In Episode 73, Y-Vonne Hutchinson, CEO & Founder at ReadySet and author of How to Talk to Your Boss About Race, joins us to discuss how our labor history has informed the racism and microaggressions we observe in our workplaces today, how we can create change through difficult but important conversations, and how we can rethink the role of power as we discuss these issues with our bosses.
- Learn more about Y-Vonne Hutchinson’s work at ReadySet.
- Read Y-Vonne Hutchinson’s book How to Talk to Your Boss About Race.
- Discover helpful DEI resources on the ReadySet blog.
- Find out more about Martin Luther King and Malcom X’s work.
This videocast is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now. Learn more about our show sponsor Interpreter-Now at www.interpreter-now.com.
- “The greatest trick that civil rights era-politicians pooled, particularly during periods of African colonialism, is differentiating civil rights from human rights. In reality, those struggles are not that different.”
- “…If you’re having a good-faith conversation and you’re going in there with your facts, and you are really trying to share your own experience, model that growth, and connect with someone and also giving them something to do. I always say give somebody something small, tangible to start out with. You know what I mean? Give them something to do. This is a lesson from the civil rights movements. Give those parents a pen and paper and have them write a letter to their son. You know what I mean?”
- “Before you have a conversation with anybody else, think about your social identities, your race, your gender, your age, your ability, your physical disability status. Think about your sexuality, your socioeconomic and class status—all those things and how they impact how you may show up in the room. What you see, but much more importantly, what you don’t see, and what struggles you center, right. Think about that. If you’re coming to this work as an ally, always be mindful that the work is going to be learning, listening, and decentering yourself. But it’s trickier than just that because there’s a time when we need allies to take initiative and I don’t think we often enough acknowledge that tightrope between listening and learning and then being ready to do a thing.”
- “In my book, I encourage the reader to move away from thinking about power as a binary….First of all, such a disempowered way to start from. I think we’ve kind of been taught to think this way, think of power as a binary. You either have it, or you don’t. It’s mysterious. If you don’t have it, you’re not always quite sure how to get it. There’s a sort of taboo about people who care about it too much. If you have it, you know how to leverage it flawlessly and you never lose it, right? That’s kind of how we conceptualize power as a static binary. And it’s not those things, right.”
- “If you’re talking to your boss about racism and their racist behavior as a Black or Brown person, you are much more likely to experience backlash and not receive protection when that happens, so just be really mindful if you do that.”
CEO & Founder at ReadySet, Author of How to Talk to Your Boss About Race
Y-Vonne is the author of How to Talk to Your Boss About Race and CEO of ReadySet, a diversity and inclusion training firm that helps tech giants, political leaders, media outlets, and Fortune 500 companies speak more productively about racism and turn talk into action. To date, ReadySet has worked with hundreds of companies around the world to build, manage, and grow diverse teams. In a former life, prior to founding ReadySet, Y-Vonne worked as an international labor and human rights lawyer for nearly a decade.
MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship, where we have deep real conversations to build empathy for one another and to take action to be more inclusive and to lead the change in our workplaces and communities.
I’m Melinda Briana Epler, founder and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How To Be An Ally. I’m a diversity, equity, and inclusion speaker, advocate, and advisor. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc.
All right. Let’s dive in.
MELINDA: Hello, everyone. I am Melinda Briana Epler, the founder and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How To Be An Ally.
Today I’m talking with Y-Vonne Hutchinson, CEO, and founder at ReadySet and author of How To Talk To Your Boss About Race.
In today’s episode, we’ll be discussing how to talk to your boss about race, the types of conversations we should be having, how we can prepare for them to be successful, and what our ultimate goal is for having these conversations that are sometimes uncomfortable but extremely important.
So hello, Y-Vonne, my friend. How are you?
Y-VONNE: Hi! Good. How are you doing?
MELINDA: Good. Good. I was thinking back to the time we first met, which I think was like early 2015.
Y-VONNE: Yeah, it was. So much has changed since then.
MELINDA: No kidding. I believe you introduced yourself to me as an international labor and human rights lawyer.
MELINDA: Yeah. Why don’t we start there? Why don’t we start with your story? Where did you grow up, and how did you end up doing the work you do now, which is quite different?
Y-VONNE: Yeah. So, I grew up in Texas. I’m a Texas girl at heart. I’m actually talking to you from Austin right now while I’m heading back to California soon. Yeah, I grew up in Texas, came from a military family. I started my life thinking I was actually going to be an actress. And so, I did that work. I was an actress, like a child actress, for about ten years.
I don’t talk about this very often, but when I was still very young, I had gotten an acting degree from Carnegie Mellon. I kind of looked at my career and my possibilities, and I just couldn’t do it as a Black actress coming out of school in 2003 and so, dating myself there. The landscape of opportunities is very different than it is now.
There’s nothing wrong with playing a sassy Black best friend. There are people who have taken that role and broken it wide open and made beautiful things from it. But for me, I’ve sort of looked at that being my career, a career of stereotype, and said, I can’t do this, especially as a dark-skinned Black woman. Just back then, there were just no opportunities. The opportunities for us to be fully represented were incredibly limited. More limited than they are obviously today. We still have a long way to go.
I decided to go to law school because also, at the same time, in my young, naive adulthood, I remember I took a class on negotiations because I’ve always kind of been interested in that work. And I remember it was there that we started studying genocide. It really struck me as a sheltered person from Texas who had kind of been taught that the world worked in a certain way and there was a certain amount of justice in the world. And, you know, certain things didn’t happen anymore.
