Neil calls forth organizational leaders to reframe naming racism, white supremacy, and white privilege inside their organizations as a way to reap the dividends of the their D&I efforts. He uses sexual harassment as an example to illustrate the gap that needs closing in how we talk about or do not talk about racism in the workplace.
(00:11): I am Neil Edwards, and this is The Leadership Range, where we elevate the voices of black and brown coaches, leaders, and allies. And have soulful conversations about all things at the intersections of leadership, relationships in teams, well-being, and inclusion. Here, I offer deep insights and practical tips for work and life.
(00:35): Hi everybody, this is Neil. Welcome back to The Leadership Range. It is Monday, April 12th. If this is your first episode, welcome, I appreciate your presence and attention. If you’ve been listening to The Leadership Range for a while, I appreciate your commitment to listening and enjoying the content that we have to offer. Before I get into what I want to talk about today, I just want to share that, I came out of teaching a coaching class this weekend. And, I’m inspired more and more. I’m seeing coaches show up into coach training with a deep interest in justice, and equity, and inclusion, and relationships across differences. And that’s really inspiring to me because people are taking this work more and more seriously and seeing the need for it in every aspect of life. And it’s just a particular delight to me, to see that people are using coaching, as a modality to open up deeper conversations around humanity. And the need for us to create a more kind, and just, and equitable society.
(01:40): Now, when I started this podcast and I was thinking about it, there are a lot of things I want to talk about. But I did not anticipate that so many of the episodes would have the focus or at least have a strong leaning towards just justice, equity, and inclusion. But the reality is that this is a real leadership challenge of our time. And so, it continues to show up as a leadership conversation. And we touch on aspects of relationships, teaming as well as we have these conversations, and also well-being. But certainly creating a more just and kind society is a leadership challenge for all of us, for all leaders, all CEOs, for diversity, equity, and inclusion workers here in the United States and globally. So it continues to show up, and that is a continuing part of the conversation and why I continue to commit to it. Because it is important, it is relevant now.
(02:39): In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been having some conversations with some coaches and some leaders. And just talking about things we say, and don’t say. Things we get to do and not do. And how we talk about things and how we define things. And a few things have emerged in those conversations me. And when I reflect on things, I really try to look at other parts of our systems, our society, and how we look at and treat content from different domains, and how we talk about things and relate it to the difficult conversations like racism. And it’s not uncommon that I see inconsistencies in how we treat content. And those inconsistencies oftentimes don’t make sense to me. And I like to point them out as a way to illustrate the folly in our thinking and our actions.
(03:35): Some people think that I say provocative things and they appreciate it, but I don’t think they’re provocative. I think they’re just truthful. I think they just make sense. I think they’re just another point of view, another perspective and just another way for people to look at our world. In doing so, it might unlock something that was previously locked. It might bring into the light, something that was in the darkness before. We all have unconscious biases and underlying assumptions and held beliefs that get in the way of seeing the world the way others see it. And so, wherever I can point that out, I’d love to do it because it serves a greater good, it serves a purpose in moving us forward.
(04:21): One of the conversations I had, that really landed this thing I was thinking about, was with my wife. And this isn’t surprising to me because in our household, we talk. We talk about things. We talk about important things. We talk about world issues and problems. We talk about things that are wonderful. We think about and talk about things that are sad and that are harming us. And so, it’s not surprising to me that this conversation came up at home. And it’s also not surprising that it came from my wife, because she has a great way of simplifying things sometimes that help me when I get in a bind and in an entanglement in my own thoughts.
(05:03): So let me get to it. What I want to start and leave with today, is around the notion of naming racism. Calling someone racist, saying racism exists in a workplace. Saying a workplace is a racist workplace or has racist systems and structures in place. And there are employees who behave in racist ways. There’s this notion that we don’t get to name racism. We don’t get to name racism in the workplace. We don’t get to call someone a racist. We don’t get to suggest in any way, that an organization perpetuates racism. And this is remarkable to me because the data shows us, and tells us, day in day out that racism is a problem in the workplace. It’s a fact and I’m not foolish. I know there are laws and there are protected classes, and organizations need to protect themselves from lawsuits. I also know that those laws are put in place by humans. And those laws can change or they can bend in order to support a future that we want. Rather than impede the efforts that companies are putting in to try to create more inclusive environments at work. And to create a kinder environment for all people to work in, rather than one that is treacherous and harming.
(06:40): We can’t just say the law prevents us. We have to look at the law and look at the policies and figure out what things need to change. We know that things can change and sometimes things don’t need to change. There just needs to be a different set of behaviors put in place. For example, we know that sexual harassment, and related infractions, or crimes are illegal in the workplace. They’re problematic and companies can lose their tail. They can get sued. And there are all sorts of studies out there that show and illustrate with slightly different numbers, just how much sexual harassment there is in the workplace, reported by women. In some cases, upwards of 80% of women report sexual harassment at some point, in the work experience. And sexual harassment is a thing. It has a name, and we call it out. And we call people into behaving differently. We call people into recognizing it, and we call people into a different set of behaviors to reduce sexual harassment in the workplace.
