“The $350,000 would be better spent on education. Why is the City of St. Louis spending so much to pull down a confederate statue in Forest Park?” Linda’s protest echoed that of others around the city and country. That morning my daughter Abby had sent me a link to the Special Address given by New Orleans’ Mayor Mitch Landrieu just hours before city workers removed the statue of General Robert E. Lee. “…for a long time, Landrieu explained, even though I grew up in one of New Orleans’ most diverse neighborhoods, even with my family’s long proud history of fighting for civil rights … I must have passed by those monuments a million times without giving them a second thought.”
Landrieu hadn’t thought about the impact of such statues. It wasn’t until a friend asked him to consider the monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop New Orleans. “Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too?”
We all get caught up in traditions without being aware of their impact on others. For example, in your business, what historical “monuments,” sacred cows, systems and values are discouraging productivity and innovation? What systems leave employees feeling diminished or disenfranchised? Do you know what they are? How can you find out?
What did Mayor Landrieu do?
Landrieu accepted the fact that these monuments were not an inspiration to all who stood in their shadows. In fact, he acknowledged in his speech, “These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”
By acknowledging that some of his constituents were left feeling diminished and discouraged, he was able to act and knew it was, “…going to be tough, but you elected me to do the right thing, not the easy thing, and this is what that looks like.”
What can we do?
- Acknowledge that our colleagues and customers may have another perspective or experience, even if it’s different from our own;
- Accept the difference without judgment (the differences just are, without being right or wrong or good or bad);
- Act according to what’s best for everyone involved, not only the majority. Some of our “monuments” silence people or make them feel trapped. Watch for opportunities to listen to others’ stories and find out how many others feel that way. That may reveal systems or long-held traditions that are not serving the greater good of our business or organization.
If we do not accept the fact that people have different perspectives, feelings and experiences, we shut down the opportunity to learn. That leaves us unaware of the impact of our actions and words on others, destroying possibilities for authentic working relationships. However, if we accept and acknowledge peoples’ different responses to our “monuments,” we can problem solve together, and reap the benefits of more productivity, collaboration and innovation.
What did the City of St. Louis do?
The City of St. Louis did not ultimately pay to take down the statue in Forest Park. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports the Missouri Civil War Museum paid for the removal and relocation of the monument. Like Landrieu, we do not deny our history, but place the monument within its historical context. By so doing, we are reminded to reconsider the “monuments” we cherish in both our public spaces and private sectors and ask if they serve as an inspiration to all impacted. -AN
To attract and retain productive people, leaders need to create a culture of safety and belonging. With a PhD in Adult Education, Amy works with CEO’s, management teams and those who want to take the lead in organizations to effectively implement the tools for reconciliation, collaboration, and innovation. To increase client diversity and workplace productivity, profit and personal job satisfaction, contact Amy
After the shooting death of Philando Castile during a traffic stop, award-winning author Marlon James took his frustration about racism in Minnesota to Facebook. In an essay, Smaller, and Smaller, and Smaller, James noted, “You will never know how it feels to realize that it doesn’t matter how many magazine articles I get, [books I publish], or which state names a day after me. Tomorrow when I get on my bike, I am big black guy, who might be shot before the days end, because my very size will make a cop feel threatened.”
His story of vulnerability has since gone viral and prompted an interview with National Public Radio. About Minnesota’s culture James explained, “What I see here is a lot of what I call the dude-I-don’t-see-color problem. The problem being colorblind, the problem being, I don’t think about race – is that you never see the absence of it.” In a society where we never actually have an absence of race, and yet say we are colorblind, we make people feel small and invisible when we downplay their struggles. To some of us, playing down our differences may appear kind, but James points out that this approach is not working. In fact, his life is at stake.
This interview was brought to my attention by a CEO, a client of Empowering Partners. Having just taken the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), an assessment tool that reveals an organization or individual’s developmental stage of cultural proficiency, she recognized that James was objecting to the minimization of peoples’ experience and feelings. Considering that 65% of people that take the IDI assessment are found to be in the stage of Minimization (noted in previous blog The Impact of Minimization), this is a problem we all have to work to solve.
Minimization is one of the five stages of intercultural competence. The stages are:
- Denial (misses differences);
- Polarization (judges differences);
- Minimization (de-emphasizes differences);
- Acceptance (deeply comprehends differences); or
- Adaptation (bridges across differences).
People at the stage of Minimization, minimize cultural differences and focus on the commonalities. The IDI assessment developer, Dr. Mitch Hammer explains that people of majority culture tend to de-emphasize differences in order to maintain the status quo and avoid conflict. Whereas people of minority cultures de-emphasize differences in order to get along, fit in and minimize risk.
Steps We Can Take
Ultimately, if we want to avoid conflict and minimize risk, we must acknowledge our different histories, experiences and feelings. This work may sound trivial but without it our unconscious bias stays in the dark. Ignorance of our bias allows lives to be threatened.
Seeing our own unconscious bias for the first time, can make us feel uncomfortable. In fact, we may feel:
- Exposed, which leads to,
- Fear, and that makes us want to,
- Hide behind our commonalities.
However, if we are willing to come out of hiding behind minimization, feel the fear, and share our vulnerability, we have a connection point with another human being. James’ essay is our example. He felt his fear and invited his readers to share in his vulnerability. It was there we could connect with his humanity. No one is small or invisible at this point of connection.
In the interview, James reminds us, “…to a huge extent, mainstream Americans, white Americans have a big role to play.” If we do this work of acknowledging our different histories, experiences, and feelings, as well as our common humanity, perhaps we can become collectively more aware of the bias that belittles our African American brothers and sisters and consequently threatens their lives.
So to the CEO’s point: minimization isn’t working. Encouraging her team to share their stories and learn one another’s similarities and differences, allows them to come together on a personal level. When people feel safe and included (not small and invisible) productivity and innovation blossoms. A company can then hire even more people from diverse backgrounds, bringing about further innovation and market reach.
A recent participant of the IDI assessment and trained in cultural compentency, said, “Now I listen and hear people out before I draw conclusions, rather than just going on my assumptions. When we get to know people, I’ve learned we actually have the same issues and can share ideas with each other.” Another participant explained that she had gotten so caught up in just the day to day of running the business that she’d forgotten to see things through the eyes of her employees. Once she slowed down, really sat and listened to her staff, she saw noticeable improvement in their productivity. In particular, one young man was able to not let the small stuff get to him, and get more work done.
Marlon James has called for a change. He and others don’t want or need to feel small or threatened. As uncomfortable as recognizing our differences may be initially, that is exactly the role we can all play to expose unconscious bias and to build safer, more productive work environments.
Thanks to Pastor AmyRuth Bartlett for helping me understand the three steps we can take to come out of hiding from real relationships.