I am still processing what has been happening this past week. The protests, the rage, the sadness, the loss. What can I — a White woman — possibly say that is helpful? What can I say that would ever be enough? And, what if I say something that inadvertently offends, even as I try to express my solidarity? How do I express my clunky thoughts in a way that helps, doesn’t hurt?
I took to social media to see how others have shared (or not shared) their thoughts. I posted resources on Instagram. I donated. I retweeted posts about positive news. I got choked up seeing the photos and videos of peaceful protests all over the US, as well as abroad. I am listening to White Fragility — listening, instead of reading, because, in a hopeful sign, the book version is sold out from many online bookstores.
All of this is not enough; I know. It is barely making a dent. I kept telling myself that it is a start. Yet, I still felt unsettled.
As I was trying to figure out what to say, I noticed a lot of White men were speaking up, sharing possible solutions, some even professing they have the answer to end systemic racism. That White men can, and do often, speak more freely makes sense. They grew up in the system that perpetuates and encourages their ideas and perspectives. To be fair, in between the White men who suggested they have the answers, I was also inspired by many who courageously admitted complicity through silent perpetuation of a system that advantages them, and committing to help change the system. Nonetheless, I was struck by how easy it seemed for White men to share their thoughts, while I fretted over mine.
Here is the truth I have always known but have failed to truly understand until now: we, White people, that is, have created a system in which there is a hierarchy of privilege. I am a part of this hierarchy — less privileged than White men but certainly more privileged than Black men, and women, and people of color in general.
It is true that, as a White woman, I have to be more careful with my words in professional settings and in the public sphere. When I want to assert myself or push back, I have to toggle between being direct and softening my message. If I am too aggressive, I can pay the price, and the price can be very real.
But, I must also acknowledge that as a White woman, I remain far more advantaged than all non-White women and non-White men. Relative to White men, yes, the stakes are higher for me. But relative to everyone else, they are lower. Compared to most, I remain highly privileged and protected.
We’ve all witnessed as Black men and women speak up and raise their voices in the name of justice. For them, the stakes are far higher. The mere opening of their mouths to point out injustice is an act of courage, an act of defiance, and an act of heroism. And they are all acts that bring great risk to their bodies, their livelihoods, and their lives. If they can speak up, with all that is on the line for them, against the system that methodically disadvantages them, what excuse do I have to remain silent? None.
The truth is that, today, I don’t know the best thing to say that could be helpful and not harmful. Black Lives Matter. Those are three powerful words. And other powerful words that I have heard over and over throughout my lifetime, from powerful people I admire, are: “I don’t know,” or better yet, “What do you think?” Admitting we don’t have the answer at this moment. Asking others, and not the same people you always ask, “What do you think we should do?” is powerful. To pretend we know the answer is more of the same. We need to give ourselves space to be with this systemic issue, to admit our part in it, and then figure out where we can start taking steps toward change. Governor Gavin Newsom just shared today, “You can’t lead if you don’t listen. Listen to the pain. Listen to the anger. Listen to the frustration.”
I still don’t know how to erase systemic racism, but there are at least two things I can do that contribute to a productive dialogue.
1. Remind myself and others that creating systemic change requires dismantling the entire system
We can’t just donate or post positive quotes and move on. It is not about just changing one part, cosmetic alteration, and certainly not about empty promises. It requires auditing the whole structure of the system, to identify and reverse all bias and oppression. It takes time and persistence. It takes, first, being with what we have done.
I have spent most of my career focused on systems-thinking and systemic change. I have seen that changing just one part of the system doesn’t have long-term impact, and sometimes barely a short-term impact. For example, when I was at Twitter, I was hesitant to commit to bias training without also ensuring we turned its ideas and concepts into real action, starting with how we hired. I worried that bias training alone would give people an excuse not to take action.
We brought in Joelle Emerson and her team at Paradigm to address our unconscious biases. With Emerson’s guidance, we engaged in discussions, first with the executive team, about the practices that were thwarting diversity and inclusion (e.g., failing to have diverse candidate pools), and the practices & processes we had to put in their place in order to unlock diversity and inclusion. We learned, faced, and accepted our systemic problems before rushing to solutions of how to change them. And then we made changes at the holistic, systemic level that stuck.
It is time for ALL of us, on the privileged end of our systems, to inspect these systems — our individual belief systems, our political systems, and our organizational systems — to face, with honesty, how we have been fighting to protect aspects of it which only protect us, instead of fighting against how it disadvantages, and oppresses, others. Together, we have to change the whole system — starting with our role in it. If we don’t start with ourselves, we will only make cosmetic tweaks to the system, at best, and no meaningful change will happen. Systemic White privilege and oppression of all others will persist
2. I Can Listen and Learn
I do not know what it is like to be Black in America. I will never know, but it is time I start to try. It’s time I learn more about the depths of pain inflicted on Black Americans. How can we heal if we cannot first see and honor their wounds that our biased system has put upon them? Furthermore, I must learn more about Black people’s personal stories of resilience, creativity, and triumph, as it is dehumanizing to view any human or group as one-dimensional. In the conversations I’ve had this week with nieces, nephews, friends, and colleagues, I’ve learned once again that nuances matter. Not being a racist, for example, is neutral. Being an active anti-racist is who I want to be and take action around. Being nice is great, but it does not mean you are not racist.
So, today, I am committing to more learning. I am committing to proactively stepping outside of my natural-born comfort zone to read the things and listen to the people who have been, for so long, trying to get our attention and tell us what it’s like to be Black in America.
Thank you to all of you out there compiling resource lists for action we can take and people we can learn from now. I’m scouring as many as I can to understand how and where I can use my voice to make the biggest difference. Three links follow:
To my great disappointment and embarrassment, I realized that I follow very few Black people on social media. That changes today. At the end of this article are some of the Black people I’m now following (some new, some always have).
I may not yet have words that can offer any comfort (if I ever do). I may not yet know how we can collectively change the system, other than an understanding that systemic change is the only way. But I know one thing is for certain: I have a voice that is safe to use. And my work routinely puts me in the position of coaching leaders to create cultures of diversity and inclusion. If I don’t use my voice to help those, whose use of theirs is fraught with personal risk to themselves, fight for a day where their voices are heard and treated equally and with respect, then I am a part of the problem. Period.
As my friend and colleague @SarahPilger says, we are all influencers now. It is our responsibility to listen, learn, ask hard questions, and speak up. It is also our responsibility to examine how we — as individuals, as leaders, and as teams — exacerbate issues or work to fix them in meaningful ways.
Before we try to find the answers, we need to watch the movies, read the books, engage with each other respectfully on social media, donate money, figure out small and large steps to make change, and most importantly – talk with one another along the way.
Systemic change starts with questions. It’s about coming together, but first, confronting our own thoughts, biases, and the part we have played in systemic racism.
First, let’s listen.
Then, let’s learn together.
Then, let’s figure out how to make lasting change, finally, together.