I have to share something unfortunate but true about my own privilege, and thus ignorance. Until this year, I didn’t fully grasp how racist our country still is. It has been a rude awakening. How practically every public school I have heard of has been named after a slaveowner. How the very city I grew up in, Rockville, MD had once housed a “Colored High School.” And how statues that I always took for granted as “heroes of our nation” turned out to really be those of white supremacists.
This year, my eyes opened to how much racism is not only still alive, but so close to me. Not out in Middle America, but often hiding in front of me in plain sight. I am deeply disturbed. And I’m amazed at how black people have put up with this alienating society for so long. All I can say is I am so sorry, and Black Lives Matter.
But I can’t completely blame myself for not knowing earlier. I blame the schools I went to, for not teaching them to me. I blame the structure of the society I grew up in. I think not knowing doesn’t make someone a bad person – not caring does. Caring is the most valuable thing we can do.
In the last few months, I’ve worked with several company leaders who have tiptoed around the conversation of diversity. Mostly, they are scared. They don’t know what to say and fear something they say will be misinterpreted as racist. So, they either keep quiet, which makes things worse – and/or they bring in a consultant like myself to develop their D&I strategy and communications for them.
I believe this points to a growing social movement of shaming and calling out that is ultimately counterproductive. It is wrong to expect that everyone will say things in exactly the right way – and this is where intent becomes so important. This is where we must develop the discernment to know what is a racist, bigoted insult, and what is not.
While there are definitely plenty of ill-intentioned, racist individuals who deserve to be harshly penalized, there are also those who mean well and perhaps, just don’t know all the right things to say and do.
We are all just a product of our experiences, and if our experiences were lacking, it doesn’t mean we are bad people. It does mean we have a big responsibility now to try harder to understand.
The Best Thing for D&I and Unconscious Bias – Enable Two-Way Communication
Firm policies and processes against discrimination and harassment are a MUST to ensure that employees are treated respectfully. But, they only solve half the problem. Unconscious bias occurs everyday in many ways, often unintentionally. It is important to allow employees a voice to share these subtle instances as well.
One of the best things you can do as a leader to cultivate D&I is to stop trying to find the right things to say. Instead, create space to listen. This is an opportunity to ask questions and collect feedback, an opportunity to allow employees to feel heard.
A real or virtual, confidential feedback box can be a great tool. I try to incorporate a set sentence structure that employees can use: “When you said or did “x”, I felt “y” because “z”. Can I request you to ____ next time?
This structure allows space for constructive feedback without shaming or passive aggression, while also offering a very clear request from the employee on how he/she would like to be treated. It removes the ambiguity.
Leaders can also extend an open invitation to employees who feel discriminated against in any way to meet with them directly to discuss the issue and come up with a solution.
In these complex and multifaceted times, it is more important than ever to ask questions, to see things from multiple perspectives, and to not assume anything.
What is diversity and inclusion, after all? It’s accepting and integrating points of view. It’s being patient and empathetic. It’s being open to learning from one another’s unique and varied experiences.
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