“I don’t see color; I believe we are all humans, and I raised my kids and grandkids to see people the same way.”
Sounds good. Really, it does.
Raise your hand if you’ve heard this before? I mean, I can’t see you but I imagine you might have raised your hand, or you instantly got hot in the face because you’ve said this statement before.
Unless you are colorblind, this type of statement is not ok.
The people who say they don’t see color, I want to believe, are well-meaning, they just require some education.
You know these people, they can’t ever understand why race is a part of any conversation. You’ve seen them on social media saying, “what does race have to do with anything,” and even shaming others for sharing their lived experience.
You’ve also met this person in your workplace. They can be a leader or an intern and when the broad conversation of diversity is presented, they might look for ways to narrow the topic to more “manageable” and digestible versions of diversity.
You might hear, “see, we have a great woman speaker,” or “everyone share their pronouns.” Or, they might go even further down the list to discuss differences in people who like to play hackey sack or by neighborhood geography.
I call this, among other things, the invisibility of diversity - the dismissal, overlooking or undervaluing of a person or community based on personal discomfort or low aptitude for cultural intelligence relative to race.
A whole mouthful, I know.
As a person of color, my race is the most visible part of my identity. And my identity reflects the strength of who I am to myself and to others. I am black first. I do not get to take off my skin, though I certainly have surprised more than a few dozen folks with my ability to articulate well over the phone; I can not dismiss the pain that is associated with seeing a black person killed by police and not immediately associate the trauma to hundreds of years of lynchings; and I can not discount the moments when my one voice has been invited to the table as a representative of 42 million blacks (in the US).
This is why you are asked to see color, not just when it is convenient like with fashion or music. Applicants are required to prove their race or ethnicity for government contracts or even for certain scholarships, but why can’t it continue to count as a benefit in other areas of our lives?
Of course, I know why. I understand why we’d want to stop living in the past. I understand why we’d want to focus on building opportunities for the next generation. I get it. It’s uncomfortable. But imagine how uncomfortable it is for people to color to often be dismissed or devalued, except when it counts for points in a contract or to lead a diversity luncheon once a year (this is also faux diversity).
But when we get “tired” of talking about the past 400 years, we also choose to ignore the present headlines and talking points of today - they look much the same. And if we overlook both past and present, we are bound, guaranteed even, to continue repeating the ills of our current world in the future.
It is my belief that as we journey to building a more intercultural society, we have to start with visible differences. This is not to split us more apart but to learn from and honor the context that brings each of us to a space:
The stories we could share;
The vulnerability we could experience; and
The ability to see truth from a different perspective.
When we incorporate conversations around race, ethnicity, and even nationality, we have the opportunity to acknowledge our “stuff” - biases, systems, policies, practices, initiatives, micro-aggressions, heritage, and more - and how they affect how we interact with each other.
Then, we have the ability to make real change.
So take a breath. Usually in my workshops this is the point where we might incorporate a breathing exercise. This will be hard. It will get harder. You will survive.
So, I can’t leave you without some solutions that will help you as you begin the process.
Here are a few things you can do as you consider how you can begin to reshape thinking about can take place in your space.
Conduct independent research. Organizations are made up of individuals. Each leader is responsible for doing their own background research. You can start with your own family. What is the origin of your family? Learn what you can. Begin asking questions. Then head to google and download some articles about biases, prejudice, race, white supremacy, Then go read some books and follow groups on social media.
Begin training yourself to recognize when your behavior is based out of fear that you may not remember or that is yet unknown. Think about how you handle those situations.
Build relationships with people who look very different from you. Do NOT ask them about their race (i.e., asking some where they are really) , their hair, or if they know “such and such” who you perceive to be a part of their community. Just spend time learning about each other as people first.
Incorporate ways to ensure safe space for conversations in your workspace. That might mean re-evaluating your team values to align them with this endeavor. This also might mean that you have weekly circle time. This could also mean starting with building a culture of discomfort as growth.
Evaluate the language and visuals used in the office and on all platforms including presentations, recruitment/hiring, and within email. Reviewing how you communicate also extends to personal or informal professional environments; consider crude jokes, reconsider co-opting slang or language used as identifiers for specific communities or culturally insensitive responses from pop culture.
Use other topic areas that your organization might cover as a way to incorporate diverse images, and perspectives from diverse voices (use of quotes, audio/visual, and so forth).
Recognize that people’s lived experience holds weight and though it might differ from you that doesn’t make it without value.
Take up space to make space for other people of other races so that though you’ve convened the table, they are the leaders.
Make intentional decisions for people of color in your organization to have leadership opportunities, outside of leading a diversity committee.
Begin prepping your team to have uncomfortable conversations, not just around race. Choose a topic that is uncomfortable to your office, sector, or market. Set the timer and discuss the topic for 5 to 15 minutes. When the timer goes off, don’t finish the sentence, just stop where you are.
Don’t stop at a couple of trainings. When it gets uncomfortable, keep going.
Let me shout from the roof top and the mountain top that we should value and appreciate people at the varying levels of diversity they bring; it starts with acknowledging the fullness of who they are, what makes them an asset, and how you can learn from each other. (Let me also note that another really important conversation to have after race is “the perception, misconception, and othering of people with disabilities”. I have quite a few thoughts and welcome yours.)
What would you add? What caught your attention? What will you go work on?
about Kia Jarmon
Kia Jarmon is not an expert on diversity, equity, and inclusion, instead she works at the intersection of culture, community, crisis, and communications and those inevitably require extensive background knowledge on people, history, and how to rectify the unjust systems of power and privilege that make any of her work challenging. With that, don’t be shocked if she uses words and discusses topics that are not often talked about among traditional communicators, she’s an entrepreneur and a business owner looking to re-engineer what excellence looks like.