Ubuntu by Partner and Chairperson, Leslie Traub
As a white woman, I think a lot about my relationships with women of color. It’s been a long and on-going journey for me, having done a significant amount of personal development work to decode my own actions, reactions, and motivations in seeking out relationships across race and ethnicity. I’ve also spent time trying to understand the positions, intentions, and actions of women of color. As I stand in my privileged position of consulting to a wide array of organizations on building inclusive leadership and cultures, I am highly conscious of how my intentions and commitments are received and interpreted, especially by women of color. I am more committed than ever to seeing others for who they are, to gently approach and invite, to transparently share what I see, and tell my truth in service to having supportive relationships.
My esteemed friend and fellow consultant at Cook Ross, Lenora Billings-Harris, subscribes to Ubuntu as a core life philosophy. The Ubuntu philosophy, as summarized by Michael Onyebuchi Eze, is knowing that “a person is a person through other people”. To grant each other the capacity to be human and to feel human by “recognizing the humanity of others” is an essential practice for our complex society today. Despite our best intentions, it’s easy as a member of the dominant culture to miss recognizing the humanity of others, especially those in the non-dominant group.
People in a non-dominant group, especially women of color who are working in dominant cultures, often experience invisibility and feel the need to protect themselves from a largely unconscious, dominant group. They feel the dominant group does not “see” difference, grasp the difference between intent and impact, or understand how their past life experience impacts their understanding of events. It’s understandable to retreat and protect oneself, but this self-protection can inevitably spawn contraction, making it difficult to build connections and relationships across groups. Cross group relationships require deep courage and a dedication to being more committed to the relationship than to our own comfort.
Lately, as I have been leading Unconscious Bias Learning Labs, I have observed the palpable fear white women can experience in approaching women of color, not just for friendship, but also around pertinent societal issues. I’ve also experienced reluctance on the part of women of color to engage in heartfelt relationships with white women when they have been hurt in the past. For so long, it has been modeled for us that we shouldn’t discuss anything that points to someone’s difference (race, sexual orientation, disability, political difference). As such, we miss the opportunity to see each other clearly, to hear what’s under the surface and impacting the workplace dynamics, and to make inroads that can serve to heal, connect, and re-pattern past personal and societal relationships.
In one of these labs, an African American woman talked about approaching a nursing station where several of her white, female direct reports were talking about the police murders in Dallas. They stopped speaking when she approached. She deeply wanted to share her experience of being a mom to a 14-year-old black boy and for her colleagues to understand the fear that she carries – to hear her. Sadly, there was no opening or offering for that. Another woman, a faculty member in the psychology department, was terrified to begin a conversation with a black colleague on how she might be supportive by responding to hurtful, racist online posts. She was afraid of saying the wrong thing and being misunderstood. Both moments were resolved by practicing courage.
Ubuntu has both, a call and a response. When I see and greet you, one says, “I see you” and the other responds with, “I am here to be seen.” Other tribes reverse the sayings, and approach with, “I am here to be seen” and respond with, “I see you”. Both invoke the intention to see each other without prejudice, predisposition, or bias. Regardless of what is said or implied, the practice of recognition, of stopping to really “see” and acknowledge each other, and to have that mirrored back is a fundamental spiritual practice. It is one of the most gratifying actions we can take to lay the groundwork for whole-hearted, open, and transparent relationships that allow us to listen deeply and generatively to each other.
I see you, and I am here to be seen.
Please take a moment to share your experiences with cross-race relationships with us, in the comments below and on social media using #CookRossBlog, in an effort to expand this important dialogue and to see each other.
If you enjoyed reading this blog post, register for our July 18 webinar, “Untangling the Web Between White Women and Women of Color” presented by Leslie Traub and Rosalyn Taylor O’Neale and our Women and Race Lab October 4-5.
Leslie Traub, Cook Ross Partner and Chairperson, is the author of this blog post. With over 30 years of experience leading diversity, inclusion, and change management initiatives, Leslie creates sustainable systems of change that yield greater social belonging, organizational performance, and possibility.