but they don't get the love that they deserve.
In a series of private tweets, Dave Henkin, now former con chair of Texas anime convention San Japan, responded to attendees' concerns that the convention wasn't booking enough people of color (POCs) as guests. His explanation: fans aren't making it worth conventions' while. Fan demand drives guest booking decisions, according to Henkin, and the demand for POC guests just isn't high enough.
While Henkin's comments were particularly unvarnished, they're not surprising — this attitude pervades many industries and communities. Rather than proactively make their spaces more inclusive, some leaders hold back and wait until their customers force them to change, reproducing and reinforcing racism in the process. Clearly the rest of San Japan's leadership didn't agree with Henkin's approach, as he was removed from his position shortly after the tweets went public. That said, his tweets do bring up two important questions: how common is this attitude among convention leadership, and has it had an adverse effect on the diversity of anime con guest lineups?
Arthell Isom, D'Art Shtajio CEO and professional background artist
First, let's talk about the current state of guest lineups at North American anime conventions. The numbers … well, they don't look very good. Black guests make up a mere 2% of all guests at the largest anime cons in North America in 2019, according to data available on AnimeCons.com (see the footnote for the list of cons I included). For comparison, 12.7% of the US population is Black — over six times the percentage of Black guests at cons! Some of the difference can be chalked up to a focus on Japanese guests, but there are an awful lot of white guests in these lineups, too.
I also looked at a helpful section of AnimeCons.com that lists the guests with the most number of convention appearances of all time. Maybe 2019's largest cons are leaving out part of the story? Nope. Just 1.7% of the most-invited guests are Black. That's just two people — nerdcore rapper Mega Ran and voice actor Danielle McRae — out of 117 guests. Both of them are clustered near the end of the list, meaning that they have fewer appearances than the guests before them. I doubt this is surprising to anyone who has experienced racial discrimination firsthand, but it's pretty depressing to see it laid out so clearly.
The con organizers I spoke to (including staff from Anime NYC, Anime Weekend Atlanta, Anime Boston, and Otakon) distanced themselves from Henkin's comments. Anime NYC's guest team said it's “very untrue” that there isn't demand for Black/Indigenous people of color (BIPOC) guests. Anime Weekend Atlanta said “we do not agree with [Henkin's] statement” and countered that fans tend to simply request guests that they've seen before. This often leaves out up-and-coming guests and bands, so AWA doesn't rely too heavily on fan suggestions. Otakon and Anime Boston emphasized their commitment to diverse guest lineups and events, pointing to things like Otakon 2019's Tribute to Nujabes concert and Anime Boston's inclusion of Black guests (LeSean Thomas, Keith Silverstein), and even Black Lives Matter-related fan panels.
LeSean Thomas, creator of Cannon Busters, director, animator, comic book artist
When asked about how they were building more diverse guest lineups, staffers largely pointed to their existing processes. In Otakon's case these include open-door policies and consultation with staff members from different backgrounds. Anime Boston's director of guest relations, Stephanie Simpson-White, cited the convention's “diverse staff and [an] executive board that includes people of many races and backgrounds.” She herself is a Black Latina woman. Anime Weekend Atlanta's Faisal Ahmed also touted a board with 3 POC. He said he had never seen an instance of a guest being invited or not invited based on them being a POC, but that the board would “evaluate our guest choices and make sure there are no apparent biases” going forward. Anime NYC seeks out guests who are “doing something cool in anime fandom or the anime industry” first, then works on building an “expansive” lineup, but recent events have encouraged them to increase the “time and effort spent to assure a diverse lineup.”
I'm glad to see conventions rejecting the idea that there is a lack of demand for diverse creators. Still, it's clear from looking at the data that a few tweaks to selection criteria won't be enough to rectify the massive gap that exists right now. Racial bias and discrimination exists in every industry, which means that the guests who filter into the email inboxes of con staffers are largely white. Anime conventions have an opportunity to reverse that trend and proactively seek out Black talent. They have no shortage of amazing options, from voice actors like Amanda C. Miller and Beau Billingslea to artists like Arthell Isom and Felipe Smith. In fact, Jairus Taylor wrote a whole article about Black voice actors in anime here on Anime News Network!
Amanda C. Miller, voice actress
As for attendees, Otakon's director of guest and industry, Ethan Kick, encouraged them to “keep writing to events and showing up in force” to support Black guests, and even to send a message by skipping cons that don't offer guest lineups that “excite” them. That's a fine lesson to take away from all of this: there's demand for Black guests all right, but that demand is not being met. So keep the emails flowing. There's still work to be done.
Footnote: To gather data on Black guests at the top anime conventions in North America, I used the 2019 guest lists from Anime Expo, Anime Matsuri, A-Kon, Anime North, Anime Weekend Atlanta, Anime Central, Anime Boston, Sakura-Con, Otakon, Youmacon, Otakuthon, and Anime NYC. Crunchyroll Expo doesn't release a “warm bodies” attendee count, making it hard to tell where it sits in the overall ranking, but I included it as well.
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