Want to be an ally & support Black communities? Get comfortable asking tough questions.
Updated: Jun 7, 2020
“This is the bottom-line: It’s about understanding each other, seeing each other, and exploring and honoring differences. The only way you do that is to get to know people. That’s how we move forward.”
Stories, tough questions, and conversations carry a lot of weight in times of change. While data, research, and intellectual debate may capture minds, stories and real, authentic dialogue capture hearts.
An unfortunate reality is that, in the midst of the Black Lives Movement and protests all over the US (in every single state) and the world, many seem afraid to wade into the messiness of conversation and dialogue. Many don’t know quite how to ask a tough question, broach a challenging conversation, or ask for someone’s experience, so instead, they don’t ask at all. Allyship is very imperfect. It’s okay to make a mistake. It’s worse to stay silent than to wade in, be uncomfortable, and have to apologize later. Lives and communities are literally at stake.
This last week, I had a conversation with two leaders from a client organization. We were together to talk about a leadership development program. They’re both Black men who have 25+ years each in various Law Enforcement agencies (i.e., FBI, DEA, and HHS/OIG) – from Chicago to DC to NYC.
Near the end of our discussion, I took a chance and asked: “will you tell me your perspective on what’s happening in our world with the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests across the country?”
They were both game, and started with noting that we certainly have problems to address in law enforcement. We need police reform, more minority representation (to match communities being served), more bias and diversity training (but, not just training, true commitment to learning and putting this into practice – it’s not a check-the-box activity).
And, aside from police and legislative reform, this is an issue of humanity. We discussed that people often just want to be heard and seen, listened to, and respected – without feeling judged. We’re at a turning point wherein entire communities, whom have been historically underrepresented and oppressed have lost trust in police, many leaders, and society more generally and that, among other things, has to be earned back.
One noted: “it doesn’t matter how smart you are as an agent or officer. When I took the time to understand different perspectives, listen to people, and notice how people move around communities, I got better, and I did better.”
Again: “This is the bottom-line: It’s about understanding each other, seeing each other, and exploring and honoring differences. The only way you do that is to get to know people. That’s how we move forward.”
At the end of the conversation, they both said: mad respect for you asking this question. Please keep asking. Please keep learning about others’ experiences. And my response? Mad respect right back for them being willing to dive into a tough, emotional topic with me. Two-way street.
Dialogue and curiosity activate empathy, and empathy—real felt empathy—will be a key catalyst for change.
Right now, we have a lot of opportunities to be part of the change. We can sign petitions, donate, prop up Black voices and communities, protest, bring awareness through education, learn personally, call out racist behavior… I could go on.
On an individual level, change can also start with asking genuine questions. We can have spark conversations within our families, workplaces, friend groups, and communities. As white folks, we can start by asking: “What’s your experience been like as a Black man or woman in America?” I’m not saying to put the emotional labor on Black people to teach you (please don't); rather, do the work and educate yourself first. And then, open yourself up to listen. Really listen. And don't stop speaking out in the process - however imperfect it may be.
I’ve never met these two men in person, but I sure hope to someday. All it took was one question, one conversation, to unlock meaningful conversation. And, I have two new friends for life.
AND, TAKE ACTION:
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[Note: I got permission to share this story]