Race Consciousness–a Three Part Series (Part Two)
Originally published in Coaching at Work, 2021
Part two: Conversations of Difference
Three coaches reflect on their experience of creating, facilitating, and holding the space for themselves, for each other as co-facilitators, and for peers in their community to connect with and explore the topic of race equity in coaching.
They each take a different vantage point to make sense of the process: offering three distinct narratives and what they noticed and learned in deepening their understanding and navigating the relational resonances of race and racism. The result is a mosaic of perspectives containing pointers for coaching practitioners interested in exploring the dynamics of inquiry and dialogue about race and race equity.
The impetus and sharing of our coming together by Debbie Wayth
The past year changed me. The pandemic, and the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in the US, brought to the fore issues of inequity and inequality, like never before in my lifetime.
I realized I’d taken for granted ease in life that others didn’t have, and it shook my values around fairness and equality—two aspects that have been so important to me in life, and in my practice as a coach. As a white person, I couldn’t unsee what I see now and realize I have a role and responsibility to own my part in racism today and to enable these conversations to come out of the shadows for change to happen.
It’s not my place to lead or direct something that’s inherently not my experience, but I must participate for change to happen—for a society where we each are valued and safe irrespective of our differences.
I realized that I didn’t know enough about the experience of others who aren’t white and if I’m honest I don’t think I knew my part in it. I’m not racist (I told myself), and yet I undoubtedly contributed to things as they are.
I know this is difficult for some people to hear or accept, but for me, 2020 highlighted inequalities that I knew had existed for decades and that I’d accepted in our society. I couldn’t connect clearly how I was contributing to the systems and structures and apathy that upheld the ongoing racism and racial inequality of today.
One of my biggest learnings has been the distinction between being not racist (a passive role) and anti-racist (an active role). I thought it was enough not to be personally racist (or aware of my racism). Now I understand I have to be actively against racism whether perpetrated by others or unconsciously perpetrated by myself, in our many organizational and social settings.
It struck me that this wasn’t or couldn’t be about one individual feeling enlightened. What were the experiences of others in my coaching community with regards to race, and how could we explore this in the community? I’ll be honest it felt exposing to suggest it; inherently political and fraught with risk. I was mightily relieved when the original offer was met with curiosity and interest.
Others had also been questioning and exploring similar questions. What I did know is that I couldn’t, and shouldn’t, host this endeavor alone. I asked if others would like to work with me and Tammy and Preeta contacted me instantly. From our first connections, I felt space, energy, and trust, and we coalesced around the intention to host an inquiry with our coaching community. We didn’t know what would unfold, but we knew it felt important and that we’d learn a lot along the way.
Our offer: key concepts and an inquiry
We aimed to host fellow coaches in an inquiry into our individual experiences and understanding of race in the coaching relationship. We wanted to support each other in our role as coaches in developing awareness, and critical thinking, about race equity as coaches.
As many of the coaches are also white, I also wanted to introduce some concepts that I’d found helpful in making sense of my place in this issue. Concepts like white fragility, white privilege, structural racism, race equity rather than equality, and the difference between being non-racist and anti-racist. We ran two two-hour sessions with groups of 24-28 people each time (many joined both).
Tammy, Preeta, and I met virtually on several occasions. We knew getting to know each other, in terms of our histories, interest, and intentions, would be important in being able to both navigate our roles as hosts, but also with each other. This wasn’t a subject we were either teaching or approaching objectively. It was inherently, sensitive, emotive, and risky. We had to trust one another when at times we might not even trust ourselves.
Our learning curve
What I don’t think any of us realized as we started this journey was the extent to which we would learn from one another, let alone the wider group, in our cross-racial facilitation trio. We spent lots of time making sense of what one of us had said, and why it was important, learning that we had to slow down and pay attention, and listening for intention and meaning between us if we were going to be able to host space for others in their own sense-making.
Self as instrument
As a white person, I can read books or listen to accounts of racism, but engaging with people who experience racism directly demands a different level of attention and intention.
Preeta and Tammy spoke bravely and thoughtfully of times in their past and present when they had experienced discrimination or micro-aggressions. I noticed at times feeling confused or uncomfortable, yet also safe enough in our relationship to acknowledge this and let the cognitive processing catch up with the somatic experience.
We discovered that this was an embodied experience as much as, if not more than, a cognitive one, and how important it would be to tune in to this in our work with the larger group. Perhaps the discomfort or awkwardness was a signal for learning, rather than something to be feared and avoided?
In our trio, we played out patterns that we would later see in the larger group. Unwitting micro-aggressions and the dance to repair an unintentional hurt. A mispronounced name, or an assumption of meaning, the search for appropriate “right” language. It was taxing; it takes so much energy to be off auto-pilot, to explore with care.
