Black and white photo of a Black Lives Matter Protest

Abandoning Our Pearls

My mother is a tough New Yorker, but she is also driven by quintessential southern values. 

Born in South Carolina in the early 1940s, she endured some of the harsher realities of growing up Black and poor in that place and at that time. At age 8, without complaint, she took to raising her siblings due to my grandmother’s long and debilitating illnesses. At her young age, it was my mother’s responsibility to complete a grown-woman sized list of house and farm-work chores all before a full day of school. 

Image of South Carolina sign

A school day which typically began and ended with a ride on a rickety yellow school bus.  The bus usually dusty inside and out, from the dirt it kicked-up as it lumbered down the nearly two-miles of still-unpaved-to-this-day dirt road that led from my grandparents’ porch to the small schoolhouse where she attended classes and then back again. She and her brothers and sisters definitely in grew up “country.”

But in her junior year of high-school my mother was invited to go visit some “fancy” cousins up north in Harrisburg, P.A.  These were cousins, by the way, who were fancy enough to own a radio and an ironing board. Enamored by all aspects of her first trip out of the south, by the time that she was 17 and ready to graduate high-school, my mother – having tasted just a pinch of a more cosmopolitan lifestyle – had begun to dream of the big city.  

So, in the late 1950s, she became one in the number of the “Great Migration” where she, (like thousands of other young Black men and women – – my Dad included), came out of the south at that time setting her sights north in hopes of economic opportunity and a chance to send money back home to “Mama and dem.”

Family photo

My Mom is petite in stature and quite delicate in her comportment.  She is insanely disciplined and inclined towards all things lovely.  To this very day where she might be smaller in size, she is a giant in the dexterities of etiquette and modesty.  Her mantras? “Be a lady if it kills you,” … “always speak well,” … “cross your legs at your ankles,” … “girl, add some pearls to that dress,” … “and while you’re at it, put on a girdle,” and “always, at all costs, and at all times, be pleasant.” 

Growing up in our household in the Bronx, decorum was craft-work.  Behaving and treating others with grace was not only required reading, but also a requirement for the sustainment of your life here on earth.  Because trust, my refined Mama, in all her well-practiced appropriateness, has NEVER been above threatening to “slap your teeth down your throat,” or “slapping the taste out our mouth” or even “knocking you clear into next week” if we were to step out of good form even once.  And my bad, please allow me to correct myself for my mother never threatened us — she only made promises.

As such, this extraordinarily strict indoctrination in the ways of tact and gentility has profoundly influenced my corporate training style and my approach to coaching through conversation facilitation.  Participants who have attended both my large and small group sessions have heard me copiously use the phrase and implement behaviors that support my ethos: “giving space for grace.”

The importance of diversity conversations

I believe in, I practice, and I coach leaders in the important skill of listening-for-understanding and I earnestly use this tool in every development conversation that I lead.  Balance and measure in learning conversations are a matter of necessity and not of choice.

Also, I am fanatically aware of the need to create psychologically safe spaces for the exchange of dialogue around any topic that defines how we relate to one another in the workplace.   How much more so then, when leading conversations around difference, inclusion – – and especially race.

In recent years, however, I’ve found myself in quite the conundrum.  Prior to the days where I was solely responsible for my own learning content, it had been my experience that instructional designers appeared far more comfortable creating content that encouraged restrained conversations about difference, inclusion and race.

Coworkers arging in office

On several occasions, I pleaded with frustration, to push the envelope in my attempt to convince those well-versed in training design that the need for elevated conversations about race in the American workplace was not only required, but imperative.  In retort I was often met with, “well Gigi our audiences aren’t ready for that kind of openness…” or “I’m not sure we have the social contract with these clients to say those words, or to focus on ‘just racism’” or “Gi, I don’t think that’s what they need.

While wholly dismayed by these responses, I was far more alarmed (and said so in an earlier blog rant posted two years ago, that you can read here) – – by our reticence to be more bold at work when it came to talking about race.  It had become apparent that even in the most respectable of places like workplace training conference rooms, the need to say the hard things about race and race relations at work was upon us. 

The exigent demand to give label, definition and voice to the painful experiences that are the by-product of institutional racism in the workplace had long been overdue. I had been screeching that the time for leveraging conversations at work where we could have real discourse and describe without timidity the BIPOC experience in this country was clear – – and that the consequences of our misguided snub of the moment could be dire.

Now is the time for change

Black Lives Matter protest image

Alas, it is July of 2020, and here.we.are.

