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Race and Leadership

This post was co-authored by Marguerite Welch and Doug Paxton.


“History, despite its wrenching pain 
cannot be unlived, but if faced 
with courage, need not be lived again.” Maya Angelou

Our task is daunting.  As we seek to address centuries of racism and violence to create more inclusive, safe and thriving teams, organizations and communities, the reality of how far apart we are as a nation still looms large.  The need for social healing is evident in almost every news cycle.  How can the exploration of 21st Century Leadership inform, heal and transform our collective capacities for bringing justice, equity, a sense of belonging and peace?  In this blog post, we explore the difficulty of making progress toward this task of addressing racism and violence, especially for white people, and our belief that being skilled at engaging cross-culturally is a core leadership capacity.

Charles Blow captured the essence of the leadership challenge we face as a nation when he observed in his July 8 op ed column in the New York Times:

We seem caught in a cycle of escalating atrocities without an easy way out, without enough clear voices of calm, without tools for reduction, without resolutions that will satisfy.  There is so much loss and pain.  There are so many families whose hearts hurt for a loved one needlessly taken, never to be embraced again.  There is so much disintegrating trust, so much animosity stirring.  So many — too many — Americans now seem to be living with an ambient terror that someone is somehow targeting them.

We see racism as an adaptive challenge, where there is no one easy solution.  As Einstein said long ago, “we cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that created the problem.”  We need new ways of thinking creatively together to change both minds and hearts to make progress with the stubbornly intractable patterns of racism and violence.

Blow continues with:

I know well that when people speak of love and empathy and honor in the face of violence, it can feel like meeting hard power with soft, like there is inherent weakness in an approach that leans so heavily on things so ephemeral and even clichéd.  But that is simply an illusion fostered by those of little faith.

We concur with Blow, and want to emphasize that the choice between “hard power and soft” is a false one.  Both approaches are needed in order to bring lasting and meaningful change.  Yes, we need firm and fair hierarchical systems that stand strong for equity and values of inclusive freedom for which our country, at its visionary best, has always stood.  We also need compassion, respect and empathy to heal the divides among us, across so many “isms.”  The leadership adage develop the soft skills for the hard results comes to mind.

We believe that healing racism and fostering equity and belonging for all Americans is a core leadership issue.  As witnesses to the 2016 national election are able to attest, our country’s divide is huge and race remains the most central recurring theme in electing our most visible person to leadership.

As two white faculty members writing this blog post, we feel these challenges keenly, and see ourselves as deeply implicated in the present system.  We want to thank our colleagues of color for their feedback, insights and support in helping us learn, and in writing this blog post!  We have both been exploring our relationship to whiteness for many years, as a matter of justice.  Our intentions are good, and our actions, behaviors and awareness often fall far short of those intentions.  In our best moments we meet these challenges with compassion and grace, and at other times we can be rather clumsy with “hard power” or unconsciousness about issues of race.  It is the clumsy and less effective moments that remind us of the need for critical humility, a term coined by the European-American Collaborative Challenging Whiteness, which explains, “critical humility is the practice of remaining open to the fact that our knowledge is partial and evolving while at the same time being committed to our responsibility for taking action for social and racial justice, however imperfect our knowledge and understanding may be.”  As with Blow’s comment about power, we see the important movement from “either/or” dichotomous thinking towards “both/and” collaborative thinking.

Marguerite has a vivid memory of standing in front of one of our first leadership cohorts with her co-instructor to introduce the course we call Building Cross Cultural Capacity.

This early cohort included an unusually large number of individuals who worked in law enforcement and they believed themselves to be a cohesive group.  One white learner expressed his concerns about the course, as his experience with “diversity training” was that it resulted in cohesive groups becoming fractured.  As a white woman I could understand his concern.  Talking about race, and other social identities, can be treacherous territory – particularly for folks who are just beginning to recognize the privilege associated with their racial identity.  While I acknowledged his concern, I pointed out that these issues are alive in our organizations and communities and that becoming more skilled at talking about them is an essential leadership capacity.

Becoming more skillful takes practice, it’s hard work; and it’s work for the faculty too!  What has been important learning for me personally is that it’s not about avoiding making “mistakes” – saying something that is hurtful or, dare I say it, racist.  Rather it has been learning how to recover from making mistakes with humility and energy for doing better the next time.

Doug shares his journey of learning about race and whiteness in a San Francisco Chronicle article.  He reflects upon growing up and being told not to notice race, ever, and concludes that we need to keep taking steps, together, to address our historical impasse on race.

Blow concludes his article with a plea for higher values:

When we all can see clearly that the ultimate goal is harmony and not hate, rectification and not retribution, we have a chance to see our way forward.  But we all need to start here and now, by doing this simple thing: Seeing every person as fully human, deserving every day to make it home to the people he loves.

We are finding our way through this as an educational institution.  Learning is at the forefront of what we do, and we too are mired in the difficulty.  Our cohorts beautifully reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of our state and often include black men and people who work in law enforcement.  As the events of the summer have unfolded, the issues became part of the content of the courses in ways that are anything but “academic.”  The work isn’t easy, and yet when there is a breakthrough, the transcendence of understanding and love is beautiful.  After a tense week of violence against black men and police officers, a learner posted this healing quote from Martin Luther King Jr., from A Testament of Hope:  “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

Despite our long history and the focus this summer on black men and people in law enforcement, this isn’t just about black people and white people.  We are all affected by what has been happening and everyone has a role to play in how we move forward.  Leadership Faculty LaVera Crawley asks if inclusion is actually enough of a goal, and wonders if we should be working instead towards creating a greater sense of belonging that is for everyone.  john a. powell and Stephen Menedian believe that

the most important good we distribute to each other in society is membership. . . . Belongingness entails an unwavering commitment to not simply tolerating and respecting difference but to ensuring that all people are welcome and feel that they belong in the society.  We call this idea the “circle of human concern.”

We hope you will join the conversation, as this is one leadership challenge that calls for participation, strength and love from us all.  Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

About Marguerite Welch, Ph.D.

Marguerite Welch, Ph.D.
Marguerite Welch is the Program Director for the MA in Leadership Program at Saint Mary’s College of California (SMC). She designs and facilitates innovative and transformative learning experiences for working professionals in the areas of building cross-cultural capacity, online learning, leadership, and student research. Her scholarship focuses on developing capacity in white people to thrive multicultural environments.

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