Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts from Lateral Link’s team of expert contributors. Monique Burt Williams is the CEO of Cadence Counsel, where she helps corporations and other organizations diversify their in-house legal divisions as they strive to reflect a global economy.
I was five years old when I first felt the weight of being black in this country.
I was at day care, playing happily with a group of children at a water table. If I close my eyes, I can still hear our screeches as we gleefully plunked toys into the pool. At some point, I mistakenly dropped a toy tugboat onto the ground. A boy glared at me, snatched up the tugboat, hurled it angrily back into the water and yelled, “You’re black!”
There was a venom in his tone that was foreign to me, and I stood there frozen, not quite understanding what his words or this interaction really meant. All that registered in that moment was the negativity that dripped from his accusatory description of me. I could tell that everyone else was contemplating a similar thought because they had all stopped playing to look at me, waiting for my reaction.
Another little girl jumped to my defense and screamed, “No, she’s not black! That’s probably just dirt. We can wash it off.” She proceeded to pat tiny handfuls of water onto my face in her innocent attempt to smear that troublesome melanin away from my skin. Her efforts were futile, and disappointment washed over the group. I remember exactly how it felt when I blinked and hot tears rushed down my cheeks and into the cool droplets of water from the girl’s failed science experiment.
The group’s silent, collective stare made me somehow feel responsible for the moment and therefore obligated to fix it. I felt like it was my responsibility to lighten the mood, or offer up some sort of excuse, or distraction, or smile, or explanation, or apology for my blackness, having interrupted and dispelled the lightness of the occasion.
Finally, mercifully, a teacher walked over to inform us that it was time for lunch, and everyone just dispersed. That was it. The moment had passed. The teacher never saw or acknowledged my tears, and everyone simply went on with their day.
Those same children would go on to play with me year after year, but I carried a soul-soaked heaviness from that day that would rear its familiar head, in some way or another, for the rest of my life. It was the first time that I had experienced the burden of “otherness” – a panicked, gloomy pit in my stomach, like the feeling you get when the phone rings in the middle of the night or that nauseating tug at your insides as you prepare to attend a funeral.
After days of protests and riots following the senseless death of George Floyd, the nation has witnessed yet another funeral for an unarmed black man who was murdered at the hands of law enforcement officials. Once again, racism has wreaked utter and complete havoc on our already taxed emotional and societal sensibilities, forcing some of us into the recesses of our minds and others onto the pandemic-ridden streets of our cities in search of an answer to that singularly unifying question: what, if anything, can be done in the wake of this chaotic pattern of destruction?
If I close my eyes, I can call up that scene from when I was five years old. I exchange the water table for a conference room. I swap out the kids for co-workers. I turn the toys into projects, and I replace the burden of “otherness” with the opportunity to effectuate real change.
When someone’s differences are called out and used against them if they happen to drop the ball, the aggressor must be pulled aside and addressed accordingly. When someone genuinely tries to defend and stand with the oppressed, but fails to do or say the perfect thing at exactly the right moment, they should be quietly counseled as to what might be more helpful in the future, not openly criticized and alienated. When someone takes on the unwarranted responsibility of smiling through the struggle, discreetly offer them a tissue and the time they need in order to recharge.
The perception of “other” begins with those in positions of power. Those in positions of power are overwhelmingly the owners of privilege. And when the owners of privilege fail to use that power toward meaningful change, they waste an opportunity to increase the widespread perception of the value of others. That is what we are missing: respect for the value of “otherness.”
That is why it is so universally dangerous to neglect the prioritization of a diverse workforce by resting in the comfort of working with homogenous teams. It perpetuates the idea that if you are “other,” you are of lesser value. It matters who you hire. It matters that your leadership teams reflect the customers that you serve. It matters what messages you send to your employees and to their families and to the world about your values and the ways in which you value their lives.
I stand with those CEOs who have committed to reinforce their diversity and inclusion efforts. I stand with the families of those who have lost their lives to senseless acts of hatred and bigotry. I stand with those who seek equality for all. And I stand with every five-year-old at every water table who has ever felt the weight of being black in this country. We will do better by you. We will.