Dear White Boss,
I have been thinking a lot about diversity lately. Many kinds of diversity…though I probably reflect most on the differences rooted in political, racial, gender, sexual identity, religious and even personality these days. What I know, from personal experience in and research on individuals, teams, and organizations is that MORE diversity (of ALL kinds!) is better. Yes, it is messier, and more uncomfortable, and may take longer to reach decisions, and get things done. But differing perspectives, skills/talents, experiences and backgrounds mean better options are brought to light, considered from more angles, and better outcomes occur. There are also fewer surprises and fewer misses. Downsides to decisions always exist and I’d prefer to be aware of them ahead of time and to be able to communicate and ameliorate them as much as possible.
So, that led me to some interesting conversations a few weeks ago, in February, Black History Month. I wanted to write a blog on Black History Month, and as a white, upper middle class female, I didn’t feel particularly qualified to speak on experiences of my friends and colleagues who happen to be black. So, I called a few African American women (yes, just women) I know and asked them 2 questions:
- What do you wish white bosses knew?
- How can white leaders better prepare/support diverse candidates to be chosen and persist as leaders?
What I Learned
Although I spoke with only a few people, I learned a lot. These women may or may not know one another and I had no idea going in how similar or different their answers might be. They work in higher education, the corporate world and the entrepreneurial realm. I spoke with each for an hour and welcomed their candor as I listened and probed. Here are just a few of the unforgettable nuggets I wish to share:
- We white people are more obvious than we believe we are. It shows when we try to be polite in our discomfort and pretend to be open-minded. It is probably best to just talk about it. ALL of us can be (and often are) uncomfortable. We have unconscious and conscious biases. My friends don’t expect us to NOT be uncomfortable or to be perfectly unbiased; they just wish we wouldn’t try so hard to hide it. It’s not working anyway!
- My friends are exhausted from trying to “make it okay” for us to talk about race/diversity. They can be uncomfortable and biased too. They would like to avoid the whole thing sometimes but the cost of that is too high. Why don’t we take the risks and do the work we sometimes expect others to do?
- After all the progress that has been made, these friends still hear and witness shocking comments and behavior that made me embarrassed. Many hear the “surprise” in people’s comments about “how articulate” they are (for a black person). Some feel “paraded” in front of cameras and audiences because of their color so their organizations can appear diverse (even if they’re not). And most still feel that others hear their perspectives and see their behavior as representative of all African Americans. This leads them to feel responsible to work harder and be more perfect than any human can be.
- We white bosses need to do more to support African Americans in the workplace by reaching outside our comfort zones and relationships norms. We don’t have to be heroes; just partners who sincerely care.
I like to think of myself as an open-minded, sensitive, comfortable-with-diversity kind of person but I have work to do, like all of us. Thanks to my friends and colleagues for their time, kindness, and respect. I hope I can act differently going forward.