At an airport, on the way to a conference, I ran into a friend and her companion. My friend offered me a ride in her rental car. We three black women boarded the shuttle bus, put away our luggage and sat at the front of the bus. The remaining passengers filed in, stowed their luggage, and went to the back of the bus. Though there were open seats up front with us, the white passengers moved to the rear, including some who chose to stand. We black women exchanged knowing and perplexed looks, joked, and enjoyed getting to know each other on the short ride.
What happened? How did an airport shuttle bus become segregated? What made the white passengers choose crowded conditions in the back of the bus rather than spacious seating up front? I’ll bet no one would name race as a reason. Yet the aggregate of individual behavior was separation by race. What did they want or not want in that moment? I don’t know. I have many explanations, all of them fantasies. One story is that race was a factor in their decisions. While I can’t prove it, I’ve seen it often enough to believe its likelihood here.
Of course, this is an airport shuttle and matters little. Yet those same choices can have serious consequences, for example, when coworkers choose not to engage their colleagues who are different. If we were three black women talking in the hallway, sitting in a cafeteria, or working with others on a large project, then the absence of interaction could contribute to a climate of exclusion, discomfort, and ultimately, ineffectiveness for us, our teams, and the organization.
As it happens, I conducted a diversity workshop at the conference. I shared this story and participants and I discussed what happens in similar situations at work or at conferences. We discussed the fear of being rejected and the stories we carry that frighten us or make us tentative when asking to join a conversation or lunch table with them. We discussed when being in groups where we are alike on some dimension (e.g. all women, people of color, or gay/lesbian) is intentional and protected space versus merely who showed up. Sometimes we read signals clearly—they look like they’re in a private conversation—and sometimes our prejudices and fears cloud our judgment. That is, it looks an intimate dynamic because we let their differences and the stories we tell ourselves about people with those differences overwhelm our otherwise finely tuned antennae.
Split second decisions can have enormous implications. By examining the assumptions that inform our actions we allow ourselves to mindfully choose more effective behavior.
Questions to ponder:
- When do you move towards or away from people who are different—by age, race, gender, or other group identity? What are the reasons you give yourself?
When have you been in the group not approached? How did you feel? Can you identify circumstances or conditions that led to feeling
- Grateful to be left alone?
- Gleeful in your capacity to keep others out just by being different?
- Something else?
- What have been the immediate and long-term results? For you? For the organization?