It’s time to get unrealistic about confronting racism. Being realistic ain’t working.
The realistic leader views racism as a Black issue to manage rather than a White problem to solve. The unrealistic leader knows racism isn’t a season to endure but a systemic cycle to break.
To the realist, acceptance is the finish line. To the unrealistic, acceptance is the starting point.
For many leaders, the realistic path feels right because it reflects what you naturally desire: the illusion of harmony, unity, status and control. But we can’t afford to be realistic when it comes to removing barriers that should never have been built or rebuilding trust that should never have been eroded. To be practical is to be complicit in the familiar systems that allow discrimination, bias and prejudice to exist in the first place, even though you didn’t create them.
The realistic path is preferred because it provides the mirage of progress without the pain of failure. 2020 has been hard enough.
Resist it. We need you on the unrealistic course to racial reconciliation. You can’t adequately fight against racism until you realize your potential role in protecting it. Inversely, you can’t promote diversity at work unless you identify how you’ve been working against it. Now more than ever, your individual bias creates invisible boundaries for just how far your family, team, organization or company will go in protecting Black lives. This is made extremely more challenging by the humble reality your very definition of racism is likely so narrow you’re still incapable of readily identifying it.
The truth is, you will pay a price on either path. Remaining realistic will either cost you team members when they leave or the silent disengagement of the ones who stay. Yeah, it’s a big deal but you don’t have to be an expert to be effective. You must be unrealistic in your expectations, accepting the truth but not being constrained by it.
Where to Start?
First, the good news. Being White doesn’t mean you’re unqualified to lead organizational responses to racism. And being Black doesn’t qualify me as an expert on why people are racist. The reality is we are all learning together and we each play a part.
But being White does grant you the privilege of safely confronting racism in yourself and others without material risk. It will feel uncomfortable but it won’t be detrimental to your career or position. Ironically, your Black peers, myself included, have previously had little personal incentive to attack the racist systems we feel helpless to change. So this is an invitation to detach from the apathy of whiteness – something that mentally might not have existed just 2 weeks ago – and own your actions, correct your patterns and engage in the biggest repair job in American history.
These past 2 weeks I’ve spent more time talking, thinking, crying and sharing about being Black than ever before. This painfully exhausting mental marathon of examining my own wounds while reliving the trauma of others has once again become the starting block for change in a country divided.
I don’t have the answer but I believe my time spent listening and learning from employees, entrepreneurs, corporate leaders, pastors, parents and activists of all colors has provided some bread crumbs worth spreading.
How do you know if you’re being realistic or not? These are 10 ways leaders can distinguish their style and start being unrealistic about identifying, confronting and removing racism in their organizations.
1. Realistic Leaders Do What’s Nice. Unrealistic Leaders Do What’s Necessary.
The guard dog protecting racist systems isn’t racist people. It’s realistic people. You’re too nice to cause conflict. You know diversity in your organization is the right thing to do but you’re too comfortable to rock the boat that feeds your family and pays the bills. You’re nice enough to remain neutral around other White leaders who don’t see why diversity is a big deal. You’re also cool enough with Black peers that you publicly nod in agreement with their petitions while privately having zero intent to support them.
A simple tip: Don’t allow realistic leaders to champion your diversity or anti-discrimination efforts. And if you’re a realistic leader yourself, find someone who isn’t and give them authority and incentive to challenge you. Don’t allow your teams to use “alignment” and “consensus” as strategic chokeholds to suffocate change. This is what caused the problem in the first place. Make status quo extinct by arming the right people with accountability and resources.
2. Realistic Leaders Stay In Denial. Unrealistic Leaders Stay In The Race.
Americans didn’t design oppression, we just perfected it. For centuries White Americans, the primary benefactors of government-sanctioned racist systems, were incentivized to protect and exploit racism while wholly ignoring its impact. Conversely, marginalized minorities, especially Black Americans, have actually been conditioned to do the same via assimilation (“be white”), exceptionalism (“be worthy”) and enforced compliance (“be quiet”). So while we all play a part in addressing structural inequality, if you’re a White corporate, community or religious leader you might feel like you’re roller-blading through a minefield blindfolded. Many of you have lost sleep worrying about saying the “wrong” thing or already lost credibility for not saying the “right” thing. The social, political and even financial stakes are at an all-time high yet your confidence is at an all-time low. Kaboom.
The trail of racism is well-worn yet the race is just beginning for many of you and unrealistic leaders need to be all in. Again, you don’t need to be totally free of racism to fight against it.
