Dear America: Meet My White Boss That Talks About Race
Exactly, 11 days ago, I published My White Boss Talked About Race and This is What Happened.
Someone asked me the other day:
Did you know it would travel as far as it did?
No, I had no idea it would garner the response it has. As I always do when blogging, I simply put to paper what was on my mind at that exact moment. Apparently, this piece struck a cord though. And yes, I’m glad it did!
There’s also another question I’ve been getting:
Who’s your boss?
Some people who know where I work, and know my boss responded: “Well duh, she brought it up. That’s Freada we’re talking about.”
However, for most others who don’t know my boss, it was quite the surprise. They wondered:
Who is this White woman talking about race relations in a work setting?
At first I began to respond, but then I realized it’d be best for everyone to hear from her directly. So I asked my boss if she’d be willing to sit down with me and share some insights into who she is and why she said what she did. Here’s what she told me…
Where were you born?
Kansas City, Mo
Who were your parents?
Edna Tkatch and Phil Klein; both Jews of immigrant parents. Both of my parents grew up very poor and met in college in the midwest. They attended a public university and had frequent experiences of anti-Semitism. My father worked for a few years after college, but then decided to go to medical school. He was admitted to a public university with a maximum quota on Jews; they would only allow a small number per year.
Where were you raised?
We got to SoCal when I was 8 and I stayed there through high school graduation. I attended public schools and I applied to two colleges based on the strength of their political movements in 1969: Berkeley and Madison.
What was the environment like at the time?
The 60's were a tumultuous time for much of America. I was coming of age when there were active conversations about race, civil rights, the Vietnam war, and the role of women. I would cut school to go picket for the farmworkers, I campaigned for Tom Bradley’s first run for LA mayor in 1969 (the first African American City Council member in LA), and I joined my first feminist consciousness-raising group, while I was still in high school with college women. Many of these pursuits were with my best friend. Having met when we were only 8 years-old, we remain great friends today.
Last week, what prompted you to say something to me about the recent police shootings of Black men?
It seemed like the right thing to do, an act of human decency. Mandela, I care about you as a colleague and a person. I knew you’d be troubled by the police murders of Black men, as everyone should be, so I wanted to open the space for you to talk about it with me, if you chose to do so.
What about your life up this point made you feel comfortable as a White woman saying something about this to me, a Black colleague?
I’m keenly aware of power dynamics and that mine include lots of types of power and privilege, including workplace status as your boss, as well as race and class privilege. (My age and height probably are points off). With power comes responsibility; to understand how others might perceive a situation, to develop as much empathy as possible across these boundaries, and to do what I can to make those who work with us be able to bring their whole selves to work. No one should have to check her/himself at the door. It’s stifling, burdensome, and takes a toll on one’s psychological and physical well-being.
Why did you feel inclined to say something to the Silicon Valley founders and investors that came to our office later that evening for an event?
I’m not big on B.S. or spin. While we were celebrating a wonderful event — the launch of our new Oakland building — with our amazing group of gap-closing portfolio entrepreneurs and many co-investors, the horrific events in our country weighed heavily on me. Tech’s dismal diversity data and self-appointed (and mythical) status as the most meritocratic sector are deeply offensive. I did not want to participate in anything that resembled business as usual. In the U.S. generally and in tech in particular, business as usual is racism — usually subtle and unintended, but still having that impact. We should take every opportunity to raise awareness, showcase those who are doing tech right, and encourage others to think about whether their workplaces are welcoming.
What did you end up saying to them?
I’m not sure of the specifics; I spoke without a script. But I know the message was that none of us can or should ignore the tragic and devastating examples of racism, stereotyping and bias that had just unfolded. I know I spoke of the importance of tech doing better and using tech tools to mitigate bias, as well as the importance of supporting Black entrepreneurs. When America is as likely to assume that an African American, LatinX, or other person of color is the CEO of a unicorn startup, perhaps then police and others won’t be so quick to pull their guns. But as we’ve seen having a Black President, one exception doesn’t necessarily change things for the better. The racism unleashed against Obama and in the current campaign rhetoric is astounding. We need a critical mass of people of color in all sectors and at senior levels.
