Watch this 2 minute video before you read on.
(For those of you who didn’t watch the video, it shows a young White male apparently trying to break into a car. Nobody responds. When a young Black male tries, soon people are calling the cops and there is a large police response.)
When we work with organizations on diversity, equity, and inclusion, we often see people point to dynamics outside of their control. They discuss school funding formulas, co-workers behaviors, or job “pipeline” issues. Rarely do they discuss their own actions. (Why the quotes around “pipeline”? I’m glad you asked. I dislike thinking of people like crude oil to be extracted, pumped into a job, and burned up.)
It’s harder to look at the dynamics within our control: the things we say or don’t say, the actions we take or don’t take.
I invite you to look at this video and ask, “how do I see myself here?” Go beyond looking at how other people’s behaviors are harmful and consider your own actions.
A personal example
A few years ago I was weeding in the park when I saw three Black kids and one White kid fighting. I didn’t see what started it, but it looked like it was going to escalate. I walked up and told the Black kids to stop. I intervened in a way that took the side of the White kid..
The Black kids called me on it. After asking, “who are you, his grandpa?” (I was about 37 at the time), they asked “Why are you blaming us? What about him?”
They were right. Just like in the video, my racial stereotypes led to biased and unfair actions. My biased actions harmed people of color.
I taught these Black kids that they should expect unfair treatment from White adults. Had I decided to call the cops, I would have contributed to racialized mass incarceration.
I share this example not to wallow in guilt, but to model taking a look at our own actions, and how we can do better. If I could hit “redo,” I would have still intervened, but in a way that didn’t show favoritism to one side or the other. I rehearse this different response in my mind like an athlete visualizes their game.
- Take a few minutes to reflect on when your behaviors have been like those in the video.
- How have your biases affected how you treat people in your classroom, in your office, in your neighborhood? Try to think of specific incidents.
- What are the effects of your actions on others?
- What steps can you take to respond better next time?
A note on feelings, guilt and shame
Sometimes this exercise brings up strong feelings for people. That’s okay. That reaction shows that fairness is important to you. Don’t suppress those feelings.
It is normal and healthy to feel pain when you recognize that your actions have hurt others. As author Brené Brown writes:
I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.Brené Brown
But guilt is different from shame. Just because you have done something bad doesn’t mean that you are bad. Brené Brown continues:
I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.
I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.Brené Brown
Feel your feelings. Be accountable for your actions (and inactions). Make amends if necessary. Strive to do better next time. Remember, just because you’ve done something harmful (we all have) doesn’t mean you are harmful. Repeat as needed.