I wrote this piece several weeks ago. After I wrote it, I realized how dangerous some of the ideas could be if taken out of context. I began questioning myself (which to be clear, I think is really important for us all to do).
Was this safe to be putting out to the world?
What if my ideas are wrong?
What if they’re misinterpreted?
As my social media following has grown, so too has my team and that’s been a wonderful gift. It’s often their input that keeps me out of trouble. By that I mean, my team helps me from realizing any of the fears I outlined above by reviewing and making suggestions to material that might be too controversial or misinterpreted.
For example, when I say things like “we have work to do.” And I mean “we white people have work to do,“ but I failed to explicitly make reference to “white people.”
Why had I failed to do this?
Because like many of us (white people) I am so part of that “norm” of whiteness that I don’t catch myself making these sweeping mistakes. But my team does. My team keeps me from saying things that I don’t mean to say (lest my words be misinterpreted or separated from the positive intent from which I said them). My team helps me re-word, re-write, re-organize my thoughts so that they come across to my audience the way I intend them to.
But I realized recently that there is a great unspoken danger in this approach too.
Having the safety net of my team to edit my words makes me disingenuous to the message I preach about being fear(less).
If I don’t make these mistakes publicly, we can’t all learn from them. If I so fear the shame and guilt of not getting it right, how many others am I do a disservice to who could learn with me in my mistakes and missteps?
I decided to adopt the Bréne Brown mantra of, “I’m here to get it right, not to be right.”
I am certain, I will stumble.
I am certain, I will publish things and regret saying them.
I am certain I’ll get it wrong at least as much as I get it right.
Because the reality is, I’m human. And if I try only to be right all the time without exposing my mistakes to everyone (instead of only in the safety of my private email exchanges with my team) I’ll fail in sharing the lessons with others who are trying to get it right too. And I’m learning right alongside you.
It’s my hope that as I push out imperfect content, you correct me (you, my readership, who I count as part of my broader team). Because it’s high time my ego took a backseat to my curiosity. I’ll beg in advance that you assume positive intent in my writing. I’ll ask forgiveness when I get it wrong and permission to change my stance when I do. But I’m here to get it right, not to be right, and I thank you for helping me in the journey so that we might all learn together with less shame.
I invite each of you to come fearlessly with your own opinions, ideas, feedback, pushback, corrections etc. and I’ll do my best to honor and welcome it all with my defenses lowered. It’s time I take a dose of my own fear(less) medicine. And with that preamble, here’s my latest dangerous thinking:
I had a risky idea yesterday. Most of my ideas that are still half-formed are fairly precarious so it’s not a surprise that when I came bursting into the kitchen to explain to my partner than we needed to train women about how to better fit into the white patriarchal system, he balked. Appropriately so.
I tried a different approach.
“Okay, think about Star Wars and the plan to destroy the Death Star. The Rebels are desperate and running out of options but Luke Skywalker is able to shoot the proton torpedo into the exhaust pipe triggering the chain reaction to bring down the whole evil system. The only way Luke knows how to do this is because he had the stolen plans – the blueprints to the Death Star. He understood the entire layout and system which allowed him to infiltrate the reactor core!”
My partner’s reaction has moved from shock and horror to twisted confusion.
He’s never seen Star Wars – a tragedy of epic proportions that I make a note to amend as soon as possible.
Undeterred, I grabbed my computer to try to finish baking the idea, which obviously isn’t going to be communicated by alluding to great cinema. In my upcoming book, Instinct, I write about Ernst & Young, one of the largest accounting firms in the world and their 2018 training scandal. The company had offered promising up-and-coming female leaders a training called, “Power-Presence-Purpose.” The training included tips like:
• Clothing must flatter, but short skirts are a no-no.
• Women should look healthy and fit, with a “good haircut” and “manicured nails.”
• Don’t directly confront men in a meeting; it’s perceived as aggressive.
• Don’t talk to a man face-to-face. Cross your legs and sit at an angle to him.
Out of touch? Definitely.
Ah, now things start to get interesting. In a system that has been built to reward those that fit into the “norm” of the white patriarchy, is it not exceptionally useful to understand the rules of the “norm?” Think of it as having those secret stolen plans of the Death Star. Let me be very clear about this point: I’m not in any way trying to justify or moralize these rules, but if these are the blueprints that allow women, people of color, and other marginalized groups to access otherwise cordoned off positions of power, let’s know them – in depth.
Most of us already have some sense of what these rules are because we’ve been taught them (if not as explicitly as the Ernst & Young training) from a very young age and had them reinforced at every turn. It occurred to me that while I understand the unwritten rules for white women (since I am one), those rules are likely much different for women of color. For a Black perspective on racial and gender “shape-shifting” or switch-coding I highly recommend reading Kimberly Foster’s article linked here and Maura Cheeks HBR article here. Insomuch as I had to read Maura and Kimberly’s articles to become aware of and better understand how the rules applied differently for Black women, it became unflinchingly clear to me that there was a massive opportunity for another group to be cued into these different rules sets – allies. In particular, white men who have never had “the training” to understand what norms they were unknowingly, passively supporting.
As a woman (and a biologist) I’m very aware that being in a position of power in the workplace is extraordinarily threatening to men at the biological level. A challenge to male status is a challenge to their reason for existence. Status is how men demonstrate self-worth, mate-value, and power among peers. So when I, as a woman, address a man at work, I have to know the rules. Confronting him in front of his peers, immediately staring him in the eye, sitting openly and directly in front of him are registered by him as deeply engrained biological challenges that will likely elicit an instinctual defensive response preventing him from fully hearing and understanding my position (no matter how good or bad it might be). In this illustration, some of the Ernst & Young training might help me make a better case by adjusting my approach. Immediately I can feel myself (and my readers) bristle at this idea.
Why should I adjust my approach?
Why shouldn’t he recognize and adjust his surging testosterone and control his instincts?
Yes. Of course, he should. But he’s never had the training.
In the same way, I’ve never been trained to better interact and adjust to not be spewing white privilege in my interactions with colleagues who are people of color.
No, of course, it shouldn’t be up to those outside of the power structures to have to train and play by their rules. Ideally, there are enough white allies, and male allies, and heterosexual allies, and Christian allies, and cis allies, that are willing to sit in on these “trainings” by reading books and listening to podcasts and relearning that the world they’ve been living in is not nearly as multidimensional and complex as the experiences of those living outside it. But I don’t want to be dependent on those already in power to wake up. We’ve tried this tactic for too long and we haven’t gotten far enough. Because if you’re a man, you can walk away from the “gender training” at any time and fall back into the norm. If you’re white, you can do the same with “race training.” And so on. It’s too easy for the norm to walk away when things get tough.
Instead, I find myself diving deeper into the psychology of the system. How can I as a woman better shape shift to gain power? What rules can I uncover that will help others infiltrate and be in a better position to change the system? How can I better sit in on the trainings of those outside of my own marginalized group to be the ally they need, in order to begin changing the system from the inside?
My allies, this Rebel Alliance, may have to fly into the trenches of the Death Star system, but we will find that exhaust pipe. And the more we expose the weaknesses of this superstructure the more we can begin to dismantle it from within.
*(And yes, that too must include exploring and more deeply analyzing my references to the patriarchal, racially insensitive and stereotyped classics like Star Wars – the irony was *almost* lost, but saved thanks to careful editing by a friend. Thanks to everyone for continuously helping me through the training. We are all learning).