As a white mother of a 20-year-old son and a 17-year-old daughter, I have had conversations with my children about respecting elders, respecting authority, making smart decisions, and not causing trouble. But a pivotal moment occurred for me during a discussion about the Trayvon Martin situation. I found out that my friends who are African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, Muslim, have a more unique conversation with their children.
The conversations have a similar theme about respecting authority but the advice is far more specific and it focuses on survival—staying alive. These conversations, called “the talk,” have occurred for many generations. The advice provided includes:
- Turn all the lights on inside your car if you are pulled over
- Keep your hands where they can be seen
- Do not make sudden movements
- Ask for permission to retrieve your driver’s license and registration
- Don’t talk back to the police
- Don’t ask for help
“The talk” occurs regardless of socioeconomic status and education. Friends I have spoken with remember exactly when they received “the talk.” They also share humiliating stories about interactions with police–being detained in airports, being followed while shopping, among other things.
As a Chief Diversity Officer, these stories saddened me tremendously and made me realize that we need many more conversations so that we understand each other’s experiences and perspectives, and create a different version of “the talk.”
I worry about the social conditioning that occurs with multiple generations hearing “the talk” and understanding the applicability in the workplace. Does a continual reminder to respect authority, remain quiet, and keep your hands in sight result in a focus on fitting in rather than “leaning in” as Sheryl Sandberg suggests?
Each of us is shaped by our life experiences which influence the majority of our day-to-day decisions. We tend to like people who look like us, think like us and come from similar backgrounds. Whether it is a life-or-death situation, or an employment decision (hiring, promotion, performance evaluation rating, or termination), our unconscious bias may blind our decision making.
The situation in Ferguson, MO where Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson, requires a call to action that will significantly change our life experiences and re-wire our brains so that we become self-aware and recognize our own unconscious biases.
Specific steps that each of us can take to create change are:
1. Become self-aware. The Implicit Association Test, developed by Harvard Business School, is an effective tool for testing our own unconscious bias (www.implicit.harvard.edu).
2. Create open dialogue opportunities. During staff meetings, personal encounters, or at large venues, create an environment where transparent conversations are encouraged about uncomfortable, controversial topics.
3. Purposefully become “one of the only” or “one of a few.” Put yourself in situations where you are different from others around you.
4. Seek to understand. Educate yourself by reading books, articles and attending museums and movies about different cultures, and perspectives.
5. Ask for feedback. Ask people of different backgrounds for honest feedback about your style as a leader. Get their opinions about what you can do to become more inclusive.
-Sharon Orlopp, Global Chief Diversity Officer, Walmart