June 8, 2020

On Racism

I’ve been pretty quiet on current events with racism and inequality, and unsurprisingly, a few people have called me out on social media for it. To be honest, I’ve been afraid of saying the wrong thing, and that’s kept me from saying much at all. But that’s not okay – I’m learning that silence can be perceived as synonymous with acceptance and consent. While I’ve found it way too difficult to express what’s in my head in something short enough to fit on Instagram, I thought a long-form blog post might be a good way to get my thoughts out there, rather than seeming to not care (or even, god forbid, support racism / police brutality).

I’ve heard it said that becoming anti-racist (which I want to be) is a journey, not a destination. That sentiment has given me a lot of comfort, because I know I am certainly not at the destination. Despite leading a number of groups and initiatives championing equality for women, I have embarrassingly neglected seeking to understand the black experience and what racism looks like in America today. It has taken recent events for me to realize that my silence is consent – and that’s not okay.

But what should I be doing about that? Despite all the horrific stories in the news, I made a very conscious decision last week not to participate in “blackout Tuesday”. While I don’t judge those who did participate, to me, it felt performative – like trumpeting “I am anti-racist” rather than actually becoming anti-racist. I recognize that I am very early on in my journey to become anti-racist and an ally, and I think it would be disingenuous of me to pretend I know more than I do. I am trying to progress further, but that’s something that involves a lot of behind-the-scenes time and introspection.

When I was called out for not participating in blackout Tuesday, I instead put up a story pointing my followers to a podcast I found informative – HBR’s Sisterhood is Scarce, an episode of Women Who Work exploring how race, gender, and class play into the different experiences and relationships white women and women of color have at work. I had listened to it while running that morning, and learned a lot from it about all the things I’m not paying attention to and what I can do to change. While I am incredibly proud to work for PwC and appreciate the values we stand for, it’s always been apparent to me that our staff is not racially representative of America as a whole – and this feels like an area where I can actually be a leader and make a difference.

That said, I have no belief that being a leader and taking a stand will be easy. To my recollection, I have never heard a blatantly racist statement at work (I think we tend to have more implicit bias); it’s pretty easy to think that in this hypothetical world where I did hear such a statement, I would quickly quash it. But when I reflect, I have heard blatantly sexist statements that I didn’t do nearly enough to stop, with one incident from about five years ago burned into my brain.

In a room of about twenty leaders, one man made a blatantly sexist statement; he then turned to me (as one of only two women in the room) to back him up. To my shame, I didn’t call him out; I dropped my eyes and sat there silently, afraid to speak up either way. I later pulled aside one of his friends and asked him to do the dirty work and tell the guy it was wrong. In the interest of honesty, even five years later with all that regret, I’m not sure I would have the courage to confront the partner if this happened again tomorrow.

Junior staff may see me as a leader at my company, and I’m well aware that means I set an example and a precedent. However, I also have the feeling that my foothold as a leader is a tenuous one, and that I need to avoid any missteps. Perhaps this is my imposter syndrome speaking, but after some really candid one-on-one conversations with other female leaders at my company this week, I learned that I’m not the only one who feels that way. When I am honest with myself about my ability to stand up for others, I realize that my insecurity might discourage me from speaking up and doing the right thing. This is something I know I need to work on, and I want to change this part of who I am.

To consider a different example: it’s easy today to condemn those in 1930s Germany for not standing up to Hitler and the Nazi Party. We all like to think that had we been there, we would have been part of the resistance, fighting or hiding Jewish families in our attics. I am extremely proud that my grandfather was part of the Polish resistance; he and his brother left their comfortable home to live in the woods for years fighting the Germans, at great personal sacrifice. But the people who didn’t resist weren’t necessarily bad people; they just weren’t as brave as they needed to be.

