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.

16 Comments

  1. Craig Hadden (@RemotePoss) on Apr 4, 2018 at 12:59 am

    This is an interesting topic – and a tricky one. You could say that a presumption such as Jon’s is also somewhat racist, in that he assumes that people identify with a certain race because of their skin colour. I say that because many people here in Australia identify as being aboriginal, even if their skin’s white. In cases like theirs, one or more of their ancestors are white, and their skin happens to be, too.

    I understand where Jon’s coming from, and at the same time, to my mind you’ve written about this topic very sensitively and sensibly.



    • Steve Rindsberg on Apr 5, 2018 at 3:06 pm

      I haven’t seen Jon’s original message but I have a $20 that says it didn’t outright accuse Rick of racism. Anyone who knows Rick would never accuse him of that. But I’m betting he pointed out the danger (given the all-white staff/speaker roster) of *appearing* racist, which is a genuine problem. One that Rick’s doing his best to address, thanks to Jon.



  2. Donald Moore on Apr 4, 2018 at 7:31 am

    Rick, wake up. We now live in a world of political correctness. Even black people get called out because someone thinks they are not black enough.

    You know who you are, so just keep doing what you are doing. Your life’s work speaks for you.



  3. Shelley Horwitz on Apr 4, 2018 at 7:35 am

    I am so f—ing tired of everybody demanding that this group or that group have “equal” representation. First it’s this group then that group thinking that they have a right to determine who you pick to put on the podium at your conference. Those are the key words: YOUR CONFERENCE.

    YOU pick who you want to perform, tell the rest of the complainers to go to hell, and I will be standing right by your side screaming that THAT IS YOUR RIGHT!



    • Kathy Howe on Apr 4, 2018 at 7:43 am

      You are color blind…but you are also open to criticism. You are willing to learn and grow



    • Steve Rindsberg on Apr 5, 2018 at 3:03 pm

      No, please DON’T tell the complainers to go to hell.

      Tell them to go to the GOOD presenters they know, of whatever color, ethnicity, gender identification, and push them to apply to speak at Presentation Summit.

      IOW, ask them to stop just complaining and do something to FIX it. Rick’ll roll up his sleeves and work with them.



  4. Gregory on Apr 4, 2018 at 7:41 am

    Rick, I’m Impressed how you are jumping into this. This is difficult work. You will likely be criticized no matter how much or how little you challenge yourself to evolve your business.



  5. Raymond Adams on Apr 4, 2018 at 7:46 am

    What will it take for all people to realize that none of those things matters except for desire, ambition, integrity and the how we treat others? A mandate should not be the great equalizer; opportunity should, which is what you offer.

    It sounds like you make your choice in speakers using fair criteria, so don’t be discouraged. Racism and hatred are intentional acts and are a learned practice that can be committed by any of us.



    • Chris McGoey on Apr 4, 2018 at 7:47 am

      Keep doing what you’re doing with intention and integrity, the Rick Altman way.



  6. Michael Cooke on Apr 4, 2018 at 8:09 am

    I agree with your assessment of the situation completely. I have always believed in the Martin Luther King, Jr view that every person should be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.



  7. Rob Nachum on Apr 4, 2018 at 8:45 am

    When I saw Jon’s “challenge” to you, I was, frankly, dumbfounded. I could only assess it from my minority status as an Australian Jew. I thought: “Jon, you’re a bloody knob, mate”. Because it was utterly tactless. It wasn’t smart. It wasn’t professionally challenging. It was a clumsy and dumb attempt to, in my opinion, make himself look perfectly PC. Why try and “out” you on such a social medium? Why not privately contact you and ask you? Why not offer some suggestions to you? I doubt one of your most lauded recent keynote speakers would like to think he was selected because of, well, y’know; skin colour, eye shape, maybe height? And, how do you know you haven’t had an LGBTQI speaker? Do your speakers need to declare sexual or gender affiliation before applying? Coz that sounds kinda discriminatory, right? It’s no one’s business. And shouldn’t be. What about speakers with disabilities? Why hasn’t Jon also asked this pressing question? If I were blind (sorry, vision impaired) I wouldn’t even know what colour your presenters were. Yep. Slippery slope, indeed. Perhaps you could invite Jon back as a speaker. At least then you’d have the minority group of horse’s arse covered. Or, wait. Is that no longer considered a minority in the U.S. because, well…

    As an aside, I would love to see your original draft. Keep doing what you’re doing: blindly assessing applicants on topic, subject matter, and potential wow factor. In the meantime, I’ll see if Oprah has a gap in her calendar in September. Or, perhaps Colin Kaepernick? But maybe only for a Petcha Kutcha slot.



  8. Paul Huntington on Apr 4, 2018 at 9:24 am

    As a straight, white male, it’s all my fault. Everything. Global warming, inequality, homophobia, islamophobia…everything. That sums up how I feel sometimes: that my opinions or beliefs carry no weight because of the colour of my skin. So I understand the voice of a person of colour crying out for equality. I would love to live in a world where we didn’t see differences, but we do. We all do, regardless of ethnicity, disposition, education, religion. I believe that is human nature. But, seeing a different skin colour and judging a person’s value based on their skin colour are completely different things.

    Regarding the gender equality of your staff… I assume that you selected the best people and it just turned out as a gender tie. Perfect. That’s the way it should work! In Canada, our Prime Minister had exactly the same result when forming his cabinet; a 50/50 gender split. But, in his case, that was the specific agenda, and as far as I’m concerned, that is entirely wrong. What if the best person for the given cabinet post were a woman and she didn’t get the job because all of the female positions were already full? The best person for the job, regardless of… well, anything!

    I believe that everyone is welcome to attend your conference – just send in the deposit. I believe that all presenter positions are available to all applicants and that the best people will be selected regardless of which group or groups or classifications they fall into.

    So, no, your conference is not racist… at least not until you created a specific link for a “person of color.”



  9. Rikk Flohr on Apr 4, 2018 at 1:18 pm

    In a word: No.



  10. Ann K. Emery on Apr 4, 2018 at 7:46 pm

    Glad you listened to your wise daughter. What did she think of the re-write?



    • Rick Altman on Apr 4, 2018 at 9:42 pm

      Ha ha — she did indeed bless the rewrite.



  11. Jude Barak on Apr 6, 2018 at 12:32 pm

    Just keep on doing the great work you do. Who knows better than me, traveling all the way from Israel, what a great host you are to outsiders!