As 2020 comes to a close and we look longingly toward a brighter 2021, I wonder how we will come out the other side of all the unrest, anger, distrust, and fear. I’ve always been a glass half full kind of gal, so I choose to enter 2021 hopeful – without letting go of the lessons learned this past year.
One eye-opening learning for me was understanding that my privilege as a white person is as real as the racial injustice in this country. Because this fact is now in my awareness, I stand at a crossroads. Do I address it and speak up, or do I rest in my privilege and stay in the comfort of silence? I mean the election is over and a fresh year is about to begin. Can’t I just move on?
Well, I can move on. I’m white. The privilege is real. For starters, I’ve had the privilege of not writing about this topic and instead thinking, “You know what? This is uncomfortable and confusing. I don’t know what to do about it, so I’m just going to rest in what I do know and what feels most safe.”
Change doesn’t happen on its own. As Henry Cloud famously said, “We change our behavior when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing.” The fact is that the majority of white employers and our white employees haven’t felt the pain of racism therefore have always had the option not to care or acknowledge that inequity exists in our workplaces. But as we look back on 2020, no matter your racial, political, or other identity, it’s impossible to miss the open wound of systemic racism in America. The more you study our country’s history, the more you understand that the current disparities in income, wealth, education, health, and incarceration are to a staggering degree tied to race and ethnicity.
2020 has called us out and called us up. Even if we are good people who are racially sensitive, is that enough? Even if I do the right thing most of the time does that absolve me from the things I don’t question? Furthermore, why should we care as business leaders? Is this just a personal discussion?
Racism is driven by greed and pride. Two traits that find an unfortunate, yet natural home in the corporate world. We, as humans, can have an unhealthy longing to prove we are better than someone else and therefore someone must be made less than us. When there are leaders in the workplace driven by these darker desires, those in the minority cultures become an easy target.
As leaders we must use our power and platform to recognize these unhealthy drives in all of us, along with our certain privileges, and turn knowledge into action in order to dismantle systemic racism.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Creating a more equitable workplace requires acute intentionality, and the willingness to do so is growing. Like me and several of my clients, you may also be at a crossroads and asking, “Where do I go next on this journey? How do I help the people around me get further down the road, too?”
The answers to these important questions lie in education, empathy, and equity. This is a journey where no one will ever fully arrive and having accountability along the way is essential to avoid burning out and affecting real change.
So where are you at on the journey? Could you use an accountability check? Here are three questions to ask yourself as you seek to confront your privilege at work and push towards a more equitable environment:
1. Education: What Am I Learning?
It doesn’t matter where you grew up, how you grew up, what you were given or not given – we all have biases. Knowing this is the first step in understanding privilege.
As leaders, we must be committed to taking responsibility for our biases through continuing to educate ourselves with true and good information. Striving to know the most we can on different sides of a subject is the best way to understand how it is impacting our thinking, behavior, and how we operate our businesses.
Let me warn you, it’s easy to be resistant to learning more because admitting you don’t “know it all” pushes against the ego’s desire to make assumptions based on its long-held belief systems and the comfort of feeling right.
Challenging your thinking doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your beliefs, jeopardize your morals or change your politics. The knowledge you gain will better equip you to guide others down a journey of understanding. It will also help you avoid falling into lazy habits of seeing a snippet on the news or an unsubstantiated clip on YouTube and then quoting it all over the place. That’s feeding our ego and giving into pride. That’s not education.
Having spent more than 20 years in the television industry, trust me when I say there are many things produced to look real and sound valid, but it’s all designed to win audiences over by making them feel comfortable and ‘right’. So PLEASE push beyond what you’re comfortable watching and make the effort to keep reading and interacting with sources and people who are well educated on these topics.
2. Empathy: How Am I Listening?
For those of us who are white, we must be committed to using empathy to grow our understanding of how systemic racism is showing up at our workplaces and the world around us. We must be careful not to ask our colleagues and friends of color to carry the burden of educating us, but we can show up to let them know we care, and we want to affect change.
Empathy involves putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes to feel the pain of being excluded, unrepresented, or marginalized. As white people, we don’t often, if ever, know what this really feels like, and in America our value for individualism can be a direct threat to our ability to empathize. We like to protect ourselves from being inconvenienced or hurt and so we think about our own situations and freedoms first. This individual mindset is a slippery slope to an abyss that is difficult to climb out of, but it must be done if we want to rewrite the system.
If you’re needing help growing in empathy, start with curiosity. It’s always better to be more curious than certain. To better understand racism, seek perspective from those who have experienced it by asking questions along the way; i.e. “What’s it like to work in this environment? What’s it like to look at that statue? What’s it been like to interview for a job? What is it like not seeing anyone of your race in a position of authority? What is it like walking through a town where no one else is your race?
To the last question, I’ve had friends of color, especially men, say, “you’ll never know. I can’t articulate what it’s like to receive looks of suspicion and fear while trying to convince people I’m not a threat.”
I don’t know what that feels like. I likely never will. But truly caring means not letting that stop me from trying to.
3. Equity: How Are We Moving Forward?
Our efforts to improve the broken systems in our workplaces must extend beyond diversity and inclusion. Although both are absolutely necessary, without equity no real change happens.
Let me break this down for you:
Diversity is having a seat at the table. It’s important to be sure your team has a mix of people representing different genders, races and ethnicities.
Inclusion is having a voice. Be sure that those diverse people around the table are getting a chance to speak and that they feel comfortable doing so.
Equity is having that voice be heard. This is the hardest one. Recognize that you may be consciously or subconsciously giving diverse people time to speak without really listening. In this case, you aren’t truly understanding and valuing their points of view,but reverting back to what is most comfortable to you, your opinion and your way of experiencing life.
It doesn’t work to just hire a few diverse people and give them occasional facetime. You need to have them regularly around your table, give them time and space to speak and then you must listen well.
Recognizing and implementing diversity, inclusion and equity within your organization will put you in the strongest position to help all of your employees overcome challenges and rebuild the system from within.
As I mentioned above, greed and pride can easily find a natural home in our workplaces. We can stand up against that and be leaders who are driven by something better. We can be driven by humility and ambition for the greater good. You have to have confidence to be others’ oriented. Leaders need to be confident enough to get out of their own way and let ALL on their team shine. The most successful and revered leaders I know are those who lead in this way.
None of us have this all figured out, but we’re all at the crossroads of deciding whether we will participate or not. For me, I do not want to look back at this time in our history and regret not having learned, participated, or walked alongside my fellow humans of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds. This work is sacrificial, humbling, and hard, but my hope is that the future workplaces of America will look back and thank the leaders of today for how we showed up to rebuild a more equitable system for all.
Traci Barrett is Founder & President of Navigate the Journey, a leadership and strategic consulting firm. Traci helps leaders and entrepreneurial companies build their leadership skills, strategize on growing their business and ultimately, realize their full potential. Prior to NTJ, Traci spent over 20 years in the television and advertising industry. She was part of a small team that launched the national cable television network HGTV: Home & Garden Television in 1994. She helped lead the network to success running their Chicago and Dallas Offices for over 17 years. Traci holds a B.A. in Telecommunications & Marketing from Indiana University. She also holds her M.A. in Professional Psychology from the Illinois School of Psychology.
Traci is also a cohost at Overly Human, a podcast about what it means to be human in the workplace. Learn more at https://www.overlyhuman.com/ and listen to each episode wherever you find your favorite podcasts. Catch the episode on Understanding Privilege here.