We learned about particularly the World War I genocide. I don’t know how much you know about that genocide, but it’s incredibly gruesome, and the conduct of the international community during that time was just horrible. It’s a horrible failure of international protection. It was horrifically violent and traumatic for the individuals who were involved in it. It kind of just opened my eyes to the sort of injustices that people face every day. And in some ways, I think I was more primed to recognize injustice for others than I was for myself. I talked about this in my book, carrying around a lot of the sort of narratives related to my identity, really trying to perform my way out of racism, be too professional to be a victim. And so, for me, in some ways, that work was a justice work that didn’t provoke me to confront aspects of my own identity, or at least I didn’t think that. I learned later that, of course, it would.
So, I went to law school. Long story short, I went to law school, studied international human rights law, and graduated and right away. I was in the field. I started working in Afghanistan doing capacity development for the government there. I went on to work in Burma on the border of Thailand and also worked at a counterterrorism think tank in Brussels. And then kind of transition towards international labor law. And the last assignment I worked with was with sugar cane workers who were dying of occupational disease.
What sort of struck me there was just when I came out of school, I wanted to go to a place where I thought people were experiencing the most harm in order to help people get justice for the harm experienced. I was never the kind of lawyer, probably because I was Black. It isn’t always in the back of my mind that like, right away, I wanted to center myself and be someone’s savior. I think subconsciously, I knew that that wasn’t right. But even so, I kind of had these ideas of where violence and oppression took place. It took place in exceptional circumstances that were very extreme.
The longer my career went on, and particularly in Nicaragua, what I saw was a sort of the scale and the intensity of everyday violence. And in this particular situation, it was sort of the structural and labor violence that was impacting the sugarcane workers there, who were just dying at an extraordinarily high rate of occupational disease. In this case, it was chronic kidney disease of unknown ideology. That’s what we call them at the time. I’m sure it since been renamed, but in essence, people’s kidneys were failing mysteriously, you know, who worked in the sugarcane fields. They were dying at quite an alarming rate.
What I saw then was their children would go into the sugarcane fields. Whereas their parents are getting sick in their 30s and 40s, the kids would get sick in their teens and 20s. And then, they would leave behind these babies. So, you have this kind of generational violence that was happening and being driven in large part by changes in the way that we work, the global economic demand, labor conditions, all this stuff that was at war, all the stuff that wasn’t exceptional, all the stuff that was sort of thought of as an acceptable cost. In the case of sugar, for us to get our sugar and for us to get our rum. Right? Those human lives were worth it.
And so, it really sort of made me think about the violence that we experience at work all the time and the workplace as a place of opportunity, but also a place of harm. That was my professional story. At the same time, I was working in a very toxic organization, and awakening to the role that identity was playing, have started to play, continue to play in my career. I was now in a community with other Black people who had very similar stories. I was starting to see that it was not strange that someone accused me of plagiarism in my first job. It wasn’t weird that people kept commenting on my hair. The lack of mentorship and feedback I received was actually part of a broader pattern. This is happening. And then, the racial consciousness that I have become awakened by the violence that we were seeing with Black and Brown Americans.
All of this sort of resulted in me coming back here and saying, “I want to do work for my people in the way that I know how.” At that time, I knew labor. I knew the workplace. I’d also been an executive. It was just a sort of weird mishmash of puzzle pieces that worked. I knew the future of work. I had published on the future of work and done academic research on the side.
I just started thinking this is the work I want to do. And it like really became apparent to me very quickly that all of these issues, the issues of civil rights, economic empowerment, future of work, like when it came to where we were headed as a country, and this is back in 2015, it just became so clear to me that the issue of our time, the issue that has continued to be the issue is the issue of DEI.
In many ways, that feels like a very watered-down way to say issues of justice, identity, oppression, marginalization, access to opportunity, impact, the impact on organizations that we’re working with, but all of these things. To me, they were future work issues. That’s how I described it at the time in 2015. That was before the election of Trump. That was before the Me-Too Movement. It was before the Black Lives Matter resurgence in 2020. It was before the sort of radicalization and misinformation campaigns that we see today. I think all of those sorts of tie into questions of identity and voice and power as exercised and amplified through corporate mechanisms.
That was kind of my path to the DEI space. I still really try to bring that lens, really fighting against siloing the way we think about DEI because now I think about it as we’re future-proofing organizations.
If the US is going to be majority/minority, we’re more diverse than we’ve ever been before. If we’re also more unequal than we’ve ever been before, if we have the sort of radical terrorist movements driven by White nationalism, if we have an increase in ethnic violence, if we’re seeing antisemitism on the rise, all of these issues. I’m just talking about racial issues. We haven’t even gotten to the issues that affect parents, remote work, what are we going to do with the increase in disabled workers that we have as a result of long COVID, the mental impacts, mental health trauma that we’ve all experienced as a result of this pandemic. All of these issues are people issues, DEI issues, future work issues. And so, you know, that’s, that’s how I’m thinking about it right now.
MELINDA: There was so much in that.
Y-VONNE: I went off with what I had to say.
MELINDA: No, it’s fantastic. It’s fantastic. It made me think about kind of my own entry into this work. I also kind of saw it as something that didn’t happen here. Something that didn’t happen right around me. It happened over in other countries. It had happened in other spaces. That’s where kind of where I started my work, too, was the social impact, the international impact. It wasn’t until a little bit later than I realized, “Oh, we really need to do this work here.”
