White Fragility and Coaching
I have been stalling this blog post for a long time. While stalling I have been living in the discomfort with conversations about power and race that are at the core of ‘white fragility’. Filling my time with other projects and being distracted by more comfortable thoughts, have been my refuge from exploring this difficult conversation.
Stalling is a sign of how pervasive ‘white fragility’ is for me and for our culture. The expression implies that I hold on to my comfortable experience as a white male and the power and privilege that this gives me; denying that my privilege contributes to the racism experienced in the world as opposed to accepting that my privilege is not the experience of many people. Accepting the accountability and the courage to change is a vulnerable response to a deep social and personal issue.
The author Robin DiAngelo uses the term ‘white fragility’ to define the response of white people when faced with questions of racism and inequality. We are ‘fragile’ when we feel threatened, uncomfortable, defensive and fear that we may lose our power or privilege. The threat typically ends conversations and causes us to retreat into an isolated view of ourselves and others, or attempts to explain away the experience.
This is a significant challenge for executive coaches who desire to help others become aware of their strengths and prepare for a better future. In fact, our approach to coaching may be another one of the social structures that keep us in a place of power.
We need to own our part in the system that creates and entrenches the power imbalance based in race.
Here are some thoughts on ways to recognize and own our part in this social reality and some ideas for change:
Get committed to social and personal change
Accept that we are part of the problem and let go of ourselves.
It is a powerful experience to reflect on our lives and on what we hear ourselves think and feel about our impact on others. The power of openness, recognizing and accepting our biases, rough edges and blind spots is found in the process of becoming more human and real. Falling into the trap of ‘believing’ that we know all there is to know about others is to create a limited view of the world and our clients.
Let go of these limiting beliefs and risk openness to new awareness of the experience of others. Let go of the assumption and illusion that we are fully aware or even can be fully aware of the experience of others.
Accept that our experience creates our unique lens and be free to listen deeply
We have unearned privileges that we may believe are part of everyone’s experience. For me having parents who stayed together for life, no worries about food to eat or cloths to wear are unearned privileges that have not been experienced by others I meet.
Accept our experience and create room to listen to and value the experience of others. Let go of our views to be able to co-create a safe, judgement free zone with our clients to learn of their own lenses.
Ask ourselves: when does my experience get in the way of listening and being with the experience of the other person?
Watch for double edged meaning in our intention
I used to feel quite virtuous because I claimed to ‘treat everyone the same’!
Not only was this an impossible illusion it also denied the experience of others by measuring it by my own experience.
Until I recognize that the playing field is not level, I see all experience from my place of power and privilege. I limit my ability to see that the experience of each person is unique.
It means that I do not meet people where they are but rather where I want them to be.
My recent initiative: to talk to other old white guys about unconscious bias has two edges. The response of people like me has been tremendous: ‘yes let’s talk about this’; ‘help me to do better’. The challenge is that as a white guy I may be making the conversation ‘safe’ ‘unthreatening’ and too easy for people like me. I could be reinforcing the problem. This is an unintended consequence that I continue to work through.
See in color and value the experience that informs the vision of others
The experience of ‘invisibility’ is real. Claiming to be ‘color blind’ implies that skin color does not matter. We deny the truth that color is a major part of experience and that it does matter to the other person. Let’s recognize color as being full of meaning and be open to explore this meaning with our clients on their terms.
Life experiences create the lenses through which we see the world today. Recently, several workshop participants shared their experience of homelessness. This experience was unknown and invisible to everyone else in the room yet very powerful to those who experienced it. Homelessness is a lens that informs their world view and their ability to be open, safe and supportive with clients.
Learn to value the experience of others.
Coaching, when the client is the expert and the embodiment of all their experiences, can be a place where power and privilege do not dominate. Coaching can be a place where the story of the client is heard, validated, embraced and a place for a new start.
Thanks for reading this. I look forward to future conversations and your comments. firstname.lastname@example.org