Talking about race, part 2

Continuing the conversation about race which I started here, I finished reading Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism“. There were many points in the book that easily rang true. And there were many other points that challenged me to stop and think – and to think differently. Let me share a few of them here.

I invite you to share your thoughts and engage in a constructive conversation with me.

The first thing from the book that challenged me, was the idea that two key ideologies of western culture are individualism and objectivity. And because of these, we (White people) are hard-pressed to step back, recognize and critique the way we are socialized by society.

Individuality is the belief that each of us is unique. And objectivity is the belief that it is possible to be unbiased.

Because of the ideology of individuality, we believe the efforts and merits of the individual outweigh the effects of being a member of any particular group. Thus, we believe that any success we have is due to our own, individual hard work and merit. We do not attribute any of that success to our status or membership in a group.

“If I am successful, ti is because of me individually – not at all because I was born a middle-class, White American male.”

Likewise, individuality holds that a person’s failures are due to them, personally, and can not be ascribed to their being a part of any group. Even if that group has been historically, demonstrably disadvantaged.

“Your failure is because of you, not because you were born a poor, Black American woman.”

The insidious extension of this logic is to then see larger negative results (the drop-out rate of Black high school students is higher than of White high school students) as a consequence or failure in the effort or character of those individuals.

“Blacks must be lazy or unfit for school, otherwise why would their dropout rate be so high?”

Dr. DiAngelo writes, “Setting aside your sense of uniqueness is a critical skill that will allow you to see the big picture of the society in which you live; individualism will not.”

This was a big eye-opener because while I think I am pretty good about not drawing negative conclusions about groups by seeing their situations as a result of individual character flaws, I can see that I underestimate how un-level the playing field is for members of various groups in society.

So the thought “If you just try hard enough, you can achieve anything” needs to become, “Despite trying hard enough, you may still not be able to overcome the obstacles society places in your way.”

. . .

As I write this, I paused for several minutes to reflect how deeply this idea of individuality is wired in my brain and how much work it will take to unwire it. Just reading the previous paragraph, I have an instinctive, gut-level reaction that says I am letting people escape personal responsibility for their situation in life, by “blaming” society.

And that, right there, is White privilege. I cannot readily see that my own point of view is biased based on the advantages I am given because I am White. I assume that the playing field is the same for everyone else but cannot see how it is angled to my advantage.

. . .

And that segues nicely into the second western ideology of objectivity. Objectivity, besides allowing us to not see the advantages we enjoy in our society, also allows us to construct fictions like “I don’t see race” or “I am color-blind.”

There is no such thing as a single, universal, unbiased human perspective. Each of us is shaped by our experiences in life and those experiences are significantly shaped by the broader groups in which we have membership.

Your view as a woman differs from mine as a man. My view as an expatriate living in Thailand differs from my husband’s as a native-born Thai. And my view as a White person differs from the views and experiences of Black people.

Because these views differ, they they are inherently subjective. Objectivity does not exist. to maintain the pretense of objectivity does two things:

  • First, it provides cover to perpetuate racism (and sexism and xenophobia, etc.) If I deny something exists, how can I confront and change it?
  • Second, it absolves me of my complicity, however unintentional, in perpetuating systemic racism.

To put it simply: we view things differently and we are viewed differently, based on the groups to which we below. The ability to see myself only as an individual, and to claim objectivity about racism, is “a key privilege of dominance” as Dr. DiAngelo puts it.

People of color do not have the privilege of being seen as individuals. When a White person sees them, that White person will first evaluate them based on their group identity – the identity the White person assumes they have.

This is based in large part on familiarity. Those closest to you are the ones you will see as individuals. Those further from you, you will see first as generalizations. This has been well-studied and is known as the cross-race effect or the in-group effect.

My own experience confirms this: growing up in a high school where, despite having a racially diverse student body, most of the students in my classes were White or Asian, and after having lived and worked in East Asia for fifteen years, when I meet a White or Asian person, I quickly see them as an individual and don’t see them so much as a member of such-and-such a group.

But when I meet someone who is Latinx or Black, I find myself starting with generalizations. It is only as (and if) I make the effort to get to know them, that they start to be seen truly as individuals. And where do those generalizations come from? They are mostly based on ignorance, stereotypes, and impressions I have from the media.

