Be a Leader – Be an Ally

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 –

image from a good post at:

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.

  • I disagree with you about the need to teach others about yourself as minority or not. Power and those who lead from power is reinforced by not knowing or speaking each other’s truth, history, expectations and why’s for being where we are, why we stay and where they are going. Without mutual telling of each other’s who’s/why’s we never break down the obstacles to speaking truth about the work we do together, we never enable dual-accountability so we’re fully honest and supportive of each other. When the person in power doesn’t share their full truth’s and the team reporting to that person doesn’t share their full truth’s, then the not knowing ensures power persists. Granted, it can’t be just one way, all must share equally for the communications dynamic to change to eliminate the power dynamic.

    • Steve,
      I love what you have written about the importance of self-disclosure, and, as you put it “It can’t be just one way, all must share equally for the communications dynamic to change to eliminate the power dynamic.” Amen!
      Perhaps we are not as far apart as you think about “the need to teach others about yourself as minority or not.” I would say there is a societal need or a cultural need for this openness. But do you feel – I don’t – that there is a personal need, or as I put it, a personal obligation or responsibility to take on this communication, and take it on all the time. My point is that I appreciate how wearying it would be if I had to note every “microaggression” I felt, if I were African-American and explain why this feels hurtful.
      Increasingly, due to our rhetoric, white folks feel like
      they are the ones being painted by a broad brush. And they know, for example, in a Berkeley or Harvard classroom, that if they say, “well, we’re not all like this, that they will get blowback. I have seen some of those students, and I appreciate when they have legitimate conservative views, but when they express them, they feel misunderstood or judged. And, as you can appreciate this kind of misunderstanding is a daily affair for people of color in many many contexts . . . to this very day. So, white and/or conservative students “pick their battles,” and I’m completely okay with that. It takes a lot of risk to put yourself out there. Society needs it! But it doesn’t mean every person has to take that one every time.

  • Dan, your reply to Steve is wonderfully thoughtful. For me, I find this whole phase – and I do think it is a phase – exhausting and sort of soul sapping. I particularly home in on your “microaggression” point because I think differently. To me the issue isn’t how exhausting it must be to have to note every microaggression, but how exahusting it must be to see the world as so many microaggressions. And when we engender that thinking, we perpetuate it. In one of my classes at Haas, a student felt “triggered” because US companies expect employees to speak English. I asked her what she would think if I were to move to Mexico City and not speak Spanish and expect everyone to speak to me in English. That would – of course – be ridiculous. It got very tense in the class when her “microaggression” wasn’t validated, but it actually wasn’t valid. And to me that is the crux; i don’t believe a lot of what passes for this stuff is REALLY how people feel, but how they’ve been conditioned to look for greivences and then SAY that is how they feel. Just my two cents. I love your thoughtfullness.

    • Ken,
      Thanks for bringing another angle to the discussion. And thanks for the kind words. Your perspective is, as you say one that make some people uncomfortable, but we have to stand a little discomfort when we’re seeking to understand.
      I don’t agree with you that this is not “REALLY how people feel,” Ken. I think they do really feel hurt, marginalized or under scrutiny, and who can tell someone else what they really feel? Don’t you think it takes a certain arrogance inflated sense of knowing for me to tell a black boy or an old white woman or a gay man what they feel, or “really” feel? .
      Yet, to your point, our feelings are shaped by our filters, by the way our minds have been consciously and unconsciously shaped. So, for instance, if I had parents and other authority figures in my life who were inconsistent or cruel, then I will feel social stimuli – like a boss’ or teacher’s “orders” – in a very different way than someone who was raised with consistent and positive treatment. But in either case, the feelings would be “real.”
      To the point you ARE making: in a very pc-world, we are setting people on high-alert for microaggressions. They “really” feel them, yet there is a self-fulfilling prophecy at play. Told to expect that “all old white men are inevitably racist,” a person will see me that way and interpret what is intended as kindness, humor, or even support, as some kind of veiled attack. That is sad, right? Both for me and for the person who thinks that. Hopefully, the truth is that I might be an ally and a friend, but I am viewed as a perpetrator. I think that puts a burden on me to just keep doing what’s right. To question my assumptions about how inclusive I am. To keep supporting those students or people who feel marginalized. And, perhaps, when I sense enough trust, I might ASK them the kinds of questions you are asking. These are not new questions to people of color or LGBTQ people. I suspect the great majority ask themselves questions like, “Am I being too sensitive?” with some frequency. It must be hard when MANY people are telling them, “There’s no issues. We’re all color-blind. You’re making this up. Etc.” Returning to MY main point: I have the privilege that I don’t have to do a lot of these mental gymanistics, because “my people” generally are extended positive assumptions and expectations.
      And so I return to what, unfortunately, remains a prevailing truth – and not a hypothetical about whether something was a microaggression or not: for many people of color and others with obvious visible differences: others expect less or worse of them. We can’t have this conversations, I don’t think, without continually remembering this uncomfortable truth. 🙁
      Thanks for writing. Love to hear your thoughts on constructive strategies, on both-and thinking.

  • In your “Leader-Ally” post you put in bold the phrase “I think it’s nearly impossible to imagine what it’s like to come to everything pre-labeled. Your identity is given to you.”

    I would suggest that you, as a white man, are certainly “pre-labeled” and your identity is also given to you. The difference being that for white men, those assumed attributes are largely positive – this is precisely what white privilege is all about! Assumed positive attributes. It is missing the point to think that there is a “neutral” demographic for whom there are no “pre-labels” (akin to us mid-westerners who claim we have no accent :). Susan

    • Susan, Thanks for this comment. I agree that we all come pre-labeled – human brains are “misers” and create short-cuts to understanding – and I thought I made it clear that I agree with you: this labeling has largely been with “assumed attributes [that] are largely positive” in my white male case. My point was not that I can’t imagine being “pre-labeled,” but that it’s very hard for me to imagine what it would be like to bear the burden of a pre-labeling that is filled with negative expectations and assumptions. So, I agree there is no Archimedean point – no “neutral” anywhere. And back to my point, which I think you appreciate: although there is no neutral, not “correct” label, there are some really rotten ones that people have to live with.
      Am I still missing your point?

  • Dan – Yes, you got my point, which was not very different from the entire gist of your article. But with the bold font of the phrase about “imaging being pre-labeled” I just had to comment. Thanks for your thoughtful and thought-provoking posts.

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