What Investigating White Culture Looks Like

Photo by Life Matters from Pexels

“‘This is how progress works. You have it better than your daddy and I have it better than mine. Don’t treat her like she stole something.’ To which my daddy said, ‘I’m not saying that she stole it. I just want her to know what she has.” — Tayari Jones, An American Marriage, A Novel

Growing up, it was capability that mattered.

During my childhood and young adult life, I was taught by a whip smart mother — so marginally supported in her own academic and professional pursuits — that women will get ahead by focusing on being our best selves.

Do great work. Raise your hand. Speak up. Show your capability.

As a child, I cried when the smartest boys in elementary school called me a lesbian because I could keep up academically. As I grew, I acclimated to thriving in a male dominated workforce, conditioning myself to work harder and speak louder. Over time, a naturally direct communication style and a penchant for challenging the status quo became traits of which I was proud.

Combined, this approach enabled me to have the opportunity and independence my mother always wished for me, and in turn, I wished for myself.

Naively, I thought this was the same message “we all” heard growing up.

Blacks, Muslims, Asians, Jews, immigrants. This is the “we” I meant.

While I felt blessed for the diversity of deep and diverse friendships in my life, I used the word “we” like a blunt object, bucketing all into one category whose way of changing the status quo was to achieve, set the example, and initiate change from within systems.

In retrospect, what a sweeping, outrageous noun.

“We.”

What I’m so clearly opening to is that capability was only part of my Black friends’ message, if you were lucky enough to get that message at all.

“We” are not bonded by shared minority experience.

Why Now, What changed?

As I take the long overdue time to commit to social advocacy and allyship, there is one question that has stuck with me that I know I must answer before any others: “Why now, what changed?”

My answer begins like many other non-Blacks: a pause, and in that pause, an event, and in that pause and that event, a spark that illuminated my buy in to the myth of meritocracy and chosen blindness to the Black community and others.

We cannot look to the future isolated from the past.

This piece started as a way to process my initial reflections answering the question for myself. After all, the most important conversations are those we have with ourselves. By spending time looking within, at past conditioned and active choices, I trust I will be closer to an outcome more aware of what I need to change, transform and why.

I am sharing this in the hope that the verbalized experiences may encourage you to engage in your own experiential learning on bias, racism, culture, and equality.

The Black Lives Matter movement is overdue for committed, continuous external and internal revolution from non-Black allies.

Being of the main culture, I know that I will not get this all right. But, I am taking a prayer from Laverne Cox, in which she so eloquently states, “God give me permission to do this imperfectly and allow me to be of service.”

The Class Half Empty

“…the heartbeat of anti racism is confession, admission, acknowledgement, is the willingness to be vulnerable, is the willingness to identify the times in which we are being racist, is to be willing to diagnose ourselves, our country and our policies.” — Ibram X. Kendi

Most of us see the world through our own lens. I am no different.

I met my first friends in a safe suburb outside of Boston. Our community was socioeconomically, religiously, and racially diverse. Most of my friends had two parents in the household.

I met my second, third and fourth set of friends at world class academic and professional institutions and in major cities.

For all the topics covered in lengthy conversations and for all the diversity represented, looking back, it’s near impossible to recollect the handful of times that we discussed what the unique minority experience was like to be Black, a Black woman, a Muslim man, an Asian first generation, gay or other.

Our education on these topics, innate curiosity, or even a superficial shared experience of “we” should have made these topics worth sharing.

So why didn’t I ask? Why did I make a blanket assumption about this group as one and live three decades unter its pretense?

  1. Viewing the world class-first, all else second: Surrounded by a multicultural and multiracial coalition within a primarily one dimensional class, I believed my exposure to diversity was significant, if not unique. Slowly I am unpeeling that proximal relations and class bias represented a formidable, and ignorant bubble. I ignored what didn’t affect me, and I had the luxury of doing so.
  2. Belief in American meritocracy: I focused on individual capacity and achievement to the exclusion of most other factors at play. When people have drastically different starting lines and roadblocks in the race, the race is not fair. It is not just the best foot forward if you are starting from a lead position. The fact of the matter is pure-play individualism is a myth.
  3. Assuming it’s best to wait and change the system from within: I took for granted that I would change the system once I was in the system. The question I have for myself today is: when did I think I would take the time to learn how to truly tackle the topic once I “arrived?” Only in the last two years have I spent any meaningful time on systemic racial barriers in the MBA ecosystem, and realistically my commitment flexed with whatever else occupied my life. I wonder if I had held Rodeny King, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Nina Pop, Tamir Rice, or countless other Black men and women in my mind, if it would have changed things for me. Equality is a right. No one should have to wait for it.
  4. Accepting assimilation, I unconsciously asked others to do so: For years there were “parts” of me I was willing to push into the shadow in order to assimilate into cultural professional norms. I emphasized strength and determination and downplayed emotion, vulnerability, and sensitivity. In doing so, I conformed to the existing standard of acceptable power dynamics. As a result, even if I never explicitly said so, I implicitly asked, or more likely expected, that others, that my Black brothers and sisters, should do the same. I had no clue what those parts were for you. As I age, becoming fearless to embrace who I am at my core, it is almost ironic that I now admire those who are and have always been their full authentic expressions of self regardless of if fitting in was the outcome.
  5. Disengaging with non-white cultural expression: Through conditioning and experience I codified unwritten rules of acceptable expression inclusive of the speed that people spoke, how individuals shared difficult feelings, body language, hand movement, and filler, swear and other word usage. With those who expressed themselves differently, I struggled to get past the how you communicated and thereby sorely missed out on the what and why you communicated. What has been so magical for me today is that listening honestly to different manners of expression has actually made messages more profound and relatable, thereby accentuating even more the beauty of humanity.
  6. Limiting exposure due to violence avoidance: Due to verbal conflict in my household, ever since I was young, I was highly sensitized to violence. For most of my life, I have limited my exposure to violence and, as a result, most mainstream media. This served to consecrate the privilege bubble in which I lived and tune out the violence that people experience every day just for existing. Awareness of the violence perpetrated unnecessarily every day on the Black population, I am no longer able to turn a blind eye.
  7. Defining racism incompletely: As Peggy McIntosh so eloquently writes in White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, “I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of a group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.” I used to see racism more like a disease — as if it was something that a person has — as compared to a systemic way of living and thinking. The revising of the definition was overdue and obvious.