3. Realistic Leaders Create Projects. Unrealistic Leaders Champion People.
This is the time to sing in harmony, not necessarily in unison. Surface the existing Black voices already in your organization that have been ignored and silenced, either by design or default. Make permanent space for them at the table. Their recommendations, feedback and assessments have sat in inboxes and reports for months, sometimes years, without action. Educate yourself with humility but take responsibility for your own learning. Don’t make your individual or organizational lack of awareness a special assignment for Black members. Encourage them to import their issues to you for processing and trust their stories instead of your perceptions. Be brave enough to handle their burdens. There is a good chance they have actively accommodated your prejudices.
If your table is full of faces that look like you, your decisions aren’t as effective as your organization deserves. Changing culture is hard and changing people is nearly impossible. Instead of policies as a first resort, leverage coordinated efforts, accountability and measurement to build a climate of transparency.
4. Realistic Leaders Manage Mindsets. Unrealistic Leaders Change Them.
Resist the overwhelming urge to reflexively manage this moment via initiatives and projects without acknowledging what it is. This is a crisis. This 400-year epidemic needs true leaders at every level. Even though we’re facing an old foe let’s use new tools. For better or worse, Covid-19 has taught many of us how to rally, pivot, trust, empathize and act. Being inexperienced doesn’t make you or your team unqualified, it simply means you need to learn faster. That said, the same mindsets that formerly ignored Black voices or values are insufficient to move forward. If the mindsets refuse to change then it’s your obligation to change the people who hold them.
You need to be clear, kind and brave. Even if you’ve already received backlash or suffered through a bad decision, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad leader. It’s an opportunity to strengthen a weakness. Don’t dismiss your current state but don’t allow it to defeat you either.
5. Realistic Leaders Are Afraid and Silent. Unrealistic Leaders Are Afraid and Active.
This tragedy has triggered real pain for people on your team and, in some cases, those injuries occurred inside your organization or on your watch. Don’t underestimate this. The question is this: Can the same leaders who have been selectively silent on issues of discrimination and diversity now be entrusted to remedy it? Maybe.
For a number of reasons, the communal anguish of African Americans has reached a critical level of global awareness unrivaled in modern history. Your response is already becoming either a debit or a credit to your credibility as a leader and your organization’s missions, values and culture. Do not take this lightly but also don’t seek a perfect response. Don’t fall for the false dichotomy of silence (“business as usual”) versus social activism (“potential backlash”). You have choices but you also have a responsibility. Right now your members, staff or volunteers are deciding whether they will stay based on what you choose to say, or don’t say. It matters more than you can imagine. Moving forward despite fear is the job description of a leader.
6. Realistic Leaders Seek Solutions. Unrealistic Leaders Adopt Problems.
Don’t use the tools of management until you organizationally know where you want to go, who you want to be and why. The process of reacting to racism as a diverse group of people with various backgrounds and baggage is messy. It won’t necessarily be sequential so you don’t want to overly centralize responses but you do need to be deliberate in role-modeling expectations, refining your values and being visibly anti-racist.
Fall in love with the ugly problems of discrimination and their effects. Solicit stories from African-Americans in your team, pull the latest stats on diversity, listen to external experts, dust-off the diversity solutions you either previously vetoed or the ones that never made it to your desk. Read books and learn. Listen to Black voices and stories but remember this is your problem, not theirs. You’re not fixing racism for Black Americans, you’re contributing to a solution that benefits us all. Even if you can’t embrace Black pain, you must adopt the problem as your own because it is.
7. Realistic Leaders Feel Guilty. Unrealistic Leaders Get Inspired.
For many African-Americans, racism is so painful because it plagues so many facets of our identities. Our faith, family, career, legacy and community is a battleground for Black progress in the face of injustices we inherited. I’m so much more than just a descendant of slaves but being a descendant of slaves also means I have more to fight for. Anytime I’m promoted into a job, profiled in a magazine or selected for an award, I’m a recipient of an opportunity or accolade that was solely made possible by the literal blood of my ancestors. That’s not something that typically comes up in corporate ice-breakers but it has an outsized impact on how I show up at work. George Floyd is my uncle Kevin. Trayvon Martin is my nephew Davion Jr. Ahmaud Arbery is my little brother Timothy. Atatiana Jefferson and Breonna Taylor are my little sisters, Erica and Rachel. Tamir Rice is my son Caleb.
