08 Jun Not Enough Melanin In the Room
With everything that has been happening in our society today, especially with the injustice and prevalence of the sustained racism and discrimination in America and the world, I am reflecting on a critical life experience.
On December 5, 2018, I was invited to an event to discuss the book “White Frugality”. I did not read the book, but I thought it would be an interesting event to attend. My friend and I arrived early and waited for the other guests to arrive. As the event start time approached, guests began to arrive and take their seats. All of the attendees were Caucasian, understandably so, but I felt it would be important for an additional person of color to be in the room as well, in order to diversify the conversation. A few minutes went by and, still, there were no other people of color. I began to feel nervous and anxious. Often a feeling I felt in the past when I was the only person of color in the room. From my experience, one’s melanin can be the unspoken topic in the room, when the inhabitants are predominantly not of color.
A few more minutes passed and three other women of color arrived and took their seats together in the seats across from the host. My nerves began to ease when they arrived, somehow feeling that I would no longer be the unspoken topic in the room. Reflecting on it now, I think my feelings of anxiety and nervousness presented themselves because the book they were reviewing appeared to be only for the Caucasian population, so in a sense, there was a feeling of being “uninvited”. I had to remind myself that I belonged there and I had a purpose there.
Time went on and the host welcomed everyone, every attendee introduced themselves, and he informed us of the purpose of the discussion and the format. He then went on to discuss a few excerpts from the book to open up the discussion. After attendees were able to provide their takeaways from the excerpts, we broke out into smaller groups. The host explicitly stated that the people of color could decide on the groups they wanted to join, even if it meant their own group. When I heard this statement, I was a bit taken back because it felt that he was singling out people of color for the purpose of “inclusion”. Groups began to form and the women of color in the back began to form their group. At that moment I chose to join a group where I would be the only person of color, because I believed that my purpose was to provide a different perspective, as an African-American woman, for the people in my group. I joined a group with the host and four Caucasian women.
The host started the discussion by addressing the other women in the group and their takeaways from the book. Then he addressed me, welcomed me and thanked me for being part of the group. He then asked everyone if they had anything they would like to ask or share. One of the ladies turned to me and asked about my experience growing up. The host immediately responded and said “now, we’re not to ask her questions that single her out…”. I said “no, no, it’s fine. It’s important we have this conversation.” I decided to be vulnerable in that moment and I shared my take on his statement about group selection. I also expressed what I felt when I was the only person of color in the room initially. I discussed implicit bias and the importance of choosing to take a position of understanding even with our own biases. Furthermore, I spoke on the importance of being open so that one does not get offended when discussing race. Finally, I talked about growing up in the suburbs in Southern California, in a predominantly Caucasian and Hispanic area. When I was young, I often wanted to be Caucasian because of who my peers were and my perception of their features: having “good” hair, colored eyes, fair skin, etc. I can remember being called “white-washed” on various occasions from my African-American peers and family from the southern states, because of the way I talked and how “proper” my speech was.
I had never discussed such matters with people of another race before, nor had I been given the space to do so. In that place of vulnerability, I grew, and the conversation was absolutely necessary. My intention was to provide a different perspective to the group, and even if just one person heard me, truly heard me, then I would have accomplished something important. Perhaps it allowed them to see that we are all humans, with different intricacies, heritage, backgrounds and features, but we can adjust our hearts in order to understand the things and people we do not understand.
If we, as people, place ourselves in environments where there is an uncomfortable situation to have conversations with the people who will listen, there can be change. Even if we are in a situation where we feel that our perspective falls on deaf ears, there will be the one who will hear and it will touch their heart and they will act, and decide that the change starts with them.
As an African-American woman and leader, I desire representation across all sectors. From the viewpoint of the nonprofit sector, we need more representation on boards and in executive roles for large and small organizations. A report from the Building Movement Project, “Race to Lead: Confronting the Racial Leadership Gap”, acknowledges that it is necessary to increase the number of people of color leaders, and the means by which this happens is by addressing the practices and biases of those governing nonprofit organizations.
The racial leadership gap is not just prevalent in the nonprofit sector, it is also prevalent in other sectors. Harvard Business Review suggests that change “involves shifting from an exclusive focus on the business case for racial diversity to embracing the moral one, promoting real conversations about race, revamping diversity and inclusion programs, and better managing career development at every stage.” The change should not just occur because it is a sound and profitable business decision, but because it is fundamental and should be mandatory.
This is a call to leaders and individuals to have uncomfortable conversations with the people and organizations that may be uncomfortable, in order to influence true change; across sectors, across communities, inside board rooms, in classrooms and in the oval office.
You, we, are the ones to do this. Not one of us is exempt.