We were repeatedly reminded of the importance of contracting, we had to be clear and trusting of the intentions to feel safe in exposing ourselves in this way. The risks felt personal and immediate but the benefits were collective and longer term.
Facilitating conversations of difference
As a white woman co-facilitating these sessions, my biggest learning is getting comfortable with discomfort.
There’s something about the work we each need to do through education and self-exploration before and through conversations related to race. We have to do the work. Period. No one else can do it for us. I realized I needed to do more to bring my own level of knowledge and awareness to a higher level. How could I have missed this about myself? I realized though, that dwelling in questions of guilt was a place I could easily get stuck in, and action more than intentions was what was now needed.
Equally important is compassion as a foundation for this work, for others, and ourselves. This isn’t to let discrimination off the hook, but to make sure we don’t get stuck dwelling in shame.
Shame turns us inward, not outward. It enlivens the inner voices rather than the outer conversations. It can be painful bringing unconscious beliefs into the light and we need to use all our skills as coaches to support and encourage ourselves as well as others.
Get comfortable with the discomfort
Be brave. Take the risk to share more of yourself and step toward the discomfort. Rather than striving to get it right, strive to get more comfortable with the discomfort. Our group named its moments of “micro-awkwardness” and an approach of “getting it less wrong” rather than the all-too-high bar of “getting it right.” But as we continue to make mistakes we need to do so with humility, humanity, and grace.
Take a deep breath and step forward
I learned from working with Preeta and Tammy how important one’s ancestry and culture are to feeling understood, feeling valued, and acknowledged. And that to deny another’s race is to deny them. I’m not perfect in this endeavor. I don’t think anyone is. It can feel overwhelming at times and, quite frankly, easier and safer not to be in these conversations. But what I do know is that it can’t be only a minority that does this work. It is collective work. It takes all in the room to understand and support the shift to equity, not just those oppressed.
Debbie Wayth is an organizational consultant and team coach with FutureU, and an adjunct faculty at Hult Ashridge Qualifications and Apprenticeships, part of Hult International Business School.
Facilitating and learning to contract robustly by Preeta Cooley
My interest in racial inequality comes from lived experience, and from the experiences I’ve listened to from clients of color.
While my skin is white, I am of mixed heritage. My father, a Sikh from Punjab, and my mother is English. During my work on “myself,” I spent time exploring how my heritage has impacted how I see myself, the world, and other people. I desire to share this knowledge to support others.
Attention was centered on the purpose of the intervention and the outcomes we hoped to achieve. Debate ensued about the tone of the session along with the content, structure, and mechanics. However, how we might “feel” and respond if faced with opposition didn’t surface in the field. Upon reflection, I wonder if there was a collective unconscious assumption that our audience would “think like us” and welcome our perspectives. Contracting was covered in brief.
Multiple realities began to emerge as a plenary session, with circa 28 people in a virtual setting, began to take shape. What materialized was that some participants had very different opinions and ideas about conversations on race—some of which would not be considered good practice for developing healthy mixed-race coaching relationships.
In the moment cognitively, my focus was on the content, the conversation, the group, and my relationship with colleagues. From a somatic and felt sense, my emotional states arising from elements of discussion needed soothing for me to remain present.
I experienced micro-aggressions, which felt uncomfortable to process safely and in flow, in the group setting. My courage deserted me as I resorted to soothing rather than challenging. At times I felt immense discomfort, bewilderment, shock, and confusion with what I was witnessing. Feeling fearful of potential rupture in relationships with fellow coaches left me feeling impotent as to how to respond authentically, but with a sense of safety for the group.
My mind was figuring out how to respond, but the conversation had moved on. What did work in the moment, was sharing my felt sense and offering my desire from lived experience. This provided a safe and authentic response where opinions differed.
Reflecting collectively after the session on what happened, how we were thinking and feeling at the time, and exchanging perspectives to make sense of our shared experience, felt an enormous relief after such confusion. Focusing our lens on how we felt, a pivotal question emerged: “How can we hold a safe space and facilitate when we have ‘skin in the game?”
This is an emotionally charged topic, unsafe ground, but we aren’t, and can’t, be neutral facilitative bystanders. We have relevant opinions and ideas based on experience and academic research. However, we were fearful that if these had been shared in the moment, in the group, it may have provoked a felt sense of lack of safety, experienced as judgment or criticism, with feelings of guilt or shame emerging. This is the antithesis of how we work.
The unanimous decision was that to be effective, future conversations need to be contracted robustly. The intimate nature of the conversations could in essence bring into question people’s sense of “self”. We needed to be mindful of this and seek explicit permission for how we wanted to work.
As facilitators, we needed to be more courageous in our conversations with the group. For change to happen, everyone involved needed to step up and come out of their comfort zones.
