If you’ve met me or even just read any of my writing, you know that I think hard and deeply on things. The unacceptable death of George Floyd and the subsequent national discussion has had my rumination machine in flat out overdrive. Over the last week, I’ve had dozens of conversations with peers, colleagues, employees, family, and friends all from very diverse backgrounds and beliefs. I know as a white male, I can’t and won’t ever fully get it, but I hope by sharing the things I’ve heard, learned, and fiercely internally explored over the last week, at least one more great conversation is inspired, one more perspective opened a little wider.
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It took every fiber in my being to just listen. Not to listen with empathy to then share a personal story to show I understood her feelings to create an emotional connection. Instead, I just listened to a member of our team who is a woman of color, speak passionately on the racial turmoil our country is facing – about the feelings and struggles, the concerns and hopes. 

I just listened and learned, asking clarifying questions from time to time, and ultimately finishing the dialogue with her commenting she was “feeling very seen and respected in this moment”.

Empathy is created by putting yourself in another’s shoes and emotionally understanding their experience by tapping into the feelings from your own similar experience. It is inherently impossible for me or any other white person to understand what people of color are feeling right now.

Now is the time for white leaders to lead WITHOUT empathy. Now is the time for us to lead WITH compassion, with our backgrounds and emotions removed from the equation. To lead with the intent to learn, to experience, to listen. To listen without the preconceived notions or “yeah, buts…” that dilute the conversation. 

To listen and until the other person feels heard, and then, and only then, ask questions. Not leading questions or judgmental commentary. Questions whose answers may challenge the construct by which our entire mental world may be rooted in. Questions that have no easy answers, that may create more confusion than clarity, more frustration than peace. This is a very complex and complicated situation, with no easy answers, no clear path.

Much of the media seems to be focusing on and highlighting the extremes (as normal), debating the actions of the rioters and the racists, creating even more polarity, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the majority of America lives on a spectrum between those two poles, neither actively racist nor actively anti-racist.

I don’t think most white Americans have participated in or even witnessed the horrible overt racism that is occurring and being reported in the media. And in the absence of a personal experience or great dialogue, it becomes all too easy for many to dismiss the whole thing as media-inflated hyperbole, fake news. Thoughts of “it can’t be that bad, here the media goes again trumpeting the next crisis to boost ratings” begin and the core battle is lost.

It is becoming more apparent with every conversation I have with people of all races that most white Americans, including myself, are not completely aware of the full extent of the multi-generational systemic racism that is intertwined and baked into the everyday lives of African Americans. This more subtle form of racism is often hiding in plain sight, happening right in front of our eyes; its systemic invisibility making it maybe even more insidious and dangerous.

Although I grew up on a farm in a very rural area with very little racial diversity, I can thank my mom for always reinforcing that people are people no matter where they come from, who they love, or the color of their skin. In our companies, we have had employees from all different races, religions, sexual orientation, and gender identification, and I never thought of them as anything except talented, hard-working, great human beings. 

I had a hard time fully grasping some of the challenges minorities are facing until I heard some stories over the last couple of weeks from a few of my Black friends and colleagues that definitely made me stop and reevaluate my thinking, to reconsider my color blindness and naivety. To step back and realize I was living alongside most of white America in Camp Unaware. 

Unaware that a highly educated, highly successful Black friend of mine from college routinely gets pulled over in his white Minneapolis suburb because he doesn’t “look like he belongs there”.

Unaware as a really talented Black employee in our real estate company laughingly responded “people like me don’t explore neighborhoods like this” in response to my comment of exploring my predominantly white suburban neighborhood to find the best route because of construction shut downs.

Unaware of the everyday pressures and resistance that makes everything harder, every journey longer.

The protests, the rallies, the social media movements are amazingly effective tools to bring awareness to these issues, but awareness is not enough. In the absence of great dialogue the change we all want, the change we all need, won’t happen. Emotionally-charged rhetoric may create movement, but that progress will be short-lived in the absence of great dialogue helping people reframe and rewire preexisting notions and long held beliefs. 

There is a really fine emotional line that must be walked to create long-lasting change. There must be enough emotion to propel the topic to the national stage of consciousness, but not so much that the very people needing to rethink their thinking retreat, put up their walls, and dig in their heels, immediately snapping back to the comfort of their default stance.

Change needs to happen. Change must happen. These enduring changes in the way people see, think, and feel can only happen when we are all willing to listen and learn, to lead not with empathy but with compassion.

No longer is being non-racist enough. We must all become actively anti-racist and help in whatever ways we can to make these changes reality.

“Be the change you want to see in the world” was never more appropriate than now. Be the change. Start a conversation with the mindset that things you believe to be true, may in fact not be so, then figure out how you can be that positive change you want to see and the world desperately needs.

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