Why the Tech Industry Can No Longer Delay the Conversation About Race

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Karen Fleshman and her mentee, Anthony Josey, NYC June 2012

By Jared Karol

“We will postpone and delay the conversation about race because it makes people extremely uncomfortable.”

That’s Karen Fleshman, Founder of Racy Conversations, speaking with Change Catalyst’s Juliette Roy on the Tech Inclusion podcast, recorded last October at the San Francisco Tech Inclusion Conference. Through Racy Conversations, Karen offers workshops, talks, and virtual town halls — all designed to help people understand how racism operates and how to overcome racism.

Karen’s work focuses exclusively on race because she feels that the typical diversity discussion doesn’t go deep enough. “We’ll have a conversation around diversity but will only talk about the subjects that we feel safe and comfortable talking about,” she says. “Gender diversity, veterans, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities. But if we don’t prioritize the conversation about race it does not happen because it makes people so uncomfortable.”

Why is there such resistance to this conversation; what is the barrier?

According to Karen, it’s the important difference between thought and action. “A lot of people say, ‘I think Martin Luther King is awesome and racism is really bad and I’m not racist’ so they don’t think that they have to do anything to change. A big part of what I help people understand is that thinking racism is bad is not enough. You have to actively become anti-racist.”

Karen has these hard conversations with all kinds of clients, from large tech companies like Yahoo to civic entities like the SF Public Library and the Public Defender of the City of San Francisco to a variety of nonprofit organizations.

So what does it look like to actively become anti-racist?

Karen says it starts with working on yourself and understanding who you’re biased against. “I coach all my clients to initiate and strengthen as many relationships as possible with the folks against whom you are biased,” Karen says. “Because I think that when we get to know each other as people, we stop thinking of each other as some category and start thinking of each other as someone who I really care about.”

What she’s talking about is sharing social capital. Some of us have more of it than others, and it’s up to the people who have more social capital to initiate and strengthen relationships with those who have less. “[These relationships] are not going to happen naturally because we live in a very segregated society,” says Karen.

The good news, according to Karen, is that things are changing. “The tech industry is finally coming to the conversation about racial diversity,” she says. “Finally people are starting to have a conversation about race.” These conversations are hard, and even though we’re getting more comfortable talking about diversity in general, talking about race is a whole different level.

The reason it’s harder and therefore taking so long, according to Karen, is around our ability (or lack of) to develop a sense of empathy. “Most white people,” Karen says, “have a family member who’s a woman, or a family member who is LGBTQ, is a veteran, or has disabilities, or whatever the case may be, so you develop empathy through that person.”

But when it comes to race, it’s a different story. “We live in a very segregated society,” she says, “and a lot of times people don’t really have friendships and close personal relationships with people of other races. But finally the conversation is starting.”

Karen thinks that the Bay Area is an ideal place to start having these conversations because it’s a region that really supports people reinventing themselves. And, for many of us, having conversations that allow us to move from thinking racism is bad to becoming actively anti-racist is an important reinvention.

And If you or your company need help with that reinvention, tapping into the insights provided by Karen and Racy Conversations would be a good place to start.

Listen to the full podcast here or below.

Change Catalyst empowers diverse, inclusive and sustainable tech innovation — through events, consulting, research and training.

Our Tech Inclusion programs explore and develop innovative solutions to tech diversity and inclusion.

Our Startup Ecosystem programs help underrepresented entrepreneurs and investors to start, scale and fund worldchanging businesses.

Change Catalyst is a Certified B Corp, winning the “Best for the World”​ award for community impact in 2014 and “Best in the World”​ overall in 2015.

Originally published at blog.techinclusion.co on June 22, 2017.

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