Open Mouth, Insert Foot: Breaking The Power of Habit

It was a fairly unobtrusive ring. It wasn’t protracted or loud and I probably wouldn’t have noticed it had one of my gym buddies not pointed it out. She used the little alarm as a timer to let her know when to move on to the next exercise on her list. But apparently it had upset one of the other gym patrons and he complained to her about it.

We were in the locker room when she asked for my opinion. I cracked a bunch of jokes about bratty gym-goers with fat blocking the glands where their patience should be. But then I asked if the complainer was black or white.

As soon as the words came out of my mouth I wanted to call them back. Why did I ask that? Who cared about the man’s race? How did that relate to what he’d said or done? When she answered, my feelings about the incident didn’t change. I only asked out of habit.

So I had to ask myself if I am the type of person who thinks about race first and everything else second. Since the answer to that question is an emphatic no, how can I break this habit?

Habits are at the root of a lot of issues we have in diversity and inclusion. Unintended slights and the misunderstandings that follow comments or gestures often lead to confusion and defensiveness when speakers realize what they’ve said isn’t kosher. I’m the perfect example. I realized that as soon as my lips closed on the words “black or white.”

That habit of asking about race exists because it once mattered quite a bit who was saying what. You could glean motivation, purpose, meaning and whether or not there might be empathy by knowing a speaker’s race. You could deduce whether you’d get a fair shot, whether you might actually be shot or whether it was better to pack up your things and come back another day.

But things have changed. These days it can be dangerous to assume something based on a speaker’s external characteristics, and not just because your assumptions might be completely wrong. With social media, you may find yourself in need of a crisis management expert’s services if you say the wrong thing.

Luckily, the only thing that came from my slip of the tongue at the gym was this column. And hopefully the awareness that it’s OK to slip up and to say the wrong thing. Perfection does not exist, especially in the world of business or in diversity and inclusion. There’s too much history and hurt to expect everything we do to promote equality and access in the workplace to be without fault. And constantly working to censor oneself brings its own issues, among them stifling authenticity and creativity.

I recently read about a 9-year-old Afro-German girl named Ishema Kane’s letter to Die Zeit, a German newspaper. Die Zeit published a column objecting to censoring certain terms and Ishema very colorfully and eloquently wrote in to say she thought the word “nigger” should be deleted from children’s books. Her postscript invited the editors of the books to send her a response.

She may be on to something. Perhaps we could move more quickly toward a truly inclusive state if diversity executives devoted some of their resources to a younger audience. It could be as simple as exposing executives to young minds through community outreach.

Young people aren’t as verbally constrained as adults and they don’t worry as much about appearances. They’re often brutally honest, and there’s something wonderful in that freedom. Knowing that you might say the wrong thing and the person who hears it can maintain an open mind and heart and is willing to talk things out means you can learn something and move forward.

It’s not a ringing alarm, but neither is diversity always about the bright light bulb over the head. It’s about a journey and celebrating milestones big and small along the way.