Like many white people, I have been thinking about how I can best actively be engaged in the Black Lives Matter movement and dismantle systemic racism in the U.S. One thing I think white people can do to become more antiracist in this moment (and going forward) is to be candid with ourselves and others about the racist things we have said and done in the past.
The purpose of telling these stories is educational, not to shame ourselves or others, but ensure we do better in the future. It is in this spirit that I’d like to tell a story about a passage in Radical Candor that I did not intend to be racist, but that was racist.
I’m not talking about stereotypical patterns of racism, which most well-intended white people associate with Neo-Nazis and the KKK. When I say that something I wrote in Radical Candor was racist, I’m talking about the impact one of my proposed management techniques had because, unbeknownst to me, in this case, it was entrenched in a socio-historical context in which Black people have been animalized through scientific racism.
And after much reflection and coaching from anti-racism focused diversity, equity and inclusion professionals, I was able to understand that this was “unbeknownst” to me because, as a white woman, I’ve never had to struggle with being animalized because my racial privilege and wealth have protected me. I am working with the publisher to make changes to the book.
In the meantime, I would like to share my mistake with readers in order to put a stop to this practice for anyone who may have adopted it, and I’d like to apologize to anyone who has been harmed by my suggestion.
How this practice reinforces racism
Here is what I was to achieve with the practice “Whoops the Monkey,” which I will call going forward “Whoops-A-Daisy.” As a manager, bring in some sort of prop to a team meeting and encourage people to share the mistakes they made that week. Team members then nominate themselves to “win” the prop for the week by sharing a story about a misstep.
As the manager, explain to the folks on your team that they are doing two important things when they openly share their mistakes: they are holding themselves accountable and they are helping others avoid making the same mistake. Remind people that mistakes are inevitable and OK. Mistakes are how we learn. By making failure safe, you encourage innovation.
My goal in recommending this technique was to create a culture where criticism is welcome because the culture is fault-tolerant and knows how to hold itself and others accountable in a way that helps everyone improve. But I chose a terrible prop when I recommended this technique: a stuffed monkey.
Because of this context, asking people to nominate themselves for ‘Whoops the Monkey,’ was, to put it mildly, racially unmindful, especially when it was proposed by me, a white person. It goes beyond causing offense. It was about invoking real harm done in the past, and then bringing some of that harm and my own ignorance into the present.”
Rather than making failure safe, using a monkey as your prop may invoke for many Black-identified people on your team both harmful personal experiences and some of the most violent, shameful incidents of American history: animalizing Black people, and using that as a rationalization for slavery and brutality.
Because of this context, asking people to nominate themselves for “Whoops the Monkey,” was, to put it mildly, racially unmindful, especially when it was proposed by me, a white person. It goes beyond causing offense. It was about invoking real harm done in the past, and then bringing some of that harm into the present in a way that made people feel unsafe.
Results, not intentions, matter from leaders
I didn’t intend to be racist when I suggested this management technique. But my intentions were beside the point. What mattered was my impact. And using “Whoops the Monkey” so nonchalantly has a negative impact on a whole team, especially Black-identified people on the team.
Here are some things I need to confront as a white person. Nobody has ever compared me to a monkey. My son, who is also white*, has never had to deal with monkey chants when he’s up at bat in his little league games. Nobody’s ever thrown peanuts or banana skins at him.
Nobody has ever called his twin sister an “ape in heels” when she gets dressed up, as has happened to Michelle Obama.
It never occurred to me any of these things would happen — because they wouldn’t happen to me or my white family.
If my ancestors had been kidnapped, exploited and treated like animals through the institution of U.S. antebellum chattel slavery — which allowed them to be bought and sold in ways that harm my family’s economic circumstances even today — it is highly unlikely that I would ever nominate myself for “Whoops the Monkey.” I would reject everything about the idea.
Given this history, it is inevitable that I will do and say implicitly racist things — largely because most white people like myself have what Dr. A. Farr refers to as, “white racialized consciousness.” I wasn’t aware of this concept, nor did I realize this about myself, until I started becoming actively antiracist.
The best way to become an antiracist is to become aware of the racist or racially unmindful things I do and/or say so that I can learn from them and avoid doing them again. My goal with Whoops was to create psychological safety, which is so vital for collaboration on a team. But using a monkey achieved the exact opposite.
Why it was so hard for me to recognize my mistake
Once I discussed all this with Dr. A. Breeze Harper, Ph.D., an author and expert in inclusion and anti-racism in the workplace, my mistake seemed so obvious. Why hadn’t I realized it myself?
I took a course in college with Toni Morrison who taught me to identify racism in canonical American literature. She was a truly great educator; I was an eager student. And yet, I still promoted this racist management practice. How could I have failed to understand what I was doing? Was it willful ignorance? Denial?
