social movements + innovation lab


No Exit When Starting to Talk About Race

Heidi is one of those friends I’d follow anywhere. So, I immediately signed up to a day long “action inquiry” when she invited me, brushing away the vague memory that she was the one who got me into that summer T-group where people yelled at me about my racist, arrogant elitism. “Action inquiry” is a way of simultaneously doing and investigating as a deliberate leadership practice; not unexpectedly, racism came up. Or, as my friend Allan put it, “Why is it that I am not surprised that issues of race would be talked about with you in the room?”

​​Bill Torbert, a leader in the field of organizational behavior, developed action inquiry as a way to engage people in both processes, especially as leaders. His scholarship in this domain includes developmental forms of power; Tobert argues that in groups there are essentially two forms of power – unilateral and mutual. In unilateral forms, one person or cohort exercises power over others, ranging from outright coercion to more subtle forms of control such as charismatic, logistical (following the rules) and productive (doing the work). In contrast, mutual forms have people share power. This could be through collective visioning, co-working or even mutually transforming. He places these different forms on a spectrum, in which more mature leaders, organizations and institutions exercise more mutual forms of power.


After seeing this framework, I started reflecting on my leadership and the times I’ve used the force of personality to convince people to do something I wanted, controlled a meeting by volunteering to develop the agenda, or engineered the outcomes of a process by offering to do the work. I compared those moments to the times I’ve start out a project intentionally involving everybody as peers. It was humbling and helpful. I noted where I behaved in more trusting and inclusive ways, and others where pushing my agenda took precedence. People’s reactions and resistance at various key moments over the years came to make better sense. It was definitely one of those embarrassing and painful self-awareness lessons.

With this developmental leadership framework as background, the workshop moved into an action inquiry. Two white women role played a struggle they were having at work, while the rest of us, a racially mixed group, observed, inquired and suggested. When I asked clarifying questions about the racial dynamics in the actual situation and others noted the racialized interactions in the role-play, the topic of racism and leadership took center stage. We went several rounds awkwardly trying to voice what was happening among us and in the work issues as they’d been presented. Some people respectfully and uncomfortably expressed confusion and hurt, trying to balance on some imaginary line of acknowledging racism while not blaming anybody for it. Others remained conspicuously silent.

Heidi was facilitating. She had brought together these twenty odd folks, all of whom she trusted and with whom she was working to fortify community. As an African American woman, in a leadership role, among long time colleagues and friends, she both saw the dynamics of the room as they happened and knew the backstories to the pain and puzzlement of the different individuals.

​At one point she said to me that while she wanted to be in partnership with me and the other people of color in this conversation, she was struggling and felt forced to choose sides. This was a call for me to reflect in the word “forced”, especially coming from somebody I deeply love and respect. I realized that we all feel some measure of coercion when it comes to talking (or not talking) about racism.

People of color feel coerced when race and racism are willfully not acknowledged, and white people feel coerced when they perceive things are being unnecessarily racialized. White people feel publicly shamed and blamed; people of color feel ignored and erased — asked to present themselves in half-measures. Both feel themselves on the receiving end of unilateral forms of power, whether it is implicit in what is considered appropriate or disagreeable to air, or the parameters of the project at hand and whether race is dubbed part of the work.

Yet another dimension to this charged topic! It is not that people of color are being belligerent by bringing up race where others “don’t see it” or that white people are being assholes for ignoring race; perhaps everyone almost always experiences these exchanges as a coercive, unpleasant and unilateral choice by one side imposed on the other.

So, what if we start each project or process with some shared visioning and trust building toward some agreements about seeing and not seeing race and racism? What if we co-created the parameters of what we want to do together, without somebody (white or of color) setting the agenda and the explicit and implicit rules? Set within a context of compassion and respect, we could work our way to more mutually transforming and liberating conversations, rather than staying stuck in repeating our same tired lines. I suspect that we will have to go through all the painful and embarrassing stages of self-awareness, acknowledgment and correction to get there, but at least we can make some decisions and commitments about where we want to go and head forward, voluntarily, together.