December 2, 2008
I once emceed at a conference and was responsible for handling the question and answer session after a major talk. There were about three hundred in attendance and dozens wanted to ask questions, but we only had fifteen minutes available in the schedule. I had the roving mike and raced around the room trying to get as many questions as possible but only managed about five.
Many were quite intense about being able to get their question in. One even walked up to me and stood by me, making it clear that he was quite insistent that he get the microphone next regardless of who I thought might be best to ask the next question.
I knew our speaker had had a grueling schedule in the past few days and that this particular day had begun at 8 AM with few breaks. Since it was nearing 10 PM, I was committed to keeping the Q & A to its allotted fifteen minutes. So even though dozens of hands were still in the air, I announced the next question would be the last question. I jogged to the back of the room to hand the microphone to one final person, so not just those in front had a chance.
As I stood at the back listening to the final question and answer, two friends motioned to me and whispered, “Do you realize you’ve only handed the microphone to white males?” I was thunderstruck. I had not realized it, but of course they were right. I should have been much more deliberate about selecting a variety of questioners.
“Guilty as charged,” I replied.
“Would you like me to ask a question?” offered the woman of the pair. I declined the invitation since I’d already announced it was to be the last question and did not want to not overly tax the speaker, as I’d promised.
As soon as the speaker finished, I closed off the session. Immediately a second couple came up to me and said, “Do you realize you only handed the microphone to white males?”
“You know, another person just made the exact same observation to me. I am guilty as charged.” Whereupon the couple turned their backs on me, and left without one further word. For the second time in two minutes I was thunderstruck. I immediately realized that they had misunderstood me but I wasn't even sure how.
Then it hit me. While the first couple understood that I was acknowledging my error and that I wished I had handled the Q & A differently, this second couple must have thought I meant, “Yes, you are right, and I don't care. I intended to do just that—exclude everyone except white males.”
Well, my errors that evening were indeed multiplying. Maybe you can spot several, but let me name two. First, both couples were right that I had in fact only given the microphone to white males. Yes, the vast majority of the audience and the questioners were white males, but I was in still in error. I had not intentionally planned to limit the range, but that was my problem. I should have intentionally planned to get a variety.
As we select authors for our publishing program and employees for our organization, I am very conscious of the need to have age, gender, ethnic, geographic, and (being an parachurch publisher) denominational diversity. I do those things all the time and so think that way without effort. I very rarely emcee Q & A sessions, however, so it had not occurred to me to do the same in that setting. Obviously, I will keep that in mind from now on.
A second error was to answer a serious question with a slightly lighthearted response. I was trying to acknowledge the correctness of the observation, but the character of my response gave a very wrong impression. While one couple understood what I meant (we were friends, after all), the second couple (who were strangers), misinterpreted me. But I fault myself for not simply giving a straightforward apology.
Who had the microphone during the Q & A was not just something that happened in one time and place. It was, of course, a metaphor illustrating who in our society is heard and who, sadly, too often is not. Sometimes it takes deliberate, intentional action to overcome unintentional patters of behavior. Giving voice to the voiceless— that was simply the right thing to do.