Having the Hard Conversations: Reflections for Juneteenth, Freedom Day
June 20, 2023
By Adam Bryant
In the fall of 2020, Rhonda Morris, the CHRO of Chevron, and I launched our interview series with prominent Black Leaders – “Leading in the B-Suite.” More than 50 interviews later, we remain committed to our goals for the series: To share the life stories and lessons of successful leaders, including the headwinds they’ve faced in their careers and the tailwinds that helped them navigate those challenges.
Conversations about race and racism can be uncomfortable. After the horrific murder of George Floyd in 2020, many organizations committed to having more discussions about race among their employees, and we hope those will continue. Because it’s through those conversations – with people allowing for grace on all sides – that we will build empathy and compassion, which will in turn lead in turn to action.
Below we share a few excerpts from our interviews that serve as important reminders to keep the conversation going. We will certainly do our part, as we have a long list of people to be included in the series in the coming years.
First, you have to be willing to listen. You have to engage and not preach. A lot of people, when they engage in a conversation, really want to say, “Here’s what I think,” and that’s the end of it. That’s not a conversation. You have to be willing to hear difficult things if you’re going to break through a very difficult barrier between races. Listening is important, no matter what people say. And if you’re going to pick up your marbles and leave because somebody has said something offensive, it never works.
Saying something personal about somebody else is not constructive. It’s okay to express how you are feeling, and others are not entitled to sanction you because you’re expressing how you feel. It’s not a bad idea to have people, if they are in a small group, sign an agreement in terms of the rules everyone is going to follow in the conversation. And any conversation around race has to begin with a common goal and trying to establish a middle ground. What’s the point if you’re not doing that?
I’ve found that it really helps to move the conversation away from racism to actions that have racial consequences. No one thinks of themselves as a racist, and yet people engage in actions every day that have adverse consequences on one group or another. For example, when you describe a job with a stereotypical definition of who will be successful in a role, you are creating a barrier to others because most likely the job will be filled by a White male. It’s really important to look at the consequences of actions.
It’s also important to give people the experience of what it’s like to be in a culture different than their own. At Aetna, I would take members of my executive committee to a golf and tennis outing sponsored by Black Enterprise magazine. There were 300 Black corporate executives and a few non-Black executives. It often was the first time they had been in an environment where the culture was different. The music was different. The humor was different. They were a fish out of water, and they didn’t understand that that’s what other people went through on a regular basis.
And there has to be a real demonstration of a belief in equality and equal opportunity. I’ve had some tough conversations with CEOs this year, and one thing I sometimes tell them is, “If you performed on revenue and earnings the same way you are performing on achieving a company that is reflective of the customers you serve, would you still have a job? Your results are miserable on this front, and so if you, the board, and the company believe it’s important, why is this level of performance tolerated? It either says it’s unimportant or that you’re incompetent. You pick the answer.”
You can have that conversation when you are willing to give and receive grace. Part of the reason people are afraid to have that conversation is because they are inevitably going to say the wrong thing. They are going to say something that is offensive. I have. I do. People in some cases are afraid to even open their mouths because they worry that they’ll get canceled for saying the wrong thing.
There are situations when I’m in a room and I’m afraid I’m going to say the wrong thing. If I feel like that, I have to also give some grace to others who might be in the room and are afraid to say the wrong thing. What I mean by grace is allowing people to come to a place where they are, and if I say something, if I use the wrong word, don’t cancel me. Call me out and tell me to address it. And if you use the wrong word, I’m going to do the same thing and show you grace.
I think that’s a large part of what’s happening in our country on this issue. The single most powerful thing that we can do to address racism in this country is to tell history in a truthful, unvarnished, objective manner. Part of the reason that we are in such a bad place is that we don’t know our history, because our history has been so corrupted.
If we knew the true experience of people of color in this country and had some honest discussion that was based in reality, we could get to a better place. But we’re taught things that are not true, and so now we’re spending all this time trying to undo that. Honest conversation and dialogue can get us to where we’re supposed to be. But it is a journey and the strides needs to be bigger.
Racism is a horrible conversation to have, for both sides. People don’t want to deal with things that don’t have easy solutions. And everybody’s busy. Everyone is focused on themselves, and if it’s not really relating to them and impacting them, they don’t want to deal with it.
I also think it’s harder now, because so many people want to shorthand complex ideas to just a word or phrase. You can’t talk about race and solve race problems by talking about who’s woke, who’s not, critical race theory, and cancelling people. People immediately shut down, because they don’t want to hear it anymore. You lose an opportunity to have a conversation.
I don’t think you can solve things with just one word. People are so much more complex than that. The only way you’re really going to solve any complicated problem is to give it time. You have to work on it and have conversations and disagreements and stay at the table, even when you’re disagreeing.
I also think people have to be vulnerable and share their own experiences and be honest, even if it’s uncomfortable. I don’t have the energy to do that all the time. But in the wake of George Floyd and other incidents, I shared in a meeting what had happened to me recently. I was driving in my town and I accidentally cut someone off. I just didn’t see the person. They started honking at me, which was understandable.
Then he started following me really close, and kept honking. I thought, “This guy is crazy.” He kept honking and riding up behind me. He wouldn’t stop and I finally pulled over, and he starts running toward my car screaming racial epithets. Luckily, he turned around, got back into his car, and sped off, still honking and yelling. My son was in the back seat, and I just tried to keep my composure because I didn’t want him to be scared.
I didn’t expect to tell this story at the meeting, but I wanted people to understand what can happen because the only reason that people are going to really grapple with racism is if they hear about some of the horrible things that happen to people they know. Racism is not something that only happens to poor Black people in the South. It happens to all of us, including a Columbia law graduate like me. A lot of people told me it hit home for them. If people are willing to share vulnerable stories, that makes people want to help more than just batting around words.
It’s about being human. There are components of being human that make it challenging to talk about race, and there are components of being human that I believe can make it more comfortable to talk about race. It’s about finding the human moments and caring.
And you have to avoid becoming paralyzed by the goal of being perfect. It doesn’t matter which side of the conversation you’re on. After the killing of George Floyd, I got calls from people I hadn’t talked to in a long time. My White friends were calling to check in. And with each one, I encouraged them not to just check in with me because they knew me. Make sure you take that caring nature to other folks of color who you may not know as well, and don’t worry about being perfect.
We should be thoughtful, we should be attentive to the words we use and how we engage people. We shouldn’t be careless or reckless, but this notion of being perfect stops us from talking. I believe that we’re in a once-in-a-generation moment of caring, awareness, interest, and curiosity. I often ask people to engage and to be curious. Ask questions. Share your perspective. We’re all human, so be human, and humans react to humanity from each other.
And work on increasing your personal culture dexterity — your ability to relate and connect and be relatable to other people. Make it a thing that’s worth perfecting, just like other parts of your life, because the ROI of learning more about individuals and increasing your comfort level is indescribable.
I spent two years as our Chief Diversity Officer, and I learned that most people rally around the topic of diversity from three perspectives: head, heart, wallet. It’s either the head, as in, “What are the numbers? What are the metrics? What are we trying to do?” Or it’s heart: “It’s the right thing to do. Why do we need goals?” Or it’s about the wallet: “It’s important to my business and my brand.”
And what I say to people is. just pick one. If you pick two or all three, that would be great. But start with one. There’s work to do, so pick one and then let’s get on with doing the work.