There are numerous obstacles that leaders encounter when they decide to create racial equity in their organization. One particularly difficult one is the habit of white control. By this I mean that whites are accustomed to being that party, in a relationship, which decides what will happen and what will not happen. There are at three levels of white control that I will describe.
The first is the political and economic white control. This was intentionally put in place with the foundation of the country, and it continues today. Whites crafted the policies that created the segregation in housing and public education that still exists today across the nation. That segregation ensures that black citizens have a net worth that is a sixteenth that of whites. White-led banks still favor white mortgage applicants by granting them mortgages more often than they do BIPOC applicants of similar income.
Across the country, white-led corporations control the economy. As of June 2020, only 1% of Fortune 5000 CEOs are black, even though blacks comprise 13.4% of the US population. While it is the case that some blacks in the entertainment and sports industries earn huge amounts of money, the owners and managers of those industries still remain overwhelmingly white. An indicator of this is the fact that, in 2016, studio heads of motion picture companies were 92% white.
A second level of white control plays out when white leaders make the decision to address racial inequities in their organization. Here again, it is whites who decide how the organization will approach the matter of addressing racial inequities. They decide the form that investigation will take, the pace of the investigation and the extent of changes that alter how the organization treats its BIPOC members.
The third level of white control plays out across all interactions between whites and BIPOC people. Whites are accustomed to controlling interactions with BIPOC people. We do that by regulating the social distance we keep. If we get uncomfortable with a conversation or interaction, we withdraw, and end the interaction. BIPOC people know this. Blacks all know the first requirement, in any interaction with whites, is to make them feel comfortable. BIPOC people live with this dynamic across all their interactions with whites.
Herein lies the dilemma for white leaders. How can you engage in a relationship of equality if you are the one who has control of how the relationship proceeds? Whites decide what topics are allowable and which are not. Whites decide which remedial actions will be adopted and which will not – whites define the scope of the remedial actions.
This white control puts both parties, whites and BIPOC people, in a dilemma. How can each break out of a relationship where the roles are defined by inequality. All too often, whites are not aware of how we are imposing control in one interaction after another. White leaders will often make the decision to address racial inequity and then begin implementing a program to address it. In doing so, they fail to realize that this decision was made in a unilateral fashion.
Without consulting with BIPOC employees, how do whites know if the approach they have selected is one that fits with how BIPOC folks view the situation. What do these leaders do if they discover that the BIPOC employees have a different analysis of the situation, and a different prescription for how to address the situation? In those situations, do the leaders even realize that BIPOC employees do not support the white analysis or the white choice of how to proceed?
This dilemma is complicated by the fact that it takes place within an ongoing relationship that has a history. Over the course of that history of the relationship, it is likely that whites have done things that ignore, marginalize or offend the BIPOC members of that relationship. Mending that relationship is task number one. The relationship remains fractured until whites address what they have done and its impact on the BIPOC parties in that relationship.
This is not a simple task. The process requires that whites have to acknowledge what they have done, directly apologize and takes steps to understand how their actions impacted the BIPOC person(s). Until this last step is completed satisfactorily, the relationship will remain frozen. If these steps are not taken, or are not carried to completion, BIPOC people will be further alienated if the organization proceeds with some program to address racial inequity. I know of too many situations where leaders have failed to do the work of repairing their relationship with BIPOC colleagues.
In many cases, a white department head is faced with this dilemma because the leaders of the organization have already made a commitment to address racial equity, and all department heads are now required to carry it out in their departments. This requirement places the department heads in a difficult situation. On one hand, they have to support this endeavor, but they have no idea how to deal directly with the effects their actions have already had on their relationships with the BIPOC members of their department.
Moreover, these managers sense that the BIPOC staff in that department are not comfortable with whites in the department. The managers can sense the tension and the lack of ease in the interactions between whites and the BIPOC members of the department. The manager knows that whites in the department have, in fact, fared better than their BIPOC colleagues in terms of promotion or plum job assignments. The department head is very reluctant to acknowledge this because it would require remedial action to redress the inequity The department exercises white control once again by steering the conversation away from any discuss of past inequities within that unit.
Unless such managers receive coaching and support on this matter, it is highly likely that they will avoid dealing with it. This is exacerbated by the fact that many organizations have a culture that allows wide latitude in how managers treat their subordinates. The norm of “rank has its privileges” goes without question in these organizations. Consequently, managers are not required to develop the skills needed to deal with conflict. They lack the skills described in my article of 7/7/20, “Cross Race Communication Skills.” They intuitively recognize that they are likely to hear difficult things if they do open up a direct conversation. They realize that this will put them in a new situation – a situation where they lack any template for dealing with what transpires. They therefore, avoid the topic entirely.
This avoidance on their part only exacerbates things and worsens the relationship. BIPOC employees rightly see the verbiage about addressing racial inequities as hollow actions. They feel even more marginalized and ignored. In any department where this occurs, the racial equity work will fail.
Another facet of this habit of white control is that whites interact with BIPOC colleagues in ways where we are still subtly controlling what occurs. Unless we become aware of these micro-interactions we cannot change them. The question is how do we become aware of them? The most direct way to become aware is to have someone confront us on the behavior at the moment it occurs. Anyone can do the confronting. It can be another white person or a BIPOC person. Such a confrontation need not be a hostile interaction. It consists of pointing out the behavior and describing the impact it has on others (e.g., “I felt my earlier statement to you was ignored;” “You did not ask us how we see the issue before you tried to convince us that we should support your solution”).
These confrontations work best when there is a relationship of trust. Top leaders need to have people around them who will give them this type of feedback. However, most subordinates are very wary of taking such a risk. They rightly fear that there may be a negative consequence for doing so. An outside consultant is often best positioned to offer this kind of confrontation. Once a relationship of trust has developed, the consultant can do this in private. The consultant can help the leader through his or her reactions to the feedback and help them see how to apply their learning.
One of the proven ways top leaders can do this kind of learning is in a racial equity steering committee setting. Such committees typically are diverse by race, level, gender, tenure and job type. Once constituted, the committee meets for three days of engagement and learning. This initial work can be scary and awkward, but over time, trust begins to develop if those with the most power act in a genuine way and take the most risks to say the “unsaid.” The role of the outside consultant team (there needs to be at least one consultant for every racial group present on the committee) is to hold the top leaders’ as well as all the participants’ feet to the fire.” The consultants make sure that every person adheres to the ground rules that the committee agrees to use for its meetings.
Subsequent committee meetings initially take place for an entire day every 60 or 90 days. Half the day is devoted to continued experiential learning on different aspects of racial equity. These sessions guarantee that top leaders continue to learn and lead by example. As leaders demonstrate that they continue to learn and be genuine, a new kind of relationship develops that is much more equal than exists throughout the organization. Having experienced this, BIPOC members can then testify to others in the organization that this group of leaders is willing to relate in new ways, and act in ways where they no longer exert the kind of control that is so prevalent elsewhere in the organization.
In summary, the white habit of control is a key element that has to be addressed in any systemic program to achieve racial equity. White leaders and white managers must become aware of this behavioral pattern in themselves. Not only do they need to “catch” themselves when they fall back into doing it, they must also be able to see it when other whites do it. Only when whites become more attuned to this pattern can they elect to depart from continuing it. I find that it helps greatly to realize that all of us were conditioned to behave this way. The structure was there long before we were born. The good news, so to speak, is that we can learn to be aware of this tendency and act differently when we notice it. This is a gradual process and it partly explains why the work of creating racial equity in an organization is not something that can be accomplished in a short period of time.