Now, while my predilection for all things petty is not above saying out loud that I told you so, I hope that you will believe that this is not that.  What this is, however, is a call for our repentance.  

We have got to get good at talking about the things that make us feel so bad.  

We must become hyper-vigilant, (insistent even), about continuing to elevate the conversations of difference + race in a way that we have gotten away from.  In recent decades, I dare say since the Jim Crow & Civil Rights eras, we’ve been much too politically correct and far too “buttoned-up and polite.” We’ve spent far too much time clutching our pearls and keeping our mouths closed.

It’s time for us to set opulent tables of deeper understanding – – encouraging greater empathy and a more meaningful comprehension and discernment of the Black experience, (an experience still CLEARLY rife and characterized by oppression by the way), in this here “otherwise independent” America.

Civil rights march on Washington D.C.

And speaking of independence, as I pondered on the founding fathers of this nation this past weekend, my July 4th “holiday celebration” (holiday and celebration in big quotes) consisted of watching Hamilton on Disney Plus and included a fresh listen and an in-depth re-study of Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is Fourth of July” speech.  In this very speech, Mr. Douglass shares that “with brave men there is always a remedy for oppression.

In the workplace, at the right times and with the right moderators, we must commit ourselves to the deep, meaningful, outcome-producing conversations around how systemic racism and exclusion shows up in workplace – – and how we all feel about it.  The point of having these discussions is to create deeper wells of understanding… so that behavior can change.
Because here’s a gem:  we won’t ever change what we don’t understand.  Like, ever.

I believe that this bravery, this measure of courage, is us (meaning: the collective we) running head-long into these very hard, very uncomfortable conversations; asking hard questions; hearing hard answers and making these exchanges – – not episodic – – but rather a normative part of the way we engage with one another for time remaining.

Again, even at work, let’s abandon our usual guardrails of decorum and begin to speak plainly …

so that we learn more…

so that we can understand more…

so that more things can change.

And even my Mama would approve of that.

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Gigi Gilliard

DEI&B Facilitator

Also known as a Conversation Architect, Gigi has established over a decade of knowledge and expertise in the field of diversity and inclusion as a writer, speaker, and thought leader.

Close of Business
Social Media
Black and white photo of a Black Lives Matter Protest

Abandoning Our Pearls

My mother is a tough New Yorker, but she is also driven by quintessential southern values. 

Born in South Carolina in the early 1940s, she endured some of the harsher realities of growing up Black and poor in that place and at that time.

At age 8, without complaint, she took to raising her siblings due to my grandmother’s long and debilitating illnesses.

At her young age, it was my mother’s responsibility to complete a grown-woman sized list of house and farm-work chores all before a full day of school.

Image of South Carolina sign

A school day which typically began and ended with a ride on a rickety yellow school bus.  The bus usually dusty inside and out, from the dirt it kicked-up as it lumbered down the nearly two-miles of still-unpaved-to-this-day dirt road that led from my grandparents’ porch to the small schoolhouse where she attended classes and then back again. She and her brothers and sisters definitely in grew up “country.”

But in her junior year of high-school my mother was invited to go visit some “fancy” cousins up north in Harrisburg, P.A.  These were cousins, by the way, who were fancy enough to own a radio and an ironing board.

Enamored by all aspects of her first trip out of the south, by the time that she was 17 and ready to graduate high-school, my mother – having tasted just a pinch of a more cosmopolitan lifestyle – had begun to dream of the big city.  

So, in the late 1950s, she became one in the number of the “Great Migration” where she, (like thousands of other young Black men and women – – my Dad included), came out of the south at that time setting her sights north in hopes of economic opportunity and a chance to send money back home to “Mama and dem.”

Family photo

My Mom is petite in stature and quite delicate in her comportment. She is insanely disciplined and inclined towards all things lovely. To this very day where she might be smaller in size, she is a giant in the dexterities of etiquette and modesty. 

Her mantras? “Be a lady if it kills you,” … “always speak well,” … “cross your legs at your ankles,” … “girl, add some pearls to that dress,” … “and while you’re at it, put on a girdle,” and “always, at all costs, and at all times, be pleasant.” 

Growing up in our household in the Bronx, decorum was craft-work. Behaving and treating others with grace was not only required reading, but also a requirement for the sustainment of your life here on earth. 

Because trust, my refined Mama, in all her well-practiced appropriateness, has NEVER been above threatening to “slap your teeth down your throat,” or “slapping the taste out our mouth” or even “knocking you clear into next week” if we were to step out of good form even once.  And my bad, please allow me to correct myself for my mother never threatened us — she only made promises.

