How does a little girl (maybe 4yrs old?) know that the most convincing way to lie about eating all the Mr Kipling angel slices was to say someone broke in and stole the angel slices – and that it was a black man? Her mum posted it on facebook, as a “funny” video.
That could have been a very influential teaching moment in that little girl’s life if her mother was aware of, and had chosen to take a stand against, racial stereotyping and injustice. Maybe she didn’t recognise the significance. Maybe she agreed with the stereotype. Actually, it was an influential teaching moment. Racism and stereotypes against blacks got endorsed and confirmed for the next generation.
We are not born racists, we are taught racism. Either by words, or by silence. And it exists in each of us – whites and blacks.
We treat issues of equality, racism and systemic injustice as if they are simply problems to be solved “out there”. Yet, as Shakespeare once famously said, in a very real and powerful way, “the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves…”.
Inclusion is ultimately about relationships. We each have the power to change the stories and stereotypes we grew up with, by taking personal responsibility for what we say, what we do, what we endorse, and how “we show” up in our own one-to-one interactions with people different to us.
I remember the first time I became conscious of being judged because of my skin colour. I was born in England but grew up in Jamaica, a country whose motto exudes inclusion – “out of many, one people”. Growing up in a country of majority black, proud, hardworking people, with oodles of black role models achieving the highest positions in every sector of society, I never questioned my ability to become whoever I wanted to be because of my skin colour.
After completing A’Levels I had the joy of spending summer with my uncle – my mother’s brother – and his beautiful wife and children in the USA. In our family we give great, big, warm, bear hugs and often walk with linked arms or an arm across someone’s shoulder. I remember us all going out to a restaurant for a meal together and suddenly becoming really conscious of intense, judgmental stares. Let me explain. My maternal grandparents are both half Scottish, half of African descent, and my uncle who was very fair-skinned, looked white, especially in his balding years. His wife is a beautiful Caucasian woman, naturally blonde, and so are his children. And everyone else in the room was white.
If that happened only once, it would have been a memory, but not necessarily an experience.
It happened every single time we went out. It taught me that I was different, and judging by the stares, in their minds I was out of place – operating above my station. The colour of my skin clearly meant that I should not be enjoying time with white people in a classy restaurant. Little did they know that Jamaica is home to some of the best hotels and restaurants in the world, and that I was totally in my comfort zone eating in places even fancier than that restaurant. Except they made me feel very uncomfortable.
My family saw the stares and without discussion, their instinctive reaction was amazing. They could have just chosen to ignore it or told me to ignore the stares. But the more people stared, the more they showered affection and attention on me, the more they made it clear that I belonged with them and that they identified with me, and the more they delivered the clear message that if anyone had a problem with me, they would have to deal with all of us. It’s funny what we can say without saying a word. It became a game for us. “Watch the white go red”. My American family’s love and acceptance was and remains unquestioned, unconditional and on display as a model of what is possible.
Inclusion and belonging or the lack thereof, are experienced in these moments of one-on-one interaction with a real person who is different from you.
Instead of acting out stereotypes or lazily absorbing beliefs that have been fed to us, we can choose to “show up” well and treat people well, with the same level of value and respect that we would desire. We don’t need to wait on new laws or systems or university degrees. We can take a stand beside people of difference.
Chances are the little girl with the Angel slices and her mother heard news reports that fed them the stereotype that all blacks are criminals. For years, when a man of any other skin colour did a crime, the news reported is that “a man” did the crime. When a black man did a crime, the news report highlighted the fact that “a black man” did the crime. Systemic injustice.
It’s much easier to buy into the system, absorb the stereotype “out there”, laugh at the jokes and thoughtless comments or just say nothing, than it is to take a stand. But here is a question – of all the black people we know personally, how many are criminals? How do these stereotypes and jokes match up to our lived experience in the one-on-one interactions with black people we actually know? My guess is that we each know more educated, employed, hardworking, upstanding black people than we do black criminals. Yet the assumption is that these millions of decent black people are all exceptions to the rule. Seriously?!
But this is not a one-sided issue. Black people have stereotypes, jokes and negative attitudes towards white people too.
The difference is these aren’t stories we pick up from the news. They are stories from the real people we love and trust, talking with us around the dinner table. Stories of generations of racism and injustice. Like my mother’s experience of coming to England in the 1960s as a qualified midwife and theatre nurse and suffering the indignity of being downgraded, given the clean-up jobs and not allowed to work in the theatre, simply because she was black. Until that fateful night when a woman’s life was hanging in the balance and there was no one else to step in. Before the surgeon asked for the instruments my mother was handing them to him. Together, they saved the woman’s life. The surgeon made it clear that for all future surgeries, my mother was to be his theatre nurse. One man, taking a stand against the system.
