Humans will be humans. They will make terrible mistakes and bad choices. And sometimes, even “good” people make bad choices about the things that they say or choose to believe. These thoughts are often unconscious. Habitual, automatic thinking.
These automatic, programmed thoughts and ideas don’t make them a bad person it just means that they have bad thoughts that they haven’t examined through the lens of implicit bias….the jokes that people make or that people laugh at, the automatic judgments they make about others without questioning those judgments. The reason this matters is because those small actions, those unconscious reactions, and judgments are what are keeping so many segments of our society from moving forward. It’s not necessarily explicit hatred of another group but it is implicit bias masquerading in a prettier outfit.
Most of us have our own experiences being treated differently. I remember a few years ago, I was attending an early morning meeting where I was the only woman. As background, I have two white Shiba Inu pups and anyone who knows anything about dogs knows that a person who owns more than one Shiba Inu is a masochist. A masochist who loves having dog hair all over every article of clothing they have as well as in their icebox, refrigerator, underwear drawers, deli meat, and attics. I ALWAYS have dog hair on me.
On this particular day, I was wearing a long black pencil skirt. As I approached the breakfast bar to grab some coffee and a bagel, I felt a presence close behind me. Then I heard an older gentleman speaking in a low, private voice right into my ear, I think your dogs left you a present on your skirt this morning. Embarrassed and confused, I turned to look and saw that my backside was covered in the white hair of my beloved pups. As I thanked him and turned to leave the room to redress the situation he smiled and said you have no idea how much I wanted to wipe that off for you. You just have to let an old man have his fantasies.
I was immediately floored by his comment but I told myself He’s harmless. He’s a goofy old man who doesn’t think before he speaks…I was so shocked and startled and I wasn’t sure how to respond but I knew I didn’t want to make a scene at 7:00 o’clock in the morning in a room full of men.
After the meeting wrapped up, I went back to my office and tried to put the strange encounter out of my mind when I heard a knock at my door. I looked up and found the same old gentleman standing sheepishly in my doorway and waiting for me to notice him standing there awkwardly. This time he was apologetic and thanked me for not getting upside with him, “just an old man,” and the “stupid things” that he says. He begged me to tell him if I was upset by what he had said. I brushed it off, told him it wasn’t a big deal, and we moved forward with the relationship and our days.
At the time, I found myself confirming that, if someone else had made the same comment, someone that I thought intended to be suggestive or probing, I would have reacted very differently. I was so focused on the individual and my knowledge that he didn’t mean anything by it….he was a kind and goofy old man with no malice. But why did that matter?
Through this work, I now realize that my response is part of a larger problem. I was focusing on the intent driving the individual to act that way, allowing space for his ignorance. People’s actions are just as important as their intentions. This gentleman did not intend to sexually harass me but the fact of the matter is, his conditioned thoughts and his words went there. He was thinking of me and my presence in a way that was not acceptable or safe. Even if he wasn’t seeking anything out of line, his words communicated to me that as a woman, I will always, in part, be seen as a sexual object. By brushing it off and not acknowledging the problem with his words, I was trading his discomfort for my own. To avoid making him feel uncomfortable by calling out his actions, I swallowed the pill and felt uncomfortable enough for both of us.
I didn’t want him to feel uncomfortable but it was okay for me to be uncomfortable.
Why? Because my predominant thought was “Let’s not make this a big deal….I don’t want you to think I’m overly sensitive or can’t take a joke.”
But the truth was, it was a big deal. The fact that I can still recall that moment so vividly and point to it as one of the many moments when I knew I did not belong is significant.
Those thoughts did not serve me at the time and they are not serving any of us today. Anyone who acts or speaks in a way that indicates you are not an equal in the workplace is a problem. It is not acceptable to stifle our concerns in favor of not making waves.
Instead of retreating in fear of confrontation and drama, I could have made better decisions and clung to better thoughts.
I want to feel angry when I feel like I am being discriminated against. I do not want to feel like “It’s okay.” I want to be open to the discomfort that comes with taking a stand and speaking my peace. These are essential emotions. I don’t want to feel good about these circumstances. I don’t want to pretend to be okay to avoid these negative feelings.
In those moments, I want to believe: This is an opportunity for me to be honest and develop my relationship with this human. I am not a victim, I am simply shining a light on the situation.
I am not trading my truth for your comfort.
The fear-based, glossing-it-over approach is not working. What does work is looking at people’s actions and challenging those actions where you see them. Rather than focusing on the person’s intent and formulating thoughts from there, shift your focus to the larger goal. I can address this and be honest with this person about what I think about what they’ve said or done. Demeaning words and actions, even ones that lack explicit malice, are indicative of tired thinking that begs to be challenged. If we keep condoning the actions and focusing only on the intentions, we sacrifice diversity of thought. We sacrifice honesty in our relationships.
In my experience, none of the people I have worked with were intentionally sexist/racist/homophobic. However, in my experience, many of those colleagues made sexist/racist/homophobic comments. They did not harbor hate but they did harbor ignorance and unacknowledged bias.
As humans in this world, we all have a role to play in fostering the evolution of thought. While that might mean we have to place ourselves in uncomfortable situations and call out actions that we know are not mal-intended. Unless we’re honest with people about how their words or actions impact our abilities to show up, to stand up, to speak up, we will never make the progress that our world so desperately needs.
Having trouble finding the words to speak your truth? Don’t make the same mistakes I made. Develop the tools to stand up for yourself and those around you. Coach with me and let’s make this journey together.