Generally, when a child is born there is an aura of hope and dreams of a great future. Parents, relatives, teachers, and neighbors provide love, support, guidance, and advice about pursuing the American dream in our great nation of unlimited opportunity.
As a white mother of a 20 year old son and a 17 year old daughter, I have had conversations with my children about respecting elders, respecting authority, making smart decisions, and not causing trouble. But a pivotal moment occurred for me during a discussion about the Trayvon Martin situation. I found out that my friends who are African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, Muslim, and other ethnic backgrounds “different” from my own have a more unique conversation with their children.
These conversations have a similar theme about respecting authority, but the advice is far more specific and it focuses on survival—staying alive. These conversations, called “the talk,” have occurred for many generations and often start as early as the age of seven. The advice that is provided includes:
- Turn all the lights on inside your car if you are pulled over
- Keep your hands where they can be seen
- Do not make sudden movements
- Ask for permission to retrieve your driver’s license and registration
- Don’t talk back to the police
- Don’t ask for help
“The talk” occurs regardless of socioeconomic status and education. Friends I have spoken with remember exactly when they received “the talk.” They also share humiliating stories about interactions with police, being detained in airports, and being followed while shopping. Some provided stories about their sons and husbands who have been long-time residents of affluent neighborhoods being reported to the police by “concerned” neighbors when they are walking in their own neighborhood.
As a Chief Diversity Officer and an H.R. professional, these stories saddened me tremendously and it made me realize that we need many more conversations so that we understand each other’s experiences and perspectives. How can we create a much different version of “the talk” that includes people from many different backgrounds sharing their dreams, aspirations, struggles, and obstacles? Rather than being afraid of open dialogue about race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation, we should provide opportunities for discussion on controversial issues where each person’s voice is heard and valued.
I also worry about the social conditioning that occurs with multiple generations hearing “the talk” and understanding the applicability in the workplace as well as in our personal lives. Does a continual reminder of respect for authority, remaining quiet, and keeping your hands in sight result in a focus on conforming and fitting in rather than “leaning in” as Sheryl Sandberg suggests? What are the long term effects of messages about interactions with police?
Each of us is shaped by our life experiences which influence the majority of our day-to-day decisions. We tend to like people who look like us, think like us and come from similar backgrounds. Research has shown that beliefs and values from our family, culture and experiences heavily influence how we view and evaluate others. Instinct kicks in when we are confronted with a threat to our survival. Instinct is a spontaneous, split-second reaction to a situation based on our knowledge and experiences.
Whether it is a life-or-death situation, or an employment decision (hiring, promotion, performance evaluation rating, or termination), our unconscious bias may blind our decision making. The situation in Ferguson, MO where Michael Brown was killed by police officer, Darren Wilson, requires a call to action that significantly changes our life experiences and re-wires our brains so that we first become self-aware and recognize our own unconscious biases and that secondly we change the course of our shared humanity by purposefully changing our current experiences.
Specific steps that each of us can take to change the trajectory of human connectivity are:
- Become self-aware. The Implicit Association Test, developed by Harvard Business School, is one of the most effective tools for testing our own unconscious bias. It is available for free at www.implicit.harvard.edu.
- Create open dialogue opportunities. During staff meetings, personal encounters, or at large venues, create an environment where open, transparent conversations are encouraged about uncomfortable, controversial topics. Ensure that people attend these conversations have different points of view. Establish “rules of the road” where all opinions are heard and valued.
- Purposefully become “one of the only” or “one of a few.” Put yourself in situations where you are different than others around you. Attend a house of worship, visit a mall, host a dinner event, visit a neighborhood or attend a conference where you are very different than everyone else around you.
- Seek to understand. Educate yourself by reading books and articles and attending museums and movies about different people, cultures, and perspectives.
- Ask for feedback. Ask many people of different backgrounds for honest, transparent feedback about your style as a leader. Ask their opinions about what behaviors would make you a more inclusive leader.
Collectively, we can create a much different version of “the talk” by providing venues with open, transparent dialogue to share unique perspectives and experiences. By purposefully immersing ourselves in situations where we are different than those around us, we become more empathetic and understanding and we look for moments of exclusion to be turned into lifetimes of inclusion.