I believe it is all rooted in some of the same issues. I mean, it is a lack of empathy for each other. It is a lack of understanding. It is a lack of doing the work to understand and to really value uniqueness and difference.
Y-VONNE: I think along those lines that overlap, I think the greatest trick that civil rights era politicians pooled, particularly during periods of African colonialism, is differentiating civil rights from human rights when in reality, those struggles are not that different. The struggle for political representation, the struggle to be free from violence, the struggle for economic access. We have disentangled those struggles with global struggles. And that’s been intentional, right? Because if it’s just in the US, the solidarity movements don’t happen.
There are a lot of people who think, what made Martin Luther King and Malcolm X dangerous wasn’t just their civil rights work but their solidarity work, whether that be solidarity with labor movements. Martin Luther King was killed while he was speaking or whatever with the sanitation worker’s strike. And both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, towards the end of their lives and started to align and really start to look at decolonization in Africa and movements there and to stabilize the region.
We know the role that the US has played in diplomacy. Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but you know, I do have a background here—installing regimes in certain places that are friendly to US interests. That teaches us that those struggles are inseparable. In fact, we’re actually much stronger when we can see that common thread. We can unite with people who are facing common oppressions.
MELINDA: And we can work together to solve them, each of them.
MELINDA: Let’s move into the workplace. You wrote in your book that nowhere is the issue of race more embedded than in the workplace. In fact, I would argue that it’s almost impossible to do a couple of the two. Can you explain a little bit what you mean?
Y-VONNE: Yeah. I think I kind of had my labor history nerd hat on, but I’ve always been interested in the impact of work and the working condition on our identity. And I think this is what I was trying to get to in the book, and maybe I didn’t do it as eloquently as I could have.
MELINDA: I’m sure you did.
Y-VONNE: Thank you. But you know, when I think about the stereotypes that are so ingrained in us around ethnicity, a lot of us are actually associated with labor, right? So, I talked in my book, and I will never say that the condition of slavery is the labor condition. It was not. It was a social, politically inherited system. Some people call it caste, whatever, generational oppression that went beyond labor. But the stereotypes used to describe Black people and inform common understanding of them were in part necessitated by the condition of slavery, right?
So, if Black people couldn’t feel pain, it’s okay to whip them, right? Okay to work them harder, work them to death. If Black women were inherently loose and hyper-sexualized, all of a sudden, they’re not responsible for the mass rapes that they suffered, right? So, you know, you look at some of these stereotypes that we still fight against today. “Black people are less intelligent.” I still can’t wrap my head around the Black people are lazy because it’s like, wait a second, we were doing all this work and then, but okay. Right. That’s a stereotype. We’re doing work for you. But, you know, the idea of Black people being lazy, like, these are all sort of stereotypes that still people assume applies to us today.
And it’s not just Black people, right? If you look at the Chinese in this country, what I found so interesting is particularly stereotypes about Chinese men. So, when the Chinese came over during the Gold Rush, originally, they were allowed to participate, to pan for gold, etc. But they were so successful, or they were so good at it that the White folks were like, “Oh, I think not.” Right? And they banned the Chinese from participating in gold mining, from doing that work. And so, then they said, “Well, the work that the Chinese can do is they can run laundromats. They can work in restaurants. They can do the feminized labor that we don’t have the women tear up out here in the old west to do, so we’re going to have the Chinese to do it. And we’re also going to restrict the immigration of Chinese women. So, these Chinese workers will leave when we’re done with them, right.” And so, that led to the idea that Chinese men weren’t really men, that Chinese men were feminine. Those stereotypes around Asian masculinity persist today associated with our labor conditions.
So, in some ways, the work that we’ve been able to do as people of color has always defined the way that society perceives us. And we’ve always been restricted from doing the kinds of work that would confer honor, prestige, power, etc. And at the same time, and I’ll end here, and this is a very US-centric way to look at this but work, I think even more so because our kind of Puritan work ethic is so embedded into our identities. So not only do you say you can’t do this work, you say you can’t be this person. And I think that that is true across racial lines and has been true throughout the history of the United States.
When we think about today and the idea that we would come from this history, this history is still very much in place. For example, who gets venture capital funding gets to be the CEO. These sort of ideas are very, very much in place to say we’re going to create a truly equitable workplace here like that. And it’s like, “Oh, okay.” How are you going to undo all that stuff? Right?
I think we are so used to thinking of this work as intrinsic, as emotional, as intuitive, and it’s none of those things. It takes strategy. It takes time. It takes dedication and fortitude to undo not just one system but this web of systems we’ve created to keep people in their place. That’s why I say it’s hard.
MELINDA: And you need the expertise, the skills, the science, the storytelling, all of that as well. You can’t just say you want to do it and create a strategy around it. You have to know how to accomplish it. Yeah.
So, when we’re talking about conversations around race in the workplace, what are the productive conversations that we should be having that are important to have with a goal I think of creating systemic change, creating that culture change? As you said, it’s a lot of work to do this. It takes time. What are the conversations that get us there?
Y-VONNE: That’s like, this is the whole reason why I wrote the book, right? I just talked about something that feels super weighty, super heavy, super impossible to crack. It’s not. Right? I wrote the book because I wanted to give a resource for individuals to think about culture change, systemic change, right? What is the individual’s role in that change?
I’m going to say right off the bat every workplace is different. If you were to tell me, “Y-Vonne, I need you to run a campaign for me.” I can’t tell you how that campaign would operate because I would need to know the context. I would need to know the players. I would need to know the objective. So, I can’t say, here’s this particular blueprint. These are what you need to talk about. Right? I can tell you what to look for. I can tell you how to respond to certain situations. I can tell you what to do if you don’t see your objectives. I can’t tell you what the objective should be without the context.
