Significant change, whether individual or within an organization can be challenging. Even when we want to change, it doesn’t happen easily. I recently heard implicit bias compared to a habit, albeit a bad one. Think about how hard it is to change a habit…
A couple of months ago, my brother in law was coming over to my house to pick up his dog after work. We’d talked earlier and he reminded me to leave the front door open for him. Then he sent me a text about 15 minutes before I was leaving as a second reminder. “Leave the door unlocked, leave the door unlocked,” I chanted in my head as I gathered my things to go. Then I went through my mental list of what I needed to bring with me, made sure I had it all, walked out, locked the door and left. His poor dog was locked inside.
Even though I wanted to change that habit and was focusing a lot of mental energy on doing something different, the moment I got distracted, I forgot and went back to what I do every day.
Now imagine there are a bunch of individuals trying to change an organization. But they’ve all learned and practiced habits of stereotypes, biases, and institutional oppression for years. Some have even gotten rewarded for this behavior by being told they’re a “good fit” at the company and getting promoted. Some are the founders of the organization or have worked there so long they see any mention of needed change as a personal affront. Others have been going along to get along, trying not to make waves by bringing up experiences of marginalization. They may even be telling themselves they imagined it or making excuses for oppressive behavior such as, “I know he didn’t mean it that way.”
When we come in to work with an organization we inform people it will be difficult and will likely bring to the surface issues that have existed for a while but never been said out loud. When we start a workshop, we tell people it is normal to experience discomfort and encourage them to lean into those feelings and wonder about what is going on at the root of the tension.
Yet when those moments happen, it is difficult to stay engaged and see this as a positive sign of change, rather than retreat to old habits. We’ve worked with organizations where after the workshop people of color are deeply concerned about stereotypes their white colleagues are talking openly about for the first time. Sometimes staff will say they feel more divided now that they’ve seen the ways white privilege and stereotypes can come between them and coworkers. The door opens for the conversation and if we’re lucky, people bring their hurt into the room. Unfortunately, we’re not automatically competent in the way we share our pain and can easily end up hurting others in the process.
People will ask for quick fixes and the “right tools”. They think somehow they can learn a strategy that is separate from having an authentic conversation with another person. When change doesn’t happen quickly, sometimes people get frustrated and disengage from conversations about the ways they’ve colluded with racism, insisting the conversation isn’t going to help. We want to protect our identities and don’t want to acknowledge our habits of bias.
This work is hard. It can feel easier to retreat, to blame the facilitator or the activity, to say, “I get it,” and shake our fists at others. In these moments, remember why we’re doing this in the first place.
Maybe it is for children, who we want to face fewer barriers in life. Maybe it is so we can bring our full selves into work and genuinely connect with other people. Maybe it is for the increased health benefits of not having to deal with the stress of racism. Maybe it is for our collective humanity. Because living with daily oppression is hard work. No, really it is. Seriously hard work.
And keep in mind, when we work collectively, it can also provide momentum for change. We can remind each other to leave the door unlocked and we’ll likely have multiple sets of keys.
This is a keynote I wrote for Peninsula High School’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Assembly on January 13th, 2012. Thanks to my many friends who contributed thoughts on what they wished they’d heard in high school, to Yarrow for the title idea, and to Caprice for her notes and ideas from similar presentations.
I’ve been an activist for social and environmental justice for most of my life. When I was 7 years old, my mom took me to my first Take Back the Night march to protest violence against women. When I was in high school in 1992, Buck Ghost Horse, a Lakota man I had been learning from, told me about a march, rally and protest commemorating the 500 year anniversary of Columbus Day. This was an event to highlight indigenous perspectives on Columbus, which, as you can imagine are quite different than mainstream European American ideas.