So my kid’s in town. I think of him as my kid even though he’s my nephew because I raised him.
From age six months to 5 years when I left for college, if I wasn’t in school or occasionally doing a play, he was my constant companion. I taught him how to walk, talk, tie his shoes, poop on the pot, and to this day, if he does anything the elders in the family dislike, they call me and say, “You better get your child.”
He’s in town on vacay from his job in New York at a company you’d know if I mentioned it. We met up for tea — yes, tea. He’s a well-traveled 20-something black male hippie-esque individual with tiny earrings in both ears, multiple degrees, and when he recently test drove a Tesla he Facebook’d a photo with a caption that read, “I hope y’all ready to hear me bump some Weezer.” He’s amazing.
Then he starts talking, and he just takes my breath away.
He is the reason that reverse mentoring should not just be a thing. It’s a valuable, under-used talent management strategy with particular applications for those interested in expanding their understanding of diversity and inclusion issues in the workplace.
Lately, every interaction with him feels like an organic reverse mentoring session. We always talk about a little of everything as we catch up on each other’s lives. I asked about his friend Mike and learned they haven’t spoken in a while. Mike, he laughed, is mad, and is apparently maintaining an injured silence.
“That’s too bad,” I said. “Do you think the friendship is over?”
He didn’t offer many details, but I could piece things together. Mike is a vocal Trump supporter, and has been from the beginning. My nephew, on the other hand, likes nothing better than to poke well-argued holes in anything that advocates the status quo.
I wrinkled every muscle in my face and said, “How can you associate with someone like that?”
“Why not?” He immediately shot back. “I refuse to unfriend someone — even on Facebook — just because they hold political views that I might find abhorrent.”
He went on talking about Gini coefficients and moral aggrandizement and all manner of highbrow things. But what he was really saying is that my comment displays the kind of judgmental, all-or-nothing thinking that contributes to a flawed system, one that pretends to court change but is really just advocating status quo. That kind of statement, he insisted, stops dialogue and any learning that might follow.
“Maybe,” he went on, “having Trump as president is just what this company needs. It’s only when we hit a nadir that real change can happen.”
Change, he opined, is something that we desperately need.
I agree wholeheartedly. “But Donald Trump is a blatant racist, a crooked businessman and anti-practically everything that embodies diversity.”
He tossed around words like demagogue and some other stuff I should probably have taped so I could remember it, and then knocked me back with: “But what you’re really objecting to is how vocal he is about it. Do you really think there are politicians out there who aren’t also blatant racists and crooked businessmen? He’s just honest about how he feels.”
I thought about that all night: He’s just honest about how he feels.
How many times have I said or posted my appreciation for that same sentiment? Because isn’t it easier to operate, to function, to act, to make decisions when you know who people are and what they believe in?
How awesome would it be if, as a black woman, my supervisor openly said, “No. You don’t make as much money as your white male peers for the same work. No, I have no plans to correct the imbalance, and yes, I’m going to promote them over you even when they don’t deserve it.”
Then I could make some moves, no? I could plan, I could reallocate resources, I could react appropriately.
But no supervisor is going to say that. Legal issues not withstanding, it’s the fastest way outside the Orient Express to get rid of top talent.
Yet, that lack of honesty is exactly why diversity initiatives in the workplace — anywhere, really — never seem to make any progress; there is no honesty. Managers and executives in positions of power who need to be aware refuse to acknowledge inequities.
They refuse to listen or to engage in controversial diversity-related dialogue because they feel threatened or attacked or powerless. It’s far easier to pretend ignorance, to offer platitudes, to remain safe within protected, privileged little bubbles, than it is to speak out.
That’s why people like me exist. Right or wrong, we speak out. We point a finger at inequity, unfairness, cruelty or simply what looks off. We ask questions, we learn — from everyone — and we pass on what we know in hopes that our efforts to dialogue will build awareness, lead to action and promote change.
I learned something very important from my nephew. Rather, I was reminded of something critical to winning the ongoing battle for equality in the workplace. You can take the easy way out: stop writing a blog that pains me greatly, stop analyzing subject matter that occasionally makes me sick or cry, stop tweeting and talking, stop trying to convince people satisfied with the status quo that they should intercede on behalf of those for whom the current system does little to no good.
Or, continue to learn, even from those Trump-ian characters whose complaints, arguments and alleged pain points make me roll my eyes and play imaginary violins on two fingers.
If I don’t keep learning and sharing, the workplace for black women who come after me — for minorities and anyone who is different or a bit unsettling — will be exactly the same as it is now. Progress in diversity will remain a slow and painful dance, one step forward, two steps back, a sweaty, angry fight to shine lights on that which I feel should be obvious, but strangely is not.
So, thank you, Tete’s rat — he’s gonna kill me for publicizing his nickname — for reminding me that there are lessons everywhere, in even the most disturbing corners, that can help aid the fight for change so many in the workplace battle every single day.
Kellye Whitney is the associate editorial director for Workforce. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.