In a recent workshop I gave, a White CEO told the group that reports of Tyre Nichols’ death barely hit his radar screen. It hadn’t occurred to him to discuss it with anyone – at least not until he saw how much it affected his Black partner. She told him the news of the tragedy had lit up her phone with texts from family and friends. He told us he was stunned by the difference in their respective communities’ levels of response.
During our workshop, the leader told us he realized he wouldn’t have known the impact of the tragedy on the Black community if it hadn’t been for their relationship.
Research shows it’s not uncommon for people of the dominant culture in any community, organization or country to be culturally blind to the system, or cultural container, and the way it affects them and underrepresented communities.(1) If people haven’t 1) built authentic relationships with people outside their culture, 2) considered the impact of the dominant culture on marginalized people or 3) actively developed awareness of their own culture’s characteristics through education and travel, they simply don’t see the cultural container. It’s like being right-handed in a right-handed world. The system works in your favor, so you don’t notice that, for left-handed people, the desk doesn’t support their writing arm, the notebook’s spiral gets in the way and the scissors don’t work in the “wrong” hand.
See the blindness
To see the implicit systems that influence the way we think, talk and act, we need to recognize a particular mental model in play within culture: cultural blindness, which is also called minimization. More than two-thirds (66.8%) of people who take the Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI) worldwide are right in that blind spot – the “Minimization” stage at the middle of the five stages of Cultural Intelligence.(1) The percentage is that high because it’s actually the default mindset of the dominant culture in any organization and in every society all over the world.
The problem with having so much of humanity stuck in the default is that minimizing and ignoring others’ differing experiences creates an environment in which people tend to focus on what everyone has in common and assume others’ experiences are like their own. This inadvertently minimizes, dismisses and marginalizes those of underrepresented groups. Cultural blindness – the belief that color, class, ability and generation, etc. make no difference can be well-intentioned but is definitely flawed.
Members of the non-dominant culture groups tend to be very aware of the system but go-along-to-get-along because they are not in positions of power and therefore can be hesitant or fearful to speak up or out. This dismissiveness of people’s humanity is often demoralizing and dangerous for people of non-dominant groups in any organization.
How this happens
People’s individual actions don’t come out of a void, they are a reflection of a larger system, the dominant culture surrounding them. Dr. Edward Deming (1900–93), renowned management consultant, argued that 94% of problems are caused by the system, not the individual.(2) The problem of cultural blindness, then, is not that anybody’s inherently evil but that people have an inherited ignorance of the system. The good news is, if ignorance is the fundamental problem, it’s a fixable problem.
The antidote to cultural blindness is to become more aware of the systems that influence us, which make us less likely to perpetuate them. To upend minimization, people of dominant culture can become aware of their culture and its impact on themselves and others, as well as recognize that each person’s experience is just one of many cultural patterns.(1)
Who I learned from
The danger is very real for my friend Kimberly St. Clair. As an African American mom, she is particularly worried about her son, who is on the spectrum. She’s can’t anticipate how he’ll behave under the pressure of a traffic stop. She was so worried that she developed a tool and curriculum, Doc Dash, designed to keep civilians and officers safe during traffic stops.
Kimberly developed the products because traffic stops are the most common form of police-civilian engagement and one of the most dangerous duties police officers have to perform. Police in the U.S. pull over more than 50,000 drivers each day, which amounts to more than 20 million motorists a year.(3)
But the real problem are the police and civilian fatalities. Police in the U.S. killed 1,192 people. And despite being only 13% of the population, Black people were 26% of those killed by police in 2022. Tyre Nichols’ violent death was a result of one of these interactions.(4)
Because, statistically, people of the dominant culture are unaware of systems and their impact on others, they don’t necessarily have the practice, skills and vocabulary to talk and learn with people who have been historically silenced. That’s probably why so often, after a tragedy like Tyre Nichols’ death, Kimberly is asked by her White friends what they can do to help.