We could share story after story of our own and our loved ones’ personal, lived experiences of pain and loss because of racism. More than enough to make our blood boil. It’s hard not to feel anger or resentment or wanting to be vindicated or avenged in some way. It’s hard not to always be on the defence or the offense, always on the look-out for injustice and always feeling the need to fight our corner. It’s hard to turn up in rooms as the only black face and not question your “more-than-qualified-and-every-right-to-be-there” presence, wondering if you were invited just to make up numbers. It’s hard, but we must, or else we perpetuate the problem too.
The reality is we each turn up to our interactions with assumptions about “the other”. We each have our own emotional baggage, our unconscious biases. Which means to address racism and injustice, we each need to step up to the plate, exam our own assumptions and behaviours and choose ones that build relationships across difference, rather than continue to damage them.
We didn’t cause the problem, but we can stop perpetuating it.
How we each turn up to our relationships with anyone who is different to us and how they experience us (and by default, people like us) will create the emotions, the stories, the stereotypes, the experiences that determine the quality of future interactions with us (and people like us). And that holds true whether we are black or white.
What if we made it our personal commitment to make people of difference feel respected and included, even if it goes “against the grain” of the culture we find ourselves in – at work or at home? What if we each committed to building our understanding of the lived experience of people at the opposite end of the colour spectrum to us? What if we just got better at seeing people as individuals, being open to seeing the world through their eyes and learning to build great relationships across difference?
Taking responsibility for changing our behaviours is something we can each do, starting now.
30 years of working with relationships has confirmed that four fundamental habits distinguish between ALL successful and unsuccessful relationships. These 4 Habits© continue to resonate around the world through our TEDx talk, which has now been viewed by over 1.2 million people (and still climbing). Because these habits are so fundamental to relationships, they are as important in addressing home and work relationships as they are in addressing the issue of racism and inequality. Of course, it takes time and effort to learn and develop the 4 Habits© in a way that creates lasting change from behaviours that damage relationships to behaviours that strengthen relationships. Lord knows we have been doing a lot of damage.
However, the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first baby step. Here are baby steps to start developing the 4 Habits© and taking personal responsibility for tackling racism – at least in ourselves and our circle of influence:
1: #BeCURIOUSnotCritical – instead of judging and criticising difference, give people the “space and grace” to be who they are and treasure hunt for the strength they bring to complement yours. There is always strength in difference. Our job is to be open enough to find it.
2: #BeCAREFULnotCrushing – the more different we are, the easier it is to misunderstand each other’s intentions, especially where there is a lot of history and baggage. Choose your battles – not everything needs to escalate into a conflict. But if it does become a conflict, treat people carefully, don’t crush them. We had no idea how relevant and powerful these words would be to the George Floyd experience when we wrote them last year.
3: #ASKdontAssume – we all have assumptions and biases that, sometimes, we don’t even know exist, yet still they drive the way we think and behave. Sometimes we say things that offend someone hugely and we don’t know why. The only way to find out is to ask them, rather than assume. Sometimes what is said or done offends us and we lash out disproportionately – in a visceral, deep-seated, “touching a nerve” kind of way. Whenever you find yourself with an intense gut reaction to something that someone said or did, investigate the feeling. Try to look internally to find out what actually provoked such a strong response and what you would like to be different, then ASK them for it. It takes courage, but the better we get at talking about these deep-seated issues one-on-one, the more we can build relationships of mutual respect and trust. And the more we create strong relationships across difference, even if we get things wrong from time to time, we can keep the conversation going and keep learning until we get it right. If relationships remain weak, we will just keep digging deeper trenches.
4: #CONNECTbeforeyouCorrect – it is so easy to point fingers, cast blame and offer “constructive criticism” of what other people “should do”. But we are not so good at balancing criticism with making people feel valued, appreciated and loved – assuming we are interested in doing that at all. But as leadership guru John Maxwell says, “people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care”. Just listening and genuinely wanting to hear someone’s story – their thoughts, feelings, pain – without judging and criticising, is a great place to start to show care and build connection with someone different to you. When you help people feel validated, heard and cared for, they are far more open to your story and your input on what needs to change. We only earn the right to correct, when we have genuinely connected.
Whether we are white, black or one of the many shades in between, we each have our part to play in learning to build strong relationships across difference.
And it starts by making the personal commitment that in all our interactions with people of difference, whatever the history, whatever the baggage, whatever the stereotypes, Inclusion starts with ME.