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 Defined

Minimization is one of the five stages of intercultural competence. The stages are:

  1. Denial (misses differences);
  2. Polarization (judges differences);
  3. Minimization (de-emphasizes differences);
  4. Acceptance (deeply comprehends differences); or
  5. 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:

  1. Exposed, which leads to,
  2. Fear, and that makes us want to,
  3. 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.

Collective Work

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.