In my book, when I tell people, kind of like, how do you know you have a problem, first of all. I think it’s important that we start there and we kind of identify what the problem is, right? So first, I just assume, based on what we just talked about, the history of workplace discrimination in this country. And that was like a five-minute answer, which means it’s like a deep history, right? So, just assume if you’re looking at your workplace that there’s probably some racism afoot. Right? I will say that. It’s probably racist.
A lot of people don’t like me saying that, but facts are facts. It’s important to assess where your problems really lie. If you need to be sure, be sure. I always say, take a look around. I think observation and conversation is a sort of best way to get that kind of knowledge. Before you do that, though, please do the self-work.
This is a show on allyship. And so, I think I particularly recommend this for allies. It is really important that before you even think about changing your environment that you understand how you show up in your place within that. Right?
So, before you have a conversation with anybody else, think about your social identities, your race, your gender, your age, your ability, your physical disability status. Think about your sexuality, your socioeconomic, and class status—all those things and how they impact how you may show up in the room. What you see, but much more importantly, what you don’t see, and what struggles you center, right. Think about that.
And if you’re coming to this work as an ally, always be mindful that the work is going to be on learning, listening, and decentering yourself. But it’s trickier than just that because there are times when we need allies to take the initiative. I don’t think we often enough acknowledge that tightrope between listening and learning and then being ready to do a thing. Like, how do you know? I think part of that part of that comes from that work.
And then I would say the second thing is you got to be in community when you’re doing this. I always say this work is not happening alone. There’s literally no time, I think, in modern history, where I can think that one soul person all by themselves has changed an entire system, right? We work better when we work in the community.
I think when we work in the community, we also learn what’s going on, right? Because if we’re going to have a conversation about racism in the workplace, especially we’re approaching this from a place of allyship, there’s just going to be so much you don’t see, so much you don’t know, right? And there’s also work that is probably being done that you want to build off of, right? If you’re decentering yourself, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, right? You want to add to a movement, contribute to a movement, leverage your privilege in service of movements. It’s really important to understand where those movements are happening.
I would say based on those things, based on the learning that you engage in, and most importantly, what you hear other people talking about, the needs they identify, the issues that they raise, and then obviously the issues you see for yourself. I think that’s when you decide, okay, what is my strategy?
And I’m always going to talk about this work in a strategic way. It’s not just about having one conversation. That’s the trick of the book. You read the title, you’re like, “Oh, well, I’m going to roll up. I’m going to say the right thing and stay in the right way, then change.”
MELINDA: Magic is all fixed. Yeah.
Y-VONNE: It’s not changed. It’s not like that, right? It’s like, how do you be a better sort of advocate and organizer? Right? It is strategic too. It is at its core strategy. As you’re thinking about who you’re in the community with and the issues you’re seeing, you also need to think about, okay, who is the person I need to talk to address these issues, right.
Are you seeing, for example, an instance a kind of interpersonal instance of racism between your manager and another employee? Are you seeing a dynamic between two people? Or are you seeing something larger? Are you seeing just White dude after White dude come through the pipeline and all of a sudden be promoted to leadership? Right? Are you seeing inconsistency in what a company portrays publicly with their messaging? And then what’s happening to the people of color? Are you seeing women of color being asked to do office housework and then other people getting the shiny opportunities?
These are different conversations, right? And they may need to happen with different people. I also think it’s important to think about who you want to reach, and whether they’re the right person to achieve the objective you want to achieve, which I guess means I missed a step, which is like, you got to be really clear with yourself about what objective you want this conversation to have, right? What change exactly do you want to see? Is that the person that’s in a position to effectuate that change?
We may not totally own it, particularly in organizational contexts where we all have multiple places of influence. And often, it takes many people to change the thing. But if there’s something you want to see change culturally, structurally, organizationally, think really strategically about who the person is going to be to change that. And then think about who the right person is to talk to that person. I always say, sometimes you’re not the right person. Right?
Let me start with myself. I’m a Black woman, clearly. I run a DEI firm. Let’s sit in that. And then, at ReadySet, especially in the early days, we just never did advertising, marketing, anything because I always said, if I have to convince you to be my client, then it’s not going to work, right? All of our clients would come to us. And I remember I would sit in rooms, CEO, Black woman, talking about diversity that you are hiring, paying to be there, and I never pay them cheap, right? So, I was sitting in these rooms, and people would ignore me, talk over me, talk to like, my White males, or even my Black male employee, and it was like, “Okay. So, I’m going to be in my feelings about this.” But I also realized I may not be the messenger in this moment. Right? So, if I’m not the messenger, how do I identify who is the better messenger? I always talk about that.
And then, I think there are tips for, in general, how you have this conversation. I have them in the book, but I say, you know, in addition to doing all that strategic work on the back end, working in coalition, understanding your objective, making sure you’re talking to the right person and the right person, and you’re the right person to do that talking. There is a way you set up the conversation. You create a space of intentionality. You practice beforehand. You think about what your case is going to be. You think about appealing to their personal interest because people are, especially in the office context, that matters.
MELINDA: And that’s Behavior Change 101, y’all. Make sure you know what their motivation is for change.