Session two: Contracting
To invite deeper interaction, we adopted three themes for contracting: our roles, tone and intention, and explicit permissions, with an overarching attitude of critical humility.
“Critical humility is the practice of remaining open to discovering our knowledge is partial and evolving. While at the same time being committed and confident about our knowledge and action in the world.” (Alec MacLeod, European-American Collaborative Challenging Whiteness, 2005).
Adopting an attitude of critical humility
We were presenting ourselves with courage and curiosity to co-create a journey of inquiry. We weren’t adept at facilitating this kind of conversation. We saw ourselves as pioneers, and navigators, walking with the group as we shared experiences and discovered new meanings together. The part we offered to play was one of the provocateurs, subtly disrupting entrenched beliefs and patterns of thinking, through positive challenges.
Tone and intention
We intended to create and hold a safe, non-judgmental space to do this work. The inquiry was in service of learning and growth. The attitude we proposed was open, accepting, and forgiving.
We shared how we noticed and explored our own discomfort during the previous session, and in conversations when planning the second session. Great emphasis was placed on how as pioneers, we’d learn from experience, and expect and accept that our endeavors will be “clunky”. We sought permission to share feedback on what we were noticing, experiencing, sensing, and feeling and asked the group to share openly, too. It needed to be okay to disagree and challenge, even though the topic is controversial, akin to dynamite. We invited the group to be comfortable with the undoubted tension that would arise during the session. Our invitation was to view tension, along with healthy debates, as positive attributes needed to stretch and grow in an unexplored field. We invited participants to be open and curious about different perspectives and be willing to learn.
The most significant element of my reflection as my colleagues and I developed the contracting framework for the second session, was that the inquiry subject was unchartered territory for our first session.
Collectively, we had no previous experience of this nature to inform our frame of reference to adequately set the scene for our coaching colleagues. Or to emotionally prepare ourselves for the confusion and disturbance we experienced. We were blind to our own blindness and had to heighten our own awareness, just as we heighten awareness for our clients.
Only by courageously venturing into the space, reflecting on the experience, and shaping future design based on learning, could we possibly enhance the effectiveness of our intervention and our personal level of comfort.
I marveled at the parallel process. This was exactly what we hoped to inspire in our coaching colleagues. If even a few colleagues heightened their awareness and ventured courageously with sensitivity, inviting clients in mixed-race coaching relationships into the conversation to share how they walk through the world, then our effort will have been rewarded.
Preeta Cooley is an executive coach, team coach, and facilitator. As part of her portfolio, she is an associate coach at Hult EF Corporate Education, accredited by the Ashridge Centre for Coaching.
Understanding and connecting in a liminal space by Tammy Tawadros
Defining and exploring the contours of race inequity under any circumstances can bring a good deal of dissonance and emotion to the conversation.
Looking back, I’m struck by how hardgoing the process felt. I’d anticipated certain variegation of views, but not the vagaries of the conversations, and the sense of confusion they engendered in me.
Against the backdrop of a pandemic, and with the peculiar limitations and intensifications of cyberspace, the sessions were taking place in a context already loaded with uncertainty. Surveying my own and others’ turns in the conversations, I noticed we seemed to run the gamut of responses to the subject, to the presentation of ideas, and to the questions that emerged.
At one point our conversation centered on whether and how to approach race and transracial differences. At another, on whether we should focus on deficit or strength. Was a focus on strength a valorization for the client or avoidance of reality?
In the follow-up session, the mood seemed to be softer, yet tenser. A number of colleagues felt that we might have approached the session differently.
At various times during the process, I felt angry, clumsy, deflated, determined, energized, estranged, hopeful, impassioned, indignant, supported and wrong-footed. I found myself in the middle of a messy, disorientating place, and wondered how my colleagues felt. When I found my footing in a theoretical base, I noticed my strong feelings of anger. Acknowledging these would seemingly disable me in other, relational ways, which included a curious enactment: struggling to say my colleague Preeta’s name!
Somehow it seemed near impossible to feel emotional, relationally, and theoretically well-equipped to hold the conversation, its multiple dimensions, turns, and twists, at the same time. Perhaps I was bound to experience this sense of inadequacy to the task, just as the dynamics under the surface during the conversations inevitably mirrored and recreated the familiar dynamics around us at large.
The messy mix of trauma, guilt, and grief, with its attendant emotions: the psychological “miscegenation” of deep wounds and anticipated loss. We had created a liminal space, where critical conversations around race, identity, equity, and professional practice inevitably evoked ambiguity and disorientation. It was a rite of sorts, the legacy of which has been more playful, intimate, and empathic since, in relationships with colleagues from our coaching community, and in spontaneous, improvised, and planned conversations, which have kindled hope for mixed blessings to come.