Yesterday, in a post about culture on an Air Force Facebook group, I watched a black Airman share that he struggled to feel comfortable around certain white leaders, that he felt more comfortable around black leaders, and that this obviously had negative implications for unit cohesion. He shared that these feelings were grounded in past experiences of racism, including hearing his leadership use racist slurs.
In response to his candid share, I watched an Air Force CMSgt (E9) pepper this Airman with questions, in a sort of aggressive, socratic barrage that anybody would be worn down by. The tone was obvious – the Chief didn’t believe that anti-black racism was a worthwhile issue to highlight. The questions suggested, directly and indirectly at times, that the Airman was the problem, his upbringing was the problem, it was on him to report violations, and repeatedly cast doubt on his lived experience. The Airman had left the Facebook group by the time I got to this thread. This Chief had chased him off, wielding feigned objectivity like a weapon — using “both sides” rhetoric as a tactic to suppress and silence the lived experience of this Airman.
I was honest with this chief about his failings here. I suggested he had a great deal to learn about leadership based on how he had handled that conversation. I suggested he might not be equipped to be an authority on the subject of the black experience in the Air Force or America. I chose not to mention that his obvious agenda here was to dismantle any credibility to the idea that white privilege or anti-black racism exists. I said “Here’s an easy rule of thumb: the ideal approach doesn’t chase people off, but invites them in.”
The exchange, and thinking about the experience of that Airman… weighed heavily on me last night and today. Someone also responded to my recent video in which I mentioned the evil of white-supremacy with the suggestion that I was alienating white people by not also decrying “black supremacy” and “latino supremacy”. I tried to shut that down, and felt more tired and sad.
Today, the Chief on Facebook responded to me defensively. His reply was lengthy, and mostly consisted of him telling stories about “anti-white racism” that he had seen and personally experienced.
I replied to him again today. I pointed out his failure to act with empathy and pay attention to how his words might be received (though I suspect his tactics were intentional).
I closed with the following comments:
“One of my favorite ideas from Kim Malone Scott’s book Radical Candor goes something like this:
Feedback is measured not at your mouth, but at the other person’s ear.
I tried to share with you a little bit about the impact that your “objective” approach might have had with your audience there… and your primary response is to say that white people, but particularly you… are the victims here.
Please please please consider letting other people tell you what your words mean to them.. because that matters so much more than being “right”.
Chief Master Sergeant Todd Simmons was the first person I ever heard say it:
Would you rather be right or relevant?”
I am tired, and sad. But we have miles to go…