How to Survive a Difficult Conversation: raceAhead

This is the web version of raceAhead, Fortune’s daily newsletter on race, culture, and inclusive leadership. To get it delivered daily to your inbox, sign up here.

Over the weekend I moderated an off-the-record panel on diversity and inclusion in an industry that you care very much about. Some stories will emerge from it eventually, but for now, I bring you a message of caution and hope.

First, let me set the scene. 

The panel included five very highly ranked individuals, three white men, one white woman, and a woman who spoke eloquently of the privilege of having slightly “brownish” skin in a world that was prepared to overlook that when necessary. Without saying a word, the majority-white panel had to own the fact that there simply were no people of color as powerful as they were in this particular world; we acknowledged upfront that while the bias in the system was clearly evident on stage, it was not reflected in their hearts. That said, the work was falling to them to make room for others.

It was, in many ways a challenging but important conversation. 

As we were having it, I was reminded of the now countless stories that I’ve collected from people of color over the last four years which describe what happens when a powerful white person gets uncomfortable talking about race and has simply had enough. It’s too confrontational. Confusing. There’s no clear path ahead. What do you want from me? Let’s just start with a training program and see what happens. What if I say the wrong thing? Exposure feels too great. I’ll be ruined! It’s a mob mentality out there.

What if people think I’m…

Here’s what I’ve learned after years on this beat: Inclusion means white people, too. 

Because of the nature of our systems, history, and structures, majority-culture people with any sort of position power (looking at you, middle managers) often believe that they have no choice but to commit some sort of violence when they become uncomfortable on their path racial literacy. It’s a clear default. And there is no possible way that they won’t feel uncomfortable at that point, so it’s a clear problem.

Most of that violence will take the form of an emotional retreat in the workplace. They will withdraw support for you. Refuse to answer questions or give feedback. Shut you out of networks and opportunities. They won’t advocate for your advancement or fund your projects. They will erase you from meetings and won’t put you on teams. They’ll turn the oxygen off to your advocacy ideas. The violence runs on a spectrum, and yes, sometimes, it comes in a physical form of threats and intimidation.

Every person of color in your workplace knows this is true. Every person of color understands that part of the calculations they make when advocating for themselves and others on the subject of race is their understanding of the emotional set points of the powerful white people around them. 

Get that math wrong and you’ve bought yourself a whole lot of trouble. That’s the caution part.

At one point in my off-the-record-conversation with white people who are more powerful than I can ever imagine becoming, I told them that I loved their ideas and believed in their passion, but I thought their plans as laid out were unlikely to be as fruitful as they had hoped.

Actually, I may have said that their ideas were not going to work. Yes, I held my breath.

Instead of seeing retreat, I saw engagement. More questions. Openness. And that gave me hope. Because they’re it in this corner of the business world. They’re all we have at the moment.

So, when I say inclusion means white people, I don’t mean that the feelings and “opinions” of majority culture people should be centered. I mean that inclusion programs should embrace the very specific mechanisms that need to be in place to help white people understand the world that they continue to make, and to find resilience when they are surprised by it.  

If that understanding is not built into a systemwide commitment to inclusion, then when a majority culture person reaches their point of existential discomfort, they will disappear into their traditional networks and are unlikely to come back. Not only will they miss the financial benefits of diversity, but the spiritual ones as well. And we will miss the value of their enormous talent.

Until we find that magic formula, I will share some advice given to me by former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, who is currently Managing Director of Bain Capital Double Impact, a fund that invests in some very smart entrepreneurs in overlooked communities. (I hope to get an update on his work soon.)

In an interview last year, we talked about his “improbable life” in law, civil rights, community organizing, governance, public service, and business. It takes time for people to learn to see, he says. “The woke need to make room for the still waking,” because we all still are, to some degree. “It’s the only way to get through this with a little bit of grace.”


NOTE: Speaking of difficult conversations, my Broadsheet and MPW sisters are walking into some of our own this week, as our Most Powerful Women Summit begins in Washington, D.C. 

The invitation of former homeland security secretary Kristjen Nielsen to the main stage has caused a great deal of controversy and critique, which I take quite seriously. Several prominent speakers have declined to appear as a result, including award-winning filmmaker and activist dream hampton who was scheduled to appear in conversation with me on “justice and power.” Ms. hampton has graciously agreed to a phone interview to discuss her decision with raceAhead, and hopefully, share some of the things we’d hoped to bring to this year’s Summit. 

