Attend to Yourself First to Lead Through Systemic Racism


Across the world, people are taking to the streets and taking a knee to protest systemic racism.

The images seen in videos and print will be forever burnt into our minds.

Protests aren’t just happening in our city centers, I watch on Facebook as the comments become the space for wars of words of what’s right or wrong.

Clients have emailed me asking for more information and support as they grapple with hard questions.

  • Am I a racist?
  • How do I contribute to systemic racism?
  • What can I do?
  • I’m a white woman and I heard an African American woman say it's time for white women to show up and be quiet. Should I be quiet?

What you are witnessing is the unraveling of a corset of pressure that’s been held in for centuries. An outpouring of pain, grief, and anger.

There is no perfect thing to say. It’s easy for intentions to get misread once they are put into words. The implicit nature of bias is that when something is said from a biased point of view, with pure and innocent intent, it is still biased.

The heated interactions you are witnessing are all compounded by the way we listen. Are we listening from a place of doubt, fear, and defensiveness or a place of curiosity?

Let me share an example from my life.

I am not comfortable with fashion. I put time and attention into my appearance and want to have nice clothes; however, I’ve never been confident in my style. I never know if I’m wearing the right shoes with the right outfit, or if I have the right purse. Since I’m not confident in this area, I default to classic basics to not get caught in these questions and my own self-doubt and lack of knowledge and interest.

I know I’m sensitive to the topics of fashion and makeup.

When I’m out with a romantic partner and they comment on another female’s appearance I get triggered. Even a simple comment like I like her jacket will send me into an internal spin. Something like this...

Oh, you like her jacket. You never say you like my jacket. See you do think I don’t dress well and I’m not feminine enough. I should spend more time on youtube looking at fashion updates. Ugh- I hate spending time on youtube looking at fashion updates. You like her more than me. You don’t think I’m pretty. You're going to leave me for someone who dresses better. You never tell me I look pretty. And it continues.

My romantic partner never said anything about me. But because I’m sensitive to the topic I make it about me.

The same thing is happening right now.

When someone says Black Lives Matter, the tendency is to do what I did and hear “Only Black Lives Matter". We jump to conclusions and extremes.

Recent events have started a much-needed snowball to uncover bias and racism. Much like the #MeToo movement that started years ago. I personally believe the topic of racism is next.

As a leader, you need to be prepared.

So where do we go from here?

Step 1- Get comfortable with discomfort

These conversations and media will stir up pain, anger, and grief. If you readily read articles and watch tv you are being flooded with feelings and information. When we are triggered, flooded, or overwhelmed our instinct is to fight, flee, or freeze. We need a fourth option, meet.

What’s needed is to meet the discomfort and breathe. Begin to become comfortable with the discomfort you are feeling. This is key and challenging! As a society, we aren’t comfortable with emotions and looking at reality in the eye. We cope. We eat, drink, work, workout, and watch tv to gain comfort.

The discomfort you are feeling can’t be fixed and won’t go away.

  • You are getting comfortable with your own pain, grief, and felt helplessness and hopelessness to fix the problem.
  • You are getting comfortable with the pain that people have felt for generations.
  • You are getting comfortable with the pain the system and society you participate in has caused.
  • You are getting comfortable with the pain you have caused others through your own unconscious bias.
  • You are getting comfortable with the benefit your privilege has provided you that has cost others.

Step 2- Acknowledge there is a problem. We are biased and privileged.

Part of gaining comfort is looking at and accepting the truth. That truth is the pain and grief you are feeling right now and see in the rallies and protests around the world. It’s accepting the truth that we are biased and privileged. It’s a part of the cultural context and systems we are raised in. 

I raise my hand with you. I am biased. I am privileged.

Step 3- Educate yourself

Before reaching out to someone of color, take some time to educate yourself. There are many great books available today. Pick one book and take it slow. Find someone else to read the book with you. 

  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
  • White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
  • Watch Systemic Racism, a short animated video that demonstrates how racism impacts and divides us :
  • Learn about diversity & inclusion at your own pace- Mindful Diversity Self Study

Step 4- Uncover your unconscious bias & privilege

We are all biased and privileged. 

Unconscious bias is the stereotypes we hold about outside of our conscious awareness about certain groups of people. We don’t know it but unconscious bias informs decisions we make every day. The more aware of our bias, the greater opportunity we have to make a different choice. 

For example, there is a famous orchestra study that demonstrates this. In order to get a job in an orchestra you must audition. In an effort to reduce bias against women, blind auditions were instituted. With this change, female musicians in the five highest-ranked orchestras increased from 6% in 1970 to 21% in 1993. 

Similar studies have been done taking a resume and adding a male or female name at the top than gathering feedback on the candidate. 

The second part of this conversation is privilege. Privilege is the right, advantage, or immunity granted to a particular person or group. We are all privileged. If you are reading this email message you're privileged to see. If you have two legs that work, you are privileged to walk. If you aren’t deaf, you are privileged to hear even when someone has a mask on.  

The more we can recognize our privilege and gain comfort with the fact that privilege exists, we can question it. 

To learn more about privilege watch the short video of dancer Allison Hoker and her husband answer a series of questions.

Step 5- Decide what action you will take. (Know you will make mistakes and don’t give up.)

There is no right answer or perfect thing to be said that will fix racism. There is no one magic pill that will solve the problem of bias and privilege. What there is, is a decision to change.

Inevitably as you embark on this path of education and action you will say something or do something that someone will disagree with. You may say something with a purity of heart, and because of your point of view on the world may hurt someone else. Depending on who that other person is they may be willing to work with you and provide you feedback, or they may respond with fight, flight, or freeze. My request for you is to try, make a mistake, apologize, learn, and try again. Please remember step 1, you need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

How does this all apply to leadership?

To be the best leader you can be starts with you being the best human and woman you can be. By gaining comfort and skill in talking about diversity and inclusion for yourself, you’ll gain comfort in talking about bias and privilege with your team and peers. You’ll also gain compassion and greater sensitivity to the diversity of people you work with and come to realize we all have our own story and point of view of the world that informs our work.

Last and most important. You are a leader. As a manager, project manager, or employee you make decisions every day that impact employees and customers. Decisions about hiring, processes, employee management, products and so much more. The change our world needs isn’t going to be accomplished until we start to examine the decisions we make every day. This starts with you!


About the Author

Kim-Elisha Proctor is an Executive Coach, teacher, and writer. For over 15 years, she has worked with companies at all stages of growth and understands the complexity of organizations and leadership that is needed for success. Whether one-on-one coaching, with groups or delivering leadership development programs, her passion is the same: to support leaders to enhance their performance, impact, purpose & well-being to create communities they long to belong to.

Kim-ElishaCreate & Navigate Change, Emotional Health