(07:57): And this is where the conversation with my wife came in. The question is why can’t we offer something that addresses racism specifically in the workplace? Why can’t we accept that racism exists in the workplace and address it directly by name? Why is racism structural, or systemic, or interpersonal, always seen as something that’s over there or out there in society. We can talk about a workplace that we aspire to, that is free of sexual harassment. Which means that we know sexual harassment exists inside the workplace.
(08:40): Here’s what we know. Employers provide their staff what the applicable laws are, that define sexual harassment. And what the compliance requirements are, and what types of are appropriate or inappropriate in the workplace. There are books, videos, there’s content for this in the workplace. Examples that people can seek. What is it that is in the way of teaching employees, what racism and white supremacy is? What are the applicable laws or knowledge around defining what racism and white supremacy is? And how we meet compliance requirements to make sure that we’re operating within the law? Examples of what behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate. Showing what micro-aggressions are, showing what overt racism is. Why don’t those things exist in the workforce? We need to be able to point at situations, with examples, and say, Hey, that is racist. That is an example of racism. Don’t do that. I am not in the business of calling people out for being racist. I’m also not in the business of being silent. I am in the business of naming things for what they are.
(10:03): And I think there is a distinction, but things get a little bit murky when we’re operating in an environment of power, privilege, and rank. Let me try to paint a picture and illustrate how this works. And for this, I’m going to use white and black, because that is the most clear binary that we can use when we talk about racism, particularly in the United States.
(10:28): So here’s how it goes. White person says, or does something that is received by black person as racist. And to address this, the black person says, Hey, what you just did is racist. Here’s the impact that it had on me. Now, I don’t know what’s going on in the mind of said white person, but that can’t feel good. And there could be any number of responses, but I’m going to focus on one particular area of response. And it’s something like you can’t go around calling people racist. Or are you calling me racist? Or are you calling me a racist?
(11:10): That’s not really the way to deal with these things properly. You shouldn’t go around calling people out for racism. That’s not going to do anything positive. That’s not going to be productive. This type of a response assumes and takes the position that the black person just did something to the white person, namely called them out. You see white person has the power privilege, and rank in society to do such a thing. To twist the story. When in fact, it was a calling in, the white person was simply reacting to their own trigger, and then wielding the benefits of white privilege. Interrupting the conversation and placing the burden on the black person. That is an example of racism, white supremacy, white privilege, whichever word you want to choose and wrap around it. It’s something that needs to be looked at in the workplace by leaders. The looking of a leader.
(12:05): If we accept that scenario is problematic. If we accept that it is an example of racist behavior. What might that mean? Well, I’ll tell you what it means. A large percentage of white people in the workforce do racist things. And it’s a problem to say that out loud, because then, you have to do something about it. That means a lot of people are implicated. A lot of important, powerful people are implicated. It is far easier to maintain the status quo. And that is essentially what has been happening in the workplace, maintenance of the status quo. The reality is if we want a different future, we have to look at this. We know there are blind spots and not so blind, blind spots. And we know that some of those spots are racist. At work we seek out and ask for people to point out our blind spots so that we could improve.
(13:02): Why not this one? What is the line in the sand around racism? And why does that line exist? What is essentially happening is black and brown people are being asked to live with racism. And to trust that the people over there, the white majority are doing the work to rid themselves of it. And to do that in an environment where there are little or no data demonstrating a capability to do that, and to be successful. To somehow trust that it will work out, to accept the burdens of systemic instructural, and interpersonal racism for an indefinite amount of time. While presumably, work is happening over there in some corner, that will eventually be revealed and show its benefits. It makes no sense. And I really don’t need to remark on that anymore.
(13:55): Now there is optimism here because I’ve witnessed myself, attempts to craft, to frame, and to communicate the reality that racism exists in an organization. So there are people out there who are trying to get that message out inside the walls of companies. I have not actually seen that messaging get accepted and rolled out, but I know that there are people who are trying to do exactly this. And this is crucially important, because I can understand why individuals in an organization, white, or black, or anything in between, brown, any ethnicity would not call forward racism, would not call out racism. It’s dangerous.
(14:42): So what is likely, in my opinion, the natural path is for this naming to happen from the top of the organization. From the leaders in the organization, through internal communications. Organizations need to make it okay for racism to be named. Organizations can reframe this notion of calling out, into calling in. In doing so, companies would be opening the door to more inclusive conversations, more equitable conversations. The conversations as they’re happening right now, are neither inclusive nor equitable, because the naming of the truth is marginalized.
(15:24): There are things black and brown people need to say that are disallowed, made wrong. So by definition, the conversations that are happening are racist. The conversations themselves need to change. And that means, racism needs to be named and called forward. Called forward. so a productive conversation can happen. Not a canceling conversation, a productive conversation about how to create solutions and move forward.
(15:57): Thank you for listening to this episode of The Leadership Range. If you enjoyed the episode, I invite you to peruse the others for more great conversations. If you know someone you think ought to be on the podcast, please send me an email at email@example.com. To connect with me you can find me on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/nedwards07. I look forward to you joining in for more conversations each Monday on The Leadership Range.