While I’d like to think I would be as brave as my dziadek, the truth is, I don’t know if I would be. If I’m not strong enough to stand up to a chauvinist partner in a corporate setting, would I really be strong enough to take a stand against persecution in less safe situations? I’m afraid that the answer might be no – and this scares me about myself. I really want to change that, and I’m trying to take steps to educate myself and build my courage.

While I’m admitting things I’m not proud of, here comes another bit of embarrassing honesty. On Wednesday, a number of my work colleagues and I took a special Peloton class – Tunde Oyenin’s “Speak Up” ride. Like the naive suburban white woman I am, I jumped onto my fancy bike feeling proud of myself for choosing this ride. I was excited to see so many of my friends signing on for the class as well, and we were all “high fiving” each other… until a few minutes in, when Tunde scolded us. “This is not a ride for high fives.”

Tunde asked all 25,000 of us to close the leaderboard from our screen, and focus on the ride and her message. Her message was not one of positivity; it was one of hurt and of anger (rightfully so). She asked us to keep turning the resistance up as we went through the ride; unless I missed a cue, we didn’t ever drop the resistance back down. Each time I thought I couldn’t take it anymore and wanted to quit, she reminded us that black people don’t have that option to just turn down the resistance and get out of the pain.

I spent the ride frustrated and upset, and it was clear that was the point. We should all be upset, frustrated, angry, and disturbed by how blacks are being treated. To my shame, though, I found myself frustrated with Tunde for making me feel this way. And when I realized I was mad at Tunde, I ended the ride feeling like a horrible person for having that reaction. All of this shame made me want to bury my head in the sand and move on to happier things. I am so privileged to even have that choice (and I’m not going to make it), but I’m deeply disappointed in myself that I wish I could do that.

I am wading through the muck and trying to be honest with myself about where I am on this journey – and I know I am making so many mistakes along the way. (Which of course compound my ultimate mistake in not paying attention and taking action until now, which I deeply regret.) I’m also learning that shame-based activism isn’t productive for me, and so these mistakes really hurt when I’m called out for making them. But I also know that it’s not about me, and getting yelled at for my mistakes is nothing compared to what some people live with all the time.

On Friday, in my office women’s group, one woman brought up a concept I found comforting – the idea that there are so many different lanes you can take to be anti-racist, and that you don’t need to be in all of the lanes at the same time.

I have since found the exact quote and learned it came from this Instagram post by Octavia Spencer.

I am dabbling in multiple lanes right now and drinking from a firehose with what I’m learning, but I’m also realizing that I don’t need to beat myself up for not being in all of the lanes at once. In fact, it may actually be better for me to focus on one or two lanes where I can truly make a difference.

To close, I found this video (also embedded below) particularly powerful, using the metaphor of life as a race to exemplify white privilege so that even kids can understand it. I used to think that I had worked hard for everything I had, and I thought I wasn’t privileged because so many of my peers as a kid started way out in front of me. But in the last few years, I’ve realized there are a lot of people who started far behind me as well, and I didn’t look outside of my own bubble to notice them. This head start doesn’t mean I haven’t “run hard” and worked my butt off, and it doesn’t mean I can’t be proud of what I’ve achieved. But right now, the race isn’t fair – and I want to be a part of changing it, even if I don’t yet know how.

I welcome your thoughts and ideas, particularly around resources you’ve found most helpful.


4 thoughts on “On Racism”

  1. I appreciate this post. I’ve been following you for a long time and honestly I was judging you a little bit for not saying anything until now. Silence = complicity. I know it must be challenging to be transparent, but I think it’s better to possibly say “the wrong thing” than to not speak up because, as one of my Black co-workers put it, “your comfort is not more important than my life.”

    1. Rachel, thanks for YOUR honesty in commenting. You are so right about me needing to take the risk and say something.

  2. I too feel like I’m drinking from a fire hose with so much information out there. I didn’t participate in Blackout Tuesday per say but I did try to really not post too much personal stuff the last week and just tried to read and learn and take all the information in. I purchased the books How to be an Antiracist and White Fragility so those two reads are next on my list.

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