It’s been a horrifying and exhausting few weeks. And for those of us who were already aware of race issues prior to George Floyd being killed, there’s a lingering question in the back of our minds: will this actually change anything? Once the protesters are gone and the news cycle changes, will we see any lasting impact, any justice, any real shifts in our nation, or will we be content with our moral outrage and then return to the status quo feeling like our civic duty is done?
If history is any indication, it’ll be the latter. That’s why so many of these “We stand with you” emails from companies and universities have been met with scorn, anger, and frustration by many minorities. We’ve heard it before, and nothing ever changes.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can change now. Do we need changes to our laws and policies, police reform, and increased voter engagement? Absolutely. We need all of this and more.
But what we also need — desperately — in order to affect and sustain true progress, is a national culture shift. We need a culture that actually sees and treats every single person as equal — regardless of race, gender, religion or nationality. We need a culture that speaks up when something is wrong, regardless of who it’s happening to or whether other people are around. We need a culture that is willing to listen empathetically, without diminishing another’s story or becoming defensive. It sounds so basic, but the last few weeks have made it painfully obvious — again — that we aren’t there. Not even close.
So, how do we get there? A cultural shift starts at the individual level. Start by looking in the mirror. Here are six steps that you can take to move the needle in your own life. The first three are meant for you to do yourself. The next three are meant for those who are in positions of influence or power in their organizations.
1. Examine your friend circles. Not your social media friends, but your true, close friends (the ones you vacation with, invite over for dinner, or hang out with regularly). What do you see? How many are similar to you? How many are different? If you have a token friend, that does not make it better. Back in 2014, The Washington Post ran an article titled “Three quarters of whites don’t have any non-white friends”. This phenomenon of sticking with people similar to us is the most stark with the white community, but it occurs with people of color too. We all have our “justifiable” reasons — geographic location, socioeconomics, language, history, family, education, religion, etc. But it doesn’t matter if we are white, black, brown, straight, gay, women, men, transgender, immigrant or American-born — we all need to expand our circles to include those who are dissimilar to us. We cannot, as a society, move forward when we only spend time with, and listen to, people who are the same as us. As a person of color, I know how exhausting it is to try, consistently, repeatedly, over decades, to tell your story only to be ignored, diminished, and dismissed. So, to those of you white friends who genuinely want to make a difference — it’s your move. Reach out, diversify your circles, and listen. And if you’re only now seeing the problem, don’t let embarrassment hold you back from demonstrating that you actually care enough to take action. Better late than never.
2. Observe human interactions — yours and others. Take off the rose-colored glasses, put down your phone, and just watch people. Who says “Please” and “Thank you” to whom? Who holds the door open for whom? When two people are walking towards each other, who moves out of the way and who expects the other person to move? What’s your physiological response when someone who looks different than you walks by? When you’re on a call or videoconference, who interrupts whom? How do language and tone change when someone enters or exits a room? When you’re at a restaurant, how do different people speak to the host, wait staff, cleaning staff, and the manager? Do you see anything that makes you uncomfortable? Analyze how you react with your own discomfort. Pay attention to how racial and gender dynamics play out. Watch how power, influence and privilege manifest themselves. Once you start seeing the patterns, you’ll get a better understanding of the seemingly-innocuous microaggressions that occur every day.
3. Use your voice. Stand up to your friends, family members and colleagues, and speak up when they say something ignorant, racist or sexist. Speak to the young people in your life about race, history, and equality. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children, between the ages of 2 and 4 “can internalize racial bias”. If you don’t actively talk to them about it, your silence — interpreted as tacit approval — will inform their views. We are more likely to listen to those who are similar to us and those we trust, than those we perceive as different. With friends and colleagues, a simple “That’s not right”, “I don’t agree”, or “I’m not comfortable with that” goes a long way in discouraging bigotry and dismantling ignorance. It’s ironic that “standing in solidarity” with a community often means standing up alone. But your voice is more powerful than you realize. You can make a difference.
4. Revisit your hiring, feedback, and promotion processes. If you see a level where racial, ethnic and/or gender minorities consistently drop off, then you likely have a systematic or cultural bias against them. Many people will hesitate to bring up biases or discrimination they’ve encountered for fear of retaliation. Dig deep, find the root causes, and fix them. Look at your structures in place. Are you recruiting candidates from a diverse set of schools? Is your hiring committee diverse? Your firing committee? Your promotions committee? If you don’t have diversity in these committees, you’re not likely to even see how biases could be playing into important decisions. Are there key players who stealthily torpedo or undermine the diversity efforts of others? Is your senior leadership actually committed to diversity? Look at who they surround themselves with — are their networks and business partners diverse? Call attention to the problems and fix them.
5. Mentor, sponsor, and champion people who don’t look like you. Particularly for white men (but again, applicable to all), seek out people of different colors and genders to take under your wing. Provide growth opportunities, resources, and support. Ask questions and listen to challenges they face. Be vocal to decision-makers about their specific contributions.
6. Create a “Diversity Pledge” for your company to help people commit to making at least one small change on a regular basis. Create a simple document that asks what action each individual is going to take, and with what frequency (e.g. daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly), in order to make a difference at work or in their personal life. It could be something like reading a book a month by a non-white author, taking a coffee break with a different colleague each week, or asking diverse employees each month what diversity improvements could be made. Culture starts at the top, so the executives have to commit before everyone else will buy in. Make the document open and available to everyone in the company to help with accountability.
We have to use our momentum to make these changes stick. Once you’ve taken these steps, then look around the world again with new eyes. When it comes to diversity, don’t “tolerate” it. Don’t just “accept” it either. Embrace it with your arms wide open, and experience first-hand how it makes your life richer and stronger. There truly is more that unites us than divides us, but division is easy and unity takes effort. Appreciate the strength it takes to stand up for yourself and others. Acknowledge the pain of those who experience bigotry regularly. Value the resilience of those who, despite what society says, show up every day to do their jobs. Our lives are intricately woven together in a beautiful, multi-colored quilt. Like it or not, we need each other for strength, support, and progress. If we are going to get to a place where each person in our country can equally enjoy “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, it’s going to take a coalition of all of us. And the best place to start is with yourself.