Talking About Race

Much of coaching is about surfacing what might be difficult to take in or hard to say. To coach is often to voice feedback, observing behaviors, calling them out, and working with leaders to explore the impact that their decisions, their actions, and their words, have on others. I often describe the role of the coach as someone who “holds the mirror up,” reflecting back inescapable truths for the purpose of promoting self-insight and, ultimately, self-directed change on the part of the coachee.

To that end, we train coaches to listen deeply, to pay close attention to language so as to be able to surface the underlying belief systems and values implicit in what they hear. Part of that work involves helping coaches develop an awareness of their own mental models and the ways in which those hardwired pre-judgements inform how they see and interpret the world around them.

So when we met recently with dozens of coaches for a year-end check-in about their work, we asked them to reflect on -- and talk openly about -- how their racial identities inform the assumptions they make about themselves and others. This was not a new conversation, but it is typically not an easy one to have. Many of us were socialized to feel that talking openly about race is inappropriate and this inhibition can be difficult and uncomfortable to unlearn.

It starts early.

My daughter, for example, attends an elementary school that celebrates Black History month. As a second grader, she was assigned a report on Ernest Everett Just, a ground-breaking African American biologist born in 1841. As it happens, Dr. Just was the sole black person in his class at Dartmouth, - a fact that my then-seven-year-old, a white girl in a relatively diverse school, found most interesting. Yet when I read the report she drafted, I saw no mention of this detail.  In fact, I found no reference to Dr. Just’s race whatsoever. When I asked why she omitted any allusion to Dr. Just’s experiences as an African-American, my daughter replied, “We’re not allowed to talk about that.” “What?” I asked, incredulous. This was, after all, an assignment created (for better or worse) to honor Black History month.  “We’re not allowed to say whether someone is black or white,” she repeated. “It’s not nice.”

I am fairly sure my daughter misunderstood something one of her teachers said. But intended or unintended, my daughter, based on whatever she observed or heard, learned that at school words about race are inappropriate.

At NYCLA, our coaches work hard to recognize the ways in which their own identities and experiences with privilege inform their ability to name and discuss issues related to race. They have developed the skill and will to engage in courageous conversations with coachees, focusing not just on equitable practice but also on envisioning change for themselves, their organizations, and most importantly on behalf of the students they serve. These conversations require coaches and coachees to name race specifically even if doing so may create some discomfort.

Beliefs concerning race and privilege lie at the core of our nation’s current divide.  We must be willing to face them, to examine them, and explore them together, not just as a country but as individuals. We need the words to express ourselves and the patience and empathy to listen.  But we also need to hold each other accountable for what is said. We can only do that by talking to each other openly and honestly.

About the Author — Michelle Jarney

Michelle Jarney is Vice President of Leadership Coaching Services at NYCLA, where she has worked since 2004.

Many of us were socialized to feel that talking openly about race is inappropriate and this inhibition can be difficult and uncomfortable to unlearn.

Michelle Jarney