Now, I’m sure that many of you would have a knee-jerk reaction that everyone you meet, you immediately start seeing them as individuals. That was my instinctive reaction, too. But if I’m honest with myself, if I reflect deeply, I recognize that when I meet someone from a group I am less familiar with, I am starting from generalizations (read: stereotypes) and then filling in the details.

So what does this all mean for me? First, I have to recognize my own bias, which is to see “others” as generalized perceptions, indistinct from the group to which I think they below. Second, I have to recognize that because of my ignorance and lack of first-hand interactions with “others”, my generalized perceptions are uninformed and, likely, wrong.

So I need to get a lot better informed and get to know more people from groups with which I am less familiar.

I will continue this conversation and invite you to join in.

I need to start talking about race

I’m a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, university graduated, middle class American man. Granted, I am gay, but other than that, I’m pretty representative of the dominant culture in the United States. And somewhere in the process of growing up, I learned the message that I shouldn’t be racist but also that it isn’t really my place to talk about race. After all, that’s something that African-Americans or Latinx or Asian-American people are better placed to talk about. After all, what do I know about racism? It would be racist of me to talk about race, wouldn’t it? I’ve come to realize that, quite the opposite, it is necessary for me to start talking about race.

The realization began with a question. After reading the news of the brutal, senseless deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and then George Floyd, I asked myself, “What is it going to take for things to change?” And somewhere in the silence that followed that question, instead of just shrugging my shoulders and moving my attention to the next story, the first strains of an answer started to enter my mind.

These first strains started to unlock something in my mind. They started to stir my heart. And they started to dissolve the scales on my eyes. Because I realized that nothing will change, so long as people like me have the passing thought, “Oh, that’s a shame” in reaction to stories of racist brutality and then move on to the next story. Nothing will change, until people like me start to give a damn. Nothing will change until people like me really act like, if all lives matter then black and brown lives matter, too, instead of just saying it.

And by “people like me”, let me be clear that I mean white people.

So this is the start of my journey. In talking about race, I am going to make a lot of mistakes, to unintentionally insult people and to demonstrate my ignorance many times over. But that’s okay, because we don’t learn by staying in the comfort zone. I can already see that this journey will require a lot of courage, because it quickly becomes clear: I am part of the problem. We (white people) are part of the problem – a big part! And thankfully, we can also be part of the solution. In fact, we have no choice.

After I asked that question, “What is it going to take for things to change?” and started to realize I needed to look for some answers instead of letting the question be rhetorical, I found my first resource: Dr. Robin DiAngelo, a sociologist who for many years has worked in the fields of multicultural education and whiteness studies. Her 2018 book, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” was revelatory and challenging.

You can watch an 80-minute talk she gave in Seattle where she outlines the book or you can watch this five-minute video that hits the key message. There is a lot to unpack in the book and I’ll start sharing my thoughts on that in my next post.

In the meantime, I’ve started with two steps: educate myself and start talking about race. I’m reading and watching and listening to new and different sources of information. And I’m speaking about race, asking questions and listening to the answers in conversations with friends, family members and others around me.

And I look forward to sharing my journey with you.

The shifting tectonic plates – part two

In my previous post, I shared about the first of two significant changes that rearranged the contours of my life two days after my fourth-cycle birthday. This post focuses on the second, work-related change. As this is work-related, I will endeavor to write about it in a way that is appropriate and does not ruffle any communications policy feathers.

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The morning that I dropped Tawn off at his parents’ house, for them to look after as he recovered from his severe allergic reaction to some medication, I headed into work and shortly afterwards a corporate announcement appeared in my inbox:

Ms. CCO (the Chief Commercial Officer, who was also the head of the business unit I support in my role as Director, HR Business Partnering) has left the company over differences in the strategic direction of the business with the CEO.  In the interim, the Mr. CEO will head the business unit as we search for a replacement.

Note that this information was publicly released at the same time, so I am not sharing any proprietary information with this announcement.

The back story is that the CCO had specifically asked me to step from a leadership development role into this HR business partner role six months ago, to help her turn around what has been a financially struggling business unit. This was a leap of faith for me and a challenge that I decided was worth undertaking.

Along the way, I struggled to understand my new role and see how I could best bring value to the CCO and to the organization. In fact, just the week before, I had dinner in Hong Kong with my former boss and another colleague and, discussing this challenge, arrived at the conclusion that I needed to be more up-front in confronting the CCO and bringing my independent voice to her counsel.

