Archive for May, 2012

My Lessons from 6th Graders: How to Stop Being Comfortably Black

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

When I returned to my home town of Cleveland, Ohio to promote my new book, The End of Diversity as We Know It:  Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed, I was excited. I couldn’t wait to see old friends, some of whom I had not seen since childhood. I was eager to show everyone what I had accomplished over the years. It would be a real coming out party. And it turned out to be just that. It was a great event and I really enjoyed reconnecting with family, friends, and colleagues.

But the best part of the event was not the connection with the old faces (sorry, seasoned faces?…ok, this is not getting any better…). The best part happened when, shortly after the event got started, a seemingly endless line of short people enter the venue. To my surprise and delight, my youngest nephew’s class concluded their school day with a field trip to my book event. And this was going to be great because now, I would also be able to influence young minds, too!

I probably did make some impression on the kids, but if I did, that was the backstory for me. In the hour that followed after they settled into their seats, these 11—13 year olds educated me and the rest of the adults in the audience. I wanted to engage them in discussion about three big ideas about Leveraging Difference: 1) the importance of having a strategy, 2) being able to see, understand, and engage multiple differences, and 3) endeavoring to stay focused on larger goals without being distracted. They stunned us all with their variety of insights, but none were more provocative than their thoughts about distractions and diversions.

Now as we all know, our kids live in an incredibly stimulating environment with video, social media, and myriad technologies to grab their attention. And we all know that attention deficit issues are ever-present in dealing with educating kids, right? Except this groups of kids violated those assumptions. They were certainly regular kids, full of energy, and excited about being in this sun-drenched university meeting room overlooking the Cleveland landscape. There was no shortage of “herding cats” activity going on. But once they focused, they provided a number of gems:

Martin:            …the third big idea: you have to keep your eye on the larger goal. What do I mean by that?

1st student:      Paying attention to what’s really important.

Martin:            What keeps people from remembering what’s really important?

1st student:      People get distracted…like something happens in the stock market and they are not focusing on their business. They’re trying to figure out how to get out from under.

2nd student:     Sometimes, in order to run a business, you have to be able to change things. Sometime people let greed get in the way of their goals. They can be too greedy for money. Like a fool is easily separated from his money? If you don’t lead your business well, you could easily lose it all.

3rd  student :    I believe that personal goals get in the way. In order to do well, you sometimes have to put personal goals aside to achieve the larger goal, or else you sacrifice the larger goal.

OK, so what does this have to do with being “comfortably black?” There was something about hearing these words from the mouths of young people that compelled me to ask myself: what distracts me? I decided to examine what was getting in the way of how I was sharing what I was learning from the book with the audiences I met. I realized that I had two great distractions I continue to work on:

1)    Being the “rock star.” When I arrive at a place to teach a class, give a talk, or consult with a client, I am invited to be the center of attention. This is an awfully seductive position to be in because I know that in these circumstances, I love the spotlight. But invariably, that impulse to bask in the limelight makes it very difficult to actually help my students learn, affect my audiences constructively, or help my clients change. I am preoccupied with what I need to do to look smart, sophisticated and suave (whether or not I can execute on it!)

2)    Being “comfortably” black. As a result of #1, I have been vigilantly challenging myself (especially in my diversity work) not settle into being “the black authority.” I find it appealing to show how knowledgeable and insightful I am by using race as a reference for my teachings and conversations. But the people I work with often want to engage and learn about other differences as well. Many times, these other differences are more important in their lives than race. I have to do a better job of doing my homework and learning about differences beyond race. I have to be open to feeling anxiety, being unsure of myself, even reacting defensively in talking about and working with other differences. I won’t always be the expert; I’ll have to learn, too.

In these situations, I have a personal mantra that I actually speak to myself, under my breath, or out loud: How can I be helpful to this class/audience/client in our time together? Just reminding myself prior to an engagement and then during the encounter helps me to refocus on the larger goal.

I am so grateful to my youngest nephew’s class.

