I didn’t realize the extent to which I have been complicit in supporting racism. It’s hard to even write those words. Twelve weeks ago I would have told you “I am not a racist”, and that I am as far away from white supremacy as one could get. 

And then I started reading, watching, listening and learning.

Much of the resources I started with are here, which I have made available to others who are interested in learning: Racism Resources. I will never be done with my learning, by the way. I considered not writing this blog until I was “ready, better, healed.” It feels scary to talk about, embarrassing, shameful. 

And then I thought of the Brene Brown quote, 

Our Shame Does Not Have to Silence Us Unless We Let It. 

There is so much power in giving yourself a voice; in choosing to use that voice for truth; in giving life to the secrets, judgment, and shame you keep hidden away. “Me too” can change someone’s life.” 

and I remembered that when we are BOLD leaders, we get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable, we do it anyway, and we never do it alone. So with the support of my own coach and colleague, I am sharing a few of the many things I have learned / realized so far.

I learned that:

  • The passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote in 1920 did not initially extend to women of African American, Asian American, Hispanic American and American Indian heritage because of widespread enduring inequality and racism from within the ranks of the women’s suffrage movement. 
  • The creation of many police departments began as slave patrols and to protect residents from Native Americans.
  • The details in our history about events and movements I knew about, but never to the depth they actually occurred.  The extent to which Reconstruction and the “Black Codes” perpetuated slavery; the level to which the country continually, brutally, horrifically and illegally enforced the breaking of laws for so many egregious and racist acts on everything from prohibiting black migration to the impact on generations of black children who were denied education following the Supreme Court’s famous ruling in the 1950’s until now. I knew the events, not the acuteness nor the level of impact.     
  • The extent to which the “War on Crime” has in reality been a continuation of embedded, institutionalized racism and the extent to which companies have profited from essentially a modern form of slavery. 
  • The thousands of examples of police force used on black men. I have been aware and horrified of those that made the news. I even knew of some of the lesser-known cases. And, I didn’t have an understanding of the multitude of examples of petty examples that resulted in death such as riding without the proper bicycle lights. 
  • What “Law and Order” really means. The impact of capital punishment, the impact of “3 strikes”, the number of innocent black men who, in spite of obvious evidence, have been and are consistently found guilty; the laws that only recently changed about charging minors as adults often locking them away for life; the number of lives lost that could have been saved by solving with mental health rather than incarceration solutions.
  • “All Lives Matter” is yes, undeniable. And it is racist. Yesterday a CEO told me a Board member said this in a meeting, creating an awkward moment, yet no one said anything (at least not publicly). Innocuous as it sounds, it is offensive and insulting given the inequities black people have suffered and continue to endure today. It does not mean others don’t matter, their rights are not important, and their needs don’t deserve focus. However, as our country and world grapple with the gross injustices that have been continuously perpetuated, we are at a crossroads for leaders (and everyone) to choose to wake up to the reality most of us have never realized, and to do our parts to work together to creating an anti-racist society, which is why Black Lives Matter needs to be its own focus area from us all.This quick read was one of many that helped me see this from different viewpoints.
  • My own white privilege, white silence, white exceptionalism. I have been oblivious to what Peggy McIntosh calls “my invisible package of unearned assets.” My white privilege has become more apparent recently as I observe:

–  Our approach to college prep for our high school daughter: arranging test tutoring, registering for multiple tests, looking at schools of choice vs. those that are financially feasible.

–  I’m shocked at my college freshman son’s STEM college stats: 63% white, 9% hispanic, 3% Black, 3% Asian, and 65% male. 

–  When two police cars pulled over my husband (for driving too slowly!), only one got out of the car. My husband was mildly reprimanded and easily let go. 

–  Sitting outside a healthy food market, I noticed shoppers were mostly middle aged, thin, white women. It hadn’t occurred to me how much I have been unconsciously living in this narrow slice of society without realizing how advantaged and unrepresentative my experience is of others.

I have thought of racist people as “bad”, and not racist people as “good”, so I have assigned myself to be one of the “good, non-racist” people. I have taken myself off the hook by assuming I’m not racist, so I have been silent because I don’t self-identify as an activist, a marcher, someone who uses social media as a platform to post. 