No sooner had I returned from Hong Kong, then the following week, the CCO left!

This was a shock to me and as the head of HR for the business unit, I was unsurprisingly the recipient of a flurry of questions. Concerned employees, especially regional ones, wanted to know what was happening, whether their jobs were safe and – oh, by the way – did you know that I would be just great at such-and-such a role in operations?

It was a challenge because nowhere in our HR standard operating procedures describes how to handle the unexpected resignation of your head of business unit. So I charged forward, comforting people, reminding them that we need to focus on what we can control: our reaction, our mindset and what needs to be done.

The weeks that have followed have been interesting – there is no better way to learn than to face crisis and uncertainty – and also frustrating, because you want to help people but you have no real information to share, nothing substantial you can provide. The only thing you have is an empathetic ear, which is maybe the most valuable thing in times like these.

A few weeks later, a second major announcement came: my boss was promoted to be the global head of HR, a role that the CEO (and, previously, the CCO) had held. This would appear to be a good thing – after all, one thing I have appreciated about working at this company is that despite it being a large multinational, I have been able to work directly with our most senior leaders.

Two days after the second announcement, a third announcement came: a restructuring in HR, in which my former boss (the one I had dinner with in Hong Kong) and three of her team members were cut. This was personally devastating for me, as these are people who are colleagues and also friends. Only six months ago, I was part of that team and the most compelling reason I chose to join this company was because of the connection I made with my former boss when she interviewed me. This was someone whose vision I believed in and whose balance of high standards and high nurturance created the robust environment in which I could thrive.

A fact of life in businesses is that restructurings happen. People, through no fault of their own, are cut from a company. Their work, which is often a large part of their personal identity, is taken away. And in my new role as an HR business partner, the last few weeks have given me a lot to think about, in terms of how that process is done. How best can we conduct an inherently inhumane event in a humane way that esteems and treats with dignity the people who are being let go?

As a manager several years ago, I had to deliver this difficult news to scores of people as my company went through two rounds of layoffs. And I have been on the receiving end of a layoff when my previous employer wanted me to stop working remotely from Thailand and return to the United States. Based on those experiences, I have some idea how layoffs can be done with dignity.

Just as the tectonic shift in my relationship with my father-in-law has changed the landscape surrounding my marriage, this tectonic shift in my organization has changed the landscape surrounding my job.

My reflection is that there are two ways to go: I could give in to cynicism and start to look for a way out of the turbulence, seeking something more certain and stable. Many friends have encouraged me to take this route. Alternately, I could follow the advice given by a few other friends: choose to stick with the challenging route through the rearranged landscape, because it is in these challenging times that the opportunity to make a difference is greatest.

As with all earthquakes, there is a risk of aftershocks. We do not know when they will come, nor what their severity will be. But in the meanwhile, I think the best route forward is through the rubble. There are people in need of direction and support and there is rebuilding to be done.

 

Finishing the fourth cycle

A bit late, but last month I celebrated my fourth-cycle birthday. For those who may not know, a “cycle” refers to the twelve years in the Chinese calendar*, each represented by a different animal. With any luck, this fourth cycle represents the mid-point of my life and has served as an opportunity to reflect on what I have accomplished so far and what I can hope to accomplish with the time that remains.

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One lesson I learned from my great-grandfather, is that we are each responsible to reach our full potential. I also learned from my family that we are called to help others reach their full potential, too. My family is full of teachers, nurses, soldiers and others called to serve the communities around them in their own ways.

For the 32 years I have worked, regardless of what my job role has been, I’ve had the opportunity to learn and grow and to help others learn and grow, too.

The lessons learned thus far could fill a book (and, I hope, one day will) and started even before my first real job, when I worked a newspaper delivery route in the mornings before school. Understanding how to manage my time, throw papers so they were easy for customers to retrieve, and make collections at month’s end as painless as possible, were early lessons that have proved valuable countless times.

The opportunities to help others grow have been abundant, too: from teaching new ushers the proper way to quickly clean a theatre before the next show began, to having to manage two people who had wanted the first managerial job I was promoted to, to guiding “new generation leaders” as a leadership development consultant, I have found fulfillment in helping others grow and, with modesty, hope that I have had some success.

