Until this year, I didn’t fully grasp how much racism is enmeshed in our country’s DNA, not somewhere far away in Middle America, but often right under my nose.

How practically every public school I have heard of has been named after a slaveowner.

And the very city I grew up in, Rockville, MD once housed a “Rockville Colored High School.”

And statues that I always took for granted as “heroes of our nation” turned out to really be those of white supremacists.

How people who could be my neighbors in NYC are actually racist and bigoted.

It has truly been a rude awakening that has shaken me to my core.

I’m amazed at how black people have put up with this alienating society for so long. All I can say is I am so sorry, and Black Lives Matter.

But I can’t completely blame myself for not knowing earlier. After all, you don’t know what you don’t know. I blame the schools I went to, for teaching me lies and half-truths. I blame the structure of the society I grew up in. Not knowing doesn’t make someone a bad person – not caring does. Caring is the most valuable thing we can do.

In the last few months, I’ve worked with several company leaders who have tiptoed around the conversation of diversity. Mostly, they are scared. They don’t know what to say and fear something they say will be misinterpreted as racist. So, they either keep quiet, which makes things worse – and/or they bring in a consultant like myself to develop their D&I strategy and communications for them.

I believe this points to a dangerous, growing social movement of shaming and calling out that is, ultimately, counterproductive. It is wrong to expect that everyone will say things in exactly the right way – and this is where intent becomes so important. This is where we must develop the discernment to know what is a racist, bigoted insult, and what is not.

While there are definitely plenty of ill-intentioned, racist individuals who deserve to be harshly penalized, there are also those who mean well and perhaps, just don’t know all the right things to say and do.

We are all just a product of our experiences, and if our experiences were lacking, it doesn’t mean we are bad people. It does mean we have a big responsibility now to try harder to understand.

The Best Thing for D&I and Unconscious Bias Enable Two-Way Communication

Firm organizational policies and processes against discrimination and harassment are a MUST to ensure that employees are treated respectfully.

But, they only solve half the problem. Unconscious bias occurs everyday in many ways, often unintentionally. It is important to allow employees a voice to share these subtle instances as well.

One of the best things you can do as a leader to cultivate D&I is to stop trying to find the right things to say. Instead, create space to listen. This is an opportunity to ask questions and collect feedback, an opportunity to allow employees to feel heard.

A real or virtual, confidential feedback box can be a great tool. I try to incorporate a set sentence structure based in Non-Violent Communication that employees can use: “When you said or did “x”, I felt “y” because “z”. Can I request you to ____ next time?

This structure allows space for constructive feedback without shaming or passive aggression, while also offering a very clear request from the employee on how he/she would like to be treated. It removes the ambiguity.

Leaders can also extend an open invitation to employees who feel discriminated against in any way to meet with them directly to discuss the issue and come up with a solution.

Forging a Better Future

In these complex and multifaceted times, it is more important than ever to ask questions, to see things from multiple perspectives, and to not assume we know the full truth of anyhting.

What is diversity and inclusion, after all? It’s accepting and integrating points of view. It’s being patient and empathetic. It’s being open to learning from one another’s unique and varied experiences.

The shameful past can’t be changed. But we can change the present, and even after all that has occurred, I still feel conviction that one of the best ways is through ever greater authenticity, self-expression, and empathy. I feel more strongly than ever that our organizations can become pioneers for societal change, through instilling a culture of collaboration, listening, and empathetic leadership.

Do you want to improve diversity and inclusion in your organization?

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