Last week I was chatting briefly with a new client, an advisor to the mayor of a major metropolitan area, about my efforts to be a better ally and to educate myself around issues of race. When I admitted to him that sometimes my fear of doing or saying the wrong thing kept me from doing or saying anything, my client, who is Black, suggested that I draw on my coaching background and put together a development plan for myself. “You know how leadership development works, just apply it here,” he said. With gratitude to that client, and in the spirit of imperfectionism and not holding back for fear of being wrong, I offer the following thoughts.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder many Americans are loosening their pandemic restrictions to march in protest, including a significant number of white protestors, and even more are posting supportive messages and sharing outrage on social media. Books about race are selling briskly, including Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Robin D’Angelo’s White Fragility (which was a game-changer for me), as well as children’s books about race and diversity. The sudden increase of white support for Black Lives Matter has many people wondering what makes this moment different from other times, even in recent history, when we have witnessed so many murders of black men and women at the hands of police and why this time the protests are so widespread. Others question whether it’s just another trend. Phelicia Jones, founder of Wealth & Disparities in the Black Community organized a kneel-in at San Francisco City Hall on June 1. Her organization has long been advocating for justice for Mario Woods, killed by SF police in 2015. While she was gratified to see the large crowd, she asked whether the white and brown attendees would continue to show up for the Black community when the protests die down.
This concern is justified. Although well-intentioned, many white people’s actions are full of passion and momentum, but fundamentally reactive. I don’t doubt the earnestness of these folks, myself included. But there is a very real risk that the books we are buying will remain on our nightstands, bookmarked partway through Chapter 1, and that our attention will shift away from the hard and long work we are being challenged to do. Right now we have all the fervor of a “New Year’s resolution” and we have been to the gym a couple of times. We know all too well what happens to most people when February rolls around.
A dozen years in coaching, a predominantly white field, and hundreds of clients have taught me that personal transformation of any kind requires sustained intention and effort. It’s not just about changing behavior, but also a change in mindset, beliefs and assumptions (adaptive change). I am by no means an expert on transforming racial attitudes, but as my client suggested, perhaps some of the rubrics of coaching can be a tool to help some of us on this journey. Here are a few ideas about how to get started for would-be white allies—leaders, managers and individuals—ones that I have put in place for myself as well.
- Write your goal. In my leadership coaching engagements, I ask clients to create a “development plan” that identifies a specific goal and action steps toward that goal. For example, “be more woke” is not a coaching goal. Instead, you might set a goal to raise your awareness of microaggressions (also called subtle acts of exclusion), call them out when you see or hear them at work and in social settings and be open to feedback when you commit them. For a host of concrete action steps to help flesh out your development plan, check out this list of 75 things white people can do to promote racial justice. Consider both your learning and your actions—it takes more than reading books and navel-gazing. In her article about building white stamina, Elizabeth Oppenheimer reminds us, “We don’t build our stamina by taking workshops or saying daily affirmations just as we don’t learn to swim by reading how to move our arms and kick our legs.”
- Hold yourself accountable. Setting a concrete goal with actionable steps allows you to monitor whether you are doing the work and to assess progress. Track your commitments: have you listened to the podcasts or read the books on your list? Did you join your local SURJ chapter? Have you identified some local black businesses to support? Sometimes it helps to have an accountability buddy, someone else who is also trying to cultivate their racial competency.
- Welcome critical feedback. Feedback—whether from Black friends and colleagues or from other well-informed friends or even our children—is an important source of learning. They can help us become aware of and understand our impact on others, regardless of our intentions. After 400+ years of benefiting from systemic racism, not listening to Black voices or protecting Black bodies, we have a lot to learn, and it starts with listening. Here are some great tips for receiving critical feedback. Robin D’Angelo also has a lot to say about this.
- Get over your perfectionism. Cultivate a growth mindset and remember that mistakes are part of learning. According to Tema Okun, perfectionism is one of the characteristics of white supremacy culture. One way it shows up is in our reluctance to speak up for fear of being wrong. Instead, Be compassionate with yourself when you feel “racial discomfort,” as author and law professor Rhonda McGee suggests in The Inner Work of Racial Justice. Experiment with new behaviors and lean into curiosity rather than being right. And expect to stumble. At a recent webinar, workshop leader Nanette D. Massey urged white allies to “get egg on your face and it’s okay, the world’s not going to end.”
- Don’t look for gold stars. One of the hallmarks of white fragility is the desire to be seen as “one of the good ones.” Do not expect to be congratulated or thanked for your budding awareness or acts of anti-racism. Do not look to your Black colleagues and friends to validate your efforts or overburden them as your only sources of learning. Hollywood loves a “White Savior,” as so brilliantly illustrated in Seth Meyer’s spoof trailer. This is not that movie. You must change, but remember that you are a supporting character, not the hero of the story. (For a portrayal of a real hero, watch Just Mercy.)
Changing our long-entrenched cultural beliefs and habits is hard and the path is long. Just get into the work and anticipate that you will encounter bumps along the way. You may experience internal resistance, backsliding, discomfort or even lose friends (hopefully you will make new friends, too). Stay the course. It remains to be seen whether this moment is a turning point or another in a series of missed opportunities for reckoning. Consider these closing word from “Reflections from a Token Black Friend”:
“You’ll bump our music and rep our athletes, but will you stand with us when it’s not convenient? The pain is real. The stories are real. Our call for help is real. My uncle posted on Facebook yesterday, ‘When the dust settles, I wonder if anything will actually change?’ To be honest, I’m not sure how quickly or how much things will change. But I know that one thing is directly within our individual control. You can celebrate black lives by making a choice to inquire about them, to educate yourself, and to question many of the norms around us. You no longer have the excuse of being unaware of your own ignorance. I’d reword my uncle’s post to a question that we should all ask ourselves: “When the dust settles, I wonder if I will actually change?”
Since hoping for change is not a strategy, I offer these tips to help make your commitment successful. And if you have any ideas or suggestions, please comment or write to me. I think this is a time to gather up as much wisdom as we can for the work.