I think that part of the reason I was unaware of the racism inherent in choosing a monkey for Whoops is that when it comes to issues of morality, and racism as a moral failure, it’s really difficult to be cognizant of our own wrongdoing.
We adopt a stubborn illogic about our own moral failings: “I am a good person; therefore I wouldn’t do anything bad. I am not a racist person. Therefore I wouldn’t do anything racist.” And it doesn’t help that many well-intended, “but I’m not racist” white people only associate racism with phenomena like Nazi Germany or Neo-Nazis, as Farr explains in the journal Logos in the paper “Racialized Consciousness, Symbolic Representionalism, and the Prophetic/Critical Voice of the Black Intellectual.”
In addition, in her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism, Dr. Robin DiAngelo, Ph.D., who coined the term “White Fragility,” explains how well-intentioned white people actually help keep systems of racism in place.
“White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.”
She writes that while people can commit individual racist acts, racism is much bigger than that. She notes that whiteness scholars define racism as “encompassing economic, political, social and cultural structures, actions and beliefs that systematize and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources and power between white people and people of color. This unequal distribution benefits whites and disadvantages people of color overall and as a group.”
Because of this, a large majority of white people like me are conditioned to participate in a racist society before we’re even born, and it takes ongoing conscious work to do otherwise. If you are a white person, even if you do not commit overt racist acts, you still benefit from the privileges afforded to white people as the result of living in a culture of systemic racism that actively oppresses BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color).
It never occurred to me any of these things would happen — because they wouldn’t happen to me or my white family.”
Similarly, when it comes to our own morality, we often have what Carol Dweck calls a fixed rather than a growth mindset. A fixed mindset holds that mistakes we make reflect innate, fixed attributes; a growth mindset holds that we can learn from our mistakes and develop the skills we want to have, achieve what we want to achieve, grow into the people who we aspire to be.
If you have a fixed mindset about math, you are reluctant to recognize a mistake you made because it means you are “bad at math.” If you adopt a growth mindset about math, you eagerly embrace it when your mistakes are pointed out because these are learning opportunities, opportunities to grow “better at math.”
It’s difficult enough to adopt a growth mindset about a math mistake. It’s even harder to adopt a growth mindset about a moral failing. But the only way to become a more moral person is to do just that.
Luckily, someone was — ahem — radically candid with me and told me that “Whoops the Monkey” invokes a violent history of racism, animalization and anti-blackness for millions of Black-identified people in the U.S. and around the world.
Thankfully, my publisher is willing to correct the mistake in future printings of Radical Candor (the e-book has already been updated).
And I am grateful for the opportunity to write this blog post and publicize my mistake so that other people don’t repeat it.
If you are a manager who likes the idea of using props to build a culture of feedback, get a stuffed daisy and call this practice “Whoops-A-Daisy.” Just to be safe, I looked up the origins of that expression. It seems like a better metaphor anyway.
“What exclamation might you make when you pick up a toddler who has fallen down on their derriere—or somehow fallen over while already sitting down? Perhaps, the seemingly nonsensical term upsy-daisy might cross your lips, or up-a-daisy, or ups-a-daisy? Or do you prefer variants based on interjections like oops or whoops, such as oopsie-daisy or whoopsie-daisy? All of these are used to give reassurance or to give acknowledgement that something out of the ordinary is about to happen.”
But the much more important lesson is this: if you are a manager, especially if you are a white manager, think about how you can use your authority to challenge yourself and your peers to think about racial inclusion through an antiracist framework.
Ask others to help you identify the things you are doing that have racialized consequences you may be unaware of. Don’t put the burden on racial minorities who work with you. You can hire a “bias buster” who integrates anti-racism and racial inclusion to observe your meetings and written communications.
Also, there are some incredible books to read and online resources available. Three books I recommend are: How To Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad. Arnold Farr’s work on racialized consciousness is brilliant, practical and so helpful. I also suggest reading the latest release by brilliant scholar, Aph Ko, Racism as Zoological Witchcraft to get a better idea of animalization and racism.
A good site to turn to is Racial Equity Tools. Remember, don’t just read the concepts, use them to be actively antiracist as ongoing and never ending processes.
The whole idea of Radical Candor is that we grow from our mistakes when people point them out to us and we take steps to address them. Feedback is a gift, even when it is painful, or especially when it is painful. Learning about my mistake was certainly painful, but I am so grateful that someone pointed it out to me.
Please note, Dr. A. Breeze Harper is proposing an antiracist repurposing of the hashtag #WhiteOutWednesday, which originally was presented by White Nationalists as a way to contest Black Out Tuesday.
Starting June 10, 2020 (and every Wednesday after), it’s time for white people to “out” whiteness, white privilege and white racism within themselves and their friendships and family AND NEVER STOP. Today, I am outing myself and pledging to do better going forward.
Let’s shut down its original racist intention with antiracist action and flip it on its head. Read below the post:
Additional recommended reading:
Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters
Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question