It may sound corny, but I do have a strong sense of purpose in my life: to help others reach their full potential and, in doing so, to reach my own potential. One commitment I made to myself, is that I will regularly assess whether my current circumstance is allowing me to progress on both halves of my purpose. If not, it will be time for a change.

Looking at the lives of my great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents – as well as so many mentors, colleagues, and friends – I have an abundance of role models whose examples I can follow.

And this is an important element of my purpose. You see, I seek to fulfill this purpose because it is part of a larger, longer legacy than myself. And it is something that, I hope, will run through me and live on in the lives and actions of others.

If four cycles are all I have, I am satisfied that I have lived my purpose. I hope, though, that I have many more cycles left because I don’t feel nearly finished.

*Also celebrated in many other East Asian cultures

Thank you President Obama

As January 20, 2017 approaches and, with it, the inauguration of President Trump, I want to thank President Obama. His was the first campaign for which I contributed money and time. Future generations will write his legacy and, just like any politician, he is imperfect. Nonetheless, I want to thank President Obama for three reasons:

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Thank you for conducting yourself unlike any president in my lifetime, with a dignity, intelligence and professionalism that brought honor to the office. There have been no real scandals and your conduct has been unimpeachable – literally “no drama Obama”. You showed love and respect for Americans of all origins and faiths, championed marriage equality and treated women as equals – in short, you behaved humanely and justly. As the leader of our nation, but also as a father and a husband and a man, we could do far worse than the model you set.

Thank you for your political accomplishments. It is easy to forget how dire the world economy was in January 2009. The economy is, by almost any measure, in great shape. Far more Americans have health insurance now than when you took office. In an uncertain world, you kept America safe and out of any new military entanglements. And you accomplished this with a Congressional minority for six years, where Republicans explicitly made it their mission not to govern but to stymie you. Yes, you could have accomplished much more in many key areas, but your accomplishments are significant.

Thank you for risking your life for the country. All presidents are targets for unbalanced people with extremist agendas – thus the constant Secret Service protection. But as the first president of color, you faced a level of hatred unmatched in modern history. Especially in an age where a large percentage of Americans are still convinced you are foreign-born, I am startled that there were no attempts on your life. That was a very real risk you faced and I thank your for doing so. My nieces and young people everywhere are growing up in a nation where having a president of color isn’t an unimaginable future but rather an unquestioned reality.

The third point reminds me that there are some other people whom I must thank:

In a crowded field of first ladies who have been positive role models, First Lady Michelle Obama especially stands out. Her class, style, intelligence and caring has been an inspiration for all of us. The loving partnership between her and the President is a joy to watch.

Vice President Joe Biden is a class-act example of public service. A humble, big-hearted man who has never sought power or personal gain, but rather has always sought to serve and contribute to the betterment of our nation.

And his wife Jill Biden so rarely receives the credit she deserves. While serving as Second Lady of the United States she has continued her primary job as an English professor at a nearby community college, contributing on a local level to the next generation.

There is no knowing how the next four years will turn out, but I invite you to join me in giving thanks to President Obama, the First Lady, Vice President Biden and the Second Lady for their service to the country these past eight years.

 

A Life Left Too Early

originalThis morning, I received news that a friend in San Francisco had died. He was around my age and about six months ago was diagnosed with cancer. In his final hours, friends had shared stories and memories of him on his Facebook page and his family read the posts to him as he lay in bed. Then this morning my time, the family posted that he had passed.

I’m reaching the age, mid-40s, where I’m starting to encounter more deaths of people my age. A few high school classmates, a few colleagues. Of course the frequency will only rise and I know that this is part of life. But there is something that leaves me feeling a bit melancholy to see someone around my age lose their life.

Many times, I have asked myself how I would respond if I was diagnosed with a terminal disease. How hard would I fight to extend my life. Coincidentally, this morning as I drove to work I was listening to a Freakonomics podcast about this question: what is the value of quality of life versus quantity of life, when one is facing a terminal illness?

Of course it is easy to have an opinion on this when not faced with the actual dilemma, but I imagine I would opt for palliative care over aggressive treatment. I would rather enjoy the time I have left, then live longer but be in needless suffering.

Whatever the case, here’s a thought to the life of Wilson Fang. We weren’t close, but my life was better for having known him. And maybe that’s the highest tribute we can give anyone.

