The last few weeks have brought to the forefront a reckoning of American values and our history of race relations. Here in Britain, it’s been echoed by brown and black people and the discrimination they face in the UK. The conversation is largely about the brutal treatment of police in the most extreme situations. That’s got to be the initial priority. But it has also highlighted a dialogue about the less dramatic, but very painful ways that African-Americans experience their relationship with law enforcement. That’s something I’ve known in theory for a long time, but it took a more personal conversation for me to better appreciate it.
Last year, I went with a colleague to a conference in Washington, D.C. Or, I should say, he went with me, because the invitations were limited to certain senior management levels and my colleague was too junior to be eligible. I was effectively his “ticket” in. The conference was for African-American business leaders. My colleague is African-American, and I had spent the last year or so mentoring him. He is a star performer, has excellent potential, and we worked together to help him strategise medium- and long-term career goals. Part of that was helping to expand his network, both within our organisation and beyond. I had never attended this conference, but I thought it was an important opportunity for him. The irony was not lost on me that I, his white colleague, had to facilitate his access. There are African-American team members in our organisation who were senior enough to go, but I had the relationship with him. I didn’t want to ask someone else to step in. And I knew that it could be a useful experience for me, specifically because I was not black. He needed the connections; I needed the education.
When we arrived at the conference, my colleague didn’t seem to need any hand holding from there. I noted how easily he was able to start conversations with other attendees, even though, like me, he didn’t know any of them. Maybe he was simply a far better networker and a social butterfly. Maybe. But I sensed he was joining a conversation that had started long before that evening. I tentatively approached a group of men, all African-American. I tried politely and with a little awkwardness to ask if I could join their conversation. I had already surveyed the room, and there were only a few white attendees. That didn’t matter to me, but would it to them?
They were cordial and appeared absolutely amenable to my participation. They asked who I worked for and where I was based. I told them I worked for Cisco in London.
One of the men paused, and then asked, “You flew here for this?”
I said I had. He seemed surprised, even impressed. I was surprised at his surprise. I’m on planes for work constantly, including London to the West Coast, considerably farther than DC. Business travel is simply part of the job and this was a business priority like any other. But it wasn’t difficult to understand that the decision to make this a priority, was not a common one for white business executives. That’s a problem. White male executives must take the initiative and get in the room with diverse colleagues, in order to listen and learn the challenges they face. And it’s important not to approach the situation as you giving this group the opportunity to meet senior managers. They are giving us the opportunity to better understand.
You don’t have to solve all the problems. But you do have to understand them.
From there, I mostly listened. There were the usual polite exchanges about the job and industry, then at some point it drifted to the more personal. Someone made a comment about being pulled over in their own neighborhood. It was possibly framed as a joke; I don’t remember, but I do know that it was clearly a true statement. I was surprised; maybe confused is the better term. Why would the police arbitrarily stop someone for no reason as they drove through a neighborhood they lived in? By definition this man must drive through his own neighborhood all the time. What would seem out of place? I know, I know – in today’s environment that sounds willfully ignorant about the African-American experience. And I’d like to say that if I’d read it in the paper, I wouldn’t be surprised. But perhaps what was different for me was meeting someone as a professional peer, and the next moment you hear they were suspected of criminal wrongdoing. I didn’t have much time to process this, because even more surprising was the others’ rapid assent. It seemed every man in the group had had a similar experience. This part was perhaps what took me back most of all. It was not isolated, it was not bad luck, it was the life they live.
As they spoke, it became clear that these men live in fear for their lives, or at least, they live with a heightened awareness that they are not as safe as their white neighbors. These men held jobs similar to mine, had impressive CVs, and had attained the same success financially and professionally. But not psychologically. Their income might have bought them material comforts, but it was clear there was not enough money in all of payroll to buy them peace of mind. I can tell you that I knew it intellectually, I can tell you as an American I understand it historically, but I would be dishonest if I told you that I understood that to a man, the African-American experience is such that they don’t just carry this fear in the theoretical, but in the actual. What I was experiencing at the conference is called proximity. That’s a dynamic which Brian Stevenson explains this way: “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance. . .you have to get close.”
You need to experience proximity – get closer, to understand better.
I have not lived in the United States for more than two decades, and I could let myself off the hook with a simple explanation that my day to day experience was distanced from what was happening back home. However, when I relayed this experience to a friend in London I realised it’s not just a US issue. This good friend lives in the UK and is a person of color, and a well-known entertainer and a similar thing happened to him.
I take pride in Cisco’s organisational commitment to diversity and promotion of African-Americans and other underrepresented groups, as well as my own heartfelt beliefs about creating opportunities to retain and promote. But one of the many challenges of having few African-Americans high in organisations is that it disallows an important type of understanding for white executives. When you begin to personalise someone else’s suffering, it is an emotional shift that educates more than HR articles and the best intentions.
But I left DC newly aware of two harsh realities. One, the men in the first conversation who were enjoying even the highest levels of success had to accept interactions with the police that were at best troubling, and at worst, dangerous. Two, while I didn’t create the problem, the advantages I have had means I need to play a role in solving it, and the first step was to get more proximate.