I’m a privileged white woman, but I never realized this before.
And while I’m not here to talk about my life story, I think my path of racial enlightenment might help other white people understand why your own racial enlightenment is necessary if we’re ever going to achieve racial justice and equality.
As part of my racial enlightenment, I have started recording conversations I’m having with African Americans about the workplace reforms we need to make to diversity programs that achieve lasting, permanent racial justice and equality. Mellody Hobson’s powerful TED Talk from 2014, Color blind or color brave? inspired the name for this series and for a diversity program reform project I am hoping to complete as part of my MBA studies this year.
I’m going to provide a short version of how I got here and then we’re going to forget about me and focus on the African Americans whose voices I will feature in upcoming articles.
I’ve written on Thrive Global previously about having job security despite growing up in poverty. That poverty, while in it, made me feel like a second-class citizen. Anyone who encountered me during those lean years likely knew immediately from my appearance that I was poor. Kids at school were especially mean and I was subjected to bullying for most of my childhood. But after college when I started working, my appearance started to reflect that of a middle-class, average American. I rarely spoke about my childhood and the few people I shared personal stories with were generally shocked to hear about my upbringing.
Having grown up in diverse Park Forest, Illinois, my friends were a mix of nationalities and ethnicities. My best friends were Jewish and my wider circle of friends were white and African American. I didn’t even know what race was until I started learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. in social studies and history classes. I remember looking at my African American friends and trying to figure out, besides skin color, what was different about them? As far as I could tell, we all played the same, went to school the same, and lived the same.
As a single adult, I’ve always chosen to live in diverse cities. As a manager, I’ve consciously built diversity into my teams. As a step-parent, I’ve been vocal about human rights and the evils of racism.
So I just never thought of myself as a racist.
But in 2016, I took a corporate course on unconscious bias. That same year, we welcomed my African American niece, Faith—a high school sophomore, into our home to live with us. These two events triggered self-reflection and an eventual admission that, while I was not a racist, I was also not antiracist.
The unconscious bias course raised my awareness of the racism people of color experience in the workplace. And Faith raised my awareness of the African American experience in communities and the educational system. At home and at work, I was beginning to understand that I am not a racist is not good enough. I had to act. I had to support. I had to become antiracist.
One of the things I started doing was talking with people of color about race. During one powerful discussion, a woman of color explained that overcoming poverty was admirable, sure. But, she told me, “You aren’t marked with poverty for life. No matter how successful I am, no matter how much wealth I accumulate, how many degrees I get, my skin will always be black. I am a black woman. I am a proud black woman. But my skin will always be a problem for white people. You escaped poverty. I can’t escape racism.”
It was this discussion that, in the words of one of the women I interviewed for this series, made me “interrogate my own biases.” What I realized – and this was the beginning of my enlightenment – is that I had somehow thought of my childhood poverty as an adversity experience that I shared with people of color. I couldn’t be racist because I thought I knew what adversity was. But what had not occurred to me was being white entitled me to opportunities to overcome this adversity that simply aren’t offered to people of color.
That racial enlightenment has brought me here, to this series, to becoming an antiracist at work. So, enough about me. I’m going to shut up now and just listen to people of color and follow your lead. Because right now, more than ever, that’s what we white people need to do.
Next up: Is emotional intelligence biased against people of color?