If You Know Something, Say Something

Carrie Mae Weems is an artist whose work we all should study. Not to interpret the technical merits of art, but to absorb the power and truth in her photo and video images.

Weems, a 60-year-old American who received the 2013 MacArthur “genius grant” — is known primarily for her photography that deals candidly, even controversially, with race, gender, politics and identity.

When I see her work, I know exactly what she’s talking about in those provocative photo captions. I understand how the people she photographed felt. I can see clearly the humor in both acknowledging and poking fun at stereotypes of black life, even as I regret that those same images portray a complexity and humanity most of the world knows nothing about and shows no interest in learning.

In the December issue of Elle magazine, Weems told the story about her experience as a fellow at the American Academy in Rome, a center for independent study and advanced research in fine arts and humanities. One day, a past fellow visited the academy — Weems doesn’t say who — and this individual took one shocked look at her and said, “Carrie Mae Weems, what — what are you doing here?”

“I kept bumping into all these people, white people, who’d been coming to Rome for years, leading programs in Rome, doing all these things, and I’m like, ‘You never told me you come to Rome,’” Weems told Elle. “People I really trusted, people I thought had kind of open minds are having this whole dynamic experience that they don’t think I’m worthy enough to tell. There’s a sense that I don’t even deserve to know, because there’s nothing that I can possibly do with that — you see what I’m saying?”

I do. There were many times early in my career where I found out some critical information too late. I remember working a temp job and overhearing some co-workers discussing my clothes. I thought I was cute but apparently I looked “too clubby.”

Why wasn’t I told? I’m sure there are a lot of reasons. Every scenario does not have its roots buried in diversity issues, but for the most part I feel as Weems does: I wasn’t told because the knowledge keeper did not feel that I, a black female, would be receptive to the information.

There have also been times when someone told me something vital and I didn’t listen or act accordingly. That’s my fault. What I’m pointing to are those situations where a peer, boss or educator could have shared something with me and deliberately did not based on his or her belief that I wouldn’t be interested. I’ve heard that one a few times over the years.

And I’m not just pointing a finger at white people. This withholding phenomenon often takes place between members of the same race. While pitiful, it makes perfect sense: Information is power.
If you don’t know the job specs, you can’t prepare and apply when positions become available. If you don’t know about the leadership development retreat, you can’t apply or ask to attend. If you don’t know that your manner of communication is lacking, you can’t correct or change to facilitate work and relationship building or move to a place where your skills might be a better fit.

So, are you hoarding information that might help someone do more, be more or know more? If so, why? What assumptions might you be making that are preventing you from recognizing or potentially advancing diverse talent in your organization? Who in your organization might be, unintentionally or otherwise, making it harder than it has to be for diverse employees to get the learning and development, exposure and experience they need to contribute at their highest level?
Providing that missing access, that missing information, can affect engagement, retention, performance, recruiting — everything.

Weems has been an acclaimed artist for more than 30 years. She did well despite not being informed earlier about the possibilities for artists in Rome. But how much farther could she have gone, what more could she have created with that knowledge?