The White Guy In The Room

In the month of April I taught 8 workshops on the topic of unconscious bias and 3 on microaggression and inclusivity. Between those engagements there were other clients and other topics around various forms of communication. But it always amazes me how little people are willing to hear each other. These conversations are tough, but that’s because they are worth having. And that is where my two areas of expertise are suddenly colliding. It is nearly impossible to have a conversation about diversity and inclusivity (or anything else for that matter) in a vacuum. For context, I’m going to rewind the story to a clip from Tony Robbins which made its way into the news about a month ago.

I’m not knocking the me too movement, I’m knocking victimhood.

You’ll notice that Tony Robbins somehow finds himself on public display, along with his unconscious bias. The mention he makes of sympathizing with corporate leaders who recognize they are making unjust choices along gender lines, is important. You may also notice that Tony is a very large, extremely tall (6’8″) white man. That position is usually one of privilege. But when we are talking about bias, that’s the worst seat to be in. No one wants to hear the white guy, and maybe that’s part of the problem.

We Don’t Mean To Think What We Think

In the work I’ve been doing this month we’ve been exploring this idea of unconscious bias. The fact that most of our thinking as human beings is based on patterns of behavior. It’s one of the ways that we ensure our own safety and the continued existence of our kind; noticing patterns and allowing our brain to immediately go to fight or flight without much effort. That doesn’t work in workplace, or most social situations however. We’re using this fast thinking to make snap judgments about people. When we do that we limit who we interact with, and who receives our favor based on assumptions of past experience. That leads to limited innovation, a sieve on new ideas, and a literal stunting of opportunities for all parties involved.

You draw conclusions based on your own personal experience, and that makes your decisions subjective and not necessarily fair to others.

But the fun part of work-shopping this topic is that we are all biased. If you are human than you are making judgements all day based on your own personal experiences and your interpretation of the world. And the majority of those judgement calls are purely subjective. They are not rooted in fact. If you take any of the Harvard Implicit Association tests, you’ll quickly burst any bubble you may have about being removed from this human condition. You draw conclusions based on your own personal experience, and that makes your decisions subjective and not necessarily fair to others. Sometimes we say these subjective, unfair things out loud. And when our biases make their way out of our heads and into the lives of others, that is problematic, but in many ways very human.

It is the affirmation of our biased ideas that pulls us from the human “innocence” of bias over to the guilt of full blown prejudice. Prejudice: ascribing to the negative stereotypes associated with a person or group, is very much a conscious act. But are we now in the business of villifying people for what happens in their unconscious? Even after they recognize it and commit to being more mindful?

The Face of Leadership

Tony Robbins, for a long time has been a reference point in Own the Room’s presentation skills methodology. In a brief anecdote coaches are encouraged to describe his ability to draw out concrete feedback by demanding it from others. The style of firstly asking for what went well and secondly demanding ways to improve is invaluable as you own and recognize your strengths, while making small incremental changes to improve. Tony’s “me too” comment became a quick discussion point amongst the Own the Room community.

There was fear that by referencing Tony we affiliate ourselves with his statements, or in some way condone the behavior in the clip. Underlying that there was also quite a bit of shaming Tony, “I was never a fan . . . it’s about time we moved on. . . etc. ” The edict to the coaching staff: Don’t talk about what Tony did or said. In fact don’t reference Tony at all. Find a new anecdote and move on.

you can’t solve a problem if no one will acknowledge that there is one

But in every presentation skills training there are questions about whether men get more deference around the conference room table. Do men get to use more filler words and get away with it? As a woman, person of color, more junior person, being of small stature, how can I still have presence and impact as a communicator? These are real questions, from real people working in corporate America, and Tony’s snafu is the perfect case study to discuss them.

The Challenge

I challenged my fellow coaches to consider if we should fault every leader for every instance of bias. Does it make sense to discredit someone’s life work based on one opinion statement or idea? I raised examples like the Clintons, whose political policies have disproportionately damaged members of Black and brown communities. I also referenced Ghandi (commonly reference for his quote to be the change you want to see in the world) was a raving segregation supporter and outright racist. What about Mother Teresa, whose own history and later canonization is hotly debated as she was a figurehead for colonialism, and the white savior complex that we constantly see replicated in non for profit organizations in the US and the world over.

A group of people pray before a statue of Gandhi, illustrating the bias we have towards people of color's prejudices and biases as described by career coach, Marie Deveaux.

All of these people, are leaders in their own right, but they also have extremely flawed ideologies that often put them on the wrong side of history. At least with Tony, he owns what he doesn’t know, and apologizes for it. Have we ever seen that kind of acknowledgement from Ghandi, the Clintons, the Catholic Church? But with the response Tony received, will any other white cisgendered man ever want to admit to his own biases? Will he speak his mind? Why do we not shun Ghandi in the same way we do Tony Robbins? Perhaps we are biased in how we attribute fault in these dicussions in the first place.

