Your Conference Speakers And Racism

Just Dance

The Zimmerman trial and CBS’ Big Brother racial scandal have put the discussions about race and discrimination front and center.

Racism and discrimination are sensitive and delicate topics for sure.

So how do you ensure that your conference speakers avoid racial and discriminatory language? How do you protect your organization from inappropriate behavior of a speaker, volunteer or professional, that you secure for your event?

Sexually Offensive And Racist Words At A Conference

Around 2004, I faced some extremely difficult situations when a couple of the conference speakers I had secured, both a professional and an industry volunteer, made some discriminatory statements during their presentations. In both cases their presentations were recorded and we had evidence of their offensive language.

In one situation a well-known, marquee headliner started his presentation with two sexually offensive and racist jokes.

The first joke came and went. No one laughed. You could hear a pin drop in the audience of seven-thousand.

I was behind stage and quickly ran to my AV team that was controlling the switcher and teleprompter. I typed into his teleprompter: “Stop with the offensive jokes! Start your presentation or leave the stage.” It displayed as he started the second joke.

Amazingly, this presenter was able to turn the audience back into his favor and stopped the inappropriate behavior. He got a standing ovation at the end and apologized to my CEO for his opening remarks.

The second situation was more complicated. Attendees were outraged that this presenter made such sexually offensive and racist statements. He also went after religion and sexual orientation. When I confronted the speaker after his presentation, he denied it. Then I played the recording for him and he said it was what he believed and started yelling at me. Later that day, we released an apology statement to conference attendees about the incident and cancelled his second presentation. He never spoke for us again.

Conference Disclaimer Statement

Two of the women in the latter presentation went to our Board of Directors with their lawyers and demanded more than an apology statement. They threatened a harassment lawsuit against the organization. Eventually the lawyers for both sides worked out an agreement.

From that point forward, we began to put a disclaimer statement in our printed program, on our speakers’ handouts and PPTs, and in our emails. We realized that reviewing our speaker PPTs and handouts would take too much time.

Our disclaimer said (paraphrased):

The views and opinions expressed by speakers or others who have provided materials to and for this meeting are not necessarily those of Organization X. Organization X assumes no responsibility for, nor endorses, any of the comments, recommendations or materials that are provided.

If you want to use this disclaimer statement, check with your lawyer first.

Speaker Guidelines

We went one step further and made all of our speakers sign speaker guidelines about intellectual property, discrimination, harassment and racism. Here are some of the bullets, paraphrased for this post, that were included in the speaker guidelines:

  • Use non-discriminatory words in verbal and written communications. Review your material and substitute asexual words such as sales representative or sales person instead of salesman. Refrain from using labels (e.g., referring to women as “girls”). Eliminate sexist language in your handouts (i.e., replace masculine pronouns with he or she, or reword sentences or phrases).
  • Avoid discriminatory jokes (e.g., belittling a person’s sex, race, or age, or perpetuating a stereotype).
  • Introduce panel members in a non-sexist manner. Avoid references to personal/physical attributes.
  • Avoid visual aids that show people in stereotypical roles. Regardless of sex, race, age groups, etc., present individuals without bias.

Again, check with your organization’s lawyer first, if you want to use any of the above speaker guidelines.

How do you avoid racism, discrimination and offensive behavior from your speakers at your meetings? How do you ensure that your speaker lineup is diverse, representing many different views?

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  1. Lew Hoff says:

    Dave, your points are well taken. A great deal of angst can be avoided if meeting planners follow your suggestions.

    It is unfortunate that as a nation we have become so politically correct. Great strides have been made over the past 50 years. As a young USAF officer from Massachusetts stationed in Mississippi in the early 60’s, I observed the stark difference between the enlightened military and the not-so enlightened civilian outlook on race relations. Working in the airline industry in New York in the late 60’s, I discovered that my employer dictated that its sales people Anglicize their ethnic sounding surnames (Not much they could do to a name like Hoff, even though I am an “ethnic”).

    Today, our college campuses are the “melting pot.” Young people like my 23-year old daughter find the prejudices of older generations regarding race, sexual orientation, etc., as being out of touch and even laughable.

    Until the general population adopts the attitudes of our college kids, your speakers’ guidelines will be a necessity.

  2. Shawna McKinley says:

    Great practical advice – thank you! The Unitarian Universalist Association has established some unique teams to help address issues related to racism, oppression and diversity at their General Assembly to make sure speakers not only remain respectful, but attendees too. Brief information on their “Right Relations” team is included on their GA web site, along with other inclusivity policies.

  3. Great points, as always Jeff. I appreciate your practical approach to what is, unfortunately, still a thorny landscape. Hopefully as we evolve, we find humor in different places than the easy (and in my mind, boring) targets of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

  4. Joan Eisentodt says:

    Thanks, Jeff, for this. It is remarkable to me what people find amusing and how and why they continue to make comments, jokes or are complicit in actions (see my blog at )that are offensive. While many stay away from racist jokes, ethnic jokes and sexist jokes that are not explicit find their way into most conversations. “Blond jokes” (what makes them funny?) seem to still be ok. Ageism is still on the table. “Little old” is used to describe anyone older than the person speaking. Pejoratives are used about Gen Y – “lazy”, “unethical”, “no work ethic.”

    Many organizations have guidelines like those you posted (THANKS!)and don’t enforce them by not inviting someone back after they’ve violated the guidelines AND common sense. When the CEO is violating the guidelines in her off the cuff remarks or in private conversations overheard by others, nothing sticks.

    What I wrote about in the blog lnked above goes beyond what is said: it’s about what is done and how it continues to be no one’s responsibility. The CEO of the sponsor of the event where the “Gentlemen Only” sign appeared posted on a group discussion in the association’s listservs – albeit only to one of the smaller groups – that neither he nor the association had any responsibility — even tho’ they secure the sponsor, there is nothing they can do (!) to ensure the sponsor (co. paying)does it well. Ahem .. sponsor guidelines like speaker guidelines?! Yep, just blame somebody else.

    Mad as hell? You betcha!

    [Typos or errors are a result of frustration & anger and being out of frozen grapes which, in the summer, keep me going.]

  5. Bill Walker says:

    Thanks for the post, Jeff. There is one thing I would like to add to the tips: we should also think about how we reference ourselves and people LIKE us. Sometimes, we inadvertently contribute to the stereotyping, sexist comments, or unprofessional references. (See your bullet #3.) For example, if you are a woman, do you introduce or refer to other women as beautiful, lovely, or some other physical attribute that has nothing to do with what the person is contributing? To me, that’s just as wrong and demeaning.

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