Tips for Moderators: Don’t Be the Barrier that Prevents Expression

This post presents a summary of an event held at WOW in Amsterdam featuring the scholars Gloria Wekker and Philomena Essed. Both women are featured in artist Patricia Kaersenhout’s community art installation GUESS WHOʼS COMING TO DINNER TOO? There were a few wrong turns and missteps during the evening, which ended up making it brilliant and engaging and worthy of documentation. At the end of this post you will find some tips for moderators.


Gloria Wekker, Philomena Essed, and Patricia Kaersenhout at WOW in Amsterdam.

So.

I count myself privileged to have been in the audience when Gloria Wekker and Philomena Essed shared their experiences and thoughts as scholars, women, women of color, teachers. You get the idea. These two women have thought more than a little about the qualities of racism that can be elusive. They have studied and written and taught about how racism is expressed and experienced on a daily basis.

My privilege was sitting at the feet of two great thinkers as they wrestled with a lifetime of experience and thought and ideas. It was lively, engaging, and a great lesson.

The evening did not begin well. The moderator, Heleen Mees, began by apologizing for her new glasses and then went on to make several mistakes while introducing the two scholars. Already my antenna were up. Would she have made so many factual errors had the women before her been white? I hated that the thought crossed my mind. But it did.

The biggest failing of the moderator was one I’ve seen at nearly every panel discussion I’ve ever attended, particularly in the Netherlands. I’m sure others will recognize it. It comes from inviting brilliant people and then limiting their space for interacting with each other and engaging in meaningful conversation. It comes from misplaced and misdirected questions. It comes from the habit of control. The difference between this event and every other event I’ve attended in the Netherlands, was that the audience wasn’t having it.

Every time the moderator tried to wrestle the conversation away from Professors Wekker and Essed, she was met with grumbles from the audience. Eventually a (white) woman stood up to ask Mees if she thought she was really necessary for the conversation. “Would you like to take over moderating?” Mees replied.

That could have been the moment when Mees turned the evening around. She could have responded less aggressively. She could have seen what the audience saw: that the two women on stage didn’t need her questions in order to have a brilliant and engaging conversation. She could have used the opportunity to follow us all into a much deeper conversation.

Perhaps she will next time.

This time, however, she doubled down on the interruptions. A few minutes later, the artist Patricia Kaersenhout, whose response to Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party was on display in the venue, stood up. “Ik heb een brok in mijn keel,” she stated. A lump in my throat… She wasn’t alone.

Kaersenhout first thanked Heleen Mees and then told her what many of us were thinking: you did not do your homework. She met the challenge Mees had thrown out earlier and offered to take over moderation. This was welcomed with rousing support from most of the audience. The organizer was forced to asked for a pause.

One (black) man stood up to say that it wasn’t right to shame Heleen Mees in this way. “She is walking out. That is not right,” he said.

After the pause, Patricia Kaersenhout, a black, Surinamese-Dutch artist, took on moderation.

That’s when the evening got really good. To be fair many of the topics covered were brought up during the first half. During the second half, however, they took on a depth and reflection that could not have happened with Heleen Mees at the helm.

The topics included dignity and how to preserve it in light of what had just occurred; entitlement racism: had we just seen an example of it?; the acceptance of individuals of color as long as they don’t want power. The Netherlands. The pain that women of color share that white women know little about, even when they are allies. The frustration with saying the same thing for decades. The limitations on careers and speech. Defensiveness.

Let’s just say, ideas were shared with us in an intimate and vulnerable manner that could not have occurred had the original moderator remained. By the end of the evening, all of us who stayed knew we had experienced an historic event.

I am sure many will write about this experience. I am sure many points of view will be shared. This is just one.

Now some tips for good moderation inspired by the evening.

A good moderator knows their stuff

If you don’t know about the topic or the people you will be corralling, maybe it’s better to pass: especially if you are in a position of privilege that others do not share.

A good moderator shuts up

This is not your platform. Yes moderation is difficult. Yes it’s a skill. No, this does not make you an equal partner in the discussion.

You are there to elicit interesting conversation, to glue the evening together, to prevent digression, and to allow all invited to speak. You are not there to get through a set of prepared questions. You are there to listen.

A good moderator listens

What did I just say? A good moderator listens. And not just to the speakers, to the audience as well. Are they bored, annoyed, jumpy? Are they falling asleep or grumbling?

A good moderator changes tacks

Something not working? Don’t be afraid to admit that something’s not going well. Don’t be afraid of being vulnerable in front of an audience. You can ask for help.

A good moderator asks what the speakers expect of them

The organizer might have given you a full brief, but what about the speakers? Have you contacted them? What does the discussion need? What is your role exactly?

A good moderator backs down

Women are not men, just as black people are not white… Often when speaking to women over a certain age (that age varies according to country, culture, and other factors) and others who have struggled with societal oppression, you are talking to hard headed, outspoken, daring people who have had to break down barriers with sheer force of will. Don’t be the barrier that prevents expression. Back down.

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