But do keep your eye on this space and your usual feeds for necessary and occasionally difficult conversations from the Summit about power, influence, business, and (now) journalism, along with the interview with Nielsen and PBS Newshour’s Amna Nawaz, who is prepared to talk about “the horror of family separation, border security, and more.”

Ellen McGirt

On Point

Fortune’s Future Fifty List is here This list is a fascinating one in large part because it seeks to apply a unique form of alchemy to assess not past performance but one predictive of future success. You can read more about the methodology here, but something seems to be working; the companies on the last two year’s lists have outpaced the broader market. The list has been developed by Martin Reeves of the BCG Henderson Institute, whose team has developed a series of tools, and uses natural language processing to detect a company’s "strategic orientation" and assess its ability to execute on its core strengths. (To oversimplify: They "listen" to the way a company talks about itself in the world, through things like SEC filings, annual reports, earning calls, and the like.) It’s next level stuff, and the methodology has great potential for both finding value and finding values, if you get my drift.

A new way to engage Black voters Traveling on the “Blackest Bus in America” would ordinarily sound like a lot of fun if the stakes weren’t so high. But this is the vehicle the co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund is using to conduct an 11-state tour in advance of the 2020 election. But, says LaTosha Brown, her strategy isn’t about getting out the vote, at least, not exactly. Instead, she’s asking voters to talk about their lives and to explore policy solutions to their pressing problems. We treated these voters like they matter, their concerns matter, and gave them some political tools, the one thing that too many operations never try.”
NBC News

Princeton Theological Seminary approves reparations plan The decision was approved unanimously by trustees and was the culmination of a two-year audit to determine the extent of the Seminary’s history with slavery. There was also significant student activism in support of some form of reparations. Click through for the detailed plan, but the reparations fund is set to be the richest in history: It expects to fund reparations into perpetuity, and has set aside 27.6 million dollars of its one billion dollar endowment to fund scholarships, new personnel, and changes to building names and similar corrections. It’s clearly a work in progress.  Nicholas Young, the president of the Association of Black Seminarians (ABS), says, "I feel it is a start, but not what we asked for."
Daily Princetonian

A heroic family gets the monument they deserve The history major in me enjoys the evolution that heroic statuary is enjoying now, it’s a way to reclaim past narratives and address propaganda that has literally been set in stone. Plus, public art is beautiful. So I greet the news that a family of Black activists and property owners who once lived on the land that became New York City’s Central Park will be getting a monument to their memory. The Lyons family—Albro Lyons, Mary Joseph Lyons and their daughter Maritcha Lyons—were exceptional people: Property owners, educators, and abolitionists, who ran a boarding house that doubled as a stop on the Underground Railroad. "This is a positive step in recognizing the history and cultures that have been covered up in the service of having Central Park," says Michelle Commander, of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
New York Times

On Background

Artist Molly Crabapple brings the history of lynching to life This short, animated video marries the illustrations of artist Molly Crabapple with wrenching facts to tell the history of lynching in America. Bryan Stevenson narrates. It's a terrible story, beautifully told.
Equal Justice Institute

The real cost of gender inequality Turns out, it affects everyone. While we carefully track the number of CEOs in the Fortune 500, it’s worth noting that women are so are underrepresented in high income jobs and overrepresented in low income jobs, that this disparity is costing the U.S. $2 trillion in lost GDP. Studies show that reaching parity in gender equity not only increased a company's revenue but having women in senior management leads to a 19% higher return on equity. So, says Katie Roy in Fast Company, it’s important that there are more women in Congress now. "Let’s take the view of investing in our labor force–now and in the future–to ensure we expand the economic pie for all."
Fast Company

The Tiger Woods non-effect Many predicted that Tiger Woods would lead the pack of a new generation full of young minority golf players, the dream has never come true. Part of the reason is the lack of access to courses, and high prices the sport entails. In the 20 years since Woods entered the golf world, only three out of the 250 players on the PGA tour are black, and only 6% of all NCAA golfers are Black, Latinx, or Native American. Many organizations, like Wood’s own foundation which offers instruction and grants, have made a dent; last year, 35% of golf newbies were women, 26% were people of color, and 70% were 34 or younger. But talented kids from low-income families are forced to rely on golf-related charitable programs to underwrite continued access to the sport by paying for tournament fees, travel costs, and equipment.
New York Times


Tamara El-Waylly helps write and produce raceAhead.

Did someone who cares about you share this newsletter with you? Pay it forward here. Sign up for your own daily RaceAhead here. Find previous columns here.


“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she / With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

—Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus

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

CEO DailyCFO DailyBroadsheetData SheetTerm Sheet