Racism, sexism, homophobia and able-ism are endemic. Deeply ingrained into the fabric of our society and organizations, they shape our ways of thinking and relating. These default patterns have become so enmeshed in daily life that for many of us they are difficult to identify and address.
Often it is only those who live day to day with the subtle and not so subtle dynamics of prejudice that are able to spot and call out the attitudes and behaviors that put them down. This in itself evokes vulnerability and creates an enormous emotional burden.
There is a growing recognition of the need for coaches to understand the impacts of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. It is our role to work with clients to help them navigate and understand these dynamics.
The real question is whether we are up for the task of truly learning about and understanding these dynamics – and our role in them. There is often a level of discomfort that comes with dealing with our blindspots and as most coaches know, we all have ways of avoiding what is challenging.
I know from firsthand experience that squaring up to racism and my role in perpetuating these dynamics can be challenging – as the story I am about to share reveals.
A heads up before I share that story. It doesn’t adequately outline the suffering of my colleague – and again focuses on the experience of a white person, who enjoys centrality in many many situations. However, I share this story in the firm conviction that those of us who enjoy high levels of privilege and rank, need to find ways to show up when it comes to realizations about our behavior. In doing so we need to navigate the many points at which we feel vulnerable and can use our rank to avoid difficult conversations.
So here is my story, perhaps you will find yourself here:
A decade ago, a friend and colleague said she found my behavior racist. I was taken aback. At first, I denied her accusation, fiercely defending myself. I was hurt and felt misunderstood. Though I knew that for our friendship to survive I needed to open up and learn from her feedback, I struggled to come to terms with her interpretation.
I knew for sure that the experience was exceptionally painful for her. But I wasn’t able to respond to my colleague in a way that was meaningful or useful. I couldn’t get past my own pain. So instead I imploded. I’ve since seen clients do the same. They collapse and have no energy left to focus on the other person. The term coined to describe this common pattern of behavior is widely known as white fragility.
As a coach, you need to work very hard to manage this situation. Sometimes the shock and distress on those accused of stereotyping can leave them feeling a victim of the feedback. As coaches, our role is to help them learn from the experience and to move past that initial defensiveness.
Thankfully my colleague hung in there with me. She persisted – no doubt at great cost to herself – in explaining the dynamics of subtle racism and the pain it causes. Nonetheless, I struggled. For a long time any sense of progress eluded me. Eventually – perhaps because I felt sorry for myself or because I couldn’t find a way through – I became interested in the struggle itself. Why was it so hard to accept what my colleague said? Why was I having such a big reaction to her feedback? My curiosity helped me to hang in and eventually engage with her message.
Reflecting on this experience I’ve found it valuable as a coach to support clients in my position to reflect on the following elements.
Real change comes about when we achieve insight – when we understand a problem or issue from multiple perspectives. This means being able to see the issue from our own and other people’s points of view. To do so we need to understand the situation not just in the context of the specific event or triggering interaction, but in the context of decades of privilege and unearned advantage and decades of painful disadvantage and discrimination. Racism is not a simple interpersonal tension, it is systemic and pervasive. Addressing these dynamics is a long game.
One of my biggest obstacles to taking on board my colleague’s feedback was the challenge to my own identity – the way I saw myself. As a seventeen-year-old I’d left Australia for South Africa, motivated by a deep concern about the recent Soweto riots. Today I think of myself as someone committed to raising awareness of the ‘isms’, including my own role in them. When my friend used the word racist, it stung. It was an anathema. How could I be a racist? It didn’t match what I stood for.
Most people want to be seen as competent professionals and decent human beings. Raising the spectre of racism, sexism or homophobia can cut straight to the core of a person’s identity. They threaten more than loss of face or professional repercussions. Our very self-concept can be at stake.
The extent of my reaction revealed not only the strength of my judgements about racism, but expectations I held of myself. I was initially harder on myself than I’d be on someone else in those circumstances. I had to learn to hear the word racism without automatically hearing that I was a ‘bad person’. That was quite a challenge!
When we understand the systemic nature of racism which is a product of centuries of socialization, we can hold our own identity more lightly. If you are being challenged on your attitudes or behavior, you are not alone, but you do need to show up and learn from the feedback.
A person’s intent often differs from the ultimate impact of their behaviors. When I was seen and understood for my original intent it became easier to acknowledge the impact of my behavior on my colleague.
Enabling an individual to explain the intent of their behavior is a role we play as coaches which accelerates the learning experience. It limits the likelihood of escalation and revenge, which can be a serious concern.
However, it is not and should not always be the role of people of color to hold our discomfort. They have been through enough already.
We’re often unaware of the impact of our behavior. It’s critical therefore that we’re open to feedback about any gaps between our intent and impact.
Feedback, especially when it’s delivered publically or through a formal complaint comes as a shock. Tracking a respondent’s reactions and pacing feedback reduce the likelihood of a negative reaction. However this isn’t always possible or in the best interests of everyone to have to deliver feedback in a way that is easy or palatable to hear. Remember these conversations are happening against a backdrop in which marginalized populations have been brutally silenced from speaking about their experiences. Impacted individuals and communities understandably are saying I don’t want to hold this (and the pain involved) anymore.
Coaches must find a balance between supporting, encouraging, and challenging respondents to understand and acknowledge the impact of their behaviors on others.
Using powerful questions to elicit insights can be effective in raising awareness and helping each other deal with the impact of behaviors.
Here are a few of my favorite questions:
- What is the key message you are being given here?
- How can you sit with that feedback?
- What elements of that feedback can you accept?
- What do you not fully understand or accept? What will help you achieve that understanding?
- What is important about this message right now?
- What was your intention when ……………..?
- How do you think (the impacted person) might have experienced that?
- What might you do to address the situation?
- How might (the impacted person) respond to that?
It is not only individuals, but organizations that need to gain insight on occasions. How in your experience do organizations develop insight?
As part of our committment to training coaches able to work with issues of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, our 2022 programs will offer discreet workshops on creating trust and safety through a lens of racial justice and equity.