I’ve been having a lot of conversations about racism.
It’s not something we talk about because it’s incredibly uncomfortable and for a black woman in tech who already feels marginalized it can be tough to say what’s on my mind. Yet in some sense, I can empathize with the executives I’ve spoken to who frequently acknowledge how difficult it is to have these conversations because they don’t want to mess up. So because we don’t know what to say, we say nothing.
As disruptive leaders who are intent on making big change happen, we have to be able to have these conversations. If we want to come together in a better place, we can’t be complacent. We have to tackle this head-on. So where do we start? Here are 4 steps:
1. Create a safe space to have a conversation.
Dedicate time, be present, and acknowledge the situation. Recognize that many of your colleagues are going through and thinking about this. You could start by reinforcing one common, simple idea that we are here for each other. Acknowledge the pain, express your support for black employees, and show you are aware. You may not have specifics to address what’s going on with racism. Creating space allows for solutions to come forth from your own organization. In the very beginning, the purpose is to learn. Seek to understand where people are coming from, and create a space of respect and empathy.
2. Be very clear about what you’re trying to do.
From personal relationships to corporate conversations, it’s important to have clarity as you approach the conversation. In my conversations with people who are trying to figure out how to address racist attitudes, I’ve heard questions like: How do I have a conversation with my parents to let them know they’re saying things that make me feel really uncomfortable? How can I tell a co-worker that they come across as prejudiced? Remember, they may not even be aware of it. Some of these people may be talking about others in a stereotype in order to try and connect with you, but unjust, thoughtless or racist bias can create injury. Figure out a way to make it clear where you stand.
For companies, actions speak louder. People want authentic change and compelling action that shows specifically how you are actively being anti-racist.
3. Define rules of respectful dialogue.
Embrace the fact that you don’t know how to have these conversations and that it’s going to be uncomfortable. It’s helpful to have some rules in place, ahead of time. Have them written down or posted in the Zoom Room, for example. This would include things like:
- Assume good intention.
- Practice active listening.
- Ask questions in a productive constructive way.
- Don’t interrupt.
Figure out ways of using safe language when someone expresses an opinion you don’t necessarily agree with. When expressing thoughts, it’s very important that people use “I” statements such as I am feeling, my experiences, etc. Avoid “you” statements and projecting onto other people.
4. Enter the conversation with the best of intention.
All members in a dialogue must assume that there’ll be some sort of offense but it’s not intentional. As we get into these conversations we may say things that hurt or offend each other. Have a mutual commitment that, because of the relationship, we will work through it. The fact that there are many different opinions in our workplaces, families, and communities doesn’t mean that we can’t have these conversations. We should actively listen and be open to different perspectives so that we can learn from one another and become stronger together.
5. Have a way to start the conversation.
It’s great to have a conversation starter a question at the very beginning that encourages people to share from personal experience. It can be helpful to start the conversation with very simple questions to break the ice so that people get to know each other a little bit. These conversation starters are a way for people to ease into difficult dialogue. It will help them feel like they can express themselves. They will also be able to hear from other people and begin to listen to their lived experiences before you deepen the conversations. Conversation starters can be questions like:
- Talk about a moment when you felt gratitude over the past week
- Share a time when you felt a really strong sense of belonging
Once the dialogue has started you can ask questions that take on racism head-on.
- How often do you think about race or ethnic identity?
- Share a time when you’ve witnessed prejudice or experienced racism happening
- Have you ever witnessed someone being treated unfairly because of their race or their ethnic identity?
- Do you remember a time when you were uncomfortable because something was happening in the room?
- How did you feel when you saw that happening? What did you do?
Acknowledge the existence of white privilege in order to be effectively anti-racist.
“I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group” – Peggy McIntosh in White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
It’s important to explore questions like:
- How does white privilege enter into our daily lives?
- What does it mean to have bias built into our everyday routines?
- How can we be more aware of that bias and take meaningful action to minimize the impact?
- What is the role that we as individuals, or even as an organization have had in perpetuating some of the systems that reinforce racism?
Saying these things can be incredibly uncomfortable. However, not having these difficult conversations erodes relationships because when things are left unsaid, they’re left hanging in the air, murking the relationship. If handled the right way, hard conversations reinforce relationships. When you come from a place of understanding, learning and respect, difficult dialogue successfully cements that there’s a commitment to continue doing things together. This applies whether we are in the workplace, a family bound by blood, or people coming together as a community in the neighborhood and places like church. Remember what’s bringing you together.
Many leaders and executives acknowledge they don’t know how to say the right things. In fact, they say they are pretty sure they are going to say the wrong things. If we frame the conversation in the context of other work that we do, day in, day out, such as performance reviews, budget negotiations, leading teams in an organization, etc. we’ll acknowledge that we have everything it to do what needs to be done in order to move forward.
Initiating the conversation is a step in the right direction. Acknowledging that injustice exists and needs to be fixed is crucial. We must dig deeper to make real change. The next (and most important!) step requires that we take meaningful action.