Not “Liking” but Instead Liking

An exercise I began about ten days ago is no longer clicking the “like” button on Facebook, Instagram, or other social media sites.

It isn’t that I stopped liking content, but rather that I didn’t like how clicking the “like” button was nearly automatic and yet entirely devoid of human interaction.

Instead, I am commenting when I like something. Sometimes the comment is a very brief “nice picture.” Sometimes it is a more elaborate thought. And sometimes it is the simple message, “I like this.”

Yes, this means some trade offs. I do not choose to spend time commenting on everything I read. This means I do not read as many updates, posts, etc as I might otherwise. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Often, a comment I leave is responded to with a follow up comment. No matter how brief, there is at least that sense of interaction, of meaningful connection. I find it much more fulfilling than seeing a “like”.

Let me clarify that I am not proscribing or advocating this behavior. There is no judgment call. It is simply a matter of me trying something new, seeing if I can make my social media experience more meaningful and satisfying – for me, not anyone else.

So far, I am enjoying this exercise and the results I have seen. Over time, I may reintroduce the occasional “like” but only as the rare indulgence in an otherwise healthy social media diet.

How Greetings Spawn Humbugs

Living outside the United States, I avoid being immersed in some of the silly, manufactured controversies that whip people into a talk radio-fueled frenzy. One of the big ones this time of year is the unbelievable anxiety some people get in over people saying “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”.

Just the other day, a former schoolmate on Facebook posted how, with Hanukkah falling in November this year, there was no excuse for anyone not to say “Merry Christmas” because there are no other holidays.

“New Year’s is no longer a holiday?” I helpfully replied.

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There are many Christians who feel that their religion is under attack. I can understand why they might feel that way, although considering that Christianity continues to be a growing religion worldwide, I’m not sure the threat is real. But when someone wishes you a “happy holiday,” feeling in any way insulted or under attack seems to be a very un-Christian response. Let’s turn to the Bible to understand why.

First, the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” When someone says “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings” to you, they are conveying a charitable wish, one offered with no malice. In fact, they are potentially being considerate by respecting the fact that you may not be Christian. (Not always easy to tell from outward appearances alone.) Back to the Golden Rule: you would probably want people to be warm, charitable, and respectful towards you and that’s precisely the motivation of someone who wishes you a secular seasonal greeting.

Second, Jesus admonished us to “turn the other cheek.” A secular seasonal greeting is rarely intended as an insult and certainly never causes any true injury. Follow Jesus’ teaching and move on. There are much worse insults than being given warm holiday wishes by someone. Jesus died for your sins, not because someone wished him “season’s greetings”.

Third, Jesus teaches us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” This is considered one of the two greatest commandments, the other being to love God with all your heart. This teaching is about giving even when you are not receiving, about loving even when you are not loved. If someone wishes you a greeting that does not reflect your faith, surely your response should be a reflection of your faith. For a Christian, that means a response that is loving and giving, not one that is angry and spiteful.

Whatever your faith, the end of the year (especially in the wintry northern hemisphere) is a special time. May it find you healthy, happy, and surrounded by loved ones, regardless of your faith.

 

Globalizing September 11th

2011-09-11 Remembrance

In remembrance of the 9-11-2001 attacks, I humbly suggest that we need to move beyond thinking of ourselves in terms of our nationality, our religion, or our race. We need to start thinking of ourselves as human beings. Only then will peace truly be possible. Easier to say than to do, but let’s use today as an opportunity to move towards that goal.

 

You Get What You Pay For

Interesting conversation recently. It began with the subject of the fast food workers who were striking to earn $15 an hour. It continued with a discussion of how the middle class in the United States has been hollowed out, with meaningful, well-paying jobs going overseas as consumers search for the least-expensive items without regards to the impacts of those purchasing decisions.

McDonaldsFrom there, we talked about the high cost of Starbucks coffee versus the coffee at McDonald’s. I pointed out that, while there may be many reasons to explain the price difference between Starbucks and McDonald’s, one main reason has to be that Starbuck’s provides a relatively generous set of benefits to front-line employees, compared with McDonald’s. Kind of illustrates the point about the impacts of our purchasing decisions.

starbucks-barista-620xaA gross oversimplification, of course, but if we choose to buy from companies that poorly compensate their employees, we are sending a message. If we choose to buy from companies that treat employees better, we are sending another message.