October 21, 2019
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Over the weekend I moderated an off-the-record panel on diversity and inclusion in an industry that you care very much about. Some stories will emerge from it eventually, but for now, I bring you a message of caution and hope.
First, let me set the scene.
The panel included five very highly ranked individuals, three white men, one white woman, and a woman who spoke eloquently of the privilege of having slightly “brownish” skin in a world that was prepared to overlook that when necessary. Without saying a word, the majority-white panel had to own the fact that there simply were no people of color as powerful as they were in this particular world; we acknowledged upfront that while the bias in the system was clearly evident on stage, it was not reflected in their hearts. That said, the work was falling to them to make room for others.
It was, in many ways a challenging but important conversation.
As we were having it, I was reminded of the now countless stories that I’ve collected from people of color over the last four years which describe what happens when a powerful white person gets uncomfortable talking about race and has simply had enough. It’s too confrontational. Confusing. There’s no clear path ahead. What do you want from me? Let’s just start with a training program and see what happens. What if I say the wrong thing? Exposure feels too great. I’ll be ruined! It’s a mob mentality out there.
What if people think I’m…
Here’s what I’ve learned after years on this beat: Inclusion means white people, too.
Because of the nature of our systems, history, and structures, majority-culture people with any sort of position power (looking at you, middle managers) often believe that they have no choice but to commit some sort of violence when they become uncomfortable on their path racial literacy. It’s a clear default. And there is no possible way that they won’t feel uncomfortable at that point, so it’s a clear problem.
Most of that violence will take the form of an emotional retreat in the workplace. They will withdraw support for you. Refuse to answer questions or give feedback. Shut you out of networks and opportunities. They won’t advocate for your advancement or fund your projects. They will erase you from meetings and won’t put you on teams. They’ll turn the oxygen off to your advocacy ideas. The violence runs on a spectrum, and yes, sometimes, it comes in a physical form of threats and intimidation.
Every person of color in your workplace knows this is true. Every person of color understands that part of the calculations they make when advocating for themselves and others on the subject of race is their understanding of the emotional set points of the powerful white people around them.
Get that math wrong and you’ve bought yourself a whole lot of trouble. That’s the caution part.
At one point in my off-the-record-conversation with white people who are more powerful than I can ever imagine becoming, I told them that I loved their ideas and believed in their passion, but I thought their plans as laid out were unlikely to be as fruitful as they had hoped.
Actually, I may have said that their ideas were not going to work. Yes, I held my breath.
Instead of seeing retreat, I saw engagement. More questions. Openness. And that gave me hope. Because they’re it in this corner of the business world. They’re all we have at the moment.
So, when I say inclusion means white people, I don’t mean that the feelings and “opinions” of majority culture people should be centered. I mean that inclusion programs should embrace the very specific mechanisms that need to be in place to help white people understand the world that they continue to make, and to find resilience when they are surprised by it.
If that understanding is not built into a systemwide commitment to inclusion, then when a majority culture person reaches their point of existential discomfort, they will disappear into their traditional networks and are unlikely to come back. Not only will they miss the financial benefits of diversity, but the spiritual ones as well. And we will miss the value of their enormous talent.
Until we find that magic formula, I will share some advice given to me by former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, who is currently Managing Director of Bain Capital Double Impact, a fund that invests in some very smart entrepreneurs in overlooked communities. (I hope to get an update on his work soon.)
In an interview last year, we talked about his “improbable life” in law, civil rights, community organizing, governance, public service, and business. It takes time for people to learn to see, he says. “The woke need to make room for the still waking,” because we all still are, to some degree. “It’s the only way to get through this with a little bit of grace.”
NOTE: Speaking of difficult conversations, my Broadsheet and MPW sisters are walking into some of our own this week, as our Most Powerful Women Summit begins in Washington, D.C.
The invitation of former homeland security secretary Kristjen Nielsen to the main stage has caused a great deal of controversy and critique, which I take quite seriously. Several prominent speakers have declined to appear as a result, including award-winning filmmaker and activist dream hampton who was scheduled to appear in conversation with me on “justice and power.” Ms. hampton has graciously agreed to a phone interview to discuss her decision with raceAhead, and hopefully, share some of the things we’d hoped to bring to this year’s Summit.
But do keep your eye on this space and your usual feeds for necessary and occasionally difficult conversations from the Summit about power, influence, business, and (now) journalism, along with the interview with Nielsen and PBS Newshour’s Amna Nawaz, who is prepared to talk about “the horror of family separation, border security, and more.”