I worked on the frontlines of DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) in tech at Backstage Capital for over 4 years. I was the only White man on the full-time, core team during that time. Working closely with women of color, and more specifically, Black women, has been a life-changing experience.
I came into the work thinking I had strong empathy skills honed by years of practicing human-centered design. What I came to learn, however, was that there is no way that I can know or share the experience of women of color as a White man in America. The world simply behaves differently for me. I am not monitored for shoplifting every time I enter a store. I am not handed car keys at events and assumed to be a valet. I am not asked to speak for all White people. No one questions my credentials when I share them. I am not asked if I want to start a family and if that will conflict with my work. No one ever asks to touch my hair.
I had no choice but to learn indirectly from the anecdotes and experiences my colleagues chose to share with me. I gave witness to their experiences with shock and horror, and I will carry that found awareness with me forever.
When internal team conflict arose — and it always will when you have humans working closely together — this divide became more top of mind. What racial dynamics were at play? Who was being triggered by an interaction? Did I know how I was coming across in this context? I was doing the best I could at the time, but I sometimes left an interaction feeling uncomfortable, chastised, or misrepresented. I remember once sharing this discomfort in the moment and my colleague responded with something like, “whatever discomfort you feel is nothing compared to what women of color feel.” And that’s absolutely true. I was choosing to put myself in uncomfortable situations which required me to learn and grow. That’s not a choice people of color get to make.
And yet, I exist. I have emotions and struggles. And those are valid, too. I believe you can’t serve others well if you are cut off from your own wellbeing. But still, a voice inside me says…I was born with so much privilege. People of color really do have it harder than I do in so many ways. Doesn’t that make their problems more valid? How can I make space for both their truth and my truth?
The solution I found was to learn to hold multiple truths simultaneously. Our own experiences are true for each of us. Acknowledging what another person holds true is an act of empathy. It’s not about invalidating your own feelings and needs, it’s about validating the feelings and needs of others in addition to your own. It can be very counterintuitive and even paradoxical when these truths conflict. Working through it requires more effort and to constantly decide if you want to change your behavior in light of a new perspective. I call that growth. That’s part of the strength of diversity.
I think the skill of holding many truths is part of the solution to ending racism and other disparities. It’s a compassionate skill we’ll each need to learn to adapt to the changing world. I want to especially invite White men to explore this, as it’s helped me make space for myself and others. And as with all things, it’s not the job of people of color to educate us or solve our problems related to racism. We need to care enough about other people to do this work ourselves.
Thanks to Kate Conklin, Kitty Liang, Di Di Chan, and Iurij Cussianovich for feedback on drafts of this story.