Going Deeper: At the Heart of DEI, Feeling Seen

This week, I had a conversation with a white leader that I respect. After our talk, I respected him even more.

He shared a little of his story and I spoke briefly about mine. During the course of our dialogue, he said, “Michelle, I see you. I hear you. I value you. And I value your blackness. I love that you’re black and I love that you love that you’re black. I know that your culture matters to you and I want you to know that it matters to me.”

Whoa. Talk about feeling seen. I also felt validated, respected, and affirmed.

That, my white leaders, is how it’s done.

Race is a thing. Culture is a thing. Not acknowledging it does you and the people who follow you a disservice.

If someone you work with or lead talks about race, acknowledge them and acknowledge their experience. Don’t gaslight them. Don’t pretend as if they’ve said nothing at all. Most importantly, don’t make THEM hold space for YOUR discomfort. No one is asking you to “walk a mile in their shoes.” And no one cares that your third cousin married someone from Jamaica. Do what this leader did and appreciate the person, for all of who they are, including their race.

If you’re a white leader, talking about race might make you uncomfortable. However, not talking about it makes you untrustworthy.

Maybe pride yourself in being someone who “doesn’t see color.” In addition to leaving us all to wonder what else you’re lying about, you may not realize how disrespectful and dismissive you sound when you say that. Race matters. Culture matters.

Maybe you’re one of those people who wonder why everything has to be about race. “Why don’t we all just get along,” you whine, as if people of color are to blame for their experiences. Yes. It’s true that as a white person, you don’t have to navigate the world with your skin color in mind. It’s probably the last thing on your mind. At this point in your life, you have to know that simply is not true for everyone. For some of us, navigating life in our skin is a 24/7 thing. You ignoring that fact doesn’t change it.

(Sidebar: if your assumption is that I feel inferior because of my skin color, you, my friend, are the problem. I never said I feel inferior because of my skin color. I don’t. Biologically, my universal blood type makes me the superior one. My melanin-rich skin provides protection against the sun. The melanin also supercharges my brain, eyes, hair, and adrenal gland. Time passing makes me more beautiful, not less. Scientifically, all of humanity traces back to Africa. Research has shown that the original man was a black man. Therefore, who gave birth to civilization? A black woman. Let’s conclude this sidebar with Q&A. Q: Who’s your Mama?? A: I am. Now, back to the lesson.😉)

Let’s look at this a little bit closer. If you’re a leader with people of color on your team and you refuse to engage around race, is there any wonder why they only halfway perform for you? Are you confused about why you struggle to build deep relationships with them? It could be because they don’t feel seen. They don’t feel heard and they don’t fully trust you. And, quite frankly they shouldn’t. You haven’t earned their trust because you haven’t acknowledged all of who they are. You haven’t grown your own emotional intelligence enough to see and embrace them fully.

Until you do your own work, you’ll never get the best from people who don’t look like you.

Further, if you lead people of color and refuse to engage around race, how are the other white folks that you lead supposed to engage their colleagues and teams around race? They can’t and they won’t because you are not leading. The cycle continues and no one grows.

If you’re a white leader and refuse to educate yourself and your organization around race, you don’t deserve to lead people of color. We’re not safe with you. You’re not a bad person, you just can’t fully see, hear, and respect us. And we deserve leaders in our lives who do. 💖

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