Monday, July 11, 2016

Why Black People Can’t Hear Me, and Why I Can’t Hear Them

Yes, I’m wading in deep this week. My commitment is to leadership transparency and authenticity, so I couldn’t back away from the recent events that have been heavy on my heart. Many of my friends are truly hurting, and I’m learning that I have much room for improvement in my understanding of these areas. You see, sometimes I listen in order to prepare my reply, rather than listening to truly understand.

That’s not good leadership.

Those who have known me for decades will be shocked by the title of this blog. I’ve had a lifelong desire for racial reconciliation. In my younger years I thought people just didn’t get it. Now I’m realizing that often, I don’t get it either. If you don’t identify as African American or Caucasian, you’ll still gain insight today.

I probably understand these issues better than most white people. I grew up in a mixed area playing on mixed sports teams all my life. I was one of four white guys on my Junior Varsity basketball team, thankfully growing up in the most mixed school in our region. Years later I served as Dean of an African American college in Washington DC. Now I attend and I’m on the board of one of the most racially mixed churches in the world—people from more than 130 different countries have attended so far this year (most of the 14,000 are African American). At this moment, in our home we are hosting a European, an African American, and a Latino family. I’ve been accused of many things, but being racist isn’t one of them. So I “get it” more than most white people—but I still don’t “get it right” all the time.

Sometimes I listen to “reply” rather than listening to understand. That’s poor leadership. CLICK TO TWEET

This weekend I had the privilege of meeting with some black men in their 30’s who have invested major parts of their lives in law enforcement. Their perspectives, which I had never even considered, were truly eye opening.

When a sharp young African American joins the police force, many of his friends and neighbors consider him a sellout, an Uncle Tom, someone who has chosen to leave “his people” and join the oppressors. Many people from the officers’ own society now see them as the enemy. The officers take an oath to protect and to serve the very people who treat them as adversaries.

Consider this incredible juxtaposition that one of the young officer’s shared about the thoughts of the young black man and the black police officer…

The young black man walks out of his house hoping he is not pre-judged by the clothes he is wearing.

The police officer walks out of his house hoping he is not pre-judged by the clothes he is wearing.

(By the way, did you realize that “pre-judging” really means prejudice?)

The young black man hopes he is not pre-judged by comparison to others who look like him but turned out to be corrupt.

The police officer hopes he is not pre-judged by comparison to others who look like him but turned out to be corrupt.

The young black man hopes he is not pre-judged by the car he is driving.

The officer hopes the same.

Both would greatly appreciate respect.

They have most things in common, right? Funny, neither of them sees it that way. My friend and mentor Javon Legons makes an astute point:

There is an added commissioned responsibility that the officer has when issued a gun, taser, and baton that a black civilian does not have. When you carry the power of God on your right hip (the ability to take life away) that adds another level of responsibility to your interactions with any civilian.

It even more challenging for the black police officer if his Commanding Officer (CO) is white. In that case, the CO takes any insights as coming from “one of his black officers.” The suggestion is labeled as coming first from a “black” viewpoint, and only then from that of an “officer.”

Here’s the learning payoff, think about this! The biggest obstacle in today’s issues of racial reconciliation is that of personal perspective. Most whites tend to see racism as an INDIVIDUAL problem. They say, “I’m not a racist, I haven’t oppressed anyone, so don’t get angry at me or try to make me feel guilty.” Most blacks tend to see racism as an INSTITUTIONAL problem. They believe the issues must be addressed systemically rather than individually. Both are talking, but few are listening. We can do better. I’m committed to improving myself.

BOTTOM LINE QUESTION: What must I do as a leader? Here is what I’m asking you to do this week: enter into meaningful dialogue… and commit to understanding the other person’s perspective. I don’t care if you are black or white or brown or yellow or any other color. Do this:

  1. Listen with empathy, intently, not forming your next reply.
  2. Win a friend before you attempt to win an argument.
  3. Ask questions, speak humbly, and learn from every conversation.

Leaders, step up and lead. And make certain that you are evaluating people “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”


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