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  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

A Black woman who goes by Mamasay.Mamasaw on Tiktok posted a video earlier this summer, standing in a playground, reflecting on parenting in a mostly white suburb.

While the academic and extracurricular opportunities abound, being part of a small minority has an insidious impact on children’s social lives.

Her richest insights pertain to the behavior of adults. When white moms and dads socialize easily with each other, but have only superficial or wary relationships with parents of color, Black children miss out on countless chances to build friendships and gain access to social networks and diverse interests.

I watched this with painful recognition. I moved to my Boston suburb 30 years ago with my infant. My family thrived here in many ways, and I have wonderful friends. At the same time, I still think of the moment my son said he wanted his haircut like his blond friend, and the dawning understanding that he was not like everybody else around him.

This next observation really struck me:

When I went back to the hood—and yeah the area looks depressing, the buildings are dilapidated or whatever—but going into the store there is a real sense of community amongst my own that I didn’t notice before.
Like the way that we just organically talk to each other in the aisles, calling each other ‘baby,’ ‘ma’am,’ ‘sir,’ ‘honey.’ Like, if my boys were walking around in the store in the hood, somebody else’s mom is going to call them ‘baby.’ ‘Baby, can you pick that up for me?’ ‘Honey, can you get that over there?’
Ain’t nobody in Wegmans calling my sons ‘baby’ or ‘honey.’

I hadn’t thought about that before. When you are seen as a full member of a culture, interactions are saturated with subtle cues of belonging. Strangers might greet you warmly or strike up small talk. Children are encouraged as though they were part of one big family. Over time, these signals soothe our brains and bodies, allowing us to build a foundation of security and confidence.

When the culture withholds these signals, we might not notice it. But like a plant without sun or water, we aren’t getting everything we need to grow strong. You go about your day treated as a guest, or worse, as an interloper.

We know all too well that a teenage boy who is Black, shopping in a mostly white neighborhood, can’t expect affection from everyone around them. They are more likely to be subtly avoided, or questioned—or all too frequently, followed or accused.

My question to you: is your workplace more like the neighborhood grocery store, or is it more like the Wegmans? Do your employees of color get those nurturing cues from colleagues that mean “This is your neighborhood”?

They’re called microvalidations. No one needs to call them “baby” or “honey,” of course. But everyone needs to know they are trusted and valued. That they belong.

Not just when they excel. Just for being there.

  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

Have you ever driven down a dead-end street and you realize there’s not enough room to turn around?

People remind me of that sometimes.

We commit to a point of view. We drive forward. And when we realize we made a mistake, or don’t like the direction the conversation is taking, we look around and discover we are stuck. We’ve boxed ourselves in too tightly and we can’t hit reverse.

We keep arguing a point we know is wrong, because to try to explain our mistake now would be as awkward as a six-point turn.

Some years ago, I was browsing in a little gift shop in my neighborhood with a friend. We were stopped short by a sign being sold among the novelty items—something like “Warning: Unattended Children Will Be Sold into Slavery.”

We looked at each other with the same aghast expression. Was this supposed to be funny?

We were the only customers in the store. A woman we assumed was the owner was sitting at the counter. We approached, pointed at the sign, and said, “Excuse me, we find the sign about slavery really offensive.”

The woman looked up, squinted at the sign, and clenched her jaw. “Well,” she said, “It’s a joke. Some people think it’s funny.”

I told her I understood that some might find it funny, but because it will likely offend many others, she should consider that impact.

The owner just drove further down the road she was on. “I think you’re overreacting.”

“No one else has said anything about it.”

“I won’t be told what I can and can’t sell in my store.”

My friend and I tried to redirect the dialogue, hoping we could at least be heard. But she finally reached the dead end: “I’m going to have to ask you to leave the store.”

We were dumb-struck. Her metaphorical foot was on the accelerator.

“Or I’ll call the police.”

My friend and I exchanged looks and my friend said, “All right, go ahead. We’ll just keep browsing until they get here.”

Of course the owner realized there was no way to go farther. She didn’t pick up the phone. But she didn’t apologize either. After waiting for a while, we left—never to return.

I was angry when it happened. But now, with the benefit of time since the event, I feel some compassion for this woman. She may have realized she had taken the wrong approach at some point in our exchange. But like the driver on the narrow road, she couldn’t see where she could turn around. There wasn’t enough room to change direction without some clumsy maneuvers that would bruise her ego.

We all take the wrong road sometimes. How often do we recognize our mistake, but can’t find the humility to say we’re wrong? We drive on until we reach the end of the path, and then honk and shout in frustration.

But all we’re doing is annoying the neighbors. The only way to get back on track is to reverse, slowly and carefully, no matter how foolish we fear we may look.

  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

“What if the person showing bias is a client?”

A law student recently hung around to ask me that question after an orientation I was leading on cultivating an inclusive community.

“When I was a paralegal,” she explained (carefully), “there were some awkward situations. But the customer is supposed to always be right. How do you speak up and be polite at the same time?”

Her question pointed to a set of very real, and complicated, challenges. How can you address bias in a person who—if they respond negatively—could have a negative impact on your career?

Especially if you’re a junior employee, you’re expected to defer to clients. Saying something critical can seem like a violation of the smooth, service-oriented experience you are supposed to maintain.

But if you just ignore the behavior, it might continue, and damage your and others’ work environment.

In sensitive situations like this, strategies to interrupt bias can be more effective than confronting it directly.

For instance, ask a clarifying question. “What did you mean?” is sometimes all it takes to nudge a person’s awareness of something they said without making any direct comment. And even if the person responds defensively, you have prompted a pause. You’ll have signaled to them—and to anyone observing—that the comment was problematic.

Another interrupting strategy is offering a different opinion or perspective. “I think she was being passionate about her point of view, not necessarily angry. I’d be passionate too—it was a powerful idea.”

By the way, these are excellent strategies for bystanders as well. Questions and other perspectives serve as guardrails, marking that a behavior was at a borderline of appropriateness without making an individual feel singled out.

Of course, sometimes bystanders let us down. And the power dynamics of observers can also add to the challenge. What if a partner observes the biased behavior, and says nothing? What’s the responsibility of the firm in this situation?

If you’re an employer, how can you have your team’s back in the case of a client’s bias?

An organizations’ responsibility to protect workers from harassment includes the clients they work with. And, microaggressions are a form of harassment: they are behaviors based on a person’s identity that cause harm. As with sexual harassment, it’s the impact that matters: was the behavior welcomed? That is the legal standard that protects employees against sexual harassment, so why not use it when considering other forms of harassment?

So as risky as it might feel to interrupt bias with a client, don’t ignore their behavior if it causes concern. If you see something, speak up—either to the client or to your employer. Maybe the relationship manager can diplomatically provide feedback when another staff member can’t.

If it continues, it is important for employers to make it clear: we don’t treat our people this way, and we won’t tolerate you doing it either.

And in some cases, the only way to really support your employees is to take the client off your client list.

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