Opinion: Let’s have an uncomfortable conversation

“Among all of the spaces where conversations on race can happen, professional, global development contexts are perhaps the safest,” writes Paul Weisenfeld. Photo by: August de Richelieu from Pexels

Last year, I sat next to another African American at a board meeting and he leaned over and quietly joked, “Is it OK for the two Black guys to sit together?” I chuckled, but thought about the numerous times I have experienced this. It reminded me that conversations about race in professional settings are frequently whispered.

The following week I told this incident to a white colleague who seemed shocked and asked how often Black professionals engage in such dialogue. “All the time,” I responded, “but not in front of white people.”

We are now in the midst of a broad national — and international — conversation about race, sparked by George Floyd’s death. The body of thoughtful writing about racial justice that’s getting broad exposure in the media is stunning.

Organizations working in global development are issuing statements about their commitment to racial equity and hosting internal racial reckoning sessions. In my own organization, people are having conversations about their personal experiences with discrimination they never imagined possible a short while ago.

These conversations are tough, and often leave participants unsatisfied, and the most awkward issues unsaid. Why is having a personal dialogue about a topic central to our history and culture so difficult? Can we truly overcome it if we can’t really talk?

Let’s … be at the forefront of change, modeling uncomfortable conversations that lead to racial justice and diversity within our own organizations and in society.

Let me suggest six factors we must address honestly and directly if we are to continue forging a country united by values rather than separated by tribe and, thereby, be able to present an authentic, unified United States in our international work.

1. Fear of affirmative action. As a Black professional, I sometimes fear that talking about race might divert attention from the merits of my achievements and draw it to my status as a person of color. Will white colleagues think my accomplishments are due to affirmative action and, thereby, unfairly achieved?

When I was serving as the U.S. Agency for International Development mission director in Peru in the late 2000s, I recall counseling a white junior officer about his career. He said he didn’t anticipate rising to my level because he’d observed that senior positions “tended to be reserved for minorities and women.”

That wasn’t the first time I’d heard a colleague fret about affirmative action having a negative impact on their career or implying someone had achieved success unjustly. He seemed incredulous when I replied I was the first African-American director in South America in the agency’s history, or that probably the vast majority of directors worldwide at the time were men. It is difficult to understand how being a person of color can be considered an advantage when so few of us occupy senior positions.

2. Slavery is shameful. The topic of race in the Americas and Europe evokes images of slavery, with all its horrors. It is difficult and shameful for people of good will to accept that one people enslaved another on the basis of color. That the ancestors of some of our fellow citizens were enriched from owning and trading slaves further complicates dialogue.

3. Can’t we move on? Related to this, some people feel that slavery, which ended over 150 years ago, is no longer relevant today. After all, Barack Obama was elected as U.S. president. This is more than a point about the passage of time. It’s saying that race long dominated social dialogue in the U.S. and resulted in historic changes. The thought is: “Haven’t we solved this?”

Progress and dialogue are ongoing and can be reversed if we don’t continue to share our experiences. The recent spate of murders of Black Americans demonstrates painfully that we haven’t addressed racial inequities in America. The fact that Black Americans are subjected to unequal treatment even when engaging in routine activities shows we aren’t ready to move on. And the dearth of diversity among international development professionals, which presents an inaccurate face of America, is long overdue to be addressed.

4. The paradox of privilege. Most successful people believe their achievements result from hard work, great grades, and interesting extracurricular activities. Many don’t realize that access to good schools and activities is a privilege based on where one was raised, and that the best predictor of success and good health is one’s zip code. The U.S. remains almost as racially segregated today as it was in the 1960s, which perpetuates the racial underclass.

My father used the GI Bill to obtain a low-cost mortgage, moving us into the middle class — a socioeconomic jump for both sides of my family. Because many banks in the U.S. at that time refused loans to Blacks, this privilege may not have been available if my Black mother had not married my white father — with long-term negative repercussions for my family’s status and wealth.

Because these conversations are tough, we need to accept that we will sometimes say the wrong thing, but not let that paralyze us.

When we talk about Black underprivilege, it implies the existence of white privilege and can be viewed as questioning the legitimacy of what white professionals have achieved.

5. Avoiding the awkward. It is natural that people don’t want to make others uncomfortable. Black people know that talking about race in professional settings makes their white colleagues feel awkward, and white colleagues worry these conversations are minefields to avoid.

Years ago, when a Jewish colleague learned that my father was Jewish, he remarked it must be why I’m so smart. He probably intended it as a compliment and a validation of his own heritage. When I insisted that my mother was also smart, he started stammering and the conversation became so awkward that we let it drop.

6. Embrace the discomfort. A common experience for me, both as a senior USAID official and now executive in a NGO, is entering a meeting with a white colleague who is there to support me and have the other attendees immediately assume that my white colleague is the boss, not I. I know other Black colleagues have endured similar painful experiences of feeling they didn’t belong. Like the others, I accept this uncomfortable reality but continue moving forward.

We need to do the same and talk openly about race for our collective health and unity. Notions of privilege and merit, our persistent racial underclass, and the legacy of our nation’s history of race must be addressed and debated head-on, despite the discomfort, starting in our workplaces. Among all of the spaces where conversations on race can happen, professional, global development contexts are perhaps the safest.

Because these conversations are tough, we need to accept that we will sometimes say the wrong thing, but not let that paralyze us.

We are drawn to international development because of our passion to address human challenges. Let’s use this passion to be at the forefront of change, modeling uncomfortable conversations that lead to racial justice and diversity within our own organizations and in society.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Paul Weisenfeld

    Paul Weisenfeld is executive vice president for international development at RTI International. He leads RTI’s international development practice, which designs and implements programs across a wide range of sectors to help lower- and middle-income countries and communities address complex problems and improve the lives of their citizens.