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Changing the narrative: creating sustainable cultures of belonging

Gardner..."We need to move from theater, and beyond unconscious biases to address the behavioral "racial habits" that reinforce inequality."
Gardner..."We need to move from theater, and beyond unconscious biases to address the behavioral "racial habits" that reinforce inequality."

Racial news creates everyday trauma, says Heide Gardner, SVP, chief diversity and inclusion officer, IPG, and corporations have to respond with empathy and support

Tragedies and injustices happening in society today have wide and deep impacts on people: leaders need to address these broad implications.

I discussed this with Nicole Sanchez, CEO of Vaya Consulting just before taking the stage at the 3% Conference. Nicole’s Twitter thread ‘How was your weekend?’ inspired Kat Gordon to ask us to have a fireside chat about leadership in these turbulent socio-political times.

The idea was to start educating attendees about the very real trauma people experience when members of their community come under attack, the importance of making room for them to deal with grief and taking steps to encourage empathy from others.

In the current environment, people of color live with the daily stress of random acts of violence appearing regularly in headlines, creating a constant undercurrent of risk and fear. Nicole and I felt it was critical to touch on the ongoing trauma and stresses that many members of marginalized groups experience in every part of their lives. In a work environment, this "emotional tax" is costly for those Black and Brown people who pay the tax – and for their employers.

When crises and brutal hate crimes occur, the bad actors are obvious. We unite against those sporting swastika tattoos or yelling racial slurs. Sometimes, the media offers special coverage and politicians host town halls – what Princeton professor Eddie S Glaude, Jr calls "racial theater". He asserts these moments are often staged to give a nod to the target groups in such a way as to avoid making White people feel uncomfortable.

We need to move from theater, and beyond unconscious biases to address the behavioral "racial habits" that reinforce inequality.

The good news is that like biases, habits can change. But that means work: actual constructive "race talk" as described by Derald Wing Sue, a pioneer on the effects of racism and sexism. Sue describes power as the ability to define reality, the "master narrative" that is central to race talk. Race talk is inherently "back talk" challenging the narrative of color-blindness, meritocracy and the cultural norms – even those for decorum and personal etiquette – that shape our culture and companies.  

Going beyond racial theater means the people who control the master narrative have to accept counter-narratives they might not understand or identify with. It means we have to make conscious decisions about which cultural and social norms still make sense and those that are relics not meshing with who we say we are and want to be.

It means leaders have to go there.

A way to start is giving a stage to leading thinkers like Glaude and Sue – or other thought leaders on the topic include Katherine Phillips and Kenji Yoshino – all experts who focus on changing the narrative and adjusting social norms. Using their knowledge, insights and expertise offers a first step towards making real change.

This is why we introduced our people to them as part of IPG’s National Day of Understanding focused on issues of race, ethnicity and inclusion and why we will build on their insights as we work to drive more progress.

This article is brought to you as part of a wider content series around our Female Frontier awards. To find out more about the awards, visit our dedicated hub.

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