(NOTE: This is probably the longest post I’ve written-1660+ words. And it includes a 10 minute video. Please take your time with it. If you don’t want to be challenged, don’t bother reading it. It WILL make you uncomfortable.)
I AM A RACIST. I AM A BIGOT. I AM PREJUDICED.
It may or may not be shocking to you that an educated, black business owner who was once an internal diversity consultant would make such a bold admission.
And here’s another shocker: Chances are, SO ARE YOU.
Are you uncomfortable yet?
Many of you know that I was once an internal diversity/inclusion consultant for the IT department of a major insurance company. It was, what I believed then, my dream job. The job I was born to do.
For as long as I can remember, I have been a champion of the “underdog”. I am not sure if it came from being the youngest of five or the fact that 6 year olds would part with their milk money to have me “coach” them. I simply understood people’s pain all too well. And without even knowing it, practicing compassion became as natural and as necessary as breathing.
But I am willing to bet it came from more deeply personal experiences.
You see, I grew up in a small town on the Ohio/Indiana border. At the time, the population was about 1500 people. There were probably 100 black people in the community. I was related to about half of them.
I was well aware that I was different. I was raised to be proud of that. I distinctly remember my brothers dancing around the house singing the James Brown song, “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud). I was proud of my family and I was proud of who I was.
Sure, I was aware of the continuing civil rights struggles. But we lived in up north, so folks liked to make-believe that racism was a “southern” thing. Even now, that makes me laugh. While we certainly didn’t have any protests about blacks using public restrooms or being served at the lunch counter in our little town, I did learn the word n*gger by the time I was three.
Seriously. The age of THREE.
You’d be surprised the things that people yell in the stands at a football game. In my case, they were yelling “Catch that n*gger” at my brother, who was a star running back.
And he heard them.
And it hurt. (But he never let it stop him.)
When I went to school, n*gger was a word that surfaced several times during any given school year.
Sometimes, it was by a classmate who just wanted to see if they could get away with it.
As I got older and started cheering, I heard it at almost every away game.
My *favorite* time came in March after spring break. Without fail, someone who called themselves my friend would invariably say to someone else who had just returned from Florida, “You’re as dark as a n*gger.”
And of course, embarrassed at their gaffe, they would look at me and say, “Oh, but I don’t see you that way.”
Or my all time favorite, “I don’t see you as black.”
And yes, it always stung. Even when people didn’t “mean anything by it”, their insensitivity was mind-boggling.
At the age of 45, it still is.
Long before the election of President Obama, I became acutely aware of just how deep in denial most white people are about racism. Especially their own.
When I took on the diversity assignment at my former employer, I was once again confronted with this denial. The company is situated in a farm community and is one of the major employers in town. Although most of the people I knew were transferred in from all over the country, the culture of the organization was created by people who had never ventured far past central Illinois and/or their circle of family and friends. They saw the world through a filter that I was all too familiar with. One I found small, limited, and quite frankly, very sad. One thing I did discover from this was, that in thriving on learning other people perspectives, I was indeed quite unique. The more diversity of thought around me, the better I felt. I wasn’t always necessarily comfortable in those days of having my particular views challenged, but I have come to delight in the fact that I can allow those perspectives into my consciousness and do in fact, welcome them.
I’d be lying to you if I told you the assignment was easy.
There was a tremendous amount of resistant when the diversity initiative was introduced. Time and time again I would hear, “We don’t need diversity training here. Those problems simply don’t exist anymore.” Or my favorite, “That’s a southern thing.”
It became clear that middle America (oh hell, America as a whole) would much rather comfort themselves with the false belief that racism is a thing of the past and that the only people who have issues with color are, well, people of color (you know, as in “playing the race card”) “They” (whites) are over it, so why talk about it? In fact, after the 2008 election of President Obama, it was “declared” that America had now become a post-racial society.
Really? (Check this out when you’re done reading this. http://bit.ly/9X3C4O)
This denial really worked me up back in those days. In fact, at the beginning of my training as a consultant, I would literally tear your head off. (Not an effective means of inviting change and reflection, I might add). I did, however, become quite skilled at challenging beliefs in a non-confrontational way (a skill that comes in handy as a coach!) Often times when presented with evidence on racism not only within the organization, but their own (I have a knack for finding your “hidden” biases), I could almost guarantee that 99.99% of the time, this person will go into this long spiel about how they couldn’t be racist because they were big fans of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or their best friend was black or they lived next door to a lesbian couple…yada, yada, yada. (Never is the Shakespearean quote, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” more appropriate than when someone feels they are being accused of being racist.)
After I got an earful of all the reasons they had absolutely no racist bone in their body, I would invariably hear the story about how their grandfather or aunt or dad was really racist and that they were absolutely nothing like “them”. When I asked about how they dealt with that relative, the answer almost always was: “That’s the way they’ve always been and nothing I say will change them.”
Then, I would ask, “So, what do you do when they make a racist remark in your presence?”
In fairness, some would tell me that they would ask them not to say such things in their presence but I would push. Do you ever say, “I will not bring my children around you if you continue to behave this way” or say “This will not be tolerated in my home.”
You can imagine the looks that I would get.
“I can’t do that, they are family”
And that’s why this country still, some 140+ years since slavery was abolished, has never heal the wounds slavery created.
You are too afraid to bring out those issues in the open.
To challenge it.
To condemn it.
To discuss it.
To humanize it.
Because at the end of the day, you may have to do something about it. Or worse yet, acknowledge your part in it.
And wouldn’t that suck?
So you may be asking what the hell this has to do with blogging, coaching or anything else I write about?
I write this today because I saw this video on YouTube. With all the attention placed on the World Cup (which I had zero interest in), I was shocked to see what European soccer players of color are forced to endure.
And before you say, “that’s just their problem,” I invite you to consider this:
Not one of those so-called fans would probably ever yell a racist remark if those views weren’t first condoned in their home or circle of friends. Condoned by people who may not consider themselves racist but who remain silent for fear of upsetting the family or creating confrontation.
You may be one of those people.
And if you got this far in the post, you are not feeling particular comfortable as you examine your own situation.
Let me be very clear: I am NOT making you wrong.
There is NO way I could see that behavior in other people and not carry those qualities within me. That’s why I started this post the way I did.
The difference in how I manage my racism is 1) in owning it and 2) in how I practice COMPASSION.
When you watch the video (it is about 10 minute long), I invite you to put yourself on the field in the shoes of those players. Allow yourself to imagine what it would feel like to have a stadium full of people shouting “monkey” and throwing bananas at you.
Don’t miss this. Really put yourself there.
Because the next time someone says something racist in your presence, you may remember that feeling and speak up.
Or you just may decide that no THREE year old should ever have to hear her own brother being called “n*gger” ever again.
Practicing compassion is an exercise that works both ways. To get really good at it, you also have to practice compassion for yourself. Considering it building your compassion muscle.
Look at the ways you may be especially hard on yourself. Listen to your self-talk today.
Where could you practice compassion for yourself today? For someone you love?
Because it does start at home.