One of the things that keeps racial inequity in place within organizations is the impasse in communication between whites and people of color.  As mentioned in my post, the “Psychology of Human Differences,” (April 9, 2020), many whites grow up in settings where there is little to no exposure to other cultures.  Subsequently, these whites only learn to communicate in the Anglo/white way.

This way of communicating includes assumptions that: (a) there is one truth that is knowable/discernable, and (b) effective speech is linear, non-emotional, and to the point.  These norms fit the category of a “low-context culture,” to use the schema of cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall. [1]  Most  low-context cultures are also cultures where there is minimal physical touching and little to no expression of strong or negative emotion. This contrasts sharply with African American culture, and with many Asian and Indigenous cultures, which are “high-context cultures.”  U.S. businessmen in the 1950’s and 60’s were puzzled by the behavior of Japanese businessmen, who initially did not discuss the business at all. Instead, they spent time socializing, eating and drinking.  It was only after multiple meetings that they began to discuss business. In high-context cultures, it is more important to first establish a close and trusting relationship before one deals with any task issues (contracts, plans, negotiations).

On Edward Hall’s scale of low-context to high-context , white U.S. culture is located on the far end of low-context cultures.  The informality of white culture, and its disregard for honoring elders and other traditionally high-status individuals, also sets it apart from the cultures of most people of color.  So not only are whites socialized to communicate in only this low-context culture, they are not aware that there are high-context cultures operating among their co-workers of color.  Their co-workers of color have assimilated, to various degrees,  to the Anglo ways of communicating.  However, that does not mean they are at ease with them, or that they feel this form of communication is effective.

What does this mean for communicating across race?  For one thing, it means that whites expect people of color to use the low-context communication system of white Anglo culture.  Whether consciously or not, they assume that everyone will assimilate to the Anglo white way of communicating.  When individuals of color do not fully assimilate to this way of communicating, whites judge those individuals as ineffective communicators.

Of equal if not more significance, whites remain unaware of the importance of emotion when communicating with people who come from cultures of color.  Expressions of emotion, and a focus on building relationships before addressing tasks, is something many whites know nothing about.  This makes us ill-equipped to deal with the inevitable conflicts that arise when we have people of different cultures working alongside us.

As the Dalai Lama said: “When you have people, you have conflict.”   Conflict over ideas can be productive because it can test or refine an idea.  However, conflict is seldom productive when it arises from the way one person or group treats another person or group.  Managing conflict requires an ability to engage the strong emotions that usually occur.  The strong feelings generated when someone feels disrespected, ignored or hurt get in the way of any search for a resolution that meets the needs of both parties.  The rule when dealing with conflict is to first make sure each party feels fully heard by the other party.

The reality of racial inequity means that people of color have many feelings about how they have been, or are currently treated, by the organization.  When they choose to talk about their experience of being on the receiving end of disrespect and exclusion, this frequently results in some whites feeling accused, made wrong, etc.  These are not easy discussions. It is highly unlikely that anyone will feel “comfortable” during such discussions.  To the contrary, they are likely to feel quite uncomfortable.  Whites certainly do not look forward to any discussion that might result in us being labeled as insensitive or even prejudiced or racist.

There is one skill that is especially essential when engaging in discussions about race with co-workers of color.  This is the skill of communicating that one has heard the message from a co-worker of color in its entirety.  This includes hearing what was said accurately.  More importantly, it means taking in fully the emotional aspects of the message: hurt, betrayal, abandonment, and anger.  The white listener must be able, in turn, to share with the speaker of color the emotions they feel in response to the emotions which the speaker of color expressed.  To do this, the white person must be willing to vulnerably share what they are feeling.

Usually, our feelings as whites are different from the feelings expressed by the person of color. Our feelings may include feeling surprised, shocked, embarrassed, hurt, accused, annoyed, dumbfounded, etc.  Whatever the feelings are, it is essential that we take the risk to share them.  At times, when a white person does share the feelings they have, that may engender strong feelings, in return, from the co-worker of color.  At this point in such a conversation, the white person is likely to feel to very uncomfortable.  They have no idea where this conversation is going, and they likely feel afraid that it may end up with no resolution and with one or both parties leaving with even more hurt feelings.

