Like most American’s who are not of color, I struggle to comprehend the events that are overtaking our nation concerning race. I consider myself as valuing diversity and inclusion, and am quick to take up the fight for BlackLivesMatter or the right of peaceful protests like kneeling during the National Anthem. I also recoil both at the senseless death of black men like George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery as well as the senseless violence at some of the early protests.
I am also saddened by the push back and defensiveness from my white friends and family, sometimes very overtly against the demonstrators, but often more subtly focused on things like AllLivesMatter or some other tagline to take back the narrative. I have heard the statement “I am not a racist, but…” too many times. Unfortunately, I have reacted poorly to that statement, often pointing out that if you need to clarify it you probably are a racist…thus adding to the problem. Our hyper-partisan environment focuses on talking more and louder than those with which we disagree. Agreement on a path forward seems remote.
One thing I believe we all can agree on is that we don’t see ourselves as “racist”. In fact, the use of the label generates a very visceral response from the vast majority of white people. No sane person wants to be identified as a racist. When this comes up we immediately get into defensive posture and start pushing back. “But I have black friends”, “I don’t see color”, or a host of other comments are put out in our defense. Personally, I have said these exact things at one point in time. What I have learned to understand is my own sense of reality is completely biased by my own life experience, which is very different from that of a black man (or brown man, or Asian man, or Jewish man…). My own diversity journey has been long and still has a long way to go.
I remember back to the early 90’s at Firstar Bank and “conversations” I had with our head of Diversity (who happened to be black). In hindsight, I am impressed with the focus Firstar had on diversity and inclusion. I am also impressed with her patience and dedication to the role, however I can’t say I truly appreciated it at the time. I vividly recall my attempt to “educate” her on how I had to “conform” to the culture at the bank, and I didn’t see that as any different for a person of color. I also recall very much I saw myself as “not seeing color”. However, as I look back I realize I did a lot of talking…and not a lot of listening. Which leads me to my point:
When you are talking…you are not listening.
And when you are not listening…you are not learning.
As I have grown and matured (i.e., gotten older!) I have learned to be a better listener. While it wasn’t easy, this skill has served me well, whether it be in leadership, conflict resolution, or negotiations. Listening has helped me assess situations and take appropriate actions. I am also a very good talker, but I can assure you I have gotten further by listening than by talking. When I start with listening and understanding, the results are always more positive and many win-win outcomes are achieved.
Fast forward to today. We are confronted with the pain and outpouring of emotion from our black neighbors. Yes, we are appalled at the senseless deaths and want justice to be served. Yes, we support the right for peaceful protests (and decry the violence at some of the protests). Yet, when the opportunity arises, we take issue with terms like “Black Lives Matter” and NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem. We spend more time trying to talk…and not enough time trying to listen. We want to control the narrative, or, like me at Firstar, we want to explain our positions. Worse, we want to explain why their position is wrong. We are talking…and not listening.
Right now, it is more important than ever that we stop talking…and start listening. I cannot relate to the experience of growing up as a black man in a white world. What I can do is listen, ask questions, and seek to understand. The more I understand, the better I can speak when the time is right. It does not mean I agree with everything I hear. It does mean that I listen and respect the right of people to disagree with me. This changes a monologue into a dialogue, and then real communication can happen. We will find there is more that unites rather than divides us.
Our neighbors/co-workers/employees of color need our listening and support right now. Not our words. Let’s seek to understand so we can work for a better way forward for all of us.
A final challenge
One of the keys to understanding is self-awareness. While I have never met anyone who would consciously call themselves a racist, the reality is we all have inherent bias that can color our reaction and response to situations.
While there are a lot of tools out there, one notable one is Project Implicit, which is being done by Harvard and a collection of other leading universities. It takes a short time to complete, and provides you with an anonymous rating of your Implicit Bias. There are a number of assessments on the site. I took the RACE IAT assessment as I thought about this blog, and some of the questions were very uncomfortable. However, be honest, and it will help you with self-awareness and being part of the way forward.
You can access the assessment here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html
By the way, my responses came back that I have a “slight automatic preference for White people over Black people”. I still have more growing and learning to do.
Chris Thomas, SHRM-SCP is the Principal Consultant with The CTCS Group in Canton, GA. The CTCS Group is focused on providing HR Leadership, Behavioral Assessments, and Consulting to help small businesses grow and thrive. You can subscribe to this blog or request a free consultation at www.thectcsgroup.com.
Disclaimer: The information and recommendations provided in this document should not be considered legal advice and should not substitute for legal advice where the facts and circumstances warrant. Recommendations are provided based on good faith assessment and interpretation of the available legal and regulatory resources.