Is My Conference Racist?

It came out of nowhere. A one-time patron and presenter — I’ll call him Jon because, well, because his name is Jon — called me out by name on social media. “Hey, Rick Altman, not one person of color presenting at this year’s Presentation Summit? C’mon, man.” He also included a mash-up of photos of our speaking team:

All white. What does this say about my conference and about me?

The irony here is that I had just patted myself on the back a week ago. “Not bad,” I recall saying to myself, “12 guys and 11 women. I must have done something right.” The 23 lilly-white faces staring back at me never registered on any other level. Is that possible? Is that plausible? And what does that say about me and the conference that I have been hosting for 16 years?

My 22-year-old daughter made me rewrite this article because, in her words, “you sound like a racist when you talk about not being one.” And she’s right that a middle-aged white man has little standing in this conversation. Before Jamie sent me to rewrite, I described the predominantly black high school I went to — where some of my best friends really were black. And I elucidated about how I championed equal editorial coverage for women’s athletics at UC Berkeley.

But now, nearly four decades later, is that worth anything? Am I just so color-blind as to have become color-insensitive?

Choosing presenters at the Summit

Finding people with good stories to tell and presentation skills is not easy and I’ll take them in any form or shape they come in. When would-be presenters pitch to me, I know nothing about them except a name, an email address, and an idea. It’s not until much later, when I have concluded that their idea is a winner, that I might watch video of them, and at that point, they could be any size, any shape, any color — can they tell their story to an audience? That is the only question that matters.

So does this mean that my system is working perfectly or that it is terribly flawed? It’s a bit of a shock to suddenly have to address that. And bless the hearts of conference friends who came to my defense; I’m just not sure if that provided any clarity. “WTF, Jon,” said one, “color is such a non-issue to Rick, it never crossed his mind,” to which Jon was quick to respond, “but it should have.”

Then a conversation ensued about a particular member of the presentation community who does have minority status and how he should have been on the presenting team. There’s just one problem: that person has spoken at the Summit before and he received very low marks after delivering a self-serving and overly-promotional message.

Inclusive or Discriminatory?

I could list the minority speakers that we have had, but the fact that I could count them on one hand pretty much says it all. And so my dilemma: what am I to do about that? Should I go actively looking for more black people? Should I tweet specific invitations to Asians and Hispanics? Should I craft overtures to the LGBT community? Should I take Jon’s recommendation and ask my staff to actively seek out minorities to come speak? And if these efforts succeed, how am I to vet them? Do I use a different standard? Do I place them into two groups and make sure to pick some from each? What if someone lacks the necessary pedigree to speak at the Summit? Do I hire him or her anyway? Does the conference enact its own form of affirmative action?

You can see where I’m going with this — the slope is slippery and the line between inclusiveness and discriminatory quite fine. I have little experience navigating either one.

More applicants!

The Presentation Summit has had few speakers of color because it has had few applicants of color. I can’t invite minorities to speak just because they are minorities, but the more who apply, the more likely our complexion will change.

I made the following pledge when this blew up: “There is not a single person on this planet, of any color or creed, who would not get a 100% chance of impressing my socks off.”

That is the one prerequisite for speaking at my conference: you must impress my socks off. I cannot retreat from that; I cannot go out of my way to invite people of color to speak without knowing anything about them. However, I can go out of my way to invite people of color to apply. If you have a compelling story to tell that involves public communication and you are comfortable before an audience AND you are a person of color, please go to this page here and attempt to remove my socks off of my feet.

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