Y-VONNE: Exactly. You can be as idealistic all you want. If you like the ethical case for diversity or even the business case for diversity, which I think is an ideal case as well. And if the person’s incentives are aligned with that, like you’re saying, they’re not going to do it, right. So, you got to think about what their incentives are, what’s within their power to do. You’ve got to be concise and direct and stick to what you know, and understand your organization’s context, priorities, challenges before you go into the conversation. And I think most importantly, you have to prepare yourself for pushback.
I say this in a way. It’s important that you go in with a growth mindset. I always say call people in before you call people out if you’re trying to get somebody allied to your cause. Calling them out is going to create more distance, and they’re not going to want to join you, right? I think calling out serves its purpose. It’s an accountability mechanism in spaces where there is no accountability. So, I think you hold that, but that’s not this space if this is the kind of conversation you want to have. I think you think about how you call that person in.
But if you’re having a good-faith conversation and you’re going in there with your facts, and you are really trying to share your own experience, model that growth, and connect with someone and also giving them something to do. I always say give somebody something small, tangible to start out with. You know what I mean? Give them something to do. This is a lesson from the civil rights movements. Give those parents a pen and paper and have them write a letter to their son. You know what I mean? You give people something to do. In the case that you do all of those things, there’s still a very high likelihood that you’re going to get pushback. And so, I also tell people, like, practice for that too. Just because you get pushed back initially doesn’t mean you failed. It just means it could take more time or whenever. You should always continually assess the likelihood of success or failure and act accordingly. I think it’s important to keep that to practice that as well. I’ll pause there.
MELINDA: No, yeah, no. I think that it’s really important that most time, I would say most of the time when you have that first conversation, it’s not going to go the perfect way that you wanted it to go. It is planting the seed for the next conversation and the next and the next, and that is really important to understand that it is a continuum and it is a journey.
Y-VONNE: Yeah, it’s a journey and a process, right? It doesn’t all happen at one time.
MELINDA: So, before we go, I have a specific example that I think a lot of people have in their mind when say they’re picking up your book for the first time or they’re coming to this episode. Let me pause for a second before I do that because I think still within this conversation, it’s important to talk about power.
So, let’s talk about power for a bit. Why is it important to think about power? What should we be thinking about when it comes to power when you’re working to create change and having these conversations?
Y-VONNE: Yeah. I write quite a bit about power in my book. I could write a whole book about power, but this is not that book.
MELINDA: Yeah, I see it coming, though.
Y-VONNE: There are people who explored power their entire lives who are experts. I feel like they are in a much better place to talk about it than I am, but I have found tools within that discourse that I think are useful.
In my book, I encourage the reader to move away from thinking about power as a binary. I share the story of like, in the before times, I would go on panels a lot. I would sit in a panel, especially because so often in conversations about interpersonal values and individual action. I will always push back and be like, “It’s the system.” There will always be someone who would stand up, and they’d be like, “Look, I get it. It is the system.” Like, “I’m an individual contributor.” or like, “I just started.” or like, “I’m an admin assistant. I have no power to change the system. So, what can I do?”
It always sort of struck me. First of all, such a disempowered way to start from. I think we’ve kind of been taught to think this way, think of power as a binary. You either have it, or you don’t. It’s mysterious. If you don’t have it, you’re not always quite sure how to get it. There’s a sort of taboo about people who care about it too much. If you have it, you know how to leverage it flawlessly, and you never lose it, right? That’s kind of how we conceptualize power as a static binary. And it’s not those things, right.
I bring in the theory of social power in my book, which is essentially the idea that when we think about how we use power to influence people to change behaviors of actions, like what are our sources of power that do that. The authors of that theory identify six sources of power. I think it’s super helpful to think about it this way because it moves from being like if I have power to what kind of power do I have? That’s a much more empowering conversation.
MELINDA: That’s great.
Y-VONNE: I’ll just go through them really quickly. They talk about coercive power, so the power to stick. Do you have the power to hold people accountable, like punish people? There’s reward power, power to correct. Do you have the power to give somebody something a bonus or promotion, some recognition? They talk about referent power, which is, in a sense, a social power. We’re used to seeing on social media, you know, or when people are like, “You’re on the wrong side of history.” It’s like the popular perception of innate goodness. Right? The kind of reverence that other people have for you. There’s informational power. Do you know a thing? When we think about the sort of controversy we’ve seen over NDAs and how changing the ability of companies to prevent workers from talking about their trauma has opened the floodgates, that sort of informational knowledge, and the power within that. And then, there’s also expert power which is like, how do you know a lot about a particular thing, and then people believe you because you know a lot about that?
So, not everybody is going to have all of these kinds of power, right? Not everybody’s an expert and has access to all the information, and then everybody likes them, and they can give care. There are very few people, right? If you’re Beyonce, maybe you do, but the rest of us don’t really have that kind of power. And so, it’s really important to think about what do I have? Do I have a great social media following? If I don’t do that, do you have a great reputation at work? Do you have a really close group of friends, and people listen to me? Or, do I have access to the information? Am I understanding what our competitors are doing? Am I understanding certain strategic priorities that nobody gets? Do I have access to information that would impact how my company would see this? Or am I just an expert? Can I walk in and be like, “Listen, as somebody who’s lived in a Black body for 40 years, I’m going to share my expertise around anti-Black oppression.”?
I think everybody has different sources of power, but I recommend as you’re engaging in the strategy because I’m going to say it again, it’s all strategic work. It’s strategic political work. As you’re engaging in the strategic political work, think about these sources of power because your boss or whoever you’re talking to who’s in a different organizational position, different places in the hierarchies, they may have a source of power. I also talk about legitimate power, like the power society confirms. They likely have that. But there may be these four sources of power that you have, and they don’t. It’s also important to remember that power can be given, and it can be taken away. It can be heard, or it can be taken away.