Why I Don’t Really Like MARC

Friday, May 11th, 2012
 The benefits of engaging in gender work can be as rewarding as the costs are damaging…

I was recently asked to join a progressive online community called MARC, which stands for Men Advocating Real Change, and to be a contributor to the MARC blog. MARC is made up of professionals committed to achieving equality in the workplace. It empowers community members to engage in candid conversations about gender, its impact in the workplace, and how to lead change through member-generated advice, insights, and best practices.

It seems like this would be the perfect forum for me to contribute to the conversation, especially with the focus of my work being on “leveraging difference,” which includes gender difference. So, I couldn’t understand why it took me so long to start my first blog post for MARC until I realized that I don’t really like MARC. As a man, it can be difficult and unpleasant to deal with gender dynamics and to have to talk about issues like the challenges of colleagueship with women. I’m reminded of my days in graduate school when I decided to join a men’s awareness group. I wanted to better understand women, gender, and myself. (Actually, in retrospect, the biggest reason was that I was dating this remarkable woman who I wanted to get to know better, and I was looking for anything that would help).

I joined the group and it seemed like the right thing to do, but it didn’t take long to realize that I didn’t belong in the group. Not because I was somehow more enlightened than the other men in the group—I most certainly was not. But because what they talked about didn’t really resonate with me. The topics of discussion too often felt like a personal attack. It wasn’t that other guys were attacking me, but more that the subject matter was offensive. I felt like I was being blamed just being who I was, for being a man. The mannerisms, language, and behaviors that were a part of who I was were being talked about as though they were wrong. Moreover, as a man of color, I was not sure that this gender work was not a distraction from the “more important” work of fighting racism. And to top it all off, I thought the men in this group were a little too self-reflective, a little too self-righteous, a little too sensitive and a little too, well, white. I soon drifted away from the group—other more important activities just took precedence.

My experience nicely illustrates a trap that ensnares many men when it comes to doing the work it takes to create a community and society in which gender diversity truly enriches everyone. The kinds of negative reactions I had to that men’s group are both legitimate and common.  And those very same legitimate reactions create the smokescreen that prevents men from experiencing both the costs of the status quo as well as the benefits of something better.

I understand some very clear realities about gender at this stage of my career and my life. On the cost side, my sexism—especially the unconscious, unintentional stuff—harms my women colleagues. Maybe they are mostly small slights, but inflicting many small abrasions is the stuff of torture. Moreover, my sexism harms me personally. I can’t be fully productive and fully collaborative (and those two are critically important career competencies in the 21st century economy) if I am hindered by my gender bias. That bias can take many forms:  feeling uneasy with a female boss, or being uncertain about how to give feedback to a woman direct report, or being pre-occupied by sexual attraction to a colleague, or just being frustrated about having to walk on eggshells when it comes to women and gender. All of these feelings drain time and mental energy from a man in a gender diverse workplace. That is time and energy that is better used for accomplishing the work of one’s organization. An added cost for me as a black man? I can’t fully address and redress the dynamics of racism if I am myself at the mercy of my own unconscious gender biases. Gandhi and King among others have made the point eloquently that all of these biases and injustices are fruit of the same tree.

The benefits of engaging in gender work can be as rewarding as the costs are damaging. If we can really make substantive headway in breaking down the bias and dysfunction related to gender, there is the possibility of experiencing a truly energized, dynamic and diverse workplace and community. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from interacting with the multiplicity of women colleagues when I can do so skillfully, and free from anxiety and self-consciousness that I will mess up or be offensive. I am much better at accepting and learning from women who are smart, resourceful, aggressive, quiet, feminine, tough-minded and all manner of other traits. And, by the way, I’m also better at connecting with other men who share exactly the same qualities. Engaging gender is not just about understanding women—it’s also about understanding the range of maleness that is present in our workplaces, communities, societies, and in ourselves.

I don’t like MARC because from moment to moment, it is challenging to really roll up my sleeves and work on making myself better; looking critically at myself is not an especially fun activity for me. But I will be better for doing the work. And I will help others in my life—both women and men—if I can fully embrace the insights, dialogue, and learning that can come from a forum like MARC. So I’ll work on it—maybe not every day, but most days—and see what happens.