From history to language, there are many other elements I acknowledge and continue to explore. For each of us, this narrative will look different. It is hard to disentangle advantages and disadvantages that rest on social class, economic class, race, religion, gender identity, sexual preference, ethnic identity and all of their intersections.

Truth is, this will be a process.

As in meditation when one learns to both be in the moment and, simultaneously, to watch oneself in that moment, I believe the first opportunity for all of us lies in building self-awareness of our personal racism.

It is a process that individuals, companies, governments, schools and organizations of any type must go through to understand how real and symbolized marginalization, bigotry, and racism play a role in their identities and behavior. For it is through the investigation that we will find opportunity for action.

Having Described It, What Will I do to Lessen It?

The question I’m left with is: having described it, what will I — and what can we — do to lessen it?

Educate Ourselves

  1. Learn about race and racism, historical and present, through consuming any and all media of your choice. The list of books, Netflix documentaries and shows, podcasts, and Instagram accounts are innumerable.
  2. Set up a Book Club with friends and family who are interested in learning more or who haven’t yet had the opportunity to .
  3. Expand your self education to include intersectional issues — criminal justice, immigration, healthcare, sex and gender rights— to broaden your conception of equality and justice beyond BLM.
  4. Commit to sharing one piece of content with another person every day or week.

Contribute Financially

  1. Set recurring donations to organizations who support BLM — victim support funds, bail funds, megafunds, and community restoration funds are all great choices.
  2. Secure a company dontation match, either through your own company or sending donation receipts to friends who work at companies that match. You can find a list of many qualifying companies here.
  3. Ask your friends if they are part of Black professional or social advocacy coalitions and donate to their efforts.
  4. Support Black entrepreneurs, Black-owned businesses, and Black artists through your consumerism (simple Google searches are great).

Change Corporations

  1. Review internships under your purview and evaluate equality across the process flow from pipeline generation to yield conversion. (Note: if you anticipate facing arguments around candidate quality, it is worth reading this.)
  2. Get involved in your company’s recruiting process and evaluate equality across the process flow from pipeline generation to yield conversion.
  3. Get involved in your company’s talent development and promotion process and evaluate equality across the process flow of talent selection, development, mentorship and promotion decisions inclusive of advocating for metrics responding to diversity, equity and inclusion.
  4. Read this article from Harvard Business School African American Student Union for more ideas.

Activate Socially

  1. Take 5 minutes to call or email local local legislatures using this link, which has a list of local officials’ email addresses and phone numbers researched and organized by state and county (thank you Grassroots Law Project volunteers). Inquire and put pressure on areas they can do better around police reform, criminal justice reform, justice accountability, community investment, leadership diversity and more. You can also find public email address and numbers on your local city website.
  2. Research candidates in upcoming local and state elections and add social advocacy issues, including equality and reform, to the factors you will vote on. Share this information with your friends and family.
  3. Join a local or national advocacy group to help further BLM advocacy efforts.
  4. Post allyship content on your social media platform to take ownership of the issues and keep the effort, fight, movement, and spirit of love, peace and equality alive.

By now I hope you catch my drift — there is so much we can do to lessen it, and the above list is just scratching the surface. I challenge you to choose what speaks to you and make a commitment to it.

While I am optimistic, I am ashamed for the pain and silence we collectively share and impart every day, reminded of Pope Francis’s words:

“Even today we raise our hand against our brother…We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves as if it were normal we continue to sow destruction, pain, death. Violence and war lead only to death.”

Let us put down our weapons, wake up our conscience, and soften our ideas. Let us be brave in our love and in our activism.

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Business Builder | Co-Founder of VNV | Host of the Unfinished Product Vlog

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Rachel L Stevens

Rachel L Stevens

Business Builder | Co-Founder of VNV | Host of the Unfinished Product Vlog

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