I have thought of myself as color blind (“I don’t see color! Everyone is equal!”) and avoided conversations with black friends and colleagues to listen and better understand them and their experiences. I have felt exempt, until now, and felt that working on being an anti-racist doesn’t directly apply to me. I have viewed myself as a progressive ally. To my knowledge, I have not consciously said or done blatant racist comments or actions. I have thought, since I don’t do or think that way, this doesn’t apply to me, I am not complicit – which turns out to be a subtle yet powerful way I maintain the status quo. 

I am waking up to the understanding that I have been one of those people Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was talking about when he said “shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”*

  • Considering myself not racist, I thought class and education were the true culprits. I didn’t have an understanding of the depth to which institutionalized racism was created and maintained and how rampant it continues to be today. I grew up poor, and education was my ticket out. I assumed if people worked hard enough, as I did, the American dream was available to all. I now realize how wrong I was, and the extent to which my privilege has helped me.  
  • It is not possible to not be racist. Even Robin D’Angelo (click on Racism Resources), author of White Fragility shares mistakes she has and continues to make. To not be racist requires a commitment to on-going learning and behaviors in order to be an anti-racist, and necessitates two of the most important skills for high performing leaders – growth mindset (what can I learn here?) and receptivity (I’m willing to listen to understand what others have to say even when I disagree and/or if it’s about me).

The power of looking within is not limited to this one conversation or this one point in time. While it is critical and grossly overdue for us all to learn and own our contribution, it is also an opportunity to look within at how we are all withholding key parts of ourselves from being shared and seen, in an effort to appear as part of the mainstream. 

It requires the 3 C’s to step out of what we don’t know we don’t know: commitment, courage and curiosity.

This is not an easy post to write, as my own fragility like so many of us want to be respected, liked and viewed positively. The fear of getting real – truly vulnerable – is what one client of mine likened to “jumping off the biggest cliff of his life.” 

We don’t want to be seen as imperfect, unlikeable or making a misstep, which is usually why we stay silent, err on the side of passivity, “wait and see”, or focus on tactical solutions vs. our own complicity.

This leader who “jumped” started hosting learning conversations about racism in his organization with hundreds of associates. 

(He didn’t do this by himself, by the way. He knew about the “White Fragility” that D’Angelo talks about in Racism Resources, which is when white people get defensive, aren’t open and need to be taken care of when they get feedback. He did his homework to ask for questions ahead of time and during the session, he got coaching prior to the session, and partnered with a coach to create a good agenda and make sure he wasn’t getting defensive in the sessions. 

The result? 

  • He is getting feedback that he is modeling high performance leadership
  • People respect and appreciate him and are starting to talk and “jump”, too. 
  • Productivity, engagement and morale numbers are skyrocketing in his organization. 
  • His boss is talking to him about the next, bigger job (not at all why he took this on). 

When you step out of your comfort zone and lead boldly, you grow personally, inspire others and create lasting impact.

The opportunity for growth – and BOLD leadership – is now. BOLD leadership is:

  • Being Yourself and being willing to be seen and heard for who you truly are, not what other people want to see.
  • Owning your Zone and stepping out of the comfortable to engage in real, awkward conversations you might not get right, to admit real aspects of yourself others might not agree with or, might learn from and follow.
  • Leading with Presence – being willing to speak, write and influence others.  
  • Daring to Share what you want and need creates powerful requests, offers and sets boundaries of what you want and/or what you will no longer tolerate or accept.

I am on Step 1 of my journey to become an anti-racist. I am starting with self education, which I view as my responsibility. Most high performing leaders I know are embarking upon this journey as well, and I invite you to come along. To do this, I have created a list of racism resources that are available in multiple formats (books, videos, movies, articles, TED talks) here on my Inspiration Page: click on Racism Resources. Please comment and let me know others you recommend.

If you’re ready to take it further and explore what it means to be a high-performing, inclusive ally, a BOLD leader or are interested in creating a breakthrough in any area that is most challenging for you, please contact Gisele Garcia Shelley to explore actions you can take and get more resources to help you move forward powerfully.

Wishing you good mental, physical, emotional and social health. 

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours in practice,



*Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963, http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/undecided/630416-019.pdf

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