Passionate about gender? But can you do anything about race?
If you are reading this blog it means you are most likely just as passionate about gender as I am. But what about race? The death of George Floyd has sparked a wave of protest, and race is definitely on the agenda now. But what can you do? If you happen to be white and privileged, is there anything you can do? Perhaps it’s too hard. Perhaps it’s too difficult, as before you know it, you get it wrong.
That’s what I used to think. I thought that race wasn’t my topic, and perhaps someone else should do race. But that is changing. So how did this change? What did I learn from it? And what can you do with that?
I am openly sharing my journey below, but it is not something I am proud of. I am openly going to admit I had it wrong, and I am learning. I hope it will help some of you understand your own journey, and make you a better advocate for gender inclusion, and perhaps even help you on your journey with race inclusion too.
The start of my journey
First, I got a request from a University in the US, could I promote their course for black women to my audience. I thought about it and concluded that I didn’t really know any black women. But I like being helpful, so I checked my LinkedIn profile. That’s when I realised I know Vanessa, and Barbara, and Jenny, and going through my list of contacts it turned out there were plenty of black women I knew. I just hadn’t really noticed their colour. I saw them as professionals. At the time I thought that was a good thing. Now I know better.
Next, my clients were asking me if I could do more on diversity and inclusion, so of course I got a bit more interested. Then one day I passed a bookshop and came across a book, ‘Why I no longer talk to white people about race’. The provocative title jolted me into action. I read it instantly and only then understood that systemic racism is a thing, and that even I can do things to combat racism. I read more books. I also spoke with some experts in the field, who do for race what I do for gender, which was enlightening.
The personal struggle
But I wasn’t done yet, I needed to know for myself what it was like. I felt I needed some personal verification. Perhaps it was true in the big picture, but it was much harder to imagine that the people I knew were actually troubled by racism. They were successful, well-educated people, that I regard highly. So I checked. I had some very frank conversations with some of the Black and Asian people I know. As you do, I made some mistakes. I asked the wrong questions, put them on the spot and – I am ashamed to say – probably didn’t get the questions or terminology right. It must have been uncomfortable for the people I spoke with. It’s so hard to have these conversations in the right way. I do hope they forgive me, and I do hope they can see that I did it with the intention to learn. I am very grateful they were patient with me and gave me a chance to learn.
Becoming an ally
Incredibly, these conversations did what no book can do. They drove the message of racism right into my heart. I could no longer ignore it. If even people that I know and value come across it daily, and tell their children to be careful around the police. If even those people tell me that they have to work twice as hard and be twice as careful. Then that can’t be right, can it?
Now, I am an ally. I look differently at what I read and hear, and ask myself. ‘What is the bias?’, ‘What are the real numbers?’ , ‘What could be behind this?’. In addition, I call people out if they are openly racist.
What learning about race taught me about gender
It’s been a journey, and I am still on it. What did I learn so far? Apart from learning lots about racism, my own journey has given me great insight into how men think about gender. Just like me, most men start off by thinking gender isn’t an issue. They just look for merit, rather than gender. To change their mind, they need something to spark their interest. This can in fact be one of my talks or someone sharing my book, or one of my videos. Or it is a talented woman leaving their company, or the experiences of their own wives or daughters.
Then they start reading up on it. But they are not done yet. They still need to have those conversations.
I used to be baffled about that. In my workshops I would tell people about gender differences, and how they impact women at work. The first thing most men would do is turn to their female colleague and ask: ‘Really? Is it like that for you? Surely it’s not like that here and we are a nice place to work?’. Now I know where that comes from. Now I understand. That is helping me talk with men. It is helping me share what I know about gender and gender difference over and over again.
What you can do
Here’s a great list with books to help you understand racism compiled by Penguin. It’s really worth educating yourself. It may help you understand better why black people are angry, and it may also help you with your work on gender diversity!
Learn. Listen. Educate yourself. That’s how we grow.