In the organizational context, an entry-level employee or a different place in the ladder, the hierarchy, it may be hard for you to take away somebody’s legitimate power. You can’t fire your boss, right. Maybe some people can. I’ve never been in that position. But there may be some places where you have power that they don’t. You may have a better reputation than they do. You may understand this work differently than they do. You may have access to the information they want, right? So, think about how you can leverage that in your conversation to improve your position, not in a place of domination or control. I would be very clear, but just from a place of knowing what resources you have at your disposal. The goal is not for you to replicate the kind of harm and problematic structures you’ve seen in the workplace. The goal is for you to provide something different and to model something better as well.
MELINDA: So, say, somebody comes to this episode and to your book. Hopefully, both. The idea is that you would listen to this and you read the book. We’ll have a link to that in our follow-up resources. So, go to ally.cc, and you can find that.
So, say somebody comes, and they have a boss that doesn’t quite get it. They don’t get what’s going on in terms of their Black experience in the workplace or their AAPI, their Asian experience in the workplace. They may be experiencing microaggressions. They may also be experiencing environmental macroaggression/microaggressions as well, and their boss is just not addressing it. It’s not necessarily aggressive. They’re set against it. They just probably are not aware. And so, how do you have a conversation with your boss about that? What do you do when your boss kind of pushes back? What do you do in that case?
Y-VONNE: There are so many times this has happened to me in my life. I’m a professional person who talks about race now. In my book, I talk about some of the things that I’ve lost as a result of this work. I’ve talked a lot about conversations gone wrong. I talked about that because there’s such a risk in doing this. I think we marginalized folk carry a disproportionate burden. We Black and Brown folks carry a disproportionate burden at work when it comes to having these conversations.
I actually advise if you are on the receiving end of microaggressions, if you’re Black and Brown at work, I would really caution you to think critically about whether this is something you can simply do. We put ourselves or are put, actually both, on the frontline so often, and we don’t usually get a lot out of it. I say this as a person who works on this but also as a person who wants to hold space for Black and Brown trauma and does not want to pressure people into doing that sort of sacrifice. That’s not what my book is really about.
Yes, I want to give people tools. And if you choose to use those tools, great, but you know, I’m also speaking about allies. And so, what I would say to answer your question, I’m not trying to get out of answering your question. That ties back to that, think about your identity, think about if you are the best person to be in that conversation. If you are seeing a pattern of microaggressions, if you are seeing stuff go down that’s impacting you, I would see if other people are saying the same thing as well. I would see where you can leverage your allies. I don’t think you have to jump out in the frontlines first.
Quite often, we’re told, “You have to handle these interpersonal issues on your own. Fine, there’s a place for this.” But if you’re talking to your boss about racism and their racist behavior as a Black or Brown person, you are much more likely to experience backlash and not receive protection when that happens. I always say, just be really, really mindful if you can do that, right.
There may be a circumstance, and I want to honor the circumstance where you have a boss who wants to learn, who isn’t defensive. And then, I think you can have this conversation. But, you know, you said in your earlier question, what do you do if your boss gets defensive? I have never in my career, and I’ve had quite a long one. When White backlash starts, when White retaliation starts, it’s very hard. And I say this as the Black person. I don’t know other perspectives. It can be very, very hard to get out of that situation. And not a lot of people will have your back.
In a better world, best-case scenario, if you’re undergoing some resistance, your boss will sort of bristle, think about it, come back, and have a conversation. But in my experience, it’s about 50/50. Sometimes that person has it. I’ll even say 30/70. Sometimes that person hasn’t, but a lot of time, I’ve seen White denialism, White fragility, White backlash, and retaliation grow over time and get amplified. Again, this way, I also talked about the acting community. If you’re out here alone by yourself and pointing something out, you’re just really vulnerable.
I do end on this. I do think that I do have tools for how to navigate retaliation and backlash. I think those tools are designed for people who have taken the other steps in the book, who are working in the community, right, who have folks who have that back who have mapped out those organizational protections and leveraged them. I think, you know, at the end of the day, and I say this in the book, too, I’m all about no one to hold on, no one to fold them, and no one to walk away.
If you are Black or Brown and you go to your boss, and you say, “Listen, I would really like for you to stop touching my hair, number one. And number two, I would really like for you like, I’m going to give you a performance review.” Give some feedback. Maybe I don’t want to take notes in meetings anymore. Or I would like for you to acknowledge an idea when I present it in a meeting. You go to your boss, and you sort of say that in a much more constructive way than I just said it here, and what you get is silence or pushback. And you start to notice there’s a sort of pattern over time. I think it’s really also to think about, ultimately, is this the place for you? Is this really a place where you’re going to grow? Is this person going to change? Is this institution going to protect you? Because if not, if there’s no room for change, no room for growth, I believe in approaching these conversations for a growth mindset.
I don’t believe in demonizing any particular group. But I also believe that Black and Brown people have been on the frontlines of this work for so long, and we have to protect ourselves, right? And so, if you feel like you’re like, “Am I in a space where I don’t have to sacrifice myself that I got to keep pulling from me? What am I getting out of this? What am I getting out of this?”
