Everyone Wants to Skip Step One
In a recent Into America podcast, “Into an American Uprising: White Accountability, hosted by Trymaine Lee, listeners are given valuable insight into the background and upbringing of Tim Wise, one of the most renowned white American anti-racist essayists and educators in the United States. When asked by Trymaine how did he, a white man from Tennessee, get to “this level of race consciousness”, Tim recalls how his parents were very intentional about making sure he grew up having a “commitment to racial equity.”
Tim goes on to discuss how he attended a predominantly Black preschool, developing authentic relationships with Black people all of his life and he made note of how as the years progressed, he noticed how those friends were treated differently than him, tracked into lower academic classes or disciplined more harshly for the same offenses that he committed. These memories stayed with him.
But the most important comment Tim offered was that having seen and had Black women leading and running things during his early childhood experience, he “learned how to trust Black authority and how to follow Black authority at a very early age, particularly Black women and I think that’s a lesson very few White people ever learn.”
In less than a minute, Tim legitimizes his own voice and accountability in and to this work. Not through a grand gesture, like the ill-advised I Take Responsibility video released by a group of white actors in response to George Floyd’s death. Or through the removal of racist icons like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, who have graced our rice boxes and pancake syrup for generations. He does it by grounding himself in his own story and from that point, he calls upon the relationships and connections that ultimately led him to a greater understanding of the institutional mechanisms that have undermined racial equity in the United States.
George Floyd was not the first Black man to be brutally killed by police on camera, unarmed and vulnerable to a merciless system of policing whose members have been trained to not see his basic humanity. And we’ve seen the violence continue with the revelation of other victims — Elijah McClain, Jacob Blake, Dijon Kizzee. Yet somehow George Floyd’s story became a turning point, especially for white people. Locked away in their homes due to a global pandemic and stripped from the routines and distractions that flood their daily lives, it seemed impossible to turn away from watching a man murdered in cold blood on our screens and not be affected. For the first time for many white people, this moment has forced them to look at systemic racism, policing, and the lie of white supremacy with more intensity.
In these fraught days, we are now reckoning with the glaring inequities in our justice system, our economic practices, our health care system, and our organizations. At this moment, some may be tempted to try to fix everything all at once, fueled by the best of intentions. But, we have to be honest with ourselves about the harsh realities of our history. The oppression and subjugation of Black people was a critical design feature of the founding of the Nation. Despite the hypocrisy of slavery against the very tenants of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, most white people, particularly those in power, have bought into and benefited from this construct.
To create an enduring legacy of racial and social justice, action must be transformative, involving an honest reflection on one’s own self and relationships as well as a critical examination of the communities and institutions to which we are bound. Tim’s story provides a beautiful illustration of how we can learn to be anti-racist while developing a deeper understanding of who we are and why this work matters to us on a heart and soul level. Additionally, by starting the journey at our individual stories, we build the foundation for facilitating institutional change in the companies and organizations with which we are affiliated.
So, what does step one look like?
Recently, I facilitated an initial diversity, equity, and inclusion conversation with an executive leadership team of a luxury travel company to help them get started on this journey. As an organization that serves an elite, mostly white clientele, it was challenging for them to conceive of their role in the racial equity fight. Each member of the team felt compelled to participate in this growing movement, but as they tried to think of initiatives to meet the moment, they could not identify their institutional responsibility to the cause. So, I took them back to step one and asked a simple question, “What was your path to college?”
Over the course of thirty-five minutes, an executive team, most of whom had been working side-by-side for years, realized that they knew little about the formative experiences that shaped their lives and worldviews. Each story unfolded, revealing the privileges, challenges, and reflections of their different journeys. Any assumptions that they may have harbored based on external realities were shattered in our time together and they were able to see the connection between their individual stories and the condition of the heart and the vulnerability that is needed to embrace social and racial justice work.
When we share these stories out loud, we hear them for the first time in a different way. Several themes emerged from their reflections, including the contrasting environments that defined their educational experiences; parental dysfunction and absenteeism; the lack of financial resources; and the intervention and advocacy that is often unavailable to students of color, even if it is merited. Against the backdrop of a global uprising in honor of Black lives, this executive team started to see how the complexities of their own stories were fertile ground for developing the empathy and drive to connect on a deeper level to the struggle.
What was your path to college?
Did you have a diverse educational experience? Who were your teachers and where did they come from? What were the expectations of the adults around you? Were there any obstacles in your way? Were you ever pulled out of your class for special attention? Was affordability ever a consideration? Did the adults in your life have to act as advocates for you to have equity? Did you even go to college?