As a White leader, you might not have a life experience to use as an analog for how this feels for Black team members. Instead of feeling guilty, get inspired to understand the problem. In place of defensiveness, leverage whatever privilege you have to protect those who need it. Be inspired by the promise of a truly diverse, multi-cultural community where Black lives are valued just as much as everyone else.
8. Realistic Leaders Move Incrementally. Unrealistic Leaders Move Irreversibly.
Remember the last audacious undertaking your team attacked? You didn’t just have a goal, you had a plan, strategy, budget, timeline and deliberate path for the journey ahead. There were pot holes, rest stops and fender benders along the way. You made room for errors and resistance but never for U-turns. The route evolved but the destination remained non-negotiable.
As a leader you must convert this momentum into irreversible moments for yourself and your leaders that demonstrate your commitment. You must go all in, even if it’s lonely at first. You will be nervous and anxious. Use doubt as a positive indicator you’re on the right path. Figuratively, doubt means to “double stand,” to mentally or emotionally occupy 2 places at once. Right now you’re likely standing between the leader you want to be and the one your organization needs now. Struggling between being a recipient of unexamined privilege and being an informed ally to your Black community. Caught between the alluring comfort of inaction and the uncomfortable reality of change. Unless you commit you’ve already failed.
9. Realistic Leaders Take Selfies. Unrealistic Leaders Take Responsibility.
You are not the hero. You are not the savior of social justice. It ain’t about you. Use your authority in any form to confront prejudice in every form. It’s not an organizational transformation it’s a heart transplant. Thirty percent of cardiac transplants fail within 5 years as the body rejects the healthy organ because it doesn’t match the body’s natural makeup.
White leaders must candidly, visibly acknowledge any previous inaction, not for the sake of public retribution, but for personal responsibility. This is square one. Accept the hard truth that a current lack of diversity and the corresponding discomfort you feel confronting it is essentially a warning sign that things need to change. Don’t spend so much time admiring how other organizations or leaders are responding that you miss the opportunity to serve your own. Don’t skip this step. Few team members will ask for it but all will benefit from it.
Remember, your African American members might be conditioned to expect little of you or your fellow leaders. This is your chance to prove them wrong in the most impactful way possible. The perception dilemma is this: though you might not immediately be penalized for staying silent your individual character and corporate reputation will be revealed. Trust me on this one. Take responsibility for the outcomes but don’t make it about you. When you give pride your password it’s hard to change.
10. Realistic Leaders Keep Score. Unrealistic Leaders Keep Listening.
Pain is common, injuries are unique. Don’t credentialize your own response to struggles by comparing them to the experiences of Black inequality, discrimination or oppression. Let your Black peers be heard and understood as uniquely gifted and grieving individuals. Don’t be a doctor, be a friend. Friends don’t make commodities out of pain. They comfort. They empathize. Be open to correction on how best to respond yet uncompromising on the need to.
When in doubt, just listen. Realize that feedback is a sign of trust and African American team members have little incentive to share their experiences. To be Black in America is to be realistic about racism for the sake of survival. In doing so we make space for White supremacy in virtually every facet of our lives.
The events this past week have served as a somber reality check: the land we live in remains a country divided. For many worldwide, the tragic murder of George Floyd by law enforcement officers has served as a rude-awakening we’d rather move past. For others, like myself, it remains the latest reminder of how America’s history of slavery, lynching and segregation continues to yield devastating fruit in the form of mass incarceration, economic disparity and systemic racism in many forms.
Realistic leaders will unintentionally reproduce racism since it operates as a system independent of their individual actions. Unrealistic leaders will deliberately attack racist systems starting with their own individual actions.
To the realist, the weapons of restoration – charity, empathy and diversity – are focused on reducing the pain but not removing it. To the unrealistic, true equality is the end goal so racism is a human issue to solve on the way there. Radical restoration starts in the family and touches communities, companies and governments, holding ourselves and others accountable to our highest standards.
No matter your color, our past doesn’t have to be our future. My ancestors weren’t created to be slaves any more than yours were meant to benefit from it.
Don’t celebrate. You’re on mile 1 of a marathon.
Don’t complain. Your race is vital and we need every ounce of your White passion to finish what is unfolding before our eyes. Ready?
Thanks to everyone who has emailed, called, texted or messaged me with insights, critiques and conversations after my original post, The Black Cost of Silent White Christians. Let’s keep this learning journey going. I’m listening myself.
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All artwork by @CDD20