I think if you find that that is a space that fundamentally does not acknowledge your humanity, doesn’t care about you, and isn’t interested in progress, you don’t need to be there. I know this is also coming from a place of economic privilege, but I think the situation is definitely different if you’re a low-wage worker, if you’re a contract worker. There’s a whole different level of precarity there that I’m going to want to hold and acknowledge that but I also know that we’re working in the middle of the great resignation or, as I heard yesterday, the great renegotiation. That means that also power has been renegotiated, opportunities have been renegotiated. And you have different leverage than you did a year ago, two years ago, definitely three years ago. I think, especially now, if you see an opening, if you can get another job and line something up and throw those juices out, and maybe maintain a good relationship with a couple of people, that’s what I would recommend doing.
MELINDA: Yeah. So, power in numbers. I think that is a key piece there, and also knowing what conversations are going to keep you keep safe and what conversations you need to walk away from.
Y-VONNE: Yeah. And also, for me, it’s like, I want to be really clear because I know I sound very militant right now. I think that every workplace has problems. I don’t want to set you up to think you’re going to go into a workplace without problems. That’s not where I think the decision lies in terms of like, do you serve or do you go, but if you see that a workplace is genuinely not open to your voice, and genuinely not resistant to change, not accountable, not doing any kind of work, right? Like, there’s no progress. And I say, in this book, you got to give it some time. I used to say everybody’s timetable is different. I kind of recommend, like, give it six months. If you notice something, you say something, and in six months, things haven’t changed, okay. Things don’t change right away, right? I want to acknowledge that every workplace has its problems. But if you don’t see a genuine commitment to change, if you don’t see that your voice is genuinely reflected, and you’re doing this work, this personal work, this work, and coalition, and it’s just not working, maybe it’s time to find something else.
MELINDA: Yeah. Yeah. So, this work, even when it is successful, can be very successful in organizations that are open to it and open to change and really devoting the resources, the time, the money, the people to creating that change, it’s still difficult. It’s still toxic. It can still bring up trauma. It can still be traumatizing, and it can still rehash old traumas and all of that. So, let’s talk a little bit about self-care. What role does that play?
Y-VONNE: I mean, I think it plays all of the roles. I talked about this in my book. I’m very open about this. I wrote the book during a time of multiple traumas—trauma upon trauma. I signed a book deal when I think I was, I said I was eight months pregnant in the book, but I actually did the math today, and I think it was closer to nine because I forgot that in your ninth month, there’s still a whole month of pregnancy. But I signed the book deal when I was about eight months pregnant, the month when my daughter was born. And I was like, bedridden. I was on bed rest because my pelvis was collapsing under the weight of my baby, and I could no longer walk. And so, I just remember. I’ll never forget that feeling. I’m a Black woman that’s worked really long and hard. And I just remember I just sat in the bed. I just remember leaning back and being like, “Oh my God, I’m in bed.” I think I got it for like half a day, a day. And then you know, everything happened, everything went down. I remember physically raising myself out of my bed. Such pain, you know. You can’t really take a lot of pain medication when you’re pregnant. So, it’s just excruciating pain every day. I was talking to these people. I just wanted to talk about systemic racism and all the stuff. I had this feeling of like, “Y-Vonne, this is an extraordinarily painful moment for you, but you got to show up because finally, they’re listening.”
MELINDA: Right. Right. Right.
Y-VONNE: I think that’s a moment that a lot of people have. I think that would be a moment that I would have throughout the writing of this book. That was like, you know, pregnant, pelvis separating. Also, my dad got stage four lymphoma. Shortly after I started writing the book, I gave birth to my daughter, and then we had to move suddenly because we were in the Bay Area and the Wildflower fires, which is so bad things were not good. And then, my sister died two weeks before Christmas while I was writing the book. There was my personal trauma. And then there’s the sort of trauma in the world, you know, the January sixth storming of the Capitol, the insurrection, and the rise in anti-Asian violence and a series of bills and legislation, and, you know, this environment of incredible instability, and also this personal space of a lot of trauma.
In the book, I talk about writing the book as a process of opening a wound, mining for all it’s worth, and then trying to close it and heal it again, and then moving on and opening the next one, right. That is, this works as a Black person, as a person of color. We’re expected to use our trauma to teach. We’re expected to show up when we’re hurting. We’re also expected to do a lot of this uncompensated, underrecognized against quite a bit of pushback at our own personal peril. Like, putting ourselves at risk.
In the book, I emphasized quite a bit the need for self-care for Black and Brown folks because we can get drained, we can get drained dry, and there will be nobody to refill our cups, right. And so, for me, self-care looks like long walks with my dog just to clear my head and enjoy the world that I live in, that I’m blessed to live in every day. And then, I do meditation, just like taking that moment to center. And I do therapy. I should do more therapy. I recognize now. But I do some therapy to help me also find a place to unpack this trauma and get professional help. Racial trauma is real trauma. The trauma of racism is so real. It’s so extraordinary. We don’t recognize it as that in communities outside of our own. I mean, mental health care. I also advise others, and I have tried as much as I can to invest in social mechanisms, outlets, structures outside of work. I also try to spend a lot of time with my friends and family. That baby I mentioned earlier is now my daughter, and she lives with me in my house. I like to spend time with her. I like to pick her up every day from daycare. I like to play with her. I like to watch her learn. I am mindful that this work is for her. Right? I don’t think this work gets done in a generation, but I’m not prepared to leave without having made some progress, and the progress that I want to make is for my daughter. And the millions of people like her, my people, and Black and Brown people everywhere.
So yeah, I mean, that’s how I think about my self-care. And I encourage people, particularly people of color, to really invest on your own because nobody else is going to do it. Know your worth. If people are asking you to do this work for free, don’t.
Y-VONNE: That’s just another way that value gets extracted from you, and you don’t get compensated for your labor. Know your worth. Know your limits. Don’t be afraid to say no. I said in another interview, and I think in the book, like, it can be really tempting to think it’s all on us to stop the trauma, but it’s not up to the traumatized people to stop the traumatic things from happening. There’s only so much we can do. So, I think there comes a time when we’ve got to take space and say no.
Another thing that I talked to Black and Brown people about is decoupling our work from our identity. I think that’s happening within the Great Resignation, the Great Renegotiation as a whole but, you know, I think the truth of it is for us, and I’m talking about, you know, as Black and Brown folks, especially, you know, immigrants, people of color, for those of us who have made it, who have gotten into these high opportunity jobs, you know, supposed to be the culmination of all of our good choices, our good deeds, our doing things right. You know, they’re just saying like Black excellence, right? And that is often reflected in our occupations. We are told that we can achieve our way. Under oppression, we were told we could achieve our way out of stereotypes. And, you know, I think, in that case, we at times have sacrificed so much and carved off so many pieces of ourselves and master ourselves fully in service of meeting these goals. When we get there, and it’s not for us, when we get there, and that source of our pride, that source of our achievement is also the source of our trauma, it can be really hard for us to decouple.
And like I said, I think it’s becoming easier right now. But I encourage people to decouple before there is trauma, honestly, because I think when you kind of decouple when there is trauma, and there’s a whole series of events, I’ve seen it so many times, like just because I’m in community with so many people who had this experience, where the trauma colors everything else. Right? I always recommend creating those containers before that event or whatever happens. But in any case, getting that space, getting that distance, and formulating your identity outside of work, like making sure that it’s not just about your occupation and what you’re doing but about who you are as evidence to your relationships, your talents, your community, all this stuff, I think it’s really, really important. So, I encourage people to do that to choose their identities and to make sure that those identities go beyond the workplace and to build the supporting structures they need for that kind of reinforcement and support.
I think I’m really big on self-care. If I could give every person who’s bought this book a hug, I would. I feel like we do so much, and rarely is it recognized in the way that it should be. And this sacrifice is happening in the midst of real pain, especially now, especially now, when we’re sort of in these unprecedented moments. So, yeah. Yeah, self-worth is vital. We should continue to do that.
MELINDA: Yeah. Thank you. We’re a little bit past time here. And apologies to the interpreters because we got a little over. So, just one really quick last question that I asked at the end of every episode, which is really important to me that people who are listening and watching take action as a result of this.
So, if you could say one action, and I think that particularly for allies because you’ve said so many great things from what actions people should take as Black and Brown folks that are doing this work for allies. What’s one action you think you want them to take?
Y-VONNE: I’m trying to pick one because I want to say show up. I’m just reflecting on what’s happening in my brain is I’m reflecting back on 2020. I think what we saw in May of 2020, June of 2020 is what happens when White people fled [to] the streets, right? The power of the recognition of allies, the demands of allies, allies centering people of color, people of colors’ experiences and demanding more, and how dramatic that is from the status quo. Right? I don’t think that’s because of a lack of caring or lack of intention. When you have this collective energy, things should get done, right? I think for me, that’s really hard to maintain. I say that change is like sustain. It happens incrementally. It happens over time. It happens with consistency. It’s like that one action every day, every day, every day, every day like we water until you got to the Grand Canyon.
That one thing I think allies can do, then, if I was going to recommend it, I was just going to speak up and not like speak up in the way like diversity is important, but I think interrupting and agitating collectively is awesome when you allies do that. I’m an ally too. I’m an ally to different groups. I’m particularly thinking about it in terms of a racial ally. When allies do that, when they’re collectively like, not only do we not like what’s going on, we’re just going to come up the works a little bit, make it harder for you to do that thing you’re going to do that. Then, things just change.
I think that if we did that for a few days, like, all the White people did that for a couple of days, you’ll see some really dramatic changes. I would say not just speak up in terms of I value this and not just speak up in small spaces. But I think speaking up publicly at work in front of your colleagues in a way that risks something in the streets, in a way that risks something, and politicians and a PTA meeting and when it risks something, I think that’s when all of the allies do that. Y’all all have to do the same thing. You don’t have to do different things. You can all do the same thing and say the same thing. If we all do the same thing, the game changes. So, I would say if I could say one thing for allies to do, they’d be like, speak up in a way that creates some risk for you and makes it harder for someone else.
MELINDA: Cool. I love it. I love it. All right, y’all. Do the work. Y-Vonne, thank you. Thank you for this conversation.
Y-VONNE: Thanks for having me. It’s such a pleasure.
MELINDA: Yeah, good to see you. Bye.
Y-VONNE: Good to see you too.
MELINDA: Thank you, Sarika and Lindsay. I appreciate you.
Y-VONNE: Thank you. Bye.
MELINDA: To learn more about this episode’s topic, visit ally.cc.
Allyship is a journey. It’s a journey of self-exploration, learning, unlearning, healing, and taking consistent action. And the more we take action, the more we grow as leaders and transform our communities. So, what action will you take today?
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Leading With Empathy & Allyship is an original show by Change Catalyst, where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. Appreciate you listening to our show and taking action as an ally. See you next week.
Host: Melinda Briana Epler
Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.
As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.
Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.
Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.
Watch Melinda’s TED Talk
Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.
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