Workplace Wisdom

Because We Can Breathe

Like many people, I’m deeply outraged and upset about the recent grand jury decisions not to indict white police officers who killed unarmed black men. And like many others, my perceptions and concerns are shaped by my own biases. So let me be as explicit about them as I can.

I’m a management consultant, a woman, a Jew, and a parent. I am white, well educated, and a New Yorker — a person of lucky and significant privilege. In some of the overlapping circles of my personal Venn diagram of societal designations and affiliations, I’m a minority according to certain classifications and also due to some aspects of my beliefs and views.

Since the national protests began in response to the failures of grand juries in Ferguson, MO, and New York City to indict the white officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner — and after hearing the litany of other unarmed black men and children who have also been killed by police in cities across the country — I’ve been thinking deeply about privilege and power: what it means to have them, how both are used, and what life entails for people who have neither in the formal hierarchical sense.

#BlackLivesMatter

I believe it is wrong — in the accounting of net impact on society — to leave any people out, to hold them back, shut them down, single them out, abuse them, hurt them, or violate their persons or their civil liberties. Above all else, I believe it is wrong to kill.

Historically, in this country, there have been ongoing societal tropes about minority groups — particularly African Americans — being expected to know and comply with their “place” in society. I would like to turn that bad old idea on its head. I believe that it’s the people with privilege and power — those who know much, have much, want to lead others, have advantages, and have experienced success — who need to observe and understand their “place.”

A 2003 experiment showed that leaders — that is, successful, powerful people — often, perhaps without thinking, take the last cookie on the plate. They’re also more likely to chew with their mouths open, focusing on themselves and their own wants and comforts rather than on others’ needs or situations. They may not notice whether their behavior is fair or respectful to others or realize that they’re being rude or uncaring. That’s because they’ve adapted so well to their own power and privilege.

So I wonder, when it comes to the people who hold power in any given situation, whether they are conscious of how and why they hold it. How can we articulate and point out — without shaming — both the obvious and subtle breaches in appropriate behavior? And how can we manage our own behavior to increase understanding and cooperation instead of fomenting divisiveness, disdain, and degradation?

Where There’s Life, There’s Hope

First, we must be conscious. We must be mindful. Self-management starts with self-awareness.

We must seek common ground and common goals of any kind. As we look for those, we can also notice other related similarities, congruencies, and joint purposes, even as we get to know each other’s real differences better.

Both the commonalities and the differences between people need to be articulated — kindly and respectfully, of course, and with both curiosity and restraint — so that the parties involved can make conscious choices about their behavior and understand the implications of their actions.

We must start wherever we are — all of us. We can question our existing thoughts, beliefs, and expectations.

We can see — that is, identify, recognize, and affirm — when we are engaged with people who are not like us. This must become a practice — it is neither intuitive nor automatic.

We can stand up for those who need protection. We can be the strong, mature, compassionate people we have the capacity to be instead of petty, small-minded, rigid, and stereotyping.

We can acknowledge our faults and mistakes. Right now is a good time to worry about not being politically correct enough. We can call out whenever we see unfairness — even if we are uncomfortable about taking personal responsibility for it now, we can start by sorrowing over the fact of it.

Unlike New York City resident Eric Garner, who lost his life in a police chokehold crying for breath, we can breathe. We can breathe, and be aware. We can breathe, and be mindful. We can breathe, and build our courage. We can breathe, and be responsible.

Because, like it or not, we are responsible. Because we can breathe.

Onward and upward,

LK

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