Why working toward racial unity and healing is so very hard
Unity involves getting into the weeds and finding root causes, then designing effective and sustainable solutions collaboratively.
By SETCHE KWAMU-NANA
Our individual experiences — no matter how real they are to us — may not represent what others are going through
Since the presidential inauguration, there has been a push for unity and healing across the country and within our organizations, businesses and institutions. Some applaud it, while some are skeptical due to the tendency for unity to be used as an excuse to escape accountability and responsibility.
Unity, healing, and progress are not about shoving stuff under the rug, forgetting the past, and holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.” Contrary to what I used to think, unity involves getting into the weeds and finding root causes, then designing effective and sustainable solutions collaboratively. To do that, we have to start talking with each other, listening to each other, and learning to validate each others’ experiences and underlying needs.
Considering our current state of affairs, the idea of highly polarized people genuinely holding and considering each others’ truths sounds like a pipe dream. The thought patterns that prevent us from hearing each other out and exercising empathy in the broader community are the same thought patterns that have kept CEOs, managers and colleagues blind to the challenges their Black and indigenous people of color employees face at work, and have struggled to voice out for decades, until the George Floyd movement shocked several of them out of their bubbles (to an extent). Many corporations received backlash for their hypocrisy and raised skepticism as they said “black lives matter” over the summer, while having created or continued to perpetuate corporate environments where Black employees can’t breathe and aren’t validated.
I was one of those colleagues, blinded by those thought patterns and my limited experience until about six years ago, when I started “inching” out of my bubble. I never used to think racism still existed in the U.S., since slavery had been abolished, the Civil Rights Act had been passed, America elected a Black president, and being a Black woman in America, I was an overachiever and most people treated me nicely. Another of my main rationales was that in my country of origin, Cameroon, we are almost 100 percent Black and yet we discriminate against each other constantly, so it can’t be about race. Eventually, experience taught me that, although in Cameroon we discriminate based on other dimensions of diversity, America has had a deep history of discriminating based on race and the anti-Blackness embedded in our socialization has hardly been acknowledged or deconstructed.
But why was it so easy for me to be blind, despite being a Black woman?
Remember the folk story of “The Six Blind Men And The Elephant”? None of them had come across an elephant before and each learn and “see” the elephant differently depending on what part of it they touch. One touches the tail and feels a rope. Another touches the tusk and says the elephant feels like a spear. Another touches the trunk and describes the elephant as a giant snake. One feels the torso and thinks an elephant is like a wall. One feels the ears and finds them to be like a sheath of leather. And finally, the man feeling the leg describes the elephant to be like a tree.
So which of them was right?
Like the six blind men, my perspective wasn’t wrong, as it was congruent with my limited experience and knowledge. However, it was incomplete. Years of intentional inquiry and embarking on personal growth eventually helped me to see, hear and understand what I couldn’t before.
I finally realized that individual experience doesn’t always equal group experience, and vice versa, and that my individual experience colored my perception of the broader reality. I realized that while many transcend barriers, it doesn’t mean the barriers aren’t there and don’t have real impact. We all have some privileges or challenges resulting from different aspects of our identity. And sometimes, those privileges make us blind to the challenges of those who share other aspects of our identity.
As a Black immigrant with a college education and middle-class income, I didn’t suffer the impact of redlining, mass incarceration, just to name a few. And I think the biggest privilege of all was experiencing racism and not knowing it was that, but excusing it to the ignorance of the perpetrators. It’s a privilege to not feel offended when your boss says “You’ve chosen to go wild today huh?” when you come to work with an afro for the first time, because you dismiss it to their lack of sufficient vocabulary.
Like the six blind men, different groups experience and describe America differently. Like these men, different groups describe the workforce differently. Sometimes we hear others’ perspectives and we don’t want to act, so we chose not to believe them. We justify that they deserve their experiences. Or we believe but back away or remain silent, but silence is dangerous.
It’s not simply a matter of “You have your truth and I have mine, let’s just agree to disagree.” There is an objective demonstrable truth about what different people are experiencing, even if some of us are not able to relate to it and practice the fallacy of composition — when one infers that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true of some part of the whole.
How can we achieve unity and progress if the people standing on the sides of the elephant insist that the elephant has no tusk and can’t possibly be hurting anyone? We need to acknowledge and care about the experiences and underlying needs of other people.
I hope that most of us are humble and compassionate enough to do the hard work of building bridges and expanding our perspectives. I hope that we are willing to learn and grow, and be part of creating workplace cultures and communities that work for all of us regardless of our differences. Remember that others are having a different experience than you. So use inquiry and curiosity to get their world and broaden your perspectives. That’s how we can help each other heal and unite behind just policies.
We like to single out the 1 percent of people who are brazen racist/sexist/bigoted or workplace bullies and say “We’re not all like that here” or “This isn’t who we are.” Those are just a few bad apples.” That is true, but what usually hurts most and exacerbates trauma is not the actions of the few bad apples. It’s the inaction and nonchalance of the 99 percent. Martin Luther King Jr., said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Setche Kwamu-Nana is an inclusion, diversity, and equity (IDE) professional, building bridges that transform hearts, minds, systems, and behaviors. She has a degree in chemical engineering, an MBA with a concentration in human resource management, and is a Certified Diversity Professional by the National Diversity Council. She worked as an IDE leader at Caterpillar Inc. and Intuit Inc., and is also a facilitator at the National Conflict Resolution Center and Non-profit Management Solutions. www.setche.com
This article originally appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune.