Racism is something you learn over time through your family, your culture, and your environment.
Growing up in Kentucky in the 1960s, I witnessed racism in a variety of ways. However, I never thought of those actions as racist—because they were so commonplace in the community, culture, and environment. The reality of it is that—as hard and shameful as it is to admit—at one point in my life, I was a racist.
In 1984, I recognized my thoughts and attitudes had begun to change. As the general manager of a pizza restaurant, two customers called me over to their booth and said “It’s nice to have a white general manager for a change.” I was stunned.
By 1997, my opinions, attitudes, and mindset had totally changed. In a conversation with my father about the hiring of Toby Smith, an African-American, to be the new head coach of basketball at the University of Kentucky, he said a Black man could never be a head coach. He was wrong.
That was also the year I started improv, and as I recognized that improv was a leadership philosophy and way of life, my awareness, attitudes, and beliefs changed even more dramatically. The improv concept of “Yes, and” teaches us to suspend our judgment, park our ego, listen to understand, and to be empathetic. It is not about pushing forward a belief just because it’s the way things have always been done.
Being silent and not enacting positive change is not the way to create change. There are too many leaders who think they are leaders when they are not. As Simon Sinek once said, “Leadership has nothing to do with your title. Leadership is the positive effect you have on another person.” To enact positive change and the elimination of systemic injustice and racism, white people need to quit talking and start listening. We need to hear the conversation for what it is, take the improviser’s mindset to search for a solution instead of creating a divide for our own self-interests.