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WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT RACE

I have written in the past about the need for “other” on leadership teams. Since then there has been a lively, if not entirely productive, discussion about race in this country. I’d like to add to the discourse.

Way back in my hippie protest days (Viet Nam, diversity, minimum wage, abortion rights etc) I was swept up in the notion that mass demonstrations and public outcry would change policies and attitudes. (You can imagine my soft spot for Occupy Wall Street!) But there came a moment when my bubble burst and I switched tactics. I decided that big issues would change through one-on-one interactions. The more intimate the exchange, the greater the possibility of changing people’s minds…and actions. I still believe that today. Best case in point: same sex marriage. As LGBT folks came out of the shadows to their mothers and brothers and cousins and co-workers, gradually these “others” became mainstream. The pace of policy change is quickening.

I’ve been wondering if there is an equivalent process when it comes to race.

(In my best Jon Stewart imitation…) White people, meet me on camera two.

Look, race is a complicated issue and I would never try to oversimplify it. But we white people have got to make some changes. Every day at work there are tons of moments when we can speak up or act differently. Let me offer some examples. Sadly, these are true stories.

  • If you walk into a brainstorm or decision making meeting with all white people you could say, “I’m not comfortable working on this issue without more points of view in the room. We need to include…”
  • If you are in a position to hire someone and all the resumes you have received are probably white people tell your recruiter, “I’m not satisfied with this slate of candidates. Please find me a much more diverse set of people to consider.”
  • If you sit on a leadership team and everyone around the table is white try saying, “Look folks, as an all white team we are going to have to work harder to get other voices into our discussions. I task each of us to gather input from other people in our departments who can offer a different point of view.”
  • If you are in a discussion with all white people about how a service or product will (presumably) be received by African Americans (first of all, really??), stop the conversation until you get better research and input.
  • If you are pressing another white manager to consider interviewing or hiring a candidate of color and he claims that is reverse racism, ask him to explain what he means. When he says (which he will) that you are asking him to hire someone who is not qualified over a white person who is explain the error in his hearing/thinking. Do not let him fill the position until he interviews people of color.
  • If a white leader is boasting to you that her team is 35% people of color congratulate her and then ask, “Are they in higher ranking positions?”
  • If a person of color comes to you to complain about unfair treatment in the company, close the door, take out a note pad and just listen. Ask for specific examples. Ask if there are other people who would be willing to speak with you. If you are a leader in the company and a few people have taken the risk to speak out, take it very seriously.
  • If you ever hear another white person express a racial stereotype let him/her know how very offensive it is. Don’t be a passive bystander.
  • If you hear a co-worker say “I’m not a racist” you can ask, “Why did you feel a need to say that?” When s/he responds with “Just because my department happens to be nearly all white doesn’t mean I’m a racist” you can say, “It sounds like you are trying to defend your choices. What’s that about?”
  • If you are only making meaningful connections with other white people (grabbing lunch, asking for advice, selecting for projects, mentoring) get out of your box. Start doing these every day things with people who are different than you.

You get my point. White people have a role to play with other white people to intervene in some habitual behaviors. Those of us who have enjoyed the privileges that come with being in the majority need to stop being so reactive or, worse, fearful of losing something. We need to operate out of a more open mindset that values fairness.

And to read from a button I received back in my protesting days, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

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