David Livermore Interviews Sandra Upton
Sandra and I have a special relationship, personally and professionally. We have the utmost respect for each other, which not only makes for a great working relationship but also becomes critical in my own development of speaking out against racism and becoming a more culturally intelligent ally.
Last month, Sandra shared some insights on how cultural intelligence applies to becoming an anti-racist organisation. As a follow-up, I sat down to ask her for guidance about strategies we can all apply on a personal level to bring about systemic change. Read the transcript of our recent conversation below.
Sandra, you and I agree that “shame” isn’t a very effective way to motivate people to address their racism. But we’ve had some healthy debates about how far to push people out of their comfort zones. How do we find a balance between an approach that causes people to shut down and become defensive versus one that’s too gentle and keeps people comfortable?
Sandra: This is a good and important question. Recently I was listening to a powerful dialogue about comfort zones between Robin DeAngelo, author of White Fragility, and Resmaa Menakem, a trauma specialist. They argued that the forces of comfort are seductive. People are easily lured in the direction of staying in a comfortable space because it allows them to ignore and dismiss the harsh realities of racism and racist systems. But that seduction comes with a cost. White people want to move on to the next thing, but people of color don’t have the option of doing so. As a consequence, power and control remain in the hands of the dominant culture.
With that said, you’re right that I’m not interested in shaming people. I want to challenge people to acknowledge hard facts and understand that everyone is a critical part of the needed change. Real change only happens when we are willing to become uncomfortable. I think one of the best approaches is to create a psychologically safe environment where people know upfront that their thinking and behavior are going be challenged while assuring that it will be done in a way that’s respectful and assumes positive intent. This can happen over a cup of coffee or in a more formal setting with a group and facilitator. Whatever the context, there should be pre-determined engagement rules and a commitment on everyone’s part to listen and suspend judgment.
One of the things you teach in our CQ® Your Bias workshop is how to use cultural intelligence to respond to microaggressions. Can you give us an example of a microaggression and a culturally intelligent way to respond?
Sandra: I can think of several, but I’ll just share one. It’s personal because it happened at an informal event at your house. My husband and I sat next to an older, white woman, and she asked how I knew you. I told her we worked together, to which she said, “Oh…so, are you Dave’s scheduler?” My husband and I looked at each other, not completely surprised, but disappointed and a bit angered. My response was, “No, I’m actually one of the vice presidents, but what made you assume I was Dave’s scheduler?” I don’t recall what her response was, but I remember thinking how devaluing her comment was. That is what a microaggression looks like. It was informed by bias and assumptions about the kind of role someone who looks like me would be filling. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a scheduler. However, a more appropriate and respectful question would have been, “So what do you do at the Cultural Intelligence Center?” That question brings no assumptions with it. I could be the scheduler or the president of the company.
You know how uncomfortable that story makes me! I’m so sorry that happened at my house. If I had heard the comment, what would be a culturally intelligent way for a bystander to respond to that kind of microaggression?
Sandra: If you had heard it, you could have directly challenged her assumptions as I did. Ask her why she assumed I was your assistant and help her see how devaluing her question was. Coming from you would potentially be more powerful, and it would be a way to demonstrate your allyship with me. That kind of allyship helps lift the exhausting burden and workload from people like me.
We’re told to avoid putting the burden on African Americans to educate us. But we also need to engage in meaningful dialogue about how the realities of something like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor impact you. How would you advise someone who is white to engage in a conversation about race with a friend who is Black?
Sandra: First of all, check in with them. See how they are doing. The last few months have been tough. Well…the last 400 years! Don’t start the conversation by asking them to teach and educate you on all things Black or help you figure out what to do in the midst of this national crisis. The conversation may eventually lead to that, and that’s fine, but the priority should be to empathize, listen, and be there as a friend. Then make an intentional effort to educate yourself. Don’t put that work back on Black people. You might feel fragile, but we feel fatigued.
One of the important things being emphasized in the current moment is a call to look at systemic racism. Most of the solutions being discussed focus on structural, system-wide changes like defunding the police, removing statues, or addressing things like unconscious bias and privilege in law enforcement, corporate board rooms, educational institutions, and the list goes on. But what can an individual do to respond to systemic racism?
Sandra: It starts by making an intentional effort to educate yourself. There are numerous books, TED talks, podcasts, webinars, blogs, and other resources on racism readily available. And then commit to taking real action in your communities, workplace, or whenever you have a footprint and influence.
It’s been encouraging to see so many Black Lives Matter signs in my neighbors’ yards. But I’m often tempted to knock on a few doors and say, “I think it’s fantastic that you support the BLM movement. I’d love to learn more about what action steps you are taking demonstrate your commitment to anti-racism.” A sign is great, but it’s also easy and a relatively low level of commitment. How can you step up your actions?
- Support Black-owned businesses (restaurants, banks, shops, builders, landscape services, attorneys, etc.)
- Donate to anti-racism causes and support programs that support racial justice and equality.
- Support and sign petitions calling for justice for victims like Breonna Taylor and Ahmed Arbery and others.
- Hold white-owned businesses and non-profits accountable. What’s being done at your dentist’s office, religious community, golf club, etc. to hire people of color at all levels, not just frontline service roles? If you are the owner, create opportunities to offer stellar performers equity in the business.
- Petition your school to hire diverse administrators and staff, support underrepresented families and students, and decolonize curriculum.
- Disrupt racist systems, policies, and practices at work. This might include challenging a biased hiring policy or encouraging your employer to develop a supplier diversity program.
- Challenge your white friends and colleagues to do the same. Hold each other accountable and speak up when you hear racist comments or observe racist behaviors.
It grieves me that this critical issue of how we care for one another has often been co-opted as yet another political divide. There are liberals and conservatives who are racists. And there are Democrats and Republicans who are allies. How should cultural intelligence influence the way we vote?
Sandra: Cultural intelligence (CQ®) is about teaching people the skills to work effectively in multicultural situations. When we celebrate and leverage our similarities and differences and commit to equitable opportunities for everyone, we all come out better. Any politician or policy that campaigns or fights against this notion should be challenged.
Specifically, observe candidates’ positions on important social justice matters. For example, if you want to hold law enforcement officials accountable, you need to vote for politicians and prosecutors who will support this. Just recently, “Breonna’s Law,” a law barring the execution of warrants without knocking, was voted on unanimously by the City Council in Louisville, Kentucky. This is a perfect example of local politicians taking a swift and hard stand on fighting injustice in the criminal justice system. Like many places across the globe, politician’s votes are a matter of public record. Track how political leaders are voting on social justice issues, and use that to inform how you will vote.
What do you hope happens now?
Sandra: My hope that is that although the public protests have largely dissipated, the movement towards systemic and sustainable change will not only continue but that it will gain momentum. That’s going to take all of us putting in work. Hold each other accountable. And regularly assess our progress. Finally, remember that whether you are a conscious racist or accidental one, the consequences for people of color are often the same.