Shh, It’s The White Guy’s Fault

Teaching bias with this month, I noticed some things. As in any training environment, the goal is to make a safe space. In order for learning to happen, and eventually, for behaviors to change, you must feel you can contribute your thoughts and ideas without being attacked or judged. No one feels safe when they feel attacked or accused of being the troublemaker. In the world of bias, prejudice, racial profiling and ongoing colonialism, the scapegoat card often lands in the lap of the white guy.

Q. How do we then make a conversation “safe”?

A. We steer clear of the glaring problems of race, gender, sexuality, and focus on lower stakes examples. This opens people’s minds to the concepts and ideas. Example: We talk about the judgements you make about people who don’t hold the door for you, who smoke in public. We discuss our feelings about the couple who brings their baby to the bar. If we can get comfy there maybe we touch on maternity leave in the workplace, or education requirements for jobs. And somewhere down the line address the heavy hitting issues. But we can’t start there if we want people to be honest.

What you say and who you say it to, matters. A lot.

When the white cis male is not on the chopping block, he is more open to accept that maybe, he is biased and should check his judgement with others. This type of learning environment is great for the white cis male who is starting to consider altering his behaviors (that’s a win for everyone). But what about all of the candid conversations that are not happening? The ones that address the experience of every other marginalized group in the room? And so even in how we discuss these ideas, we bring our biases to the table. And that is the nuance of communication. There is a time, a place, a way to say it, and the right person to say it to — for everything.

What You Say and What They Hear Are Not The Same

Communication is nuanced because people are. When Tony Robbins says he cannot support victimhood, are we taking into account his prior experience in the context of his statements? He works in transformative coaching. If you have ever come across a Landmark Forum graduate, someone who has attended a large scale coaching event, or anyone at all versed in ontological coaching you will notice some things. In extreme summation:

  1. Words are powerful and able to change your experience of the world
  2. You are 100% accountable for how you experience your life. This provides you agency at all times
  3. Assuming the role of victim is the opposite of holding yourself accountable for your life experience
  4. You decide who you want to be moment to moment

When Tony Robbins says “if you use the ‘me too’ movement to make yourself feel significant. . .” he is specifically referencing these ideas about how you view your agency and authority over your own life. There’s a giving up of personal power when we take on the moniker of “victim”. From that perspective we can understand what Tony may have been implying with his comments. Maybe. That’s some context.

But communication is two ways. We don’t speak our context. It’s implied. What the people in the area heard, and what most of the Twitterverse heard was a white cis man not wanting to take responsibility for the harm his bias and position of privilege has on others. Both hearings are subjective. But the responsibility of delivering the message isn’t on the listener.

As a speaker it is our job to make sure how we communicate is resonating for the listener in a way they can access and understand. And when a huge white cis male says victimhood is a way to throw yourself a pity party, and turn someone else into the bad guy, no one is hearing that from him. Who he is, the package the message is presented in is also context. Just like it is for everyone else.

When You’re Wrong, Own It

Leaders are sometimes wrong. I would argue, are often wrong. The good ones admit it, learn from it and change their behaviors. It’s what I would hope for every participant in every workshop I facilitate.

Screenshot of Tarana Burke's tweet in response to Tony Robbins negative comments about the 'me too' movement is overlayed atop the two figures profile pictures. Marie Devaux, career coach for women and minorities discusses the nuance of bias through the interaction in Spring 2018.

The clapback to Tony’s comments were swift and severe. Tarana Burke, even commented on the scenario. The result?: Tony apologized. It’s rumored that following the event he asked his team directly for feedback. This full apology was issued on Twitter and it is the gold standard for how leaders own their mistakes.


Thoughts, Words and Deeds

Ton’y apology is palatable because he made no excuses for his actions or his comments. He took a stance of 100% accountability for doing better. He is demonstratively mindful of how his actions and words impact others, and acknowledges he has more in common with the #MeToo movement than he first presumed. If only every white cis man who left a bias training had this same epiphany. You can’t solve a problem if no one in the room can admit there is one. And if we continue to point fingers at people because of their ideas, than the work we are undertaking to make the world more inclusive, can only serve to further divide us.

No one wins when we crucify each other for our thoughts. Have your thoughts, and check your words and actions. We can all learn more and do more when we feel safe enough to say what’s actually on our minds. When we create a world where people are afraid to have a conversation, then we have truly lost the forest for the trees. If we can be brave enough to be real for a moment, we can all work to change our thinking, conscious or not.

What do you think? Is the public shaming and shunning of others helpful to the D&I conversation or problematic? How do you address these encounters in your life and work?


Apply now for Facilitator Certification: Cohort 3 starts in 2024