Progress Not Perfection: Overcoming Your Hesitation to Talk about Race and Equity at Work

The Shaman by Pedro Paricio via Halcyon Gallery

Is it a prerequisite that you feel fluent in the language of race, inclusion, and equity before tackling such issues in your organization?

This is a question I’ve been working through myself. Acting to resolve a sensitive issue we may be met with silence, confusion, denial, or resistance. If not communicated tactfully, we might unintentionally offend colleagues. In the worst case scenario, we might encounter marginalization, reprimand, or even termination. Scary stuff. So, initially, my intuition said that we should get good at talking about sensitive topics before launching into action to avoid complicating an already complex situation. Reaching a level of conversational proficiency where we feel confident to handle any situation before intervening in an equity issue seemed like a logical pursuit.

More recently, I’ve come to think that this is a recipe for delay, paralysis, and, ultimately, the perpetuation of the status quo. Waiting for everyone to reach proficiency won’t work because everyone’s starting from a different place. More importantly, as a sector and as leaders, we’re late to the game on this and it’s time to report for duty.

As an education leader, you have two roles: lead and provide space and support for others to grow. The same is true when making equity part of your daily dialogue. It’s important to acknowledge that people all have different levels of comfort and sophistication with discussions about race and equity. For instance, when we talk about race, there are often stark differences between people of color and whites.

Forced to navigate a white-dominated society, people of color often start having candid conversations about race with loved ones at a very young age, sometimes to make sense of their world, sometimes for self preservation. While white people may very well discuss race at the dinner table, it’s an option afforded to them by their privilege. John Metta explains in his compelling sermon, “I, Racist”:

Black children learn this when their parents give them “The Talk.” When they are sat down at the age of 5 or so and told that their best friend’s father is not sick, and not in a bad mood — he just doesn’t want his son playing with you. Black children grow up early to life in The Matrix. We’re not given a choice of the red or blue pill. Most white people, like my aunt, never have to choose. The system was made for White people, so White people don’t have to think about living in it.

As a result of these conversations, people of color living in a white-dominant culture develop native cross-class expertise.  David Brooks explains the skill this way: “In a world dividing along class, ethnic and economic grounds some people are culturally multilingual. They can operate in an insular social niche while seeing it from the vantage point of an outsider.”

Conversely, white people like me are members of the dominant culture and must learn race-related, cross-class expertise. That learning is motivated in countless ways and can happen at any stage of life, or, sadly, not at all. The lessons, however, don’t always come easy.

Lacking cross-class expertise leaves us as cultural monoglots, inarticulate and vulnerable to mistakes. In conversations with white friends and colleagues committed to becoming more proactively anti-racist, many feel ill-prepared to engage in these critical conversations. Many of these folks are leaders in education organizations or soon will be. They are exactly the people who should be initiating and facilitating conversations about race and class and how they affect their work.

If we wait for conditions to be perfect before taking action, the old institutional barriers to equity and inclusion will ossify further and new ones may be formed. Instead, education leaders need to battle through hesitation and take action, however imperfect it may be.

The first step is to understand where the hesitation comes from. What do you fear? Why do you fear it? Are your fears warranted? How do you know? We should then find ways to act that minimize risk and maximize impact. Does the issue have to be addressed immediately or is it better done later? What will (continue to) happen if I don’t take action? Who will be affected? Who are my allies?

Clearly (and unfortunately), this kind of bravery comes with real risks. And those risks are different for different people. I don’t suggest education leaders completely disregard their instinct and act with impunity. A mental calculation is required, but the answer can’t always be silence and inaction.

This is where the “courage” in “courageous conversations” comes in. I’d rather be surrounded by colleagues who struggle to articulate a feeling or present a gestating thought in the pursuit of equity than ones who remain silent out of fear.

Part of my job as a leader is to initiate critical conversations, act bravely, and just as importantly, provide ways that my colleagues and clients can do the same. If you’re an education leader, it’s part of your job too. Are you fulfilling it?

2 thoughts on “Progress Not Perfection: Overcoming Your Hesitation to Talk about Race and Equity at Work

  1. Chris Tessone

    I agree that education leaders from more privileged backgrounds should be pushing themselves harder on these issues, but I would argue for vulnerability rather than bravery being the dominating tone. Often the early conversations on these issues cannot necessarily be “impactful” in the sense hard-charging leaders are looking for. It’s more about building trust and demonstrating that you’re neither going to get defensive, nor fall back on talking points. Showing that you can share your experiences openly, be willing to hear raw reactions at times, and have your understanding (and especially self-understanding!) questioned is critically important.

    The other, related thing I would say is that it’s difficult to build trust and have impact if you are always in the driver’s seat. Many leaders in the sector do not have the experience of working at the direction of people of color or people who grew up in poverty. Many of us are not natural followers, but getting experience implementing (instead of guiding) the agenda of people who are unlike you–whether it’s in a volunteer context, church, or work–is powerful.

    1. Jason Weeby Post author

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks for your thoughtful response. On your first point, I don’t see bravery and vulnerability as mutually exclusive. Both are needed and I’m glad you bring it up.

      You second point is critical. Relinquishing control is a difficult thing to do for anyone, but especially for leaders. I think we’re short on example of people who do that well, especially as you describe it.

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