Watch this 2 minute video before you read on.
(For those of you who cheated and 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 schools, businesses, and organizations on diversity, equity, and inclusion, we often see people point to dynamics outside of their control: School funding formulas, co-workers behaviors, job “pipeline” issues, etc.
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), the choices we make.
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 to stop the fight, and intervened in a way that took the side of the one White kid.
The Black kids called me on it. After asking, “who are you, his grandpa?” (I was about 37 at the time, I was surprised by that one), they asked “Why are you blaming us? What about him?”
They were right to do so. Much like the onlookers in the video, my racial stereotypes about who was likely to be at fault and who was dangerous affected my actions.
Had I decided to call the cops, I would have contributed to racialized mass incarceration. Even without calling the cops, I taught these Black kids that they should expect unfair treatment from White adults.
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. To be better prepared for future encounters 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. If you have a strong emotional reaction, I invite you to feel those feelings through to completion.
It is normal and healthy to feel pain when you recognize that your actions have hurt others. As author Brene 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.
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. Repeat as needed.