Can You Remember?

Can you remember the first time words were thrown your way that would bite and sting? 

Was it the color of your skin, the shape of your eyes? Perhaps you had a “funny accent” that someone imitated and you stopped talking. 

Did you live on the “other” side of town, or wear out-of-style, hand-me-down clothes? 

Did you go to the “wrong” church? 

Were you too fat, thin, tall, or short?  

Can you remember….. 

Here is a story from one of my clients when we did the “Can You Remember” exercise in our diversity program “Connections: Results Through Relationships”  for her company. 

Anita, a well-respected corporate lawyer squirmed in her chair as we began to look back at the slings and arrows that so many of us had to endure as children, and sadly, still do to this day. 

 She was just turning four, playing with her next-door neighbor in the yard. She ran into the house to tell her mother she needed a bath. It was the middle of the afternoon and her mother said “Honey, you were just playing outside for ten minutes; you are clean and fine.” 

“No,” Anita insisted. “Mary told me to go home and wash my body cause I’m dirty. I need a bath right now!” 

 Her mother took a deep breath and began the first part of “the talk.” She told her daughter she was not dirty and that her skin was naturally that beautiful cocoa color. 

The little girl marched out to announce to her little friend that this was her skin color, only to come back crying. 

“Mary said she would not play with me until my skin was clean and white.” 

Anita looked around the room. Some of her colleagues expressed anger at the unfairness. Others were simply sad at the state of the world. And there were those who looked down, deep in their own thoughts. 

Anita took a long breath bringing herself back into the present time. “You know that rhyme ‘Sticks and stones can break your bones, but names can never hurt you?’ Of course, it’s not true. One word, one snide smile can bring back all those dreaded childhood memories. 

She looked around at her colleagues, these co-workers with whom she shared so much of her days. 

“What do you do,” she asked “when someone at work says something unfair or unkind to you, or even worse, behind your back just loud enough for you to hear? Do you shut down and walk away; retort and play the gotcha game; complain to human resources? 

“I am so tired of all the legal work I have to do around this still unsettled area of diversity. I am yearning for change and yet..” her voice trailed off.

The workplace should be a major force for the long term, positive change.  It begins by creating a place where there is enough psychological safety for teams to gather and hear each other’s stories about “Can you remember?” (excerpt from UNIQUE: How Story Sparks Diversity, Inclusion, and Engagement”) 

We need programs that will go upriver to find the multiple sources of the toxins that cause so much division in our human family. 

It can be done and this time in our world development is demanding change. 

The mandate of today’s workplace is about more than just the bottom line. It’s a place where real change can be fostered and where people flourish. The paradox is, that when people thrive and care about each other, the bottom line will also show the benefits. 

I would love to hear your story about “Can YOU Remember?” If you like, It could be included in my next book “UNIQUE and CONNECTED.” 

Sylvia Lafair

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