As such, this extraordinarily strict indoctrination in the ways of tact and gentility has profoundly influenced my corporate training style and my approach to coaching through conversation facilitation. 

Participants who have attended both my large and small group sessions have heard me copiously use the phrase and implement behaviors that support my ethos: “giving space for grace.”

The importance of diversity conversations

I believe in, I practice, and I coach leaders in the important skill of listening-for-understanding and I earnestly use this tool in every development conversation that I lead.  Balance and measure in learning conversations are a matter of necessity and not of choice.

Also, I am fanatically aware of the need to create psychologically safe spaces for the exchange of dialogue around any topic that defines how we relate to one another in the workplace.   How much more so then, when leading conversations around difference, inclusion – – and especially race.

In recent years, however, I’ve found myself in quite the conundrum.  Prior to the days where I was solely responsible for my own learning content, it had been my experience that instructional designers appeared far more comfortable creating content that encouraged restrained conversations about difference, inclusion and race.

Coworkers arging in office

On several occasions, I pleaded with frustration, to push the envelope in my attempt to convince those well-versed in training design that the need for elevated conversations about race in the American workplace was not only required, but imperative

In retort I was often met with, “well Gigi our audiences aren’t ready for that kind of openness…” or “I’m not sure we have the social contract with these clients to say those words, or to focus on ‘just racism’” or “Gi, I don’t think that’s what they need.

While wholly dismayed by these responses, I was far more alarmed (and said so in an earlier blog rant posted two years ago, that you can read here) – – by our reticence to be more bold at work when it came to talking about race. 

It had become apparent that even in the most respectable of places like workplace training conference rooms, the need to say the hard things about race and race relations at work was upon us. 

The exigent demand to give label, definition and voice to the painful experiences that are the by-product of institutional racism in the workplace had long been overdue.

I had been screeching that the time for leveraging conversations at work where we could have real discourse and describe without timidity the BIPOC experience in this country was clear – – and that the consequences of our misguided snub of the moment could be dire.

Now is the time for change

Black Lives Matter protest image

Alas, it is July of 2020, and here.we.are.

Now, while my predilection for all things petty is not above saying out loud that I told you so, I hope that you will believe that this is not that.  What this is, however, is a call for our repentance.  

We have got to get good at talking about the things that make us feel so bad.  

We must become hyper-vigilant, (insistent even), about continuing to elevate the conversations of difference + race in a way that we have gotten away from. 

In recent decades, I dare say since the Jim Crow & Civil Rights eras, we’ve been much too politically correct and far too “buttoned-up and polite.” We’ve spent far too much time clutching our pearls and keeping our mouths closed.

It’s time for us to set opulent tables of deeper understanding – – encouraging greater empathy and a more meaningful comprehension and discernment of the Black experience, (an experience still CLEARLY rife and characterized by oppression by the way), in this here “otherwise independent” America.

Civil rights march on Washington D.C.

And speaking of independence, as I pondered on the founding fathers of this nation this past weekend, my July 4th “holiday celebration” (holiday and celebration in big quotes) consisted of watching Hamilton on Disney Plus and included a fresh listen and an in-depth re-study of Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is Fourth of July” speech. 

In this very speech, Mr. Douglass shares that “with brave men there is always a remedy for oppression.

In the workplace, at the right times and with the right moderators, we must commit ourselves to the deep, meaningful, outcome-producing conversations around how systemic racism and exclusion shows up in workplace – – and how we all feel about it. 

The point of having these discussions is to create deeper wells of understanding… so that behavior can change.
Because here’s a gem:  we won’t ever change what we don’t understand.  Like, ever.

I believe that this bravery, this measure of courage, is us (meaning: the collective we) running head-long into these very hard, very uncomfortable conversations; asking hard questions; hearing hard answers and making these exchanges – – not episodic – – but rather a normative part of the way we engage with one another for time remaining.

Again, even at work, let’s abandon our usual guardrails of decorum and begin to speak plainly …

so that we learn more…

so that we can understand more…

so that more things can change.

And even my Mama would approve of that.

Signature
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on email
Share on pinterest
Black and white image of Gigi

Gigi Gilliard

DEI&B Facilitator

Also known as a Conversation Architect, Gigi has established over a decade of knowledge and expertise in the field of diversity and inclusion as a writer, speaker, and thought leader.

Close of Business
Social Media