The challenges and influences of race and discrimination in our organizations and society are complex. From our experience, we’ve learned that a focus on the dynamics of paradox or polarities are useful in bringing more clarity to complex challenges and in identifying how we might act to be more effective in realizing desirable outcomes and constructive change. I propose using the ancient wisdom of yin and yang, that is, an understanding of the dynamic of pairs of seemingly oppositional and equally important values or behaviors, to the fore in our struggle to address racism and to be in dialogue with others about it.

Many tensions characterize our conversations and the dilemmas we encounter around race and discrimination. In our coaching and consulting work at Fénix, we find that this is a place where the paradox of Diplomacy & Candor resonates for clients. Recently, a colleague noted, “We are too fearful about talking about race.” My interpretation of this statement is that we are often too reticent and need more courage to have meaningful dialogues. However, taking a straw poll among my colleagues and clients, they shared that they were not necessarily fearful, but rather were aware of the difficulty of making thoughtful and tough decisions, in the moment, about how and when to introduce perspectives about race and discrimination. These discussions require that we listen well and carefully consider the context — who is involved, the tenor of the moment, and what our short- and long-term objectives are. Recently, I’ve been more frequently participating in conversations about race and discrimination and find myself making calculations about how far to take the conversation, intent on maintaining both a constructive dialogue and trying to avoid the other participant(s) shutting down, denying or solely rationalizing their behavior or perspective.

And why might participant/s shut down, deny or rationalize their attitude or behavior. One of the sources of complexity around these issues is that ‘race’ connects to our identity, something we tend to defend. Further, each of us approaches ‘race’ with the cultural norms and assumptions, examined or unexamined, of our family and our region of origin. The degree to which an individual or group is aware of the influence of their narrative and identity about race differs, as well as the extent to which each party is willing to explore and assess their perspectives in this territory. These complex intrapersonal and interpersonal dynamics adds considerably to the challenge of dialogue. Further, we often see these issues of identity playing out at an organizational and societal level.

In supporting the leadership development of individuals who represent ethnicities or ‘races’ other than the ‘white’ identities, we have learned that ‘Diplomacy & Candor’ (Diplomacy being the pole of tact, politic, and discretion with a focus on concern for how others might respond and Candor, the pole of being direct and frank with observations, opinions and comments) is a key polarity and always present. Here is the challenge in the workplace: these individuals are often working in ‘white’ dominated organizations and come from a different experience of the world. Their perceptions are different and, frankly, this is why they are valuable in creating the diversity necessary for organizational resilience. What is more pertinent to our discussion here is that these individuals may experience insensitive, ignorant and/or discriminatory comments and actions that others may or may not be aware of. In this setting, these individuals (of non-‘white’ races and ethnicities) often engage in an inner dialogue about how and when to share their observations and the feelings surrounding the event. This is a source of higher levels of stress and tension for them.

To explain further, and in the words of Black American author Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me) from an NPR interview in early November of 2020: “The curse of power is that the person who is in power and who enjoys privilege always knows less about the person who lives under the weight of that privilege than the people who are actually, you know, under it.” Leaders from the dominant group may be oblivious to the tensions experienced by ‘the others’ and often do not understand their experiences or anticipate the difference in mind-set. On the other hand, the person who is not from the dominant group, knows their own view of the world and must know well the perspectives and norms of the dominant culture in order to survive and thrive in that environment. Understanding this gap of understanding and experience, the non-white individual carries a tension about when to share their differing experiences, observations and feelings. The risk and consequences of saying something ‘wrong’ or being misunderstood are greater for persons ‘of color’ than for members of the dominant group. Yet, if these individuals hold back from expressing emotions about discrimination and/or other related experiences, their frustration and anger may build up over time and then be released in what appears to be an outburst, causing perplexity for members of the dominant group. Also, if experiences and feelings are not shared, the consequences can include lower levels of engagement at work, or worse, declining health because of long-term higher levels of stress. Another consequence of playing it safe, that is, not sharing (exercising Diplomacy) is that it saves members of the dominant ‘white’ group from a discomfort, that could lead to greater awareness of difference, learning, and greater understanding.

Also, in the same interview, Ta-Nehisi Coates remarked that if someone wants to know more about his experience and perspective, he himself is open to sincere questions of others who inquire in an effort to learn more about him. Perhaps asking questions is one way to exercise Candor on the part of the person from the dominant culture. Having the courage and humility to ask questions and acknowledging that we don’t know about the experience of the ‘other’ and communicating that we are listening to learn more.

Authentic conversation can be strategic and empowering. Language is powerful. Being conscious of the language we employ is key. Having the courage to share our ideas and encourage dialogue is important. Also, creating psychologically safe spaces to foster trust and open dialogue is an important role for leaders. To conclude, identifying and managing well the tensions/paradoxes around race, as exemplified in the paradox of Diplomacy & Candor can contribute to our individual and collective competence to engage in conversations that catalyze meaningful individual and organizational change.

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