Looking back on your path, how does it make you feel? How has the path informed your beliefs about yourself and others? Did your journey to college help you create more connections to others or more separation? Did this exercise make you uncomfortable?
These reflections are important for grounding the bigger work for organizations and businesses who want to take an authentic approach to being anti-racist and promoting racial, social, and economic equity. As individuals engage in these reflections, they not only unpack biases or misconceptions about fairness in our society, they also develop affinity and empathy towards others. When one learns that their colleague of three years had a single mother who worked two jobs to give them the best education possible, there is a greater depth of that colleague’s humanity and story, especially if their path may intersect with one’s own.
Although step one is essential, institutional changes also feel imperative, but we can see how jumping to forcing institutional changes and dialogues leave employees without a direct connection or awareness to what grounds their own attitudes about the work. Starbucks Race Together initiative is a perfect case study of the flaws in skipping step one.
“Schultz himself acknowledges one of the biggest flaws in his initiative — people “might find it hard to understand” where his empathy comes from. “I’m not black, I haven’t lived a life in which I was racially profiled, and I wasn’t discriminated against because of the color of my skin,” notes Schultz.“ (Shah, 2015)
Schultz could see that there was no salient connection to the initiative and his own story. How could he connect to employees and customers alike on such a big and important issue without any insight into the path that brought him to that moment? Unlike Tim Wise, who rests his credibility on the authenticity of his personal story, Schultz did not provide a context for his desire to engage Starbucks’ stakeholders into this conversation. What was the basis of trust that was established to encourage his employees and customers to take those risks?
I’m not suggesting that organizations and companies should stop short of making institutional changes that will promote greater racial and social equity. Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s and the Washington football team’s images and names needed to go. Even Starbucks can be credited with at least provoking an important conversation.
“After Ferguson, Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, drew a lot of heat for his “Race Together” campaign, which tried to get employees to engage customers in conversations about race. While some disparaged the effort as poorly planned, others praised him for trying to be part of a solution. At a candid panel discussion among executives held in Chicago earlier this year, Dorri McWhorter, CEO of the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, said Schultz’s initiative was a move in the right direction. -
“When you think about Starbucks and their employee base, you’re talking about folks that are in the neighborhoods and in the communities. How do you not think that these incidents impact them?” said McWhorter. “In the corporate world, how do we not think that employees don’t come into our workplace with the same thoughts? They watch the news and then they come into work. And to think that these issues [of race] are not impacting how they view and see and interact with each other is naive.” (McWhorter).
If immediate organizational change feels urgent, it is important to remember that Black victimization is not the narrative, the legacy of white supremacy is and how it has created the conditions for the racial inequity and brutality that we are witnessing in our society.
As you move towards creating spaces where people can begin to share and unpack their stories, here are some practical approaches you can also take to facilitate organizational change and transform your institutions.
- Examine your company’s mission and vision statements. Are these statements inclusive to a diverse community of stakeholders? Do they articulate a commitment to social justice?
- Conduct a S.W.O.T. analysis in the context of diversity, equity and inclusion. What are your organization’s current strengths and weaknesses relative to DEI? What are the opportunities and threats facing your ability to do this work? In this conversation, put everything on the table.
- Create a DEI committee and ensure that the CEO is an active member. Bringing together a cross section of members of your organization to steward this work will improve buy-in. Too often organizations and companies hire a diversity coordinator, a lone person who has to wrangle the troops. A committee can speak to different voices and perspectives and leverage existing relationships within the larger community.
- Hire data driven experts. This is emotional and high stakes work. Engaging with an expert in the field who balances theory and practice, as well as head and heart will create space for greater participation. Consultants should be willing to conduct surveys and focus groups to get baseline information about your organization’s climate and readiness for this work.
Lastly, this is difficult work. There is no quick fix and there is no finish line. Internal and external incidents are likely to challenge individuals and the organization as a whole as there is a growing commitment to being stewards of racial and social equity. Addressing topics such as white fragility or implicit bias will cause discomfort. But ultimately, engaging in this work will ensure the lasting legacy of any organization or business for generations to come.
Tara Phillips is an organizational development consultant whose works to guide and support organizational leaders and teams as they strive to operate with a clear purpose and elevated intentions. Tara helps leaders build unified teams focused on becoming the best of who they are in service to their stakeholders and the greater cause of social justice.
MIT Sloan Executive Education blog, Business Leaders Agree: It’s time to start talking about race in the workplace, https://executive.mit.edu/blog, December 2016
Shah, Khushbu, Why Starbucks’ Race Together Campaign Failed, www.eater.com, June, 2015