Guest Writer Series
You don't owe event organizers a performance of your trauma
There’s a joke on TikTok that the pandemic was supposed to be a 2 week work from home moment, but now, almost 2 years later, everyone is a queer, gender-non-conforming Marxist whose sourdough culture has its own Instagram following and who quit their jobs to live in a converted school bus and work remotely.
Jokes aside, over the last 20 months, our lives moved online. Panels, moderated discussions, lunch-and-learns…seemingly every person you know started a special interest podcast, TikTok, Clubhouse or YouTube channel. As the status quo collapsed, there was a vast expansion of who could establish themselves as an authority within their industry. Suddenly, there was a hopeful amount of visibility and representation for fresh faces in positions of power they historically had little access to.
What came with this long-overdue changeover, however, were new responsibilities for these “digital emcees.” No longer was the audience looking for a notable figure to ask prepared questions to a media-trained panel of the year’s “who’s who.” People wanted someone who could meet them in the muck. To talk about their own struggles, real problems in the world right now, and offer a compelling vision for the future. This makes sense: when we are at our most vulnerable and unsure, we want someone who we can relate to, who can also inspire resilience.
How we produce this elusive feeling of resilience, however, needs to change. The original formula of emcees to address important, difficult topics like racial injustice, gender discrimination, and LGBTQ issues has been to simply find someone who falls into one of the identity categories and grill them onstage about their trauma. The sheer number of times I answered questions such as, “Were your parents accepting of your being gay?” before needing to immediately pivot and offer my thoughts on women in leadership is staggering. As an experienced emcee who has been on the receiving end of this, I can attest to how harmful -- and unproductive -- this practice is.
Instead of encouraging openness and vulnerability, marginalized speakers and panelists are made to feel that the event organizers and audience are capitalizing on their pain. For Queer folks, being asked what it was like coming out, or how our parents handled it, is intimate emotional labor that bears no relevance to a panel discussion on, say, Best Cakes of 2021. It is not the role of the digital emcee, panelist, keynote speaker or any expert to re-traumatize themselves for the benefit of performing resilience for a group of strangers. Just like in physical spaces, context in digital spaces also matters.
In addition to being harmful and invasive, these questions also normalize for marginalized folks that it’s necessary to be “strong” all the time, and acclimatize those with dominant identities to marginalized people being made uncomfortable for their benefit or “education.” For event organizers to allow these types of questions to be repeated over and over again, instead of grounding the audience with an expectation to independently learn about terms or experiences they may not understand, we anchor the guest to being first identified by their trauma. We place folks with dominant identities in the judgement seat, and ask the experts from marginalized communities to make themselves small first. Their acceptance becomes tied to the amount of sympathy the audience has for their “plight,” and it becomes the rationale for them to be presented as singularly exceptional.
I truly believe people are intelligent, curious, and great critical thinkers -- so instead of focusing on people’s identities for the sake of diversity, focus on building an event with intention from scratch. Instead of over-explaining or feeling the need to baby the audience, we can set the stage differently. Give the audience directions to read up about speakers before-hand; let them know that the discussion will be geared towards those already curious about the topic at hand, and willing to think critically about how to improve. The goal is not to lecture to completion of a topic, but to whet the appetite of the audience; to introduce experts that can satisfy enough of their latent curiosity that they become inspired to deeper research on the topic.
With this context in mind, when preparing for a panel or interview I will ask myself:
Is this question worthy of the audience and experts’ time to answer it? How is this question mandatory to setting the stage for the broader discussion we are about to explore together?
For example, questions like “So, tell me when you started cooking?” are too basic, broad, and start the interview too far back in the story. Instead, try something more specific; I asked Chef Kelly Fields, “Your cookbook, The Great Book of Southern Baking differs from others in that several of the recipe photos feature imperfect un-styled pies and cakes, tell me about that choice?” I knew beforehand she wanted to discuss this important cultural shift from “perfect” food to “mine looks like that too!” which engages the audience and encourages them to evaluate how else the industry can evolve.
Recognize that while it’s fun to philosophize about the what ifs of the universe, the time available for any given conversation is limited. Allow your guests to prepare their answers ahead of time so the audience can receive their best, more concise, and truest answer. There is no opportunity to issue corrections later, so an emcee’s job is to make sure folks can get it right the first time.
Does this question propel the conversation forward to a productive place, rooted in good faith cognitive curiosity? Or does it come from a place of sensory curiosity, where I am seeking a thrill or sensation from asking this question in order to elicit a certain response?
Ask panelists to communicate if there are things they don’t want to talk about. Remember that not everything is owed to the event; if someone doesn’t feel ready to talk about a certain topic, or is “over” talking about it, we are to respect that decision. Unexpected and “gotcha” questions that expose or embarrass the guest only serve to make interviewers look petty, and ruin the energy and spirit of conversation.
In scenarios where audience members can also ask questions to the speakers, it’s up to the emcee to set the direction of the audience questions. For example, prompting the audience to ask clarifying questions on the topic at hand, not any question that appeals to them. If an invasive question is surfaced, the emcee can rephrase it: “Can you tell me as a Queer person what kind of discrimination you’ve faced?” can be molded into “What I’m hearing as the question is, what techniques can someone use to navigate uncomfortable interactions in the workplace.”
How will this question inspire critical thinking from the audience? Can it spur analysis, and problem-solving, or is this a statement of the presenter’s beliefs, cosplaying as a question to spur shallow debate?
For example, “How would you solve the issue of gender based harassment in the kitchen?” versus “What can female chefs do to protect themself from harm in a male-dominated industry?” are very different questions. In the latter, the narrative of male dominance is established as norm, and positions the woman as the responsible party for misdeeds that befall her. Beyond that, it wrongly assumes that gender based harassment is always male aggressor to female victim.
Every event is an opportunity to offer more 'seats at the table', which imbues us as event organizers with the responsibility to not turn these spaces into inspiration porn for those already comfortable. Ultimately, the emcee is an unelected representative of the audience, and I’ve learned that the best events are those I would want to be a listener at, too.
Writer’s Note: I would like to extend a special thanks to Davita Davidson, who taught me when you’re preparing an hour-long panel, you better have 3 hours of conversation prepared. It’s up to you as the facilitator to anticipate your guests’ needs, and your panelists are guests after all.