Why Even Talk About Race?

“Why do we have to talk about race?” Halina asked our book club group. No one in the group volunteered to answer and the subject was changed. We moved on but I could tell her question was genuine. After the meeting, I sat down next to her. “I’ve heard you ask that question before. Did you want an answer or were you just wondering aloud?”

Halina Conti is a foreign-born national, originally from Poland. She came to the U.S. with her family as a third grader. Because math is a universal language she did well in the subject. As immigrants, her family struggled to make ends meet. Today she is a financial advisor with Ameriprise, whose goal it is to help people find financial peace.

Halina: “I really do want an answer. My book of business is in North County and I don’t know why we would point out differences between groups.”
Me: “I can understand why you’d ask. Biologically there is no difference between so-called racial groups. We’re all human.”
Halina: “Exactly”
Me: “As a financial planner though, you know there is a significant financial discrepancy between whites and people of color.”
Halina: “True.”
Me: “Statistically speaking, race not only determines a person’s overall financial well-being but also income, education level, and mental and physical health and longevity. In the “For Sake of All” report, we learn that, in two St. Louis communities; just 9 miles apart, a child born in Clayton, MO can expect to live 18 years longer than a child born in North St. Louis. Because of that discrepancy we need to pay attention to race until we close that gap.”
Halina: (Thoughtful consideration)
Me: “Besides, to say, ‘I don’t see color,’ is like saying to a person, ‘I don’t see your experience.’ ‘I don’t see you.’ As a foreign-born national, your experience is quite unique. You know it hurts when a person minimizes your story or your experience. It’s the same for all of us.”
Halina: “You’re right. Each person’s story is unique. In my business, I have to really listen to people about their experience in order to help them meet their financial goals.”

To Be Known

By not recognizing a person’s race, Halina’s intent was to keep peace. However, the unintended consequence is that it makes a person feel invisible. The impact on an organization is that people of color and different backgrounds downplay their experience and ideas; stifling collaboration and innovation. To attract and retain people with different backgrounds, the people of majority culture can become aware of cultural characteristics that hinder productivity. One of the characteristics of majority culture, Tochluck explains in her book Witnessing Whiteness (2010), is that we feel we are the holders of knowledge, the expert. Although it’s unlikely we would intentionally dismiss a person of color or woman as essentially less knowledgeable, our unconscious bias can influence our behavior. Because we think of ourselves as the “knowers,” we inadvertently make ourselves the center of the conversation.

What We Can Do
We can:

  • Center the other person in the conversation for a while
  • Be a “learner” as well as “knower”
  • Ask about people’s ideas and values
  • Work to not call attention only to what “I think”
  • Paraphrase what was just said
  • Affirm the other person’s experience

Leadership & Lean Consultant, Cyril Narishkin suggests that a…
Leader can:

  • Surround her or himself with diverse perspectives
  • Notice who’s talking and who’s not talking
  • Break the temptation of “group-” or “emperor-think”
  • Be vulnerable enough to say, “I need your help,” and accept that help
  • Have 1-to-1 meetings or roundtables with people on the front lines.
  • Don’t race to a solution, search together to uncover the root causes

The goal is to provide opportunities for all our employees to feel visible and valuable within the organization. To reap the full benefit of having people with diverse perspectives, the corporation’s culture needs to allow each person to share their truth. By being aware of the cultural tendency to minimize difference, we can practice better listening and work toward embracing the unique voices and intriguing ideas that lead to a culture of belonging and innovation. -Amy Narishkin, PhD

Thank you, Halina for your willingness to learn and grow. Halina embraces the posture of “learner” and “knower” in her life’s work. Not only does she serve on the Greater North County Chamber of Commerce, she also gives her time teaching during April’s Money Smart St. Louis, an event working to increase access to financial education and asset building resources. She teaches: “Money Management for Women” and “Maximizing Social Security Benefits.”