As a White woman, have you ever been afraid (or unsure of how) to say something about race?
Yes, of course. I often think the best thing that we as Whites can do is shut up and listen, and support women and men of color to talk about the issues and solutions. But sometimes it is the responsibility of those with power — in this case the power of White skin privilege and the obliviousness that can come with it — to put ourselves on the line and speak up. Mitch (my husband) has done this on occasion with his White male VC or tech entrepreneur counterparts. Coming from him, it has far more impact than coming from someone who has just been insulted, excluded, marginalized. I’ve done this often and sometimes get ostracized for doing so.
For instance, several years ago we were interviewing auditing firms to audit our foundation and non-profit. One firm fell all over themselves saying how much they admired our work, especially the Level Playing Field Institute, which creates opportunities for low-income underrepresented high school students of color through our residential SMASH Academy. They had done their homework about who we funded and what we cared about. We’re down to the final bake-off between a couple of firms. I walk into the conference room where they’re going to put their best foot forward and show how much they “get us.” Stunned by who I saw in the room, I said “Don’t you have anyone who works at your firm who isn’t White?” Some of my colleagues — two White women in accounting — thought I was inappropriate and rude. Seems to me that bias and racism (and misrepresenting one’s business) are what ought to be labeled as inappropriate and rude.
Years ago, I also lost business because of my bluntness. One prestigious LA-based law firm with a White woman managing partner (somewhat rare) asked me to come in to explain my approach to diversity. After they described to me what kinds of young lawyers they wanted to recruit, I said “You don’t really want diversity. You just want people exactly like you — who went to the same schools, ride horses, play golf — but happen to have a different skin color.” Needless to say I wasn’t invited back…until years later when they had a major discrimination crisis in their NY office. Then someone remembered me and understood that they had missed their opportunity to prevent this crisis.
Can you understand how other Whites can be afraid or unsure of how to to say something?
Speaking up about injustice is scary. Those who aren’t the boss could certainly fear for their jobs and livelihood. But if that’s not the case and you just fear being awkward or having your White friends think you’re too politically correct, I’d encourage you to get over it and take the risk. The appreciation from colleagues who don’t have the safety to speak up is especially heartwarming. And it’s the right thing to do.
How can other Whites learn to get more comfortable speaking up and taking action against police brutality against Blacks, or more broadly racial justice in America?
If you notice unfair treatment, speak up. Sometimes it will meet with amazing and far-reaching impact. Linda Kekelis wrote a HuffPo piece about the time I critiqued TechBridge (update: they just hired an African American Exec Dir). Also, EmergeCA took to heart my message that they should look like California and ended up hiring an amazing African American woman, Kimberly Ellis, to lead their efforts.
Quite often people leave pissed off at me. For instance, this happens when I’m engaging with founders who insist that their startup that sells things that only rich people can afford is a social impact company. This also happened when a set of White co-founders refused to hold 1 of 4 executive positions for a person of color, despite the fact that their entire customer base is low-income kids of color and their entry level workforce is almost entirely low-income women of color. How can it not be a sound business decision to ensure that your workforce mirrors your customers?
What do you respond to those who say the workplace is not an appropriate place to have these types of conversations?
Some commentators on my blog have said this type of conversation goes against HR policy — is that true?
If a conversation based on empathy and bridge-building — that’s designed to ensure that a workplace is comfortable for everyone — goes against HR policy, then I’d suggest that their policies need to change. The absence of acknowledging a series of major national events that have riveted everyone’s attention and pointed out deep divides in our country (that are also reflected in our workplaces) should be the policy violation.