When you know better you do better
It’s no one person’s fault how the system works but when you know better you can do better. Particularly important for people of dominant culture, you can upend cultural blindness by developing your cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence is what enables a person to accept and appreciate another’s perspective and choose words and actions that show genuine respect.
With cultural intelligence you can….
- Educate yourself about the characteristics of your dominant culture and its influence on how you think, talk and act.
- Learn how the dominant culture impacts people of historically underrepresented groups and block access to legal, financial, educational, mental and physical well-being.
- Lift up voices that all too often go unheard for greater authenticity, safety and collaboration for everyone.
There are many ways to lift up others’ voices and be an ally. Most important for people of dominant culture is to be alert to how minimization inadvertently infiltrates our conversation even with the best of intentions. To be a culturally intelligent ally, you can…
Listen, don’t talk. Resist the temptation to jump in and speak for someone before you talk with them. Don’t assume you know what they need. That would be minimization. Learn about their experience. You could say, “Would you mind telling me about your experience? What do you hope for?” For an example, read the “How it works” section in this article: “How Effective Leaders Use Connection not Correction.”
Focus on them, not you. It can be tempting to get people to focus on you as the advocate, but you end up minimizing their voice. Leaders make it about the other person and step back. They might say: “Elena gave me permission to share her idea.” Or, “Aaron had an insight – would you like to share that now, Aaron?”
Talk with them, not about them. Effective leaders don’t guess based on appearance but find out from the source what the needs are. They notice who’s not in the room who can be impacted by their decisions. Leaders do the rounds and walk the floor to learn first-hand. They ask, “What are the needs?” then later paraphrase what they heard and say, “Do I understand correctly, is this what really matters to you?”
Learn from your mistakes. When you overstep and get called out, it’s tempting to drop into silence with shame or react in anger by defending yourself. Instead S.T.O.P. – slow down, take a breath, observe your feelings and imagine how the other person feels, then proceed with curiosity and wonder to see what you can learn about how the dominant culture impacts others. So often it’s in that moment of vulnerability that we find compassion for others and can perceive practices or policies that need to change.
Recognize that trust is built over time. After years of being belittled under the system of minimization, people of non-dominant groups may hesitate to speak up for fear of retaliation, misrepresentation, social isolation or job loss even when asked to speak up. In this blog, journalist Abby explained, “As a White person, I have extra work to do – particularly with people from underrepresented groups who may be unaccustomed to being heard. To create a space where they feel safety and trust. It’s worth the time investment because I get to meet and talk with people I never would have known before and get their story.”
Speak up for others. If someone says something hateful or ignorant, invite them to share what happened that made them feel the way they do. Whether or not you can imagine what happened or agree with their conclusion, you can affirm their feelings. Then you might ask if you can share your perspective. For an example of how to speak up in a way the person can hear you, read my article, “How to Deal with an Ignorant Remark.”
When we know better, we can do better by stepping up as an ally with compassion and courage. When we work in cahoots – noticing and naming gaps, striving to create a culture where both historically dominant and non-dominant group members together feel heard, seen and valued – that’s when diversity benefits everyone. When community members use their cultural intelligence to appreciate everyone’s experience is unique and we can all learn from one another, this is what enables us to create safe communities and companies where everyone feels like they belong. -Amy Narishkin, PhD
Who do you know in your network who would like to learn more about how to be a compassionate leader? Please share this link with them.
- Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
- Deming, E. (2012) The System of Profound Knowledge. https://deming.org/demings-system-of-profound-knowledge/#:~:text=The%20System%20Of%20Profound%20Knowledge,theory%20of%20knowledge%20and%20psychology
- Levin, S (April 21, 2022) The Guardian. “US police have killed nearly 600 people in traffic stops since 2017, data shows.” https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/apr/21/us-police-violence-traffic-stop-data
- Mapping Police Violence Database: https://mappingpoliceviolence.us/
- Photo credit: David Underland on Unsplash