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Dear White Leader

You can have good intentions, a great education and a progressive plan. But if you can’t humble yourself, if you won’t listen or ask, if you’re not ready to be wrong, to take off your game face and face your self as others see you? You will fail. Hard.

I’m trying to find my notes for a presentation I’ll give on Saturday. The title starts with Dear White Leader and something about how sharing power helps pave a path to racial equity.

Two weeks ago, when asked to speak about creating a welcoming and inclusive workplace, I was having one of those days. One of those days I felt I’d lost touch with humans in general but specifically I was missing the people here in Athens willing to stick their necks (and hearts and minds) out for social, legal, and economic justice.

One of those days a lot of work was piling up–most of it unpaid and unfinished but important–and none of it getting done fast enough.

It was also one of those days I was advising two clients about how to handle their bosses’ refusals to talk to them, to have input about their work. Each is highly skilled and experienced, both female, one African-American.

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The Pervasiveness of Power Trips

I am not old enough to call myself a hippie. But as a kid, I remember hearing, “Man, they’re on a power trip,” usually referring to someone’s parent or teacher or hearing it said on TV.

A power trip referred to someone who “gets off on” having authority. The ability to punish or reward, but mostly punish. We didn’t use the word narcissist in the 60s and 70s, rather words like egomaniac, hubris and tyrant.

Let me explain a couple things. One, I believe that every person, regardless of skill or wages, should have a voice at work. I know American labor history and taught it for years. Not having a voice about what you do and how you do it leads to nasty outcomes–for both employee and employer. I also know the research and did some of it on why good employees leave their jobs. It’s more about their supervisor (not the money) and not being engaged in what they’re told to do day in and day out because they don’t get a say in what they do or how they do it.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that change over time doesn’t take the shape of an ascending slope on a graph. It’s not like I really believed that year by year America’s employers would become less authoritative and more collaborative with workers. (I entered the workforce in 1974.) But I also didn’t expect a President so addicted to power tripping, someone dangerously and unapologetically emboldened to say and do misogynistic, racist, and other bigoted things on the daily.

Why this political diversion? Because 2020 is our context. Like it or not, we are living in a time when the highest office in the land will not condemn domestic terrorism if and when it’s white.

In a country where everything revolves around capitalism, who’s in the White House matters a lot. Those in power, even if they don’t agree with a sitting President, are informed and influenced by him.

Photo by Canva Studio from Pexels

The intersection of capitalism, systemic racism, and the need for workplace equity and inclusion must include more shared power.

Power begins with voice. More important than allowing a voice is that each voice is listened to. And that the voice can affect change. That there becomes this body of evidence toward collaborative culture change because employee voice matters.

Not simply having a seat at some metaphorical diversity table but being part of a candid conversations with the people who pay you. Being able to have input that could make what you’ve been hired to do even better.

Not allowing “staff” or “workers” to help a board of directors or a manager understand why the brilliant idea from the top isn’t practical, legal or economical is a type of conflict I hear about all too frequently.

I taught labor relations, its history, laws, and processes for a decade. It’s a violent history that began with slavery and indentured servitude. That history of owning labor, of the overseer giving commands that are met with punishment when disobeyed or not done with “a good attitude” remains with us today.

It’s 2020 and workers, even professional workers (and skill level shouldn’t make a difference; we’re human beings) are literally told by their leaders, “I don’t want to hear what you have to say.”

This dismissive stance never works. I don’t care what your management style is or which personality you claim.

How to Stop Tripping and Start Engaging

What I really want to convey on Saturday is this: Dear white leader: You must find your humility, become more vulnerable and invite (not merely tolerate) new ideas, criticisms and hearing the unmet needs of all employees.

In other words, you must learn how to share power.

Why address white leaders? And why should they listen to me?

Let’s put the word “racism” aside, even though it matters greatly. Let’s stick to workplace data: that managers, executives and business owners are disproportionately white. Let’s also get real about how businesses, government agencies, and just about every organization is structured. The language we still use: hierarchy, division of labor, chain of command, insubordination and “firing for good, bad or no cause”.

Employment-at-will means that companies can terminate employees without having to go through a lengthy series of warnings and write-ups, which serves to streamline the firing process and reduce costs.

Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels
Dear White Leaders,

We are, statistically, also in that employment-at-will boat along with those who report to us. So here’s the thing. If we are committed to helping our organization become more diverse, welcoming and inclusive to improve racial equity:

  • Our goal won’t be reached without taking inventory of how we lead.
    • This means getting honest with ourself and asking others to give us candid feedback. Being non-defensive and accepting what they say as their valid perspective. And thanking them.
  • Getting honest about who we take time to listen to.
    • Is it our boss(es)? Other people more like us? How can we build real relationships and trust with others?
  • What happens when we make mistakes at work?
    • Do we try to cover them up or do we invite others to share in the post-mortem of what went wrong?
  • How much of ourselves do we feel comfortable bringing to work? And what identities or values do we hide or suppress?
    • Do we expect others to hide their identities?
  • What fears or concerns keep us from
    • using our own voice to advocate more often and clearly
    • being more vulnerable, asking for others’ input
    • sharing more power with BIPOC and others with different identities to help build and reinforce a better culture

About Fragility, Guilt and the Shame of Racism

As Dr. Lisa Corrigan says so eloquently, if you’re going to do any advocacy or be an ally, “You’re going to fail. A lot.” Hear her talk about shame, guilt, fear, and disgust among whites from 7:01-11:13.

Her points stay front and center of my work because while I have no apology for my skin, I have both agency and accountability. I am required to do better for my community and for myself because I know better.

Shame is real. Yet it becomes rather useless once we fully accept that people in our DNA haplogroup (race, if you will) perpetuated centuries of harm.

What’s most important is that we own what we are accountable for now and moving forward. That’s where guilt might surface. What am I doing or not doing to move my family, workplace, community, state and country toward equality and equity? If I’m doing nothing, I’m not using agency. I’m not being accountable. Maybe I feel guilt, maybe I don’t. It’s up to me. But staying mired in guilt is just ruminating and reinforcing my own fragile feelings.

Fear of failure is very much a white thing and as a white female, I wrestle with it. My favorite pithy pep talk is: “Hey there! You’re so damn caught up in your own image, feelings, and fears… THIS ISN’T ABOUT YOU!”

Well, it is and it isn’t. Ubuntu, central to African philosophy and spirituality, is where I’ll leave you:

I am because we are.

We are all connected so we cannot be our best selves without community. My well being depends on yours. That’s a culture worth striving for.

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