I had the wonderful opportunity to present to a cohort of leaders at a major corporation last week. The group of 75 came from around the country. They had been selected based on their upwards trajectory at the firm and their promise as leaders. Can you picture them, looking good and proud and enthused. I love working with upwardly-bound organizational leaders, but I wasn’t sure they would really want to work with me, nor that they should want to work with me. They were all people of color. And I am not. Full stop.
Okay, so who doesn’t already have an opinion here? Come on. Don’t you?
Okay, so who has more than one opinion?
Let me continue.
I enlisted an ally – a co-teacher, a friend whom I look up to. He’s African-American. We chose to just have a candid conversation in front of the participants, and then with them, about identities. If you, like I, are not African-American, I think it’s nearly impossible to imagine what it’s like to come to everything pre-labeled. Your identity is given to you. There are prevailing stories about you and you are measured against them: Do you fit the norm, exceed the norm, are you angry, musical, emotional, an athlete, etc? Can you imagine if people encountered you, gauging to see, for example, if you are an “angry (wo)man?” I was asking my friend how he managed this, how he built bridges or openings for others to see him, as him, with his uniqueness and facets – not excluding his race, which is a big part of him – but not in a way that that race presumptively overshadowed everything else about him.
Soon after, one of the participants asked – or wondered out loud – “(Why?) Do I have a responsibility to teach others about me?” I
answered this question.* “Answered,” what a funny word. First, was she asking me, or perhaps asking the other participants, the program sponsor, or my colleague who was with me? Second, yes, I was a paid leadership speaker, so it made sense for me to “respond,” but I honestly, albeit unconsciously or presumptively, thought I was giving the answer, and not just a response.
My friend followed up my comment. He very politely suggested that it might be hard – given my white privilege** – for me to understand the FATIGUE that the questioner was referencing and which he, too, often felt. I sensed it was time for me to just be quiet and listen. You see, I can only imagine – I cannot experience – what it’s like to feel hurtful looks, questions, language choices, and other verbal and non-verbal offenses come my way. Let me be very clear about this –
frequently these communications are unintentional, unconscious . . . yet felt! Without really being able to understand this fatigue, here I was suggesting what they should do to make things better. My, or our, privileged responses can exhaust people.
My friend could have thrown me under the bus over my answer! Who was I to come into this space and act like I had the answers and that I knew what their experiences were?!!! He was gracious instead.
I will reach out to him today and try to listen more and better. I suspect I’m not alone among white folk in suffering from a lack of awareness of how I can act like I know answers to problems, when I do not even know the problem. He and I have a lot of trust, and I suspect he will help me learn through this. But to be as good an ally to him, as he was to me, I’ve got to listen deeper to
Lead with my best self.
*I offer my “answer” that I gave in that session. I suggested three things (that probably need to be said not by a white guy to an African-American, but from a white guy to other white people, for us to discuss). First, no, I don’t believe she had any responsibility or obligation to do this. If people want to educate others about their background or culture, that’s their choice, not their obligation. Second, leading (which was our broad topic) sometimes requires that a person take risks, including to “speak to power,” including when the powerful may be both the perpetrator and may continue to wield power. (I think it’s far too easy for me to say this and not appreciate the danger involved.) Third, I wish we could turn this “education of white folks” into one that is predominantly about the virtues of non-mainstream cultures, rather than a defense that ties into stereotypes. For example, while stereotypes and unconscious bias create associations like Biden slipped into a couple weeks ago, when he contrasted “rich kids” with “black kids.” But we could all benefit so much if we saw the amazing virtues that often characterize the experiences of minorities, e.g., the incredible resilience and faith of many African American women who lead at home, at church, in broader families and in places like the corporation where I was speaking.
**”White privilege” is something more white folks should explore. Almost all of us have understandable defensiveness about the term. Too often our genuine life experience and/or guilt get in the way of seeing what is meant by it. So, from an individual perspective, I was hardly privileged: I was second-generation, worked from the time I was 12, sacrificed, gave back, and bla bla bla. But purely because I am white, I have had the wonderful privilege that nearly all whites do, for example, to not fear police, not fear for my safety, be able to walk into most any neighborhood safely, look at any house to buy, apply for jobs without concern that my last name would “give me away” as suspect, make mistakes and not have people say it “proves” some unconscious bias about my work ethic, etc. My story above is an example of how privilege works. I’m not beating myself up or anyone else about it. It’s just there. And I want to be fair and a force for fairness. And that begins with recognizing that I have some great, unearned privileges.