For White Leaders: How to Open a Conversation About Race

Don’t let shame and guilt stop you.

Remember, most of us identify with the power we don’t have, not the power we do have. Keep that in mind as you work to make a difference. Part of your power as a leader now is your willingness to be open and vulnerable, as well as your willingness to listen rather than solve. If you are in uncharted territory, be there.

There’s no one-way to do this and no map. But…there is also no going back to the status quo so be willing to be uncomfortable. Consider the fact that racism is not just something black people or people of color suffer under—but rather it disconnects all of us from our humanity. If you don’t understand how you too experience loss because of racism, the best you can do is be sympathetic.

  1. The first step is your own inner work. Take some time for your own self-reflection. This is not the time for trying to get it right or virtue signaling. This requires your being honest with yourself about your understanding and experience around the topic of race. Before having any conversations with anyone else, have a conversation with yourself. Reflect on things like: What did I learn about race growing up? Who did my parents hang out with? Do I have people of color in my life? Are they my friends? What’s the racial makeup of my neighborhood, city? What do I know about the history of race in this country, in my state or city? What does my leadership team look like? All of these questions are not meant to create guilt or shame but just an honest assessment of yourself and your life experiences. If you find you have a lot of unworked out stuff on this topic and you need support—use the opportunity to talk with someone 1:1—a coach, a therapist, a friend. You don’t want to bring a lot of triggered emotions and reactions to your team. You want to have your feelings but not have your feelings have you.
  2. When you talk with your team, communicate about your intention for creating space, let them know that you don’t have a prescription for the path forward but that you want to create space for people to start genuinely exploring the topic of race and how it impacts them as a human beings and leaders. Let them know that there is no one way to do this and that depending on their life experience and nature, they will meet this time in life very differently.
  3. On the topic of race, it’s easy to trigger and react to one another. There is so much hurt. So encourage people to cut one another some slack. This means more listening and less opining.
  4. Let your team know this is the first step in the process and that this will be part of an on going conversation. Then share things from your own personal reflection.
  5. You may want to give people time to collect their own thoughts and take some time to write/reflect before speaking.
  6. Then invite the group share. Be comfortable with the quiet between people sharing. Sit with it. Honor it. Trust in your capacity, the team’s capacity to evolve.
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