I suspect that it is the fear of such an outcome that drives so many whites to avoid acknowledging the emotion expressed by a speaker of color, and to also avoid sharing the feelings they have in return.  Instead, whites in this situation often move the conversation to the level of ideas, and either debate the speaker (“Well, where is your evidence that this occurs here?”  “I don’t see this happening when I am in that work unit…”)  or offer proposals about solving the problem.

This type of response disregards or ignores the meaning of the communication from the person of color.  It does so because the white person fails to take the relationship to the level of vulnerability that occurs in all relationships of equality.  In equal relationships, both parties do what is necessary to make sure the needs of each party are met.  There is a behavioral commitment to work through whatever emotions and reactions that occurred as a result of what one party did or did not do.  Doing anything less than this will keep the relationship distant, stilted or stillborn.

On those occasions when whites respond by ignoring, defending or discounting the  feelings and experience of the speaker of color, the person of color (and any bystanders of color) leave the encounter feeling even more vulnerable and exposed.  They took the risk to be honest, and now they realize that they may have jeopardized their relationship with white co-workers, whose support they need to do their job well.  They reached out and did not feel met with equal vulnerability from whites.

To avoid this kind of outcome, we whites need to gain experience in communicating in a manner different than the one we have been so accustomed to using.  This does mean that we have to learn something new, which always entails a learning curve.  Learning curves also entail making mistakes.  The good news is that people of color deeply subscribe to the ideals stated in our nation’s key documents. They are not looking to do away with whites.  They merely want whites to meet them as equals – exactly what the national vision states.  If we stay the course in these new uncomfortable discussions, we demonstrate that our intent consists of more than words.  Our willingness to be authentic and vulnerable is taken as an investment in a relationship of equals.  It earns real credit.  People of color move toward us rather than keep a distance.  They do so because it is in their self-interest that we learn how to communicate well in this new fashion.

Lastly, it is important to know that whenever we cross lines of difference, we inevitably do or say things that result in an outcome that is unforeseen, and often opposite to what we intended.  At times like this, the new way of communicating can turn lemons into lemonade.  As we sit there feeling a pit in our stomach, we need to remember not to default into explaining our intentions. Instead, we need to inquire about the impact of our action.  For example, we can say, “Obviously what I just said did something which impacted you.  I can see that you are reacting in ways I did not expect.  What are you thinking and feeling?”

By doing this, we demonstrate that we want to be accountable for our actions more than we want to explain our intentions.  We demonstrate that we care enough about the other party to first take care to mend any pain we may have created.  We demonstrate that we want to know what harm or discomfort our actions caused.  If we do this and take responsibility for what those actions did to the other person, they in turn, will have space in their emotional economy to want to find out what our intentions were.  Once they feel heard, they will want to know what we thought we were doing.  Because we have demonstrated that we care about them and are willing to rectify any damage we caused, the people of color will want to understand how we made the wrong assumptions without meaning to cause harm

I don’t say this as a theoretical prescription.  I say it because I have done it time and time again.  Every time I acknowledge the impact my words or behavior create, the relationship has gotten closer rather than more distant.  I might have to listen to some strong feelings, but most of the time the person of color knows me well enough to know that it was just another thing that were missing in the way I was socialized as a white person.  The person of color may be momentarily angry that they have to deal with a clumsy white person once again.  However, they value that I stay in the conversation, rather than using my white privilege to withdraw.  In this way, we whites also demonstrate that we value the relationship enough to want to know anything we have done that was harmful, so that we can avoid doing so again.  This is a commitment of equals.  This stance is what is needed to break the longstanding pattern where whites demonstrate our dominance by buffering ourselves from hearing how our actions impact those who are not white.

[1] The Silent Language, Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday, ©1959.