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The role of the unconscious in race discussions

We grew up in an overtly racist society.  Different cities. Different friends. Different decades (Brad in 1950s & 60s and Tom in 1970s & 1980s). And yet, we had similar experiences as children. In our discussions of the last several weeks, we’ve noted that it was almost unheard of to see a person of color in our neighborhoods.  Although our parents taught us both that all people deserve equal opportunity, and to love our neighbors with no preference toward race, our communities were sadly and undeniably segregated.  Brad remembers when Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his world changing I Have a Dream speech in 1963. It altered the attitude about race in his house, and his dad became a proponent of equality which at times caused arguments to erupt at cocktail parties. Over the ensuing decades, we both have become increasingly aware of our own racial biases. In 1991, Brad was walking through an airport with a black friend, and he said something to her (he doesn’t even remember what) that caused her to stop him, spin him around, look him in the face and say, “do you realize how racist what you just said was?” Shocked, he said, “no, you are going to have to explain it to me.” And so she did. It was then that Brad realized that he had biases that he was not even conscious of. We have witnessed many initiatives from individuals, corporations and government to eliminate the symptoms of racism over the years. And great progress has occurred (at least from our perspective which is colored by privilege) since Dr. King's speech; people of color are included in the workforce, in neighborhoods and in all areas of society at a level that was unforeseeable in 1963. We say this, not to try to put a happy face on it, but because it is human nature to take for granted the progress that has occurred in our lives. Said differently, humans have a tendency to focus on the next problem or challenge before them which can make it difficult to see past progress… we become unconscious to personal and societal progress. It is important to take an accounting of the great progress we have made, because it reminds us that if we have made progress in the past, even more progress is possible in the future! Yet the many beatings, killings and instances of brutality that have been captured on camera over the past decades make it obvious that we have yet to reveal the pervasiveness of racism, and to create a broad-based desire among our populace to eradicate it… until now. This time feels different. It is at once overwhelmingly heart-shattering yet dotted with real signs of hope. People of all colors and ages are joining in on the protests and marches. And on Tuesday, both the NYSE and NASDAQ stopped at noon to observe 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence in tribute to the life of George Floyd and the movement his killing has triggered. Brad recounted standing in awe as he listened to the silence on CNBC. The largest financial institutions in the world just stopped to support the cause of eradicating institutional racism. These are just a couple (small) examples of many hopeful signs during this historic moment in time. Later in the day, we read: “A majority of Americans (57 percent) now believe the police are more likely to use excessive force against African-Americans. In 2014, the share was only 33 percent. “In my 35 years of polling, I’ve never seen opinion shift this fast or deeply,” said pollster Frank Luntz." If we are to take advantage of the opportunity presented in this “opinion shift” and begin to do the real work of eliminating racism, we must move beyond just treating the superficial symptoms of racism. Joe Scantlebury, vice president for place-based programs at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation was quoted in the news yesterday as saying: "It's hard, intentional work that needs many, many more people to devote themselves to it. If people are looking for a silver bullet to release 400 years of injustice, there isn't one." Intentional work implies that we must be very focused, very conscious of what we are thinking, feeling and doing. In short, we must address the culture of racism that has existed in this country.   We think Kareem Abdul-Jabbar described it best in his op-ed in The Los Angeles Times saying, "Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air."  Why is the “dust of racism” still in the air? Although there are some people who are consciously, intentionally racist, in our opinion they are a very small minority. People of all colors are affected by racial biases that are a part of our respective cultures. As we have written in previous articles, culture is “the unwritten rules of engagement for any social group.” Culture is comprised of the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that are shared among that group. What makes culture so difficult to change is that it is unconscious. So, the first step in the intentional work of changing our cultural attitudes about race is to elevate them to the level of consciousness. We must shine the light to see the “dust in the air.” This is not just work for white people or for people of color… people of all races share these unconscious beliefs, therefore we must all do the hard work. If we do not become aware of our unconscious beliefs, we are doomed to be in the service of them, and we will continue in this conflict for hundreds more years. 

Can we muster the courage?  Until now, we have been unable to have open discussions about this pervasive issue… it’s outside our comfort zones. We must muster the courage to have these conversations; yes, we said courage. The biggest barrier to understanding ourselves and others is that we are afraid to have the discussion. Afraid of what others will think of us, afraid of changing our own world view, afraid of losing business, and on and on the list of fears goes. Yesterday, Brad had a discussion with a CEO of a large non-profit that serves many people of color. The discussion was about the CEO’s belief that something should be said, but the fear of alienating employees and board members and donors was in the way. After the conversation, they both concluded that we all must put our fears aside and say something. By the way, that CEO is a black female.  We must admit that we have some beliefs about the nature of this conflict that we are not sharing here… because we are afraid of how it will be interpreted and what people will think of us, and how that might affect our business, will readers have the courage to discuss their thoughts/challenges/ideas with us, and others fears we aren’t conscious of yet. We are all impeded by fear. If we are to capitalize on this opportunity, we must begin the intentional work of openly discussing the issues in our organizations, our communities, our schools, our nation and our world. It will be messy and scary, but we must muster the courage to do it if we are to live Dr. King’s dream “that one day, this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of it’s creed: we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Taking to the streets to protest and empathizing with the protesters is a good first step to raise awareness, but if these efforts are to produce sustainable change it must get to the grass roots: you, us, me. All of us. 

What’s the right answer?  No one has the “right” answers. We are all searching for the solutions to "end" this but, the real solutions will be ever evolving, ever changing, and will require everyone to participate. Whether you don't let a co-worker get away with derogatory jokes, you call out family members on offensive remarks, or you ask questions during PTA meetings about diversity and inclusion. We just have to find our lane and put action behind that. With whom can you begin a conversation to increase your understanding? Neighbors? Friends? People in your organization?  We would suggest that the best answer is to get into action… ask questions and listen. The key here is to observe Stephen Coveys oft quoted axiom: Seek first to understand. Again, two of the most powerful tools we have are asking questions and listening. If you find yourself disagreeing, ask more questions. Don’t fall into the trap of defending your position; you won’t learn anything.  What questions? We are going to begin by asking some of these (perhaps uncomfortable) questions:

  • What am I afraid will happen if I engage in discussions about race?

  • What are you afraid will happen?

  • What is white privilege? Once I understand it (and whether I agree or not), what thoughts does the provoke in my mind?

  • What does real inclusion look like?

  • How is racial prejudice experienced in my organization?

  • What could we be doing in our organization to create a safe space to discuss anything?

  • What actions can we take to make all feel they are treated equally?

  • Where do you see the signs of systemic racism in: the economy, government, your social world?

  • What’s the difference between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter?

Final Comment: Our intent here is to be helpful and to provoke thinking. If this was or wasn’t helpful to you, please let us know

We genuinely want your coaching.


Courageous Conversations:  Talking about Race

People are now talking more openly about race. And many of us are doing so with members of the “other race” more so than ever before. But… how many people are listening with the intention of really understanding the experience of the speaker?  

The bad news is that humans tend to listen with the intent of either 1) finding ideas that agree with our own or 2) listening just long enough so we can dispute what the other person says.  

Human nature contains a need to be RIGHT and to judge others who disagree with us as WRONG. Dismissing those WRONG opinions and the people who espouse them leaves both parties frustrated, defensive and angry. So, we avoid the conversations.  

The good news is that this behavior is mostly unconscious. There is a better way. In this webinar, we will explore:

  • Methods to facilitate courageous conversations in your workplace.

  • Specific approaches to help people learn to listen and create mutual understanding.


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