Trying to be a good white person can be frustrating, challenging and downright bewildering. White people have few role models — outside bigots and hate groups — on how to talk about race or behave with people of color, and doing so in the workplace is extra daunting because of the fear of human resources or legal consequences for doing something wrong. Even awkward attempts at positive behaviors can backfire because while a particular interaction might be a new experience for the white person, it might the hundredth such interaction a tired, frustrated person of color is navigating that week.
The following is a success story shared with permission from one of my white readers, whom I’ll call Janet. It illustrates the effective use critical internal skills what I call or “The 6 C’s” to interact more effectively across differences:
When I started at my job, I noticed our team was all white except for two black guys: one immigrant from Rwanda and one local, raised by a pastor and pursing a music career on the side.
1. Consciousness is the skill of being aware, self-aware and reflective. Janet noticed her co-workers’ demographics and differentiated between her two black coworkers.
The local often talked with customers to promote his music and new website, and I checked it out and shared my impressions with him as a way to connect. I felt frustrated, however, by the fact that he never asked me about myself, and was simply polite and professional with me while he joked openly and shared personally with a few of the other cashiers.
2. Curiosity is the skill of having interest in others and being open to new experiences. Janet made a sincere effort to explore her co-worker’s interests to relate to him.
3. She also showed courage — the skill of tolerating discomfort and taking a risk. Janet had courage and risked vulnerability by reaching out. It’s common for white people to innocently expect people of color to respond in kind to one friendly gesture, not realizing all the cultural and historical nuances involved. Despite her disappointment, Janet displays the skill of consciousness by noticing her own emotional response and the differences in how her co-worker behaved around others.
I decided not to push a connection and to watch and see if anything I was doing was feeding a sense of hesitation. I noticed I was holding back with him because I didn’t think we had anything in common, and I felt sad thinking he may think my behavior was racially motivated.
4. Janet continues to show excellent consciousness, and also changeability —the skill of flexibility and adaptability to change and context. Janet decided to try something new in her approach and see what emerged.
5. She also displays control — the skill of self-regulation, shifting from anxiety or shame to patience and resilience. While she is conscious of her own feelings and behaviors, Janet also emotionally self-manages by not becoming overly anxious or impatient. She takes responsibility for her actions and any unintended effect, yet she avoids going into shame — feeling like a bad person — or blame — getting angry at her co-worker for not responding the way she wants. She also avoids taking more than her share of responsibility for the situation.
Then one day, I overhead him engaged in an animated discussion with another white co-worker about the formerly great African civilizations that no one talks about. I joined the conversation and told him about reading the book “Lies my Teacher Told Me” and a few of my insights about the contributions African-Americans have made and how they have been intentionally discounted, even mentioning “The New Jim Crow.” We had an animated exchange for a few minutes and before we got back to work, my black co-worker thanked me for sharing that I knew about all that. Since then, our interactions have felt more relaxed and open.
6. Compassion— the skill of empathy and creating safety and connection. Janet accurately assessed the situation as one where it would be appropriate for her to join in. Another white person was already involved, so she wasn’t invading the “in group” space of African Americans uninvited, nor did either of the white people turn the focus to themselves. Taking the initiative again showed Janet’s courage. She also demonstrates curiosity by making the effort to read books that expanded her knowledge and understanding beyond trying to win points with people of color.
This may seem like a small moment, but I see how much the work I have done to educate myself enabled me to reveal myself as an ally instead of someone he needed to put energy into educating. From my readings, I was able to see his behavior as related more to a very real vulnerability and mistrust in white folks than as anything personal about me. And the personal work I have been doing enabled me to sit with the discomfort and ambiguity of our relationship until the right time arose for me to connect with him in a casual, authentic way. I had not needed to orchestrate a discussion, it just happened naturally, and it felt great to see all the work I have done privately finally have a direct impact my community.
Janet masterfully displays all The 6 C’s here, especially control, compassion and courage through her ability to tolerate discomfort and not take her co-worker’s behavior personally, yet continue to engage and connect with him.
Thank you for the education and dialogue you provide around white privilege! Change can be gradual and subtle, but it is powerful when it emerges.
Indeed it is. I applaud your courage, curiosity, consciousness, changeability, control and compassion, and I celebrate your success, Janet!