raceAhead: Why Is It So Hard To Talk About Race?

four people stand around a table, leaning both arms on it above stacks of papers.
Concept of participation in meeting.
Weekend Images Inc. / Getty Images

I’m dashing between presentations today, rich conversations about race, leadership, and progress during uncertain times. I’ll have more on that soon, but the themes have centered on the age-old question. Why is it so hard to talk about race?

While I work on a longer answer, I’ll point you to a better question.

This beautiful short video is from Angélica Dass, a photographer who has examined the meaning of skin color and race in an extensive exercise called Humanæ, a portrait project that has captured some 3,000 people in thirteen different countries, from executives to refugees, people of every gender expression and physical ability.

Thinking about skin tone comes naturally to her, she says. Growing up in Brazil, the last country to abolish slavery, meant that she was initially free to celebrate the skin hues around her, only to later understand their fraught meaning.

I was born in a family full of colors. My father is the son of a maid from whom he inherited an intense dark chocolate tone. He was adopted by those who I know as my grandparents. The matriarch, my grandma, has a porcelain skin and cotton-like hair. My grandpa was somewhere between a vanilla and strawberry yogurt tone, like my uncle and my cousin. My mother is a cinnamon-skin daughter of a native Brazilian, with a pinch of hazel and honey, and a man [who is] a mix of coffee with milk,but with a lot of coffee. She has two sisters. One in a toasted-peanut skin and the other, also adopted, more on the beige side, like a pancake.

Growing up in this family, color was never important for me. Outside home, however, things were different soon. Color had many other meanings.

As an artist, she has found salvation in the meanings. Dass has displayed the collective portrait project around the world and has created a small but persistent conversation about what it means to be a true human color, not the “untrue” white, red, black or yellow associated with race. “This personal exercise turned out to be a discovery,” she says. “Suddenly I realized that Humanae was useful for many people. It represents a sort of mirror for those who cannot find themselves reflected in any label.”


On Point

Rooting out the bias in techThis piece is the perfect follow-up on my recent Brain Storm TECH panel exploring bias in tech, especially since it ended with everyone wanting more – more information, more inspiration, more hope. I was encouraged by the idea that smart people are not only thinking deeply about the issue, but drawing on a broader data set than they come to on their own. Because when you think about the AI systems predicting crime, creditworthiness and culture fit in employment, the garbage data going in is the systemic racism coming out. "We need technologists who understand history, who understand economics, who are in conversations with philosophers," one expert told CNN. "We need to have this conversation because our technologists are no longer just developing apps, they're developing political and economic systems."Money

Puerto Rico now allows transgender citizens to update their birth certificates
This may not feel like the most important news coming from the embattled island, unless, of course, you’re Daniela Arroyo, one of the activists who sued and won the right to have their essential paperwork reflect their identity. “It’s a relief to finally have a birth certificate that truly reflects who I am,” she said in a statement. The change took place earlier this month, bringing the island territory in line with many U.S. states, but not all. (Tennessee, Kansas and for all practical purposes, Colorado, I’m looking at you.)
New Now Next

Jacksonville Florida is having a moment
I hope I’m not jumping the gun here, but I’m pre-emptively impressed. A special panel on the Jacksonville City Council will spend the next year considering how they can best use the city’s public spaces to pay tribute to their history, including some of their “ugliest moments,” from the Jim Crow era. “We must contemplate all that brought Jacksonville to this moment in time, and that should include recognition of a history that considers our diversity and the challenges we have overcome,” said City Council President Aaron Bowman in a statement. Some of the things to be discussed – the removal of a Confederate monument and the addition of a memorial to Jacksonville citizens who had been victims of lynching. Part of what Jacksonville is reckoning with is how their history has led to swaths of income inequality, with certain neighborhoods suffering with crumbling infrastructure, unaccredited schools and systemic neglect. “I have neighborhoods like that,” said the committee’s chairperson. “How do we recognize that, and what do we do?”

The Woke Leader

You will never empty your inbox or finish your to-do list; it’s hopeless, you’re over, good Lord, just give up already
So, I may have zipped up the headline a bit, but the psychology says basically the same thing: You’re a never-ending churn of activity, with constantly shifting priorities and difficult deadlines and you are hopelessly behind. This reality can trigger all kinds of negative behaviors, like procrastination, and related emotions, like shame. The remedies — self-compassion and acceptance of reality, are tough to put into practice for everyone. While, this piece by Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing, doesn’t directly address race, it’s still instructive if you consider the under-represented person’s rule of thumb: You have to work twice as hard to get half as far. While that may still be true for you, it doesn’t mean that your pain isn’t real. “Recognize that failing to get some work completed does not make you a bad person,” writes Markman. “It just makes you a person.” Reclaiming that is an act of radical self-love.

Grieving while Muslim: On losing someone to suicide
It’s complicated. The stigma of suicide throws up unexpected barriers for people looking to provide a dignified ceremony for the deceased or who are hoping to grieve within their faith community; loved ones who die by suicide may be rejected by Muslim funeral homes or prevented from lying in state in a mosque, and the details of their death may be kept secret from the community. But while the suicide rate among U.S. Muslims is rising in line with national statistics, experts worry that the specific stigma is preventing people who need the mental health support from getting it before it’s too late.
Buzzfeed News

Behold: An Afro Sheen commercial starring Frederick Douglass
Better yet, it was featured on Soul Train, back in the 1970s. I've shared this before but it really is a balm for uncertain times. Now, I don’t want to give too much away, but Douglass’s tribute to the dignity of natural black hair may not rank among his among his most powerful speeches, but he stayed firmly on message. Even then, he was doing an amazing job. The commercial is also poignant look back at time of tremendous cultural transformation. It’s a hair product! It’s a revolution! It’s a hair product and a revolution!


There is always a certain glamour about the idea of a nation rising up to crush an evil simply because it is wrong. Unfortunately, this can seldom be realized in real life; for the very existence of the evil usually argues a moral weakness in the very place where extraordinary moral strength is called for.
W.E.B. Du Bois

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.

Read More

Great ResignationDiversity and InclusionCompensationCEO DailyCFO DailyModern Board