HR policies are designed to protect the company from lawsuits. That thinking is diametrically opposed to creating a welcoming environment. The former is a stance of distrust towards employees; lots of rules and do’s and don’ts (e.g. don’t talk about race). The latter is about principles and trusting employees to be thoughtful, well-intentioned humans. In my experience, the best way to protect your company from a discrimination lawsuit is to work hard to create a truly inclusive environment — multiple communication and complaint channels, rewarding speaking up; not shutting it down, and lots of guidance, training and modeling on how to respectfully talk about tough issues.
What role (if any) does tech play in eradicating racial injustice in America?
Tech tools have played a major role in real-time communications and documentation of police shootings of unarmed Black men, and of juries who acquit those who have killed unarmed Black men. One wonders if people of color were more often tech founders how they might design products that better serve low-income communities of color. That is certainly what we see at Kapor Capital. Lived experience matters, and having access to education, role models, encouragement, social networks, and funding to start real impact businesses matters too!
In addition to the gap-closing (i.e. solving real problems for low-income communities and communities of color) fintech, health care IT, and edtech tools we’ve invested in, we have 11 investments in POT (People Ops Technology). These are startups who are leveraging technology to mitigate bias at scale; they’re tackling issues such as finding more diverse candidates, removing biased language from job descriptions, offering an anonymous platform for technical interviews, and providing competency-based alternatives to traditional CS degrees. Tech tools can be deployed in many ways to disrupt racial injustice. We need many more entrepreneurs of color and investors of color to rapidly grow these types of companies.
What role does empathy play in eradicating racial injustice in America?
Empathy plays a huge role. Each of us needs to realize that we are all accidents of birth. Increasingly, the zip code into which you’re born determines your social mobility — not your intelligence, ambitiousness, or talents. It’s a patently unfair lottery. For anyone who was born into privilege, we need to recognize we didn’t earn it, we’re lucky, and think about whether we’d have the resilience and optimism that I see everyday in our SMASH Scholars — all low-income underrepresented high school students of color.
If you don’t have to choose between eating lunch or taking the bus — i.e. going hungry and getting a ride to and from school, or eating and walking a long distance, perhaps in unsafe terrain — that means you enjoy a level of privilege that others don’t. The fact that you get to play in your front yard without a care in the world, that you get to attend piano lessons, swim meets, and summer camps in your leisure, that you never question where your next meal will come from instead of worrying about getting home safely, knowing if or when you’ll be able to eat next, caring for your younger siblings while your parents work 3 jobs, or accompanying your immigrant relatives to doctors so you can act as the translator…
Those are all probably things you have never noticed; let alone thought of as an advantage. Building empathy means becoming aware of structural highways or barriers.
How do we begin building more empathy?
We need to do more two-way shadowing. What is it like to attend an under-resourced school? What is it like to live in a homeless shelter or a car? What is it like to be a low-income single mom trying to find someone to watch your kids so you can go on a job interview? Each of us needs to understand the hand we were dealt and what opportunities it provided. I often talk about the need to measure “distance traveled” — i.e. What accomplishments were really yours and yours alone vs. one form of privilege opening doors to be rewarded with more privilege. If your parents are privileged (White, educated, good jobs) then they help you get into schools, obtain internships, and get informational interviews to get connected on the career ladder. Each of us needs to think about an experience of being excluded or unjustly accused of something or unfairly passed over for promotion and then realize that for our colleagues of color, that’s the norm, not the exception.
Anything else you want to share?
Several times a year I get asked why I devote my time and money to fighting racism and to illuminating and removing unfair barriers. I get asked why is my research on identifying hidden bias and the myriad of ways that young girls and boys of color get told they can’t do something or can’t be something. Sometimes people even say, well, with your resources you could be doing anything you want, or off on an island, or traveling around the world. It saddens me (and pisses me off) that what I do is remarkable; that no one ever in any workplace before Kapor Capital asked you, Mandela, how you feel about living as a Black woman in a racist America. We need to turn that on its head; we ought to start asking all the tech CEOs and VCs: