Racially Numb: How We Addressed the High Cost of Complacency

I have been racially numb for over 45 years.

The cost of complacency recently became intolerable. Here is what unfolded, and how I finally took peaceful action.

When I was 11, I was enjoying a summer day at the Barkhamsted, CT reservoir. A school friend, Mike, played Marco Polo with me. We also enjoyed a splashing contest. I began laughing very loudly.

My laughter prompted my Mom to leave her beach towel and walk towards the water’s edge. She called me out of the water and sternly pointed her finger at me.

“Don’t you ever play with that boy again…do you hear me?”

Mike was black.

Sadly, Mike and I barely spoke again when school was back in session.

I was conditioned at an early age to be racially numb. I lived inside cultural cocoons surrounded by white, middle-class people.

I thought I had “evolved” when I moved to the DC metro area 11 years ago. For the first time in my 25-year career, it was commonplace to encounter and learn from senior leaders of all colors and backgrounds. Many became clients. I thought I was on the path to greater empathy and tolerance.

The last several months of police brutality and human rights violations proved one thing: I was still racially numb and observing these persistent atrocities from a safe distance.

I could no longer stand on the sidelines. Yet as I tried to generate solutions on my own, I felt powerless and overwhelmed.

I pored over multiple books, videos, and podcasts. I consulted with a racially and ethnically diverse set of my peers within the Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches group. I struggled to find easy answers.  I asked myself “what are my strengths, and how can I leverage them quickly?”

Finally, my associate Callyn Giese and I reached out to thousands of followers and clients. I floated the idea of hosting a four-week Zoom discussion group. We named the program “A Return to Humanity.”

These private gatherings had 3 objectives:

  1. Improve our understanding of the current human rights crisis, and the impact on our stakeholders
  2. Share facts and data to make informed choices (and cut through the fragmented and highly politicized media sources)
  3. Commit to peaceful actions to eradicate these unjust actions

Thirteen CEOs, leadership consultants, agency executives and CMOs participated. We created a pitch-free zone. Every participant agreed to honor the Chatham House Rules. We also would not tolerate “make right/wrong” debates.

The conversations triggered tears, vulnerability, and deep introspection. Here were some of the questions we explored:

“As a privileged, white leader, should I have a voice, or should I just listen? How can I be authentic and part of the solution, both internally and externally, while being sensitive to the fact that I have no direct experiences to draw from?” — Jeff Hilimire, CEO, Dragon Army

“How can we engage in fierce activism and keep an open heart and a clear mind? I find that ferocity activates my gut for action, and the intensity of it draws me into a narrow view of life and people…How do we sustain the momentum and ensure real action is taken?” – Eric Kaufmann, President, Sagatica

Getting to the core issue was of utmost importance. Here is what we concluded and achieved within just a few weeks:

  1. At its core, our internal struggles and public protests are fueled by the systemic abuse of power. This abuse appears in many forms:  racism, fear, inequality, brutality, and misleading media narratives (video clips are often edited to reveal just a part of the story). The abuse of power informs and taints our systems. We see the abuse appear as inept policies, rules, organization practices, norms, education, hiring, governance, and team interactions.
  2. As a leader, most of us are consciously and unconsciously contributing to the problem. Our group shared shame, frustration, and confusion around this insight.  One CEO from South Carolina with deep Southern roots courageously admitted that “I have practiced white privilege for too long, and now it’s time that I break that pattern.”
  3. Leaders must take immediate action. In fact, if your executive team is still “thinking it over” or abdicating them to HR, your voice will be largely ignored. Waiting for consensus cannot work. Each person can make a difference NOW.

We also agreed to several actions. Here are a few…

  • Several of our CEO members announced new hiring practices. These might include hiding the name or gender of the job applicants on the resumes, and making it a priority to recruit diverse candidates. Executives who refuse to attract and recruit diverse candidates need to miss a painful portion of their bonuses.
  • The CEO of a DC-based publishing company had been noticing that many freelancers of color often undercharge for their services. Today, he proactively shows them the going market rates, then he asks them to adjust their fees accordingly.
  • Dragon Army, an Atlanta-based agency, is relocating their offices to a purpose-built community to fuel diverse thinking and learning.
  • Bob Moore, a seasoned leadership coach, volunteered to lead his Rotary Work Group on diversity, inclusion and belonging.
  • We wanted to express our collective emotions in a unique and engaging way that would incite peaceful actions with thousands of other leaders. With the help of Johannes Coloma-Flecker, we wrote  this song, “Numb.”

Flecker, President of Sound Leadership in Brooklyn, NY, said “The song material we created developed its own life in the recording and production process. The lyrics pushed me to produce the song more like a raw, angry assessment of our current situation and feelings.” Our group committed to raising awareness by sharing this song broadly. We invite you to do the same.

Awareness sparks action. Action sparks change. And change will help us Return to Humanity.

Through these collective actions, I hope Mike, my old swim friend, will forgive my younger self.

P.S. Our group created a Resource List to deepen our knowledge. Drop me a note if you want a complimentary copy.

Copyright 2020, Lisa Nirell. All rights reserved.

This post originally appeared in Capitol Communicator.

Comments open: True

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