As a 65-year-old white female executive, I must confess that I have serious work to do on the challenge of talking comfortably about race: about differences, about commonalities, about privilege, about systemic racism and its corrosive impacts on people – on Black people, on Indigenous people, on Asian-heritage people. On all of us, really. The desire to be honest and authentic drives me – followed closely by fear of offending others, of sounding arrogant, or ignorant, or privileged: any of which I can sometimes reflect without intending to do so.
One of my Black colleagues gave me the greatest gift for this work some years ago. He said, “we all need practice for these conversations; so let’s start practicing.” It gave me and all our colleagues permission to begin, knowing that we would likely not be very effective – or comfortable – at first. But like so many important things in life, practice does make a difference.
This offer to practice should not be mistaken as an expectation that our Black and Brown colleagues and friends can do the work of becoming inclusive for us “white folks.” But practicing amongst only those who share our racial identify will not enable us to achieve all we say we want to achieve: an equitable future. Conversations about race amongst those of us from our majority ethnic populations can enable educating each other, sharing information about the reasons we should all want to achieve equity. Not motivated by guilt, but perhaps moral conviction. Or perhaps a rational assessment that, as the late U.S. Senator from Minnesota, Paul Wellstone, said: “We all do better when we all do better.” Amen. Our national economy needs us all to do better to compete around the world.
Another good friend has shared with me his experience that, as a Black man, he has understood the need to ‘perform’ for much of his life: engage with white professionals in ways that allow the white colleagues to feel comfortable. He has also told me that he will not be doing that anymore. He is successful enough that he can project who he really is, what he really thinks, in the ways most authentic to him. Am I ready for that? I want to be, so we’ll see.
I came of age as a professional at a time when being a young female meant I had some experiences that paralleled that notion of ‘performing.’ Trying to fit into a group of colleagues, though the only one wearing a skirt, hosiery and high heels was a daily grind – and wore on my self-confidence. As I commit myself now to the work of advancing equity, it helps to reflect on the experiences I had early in my career as a ‘performer,’ but also, over time, as a leader of colleagues, both men and women.
Finding places and ways to practice talking about race should be a personal commitment for each of us – and we should encourage each other that there are no right or wrong ways to proceed. Just proceed! Be willing to be vulnerable: expect to unintentionally offend others, perhaps embarrass yourself. Be prepared to apologize and learn from those moments. Try again. You will keep getting better, and your life will be enriched in ways you may not anticipate: richer, more adventurous, more rewarding.
In the same way our organizations and our communities have benefitted exponentially from the progress toward giving women equal access to opportunities, to power, to wealth (though it must be noted: we have more work to do!), we will collectively benefit from marking that progress for our colleagues of color. All boats will rise.
Let’s keep practicing.