Imagine this: A friend calls you in the middle of the night and asks you to pick them up. Your first question is likely to be, “Where are you?” If your friend is in Istanbul—and you are in New York—your answer will probably be a no.
It seems like a strange request, right? Yet this is a request that marginalized people get all the time. There is an expectation that they have to “meet” the other person depending on their understanding of that person’s experiences. They’re asked to discuss their experiences or struggles, but the other person has no intention of supporting them or changing their behavior. In my personal experience, the invitee (because a coffee invite is almost always a precursor here) usually wants to reduce my experiences to sound bytes and quotes so they can appear “woke” at their party (where you can be confident that there won’t be a single black woman present.)
The problem with “meeting you where you are”
Now, let me be clear. Asking questions or being curious isn’t the problem. People who belong to minority groups are used to curiosity from their peers who have no experience being what Shonda Rhimes calls “FOD: First. Only. Different.” The problem is that their curiosity is shallow. It’s perfect strangers asking, “What are you?” rather than “Who are you?” People also often ask minorities to share very personal, and sometimes painful, experiences that can be triggering.
If you aren’t part of a minority group and ask colleagues from underrepresented groups to meet you where you are, you automatically task them with the additional responsibility of teaching you (while still expecting them to be excellent at their day jobs.) When you task them with becoming one of the organization’s informal diversity and inclusion experts, you’ve just added a massive responsibility to their plate. You’ve also just given them extra work without paying them for it.
Here’s the thing. Teaching you about my life experiences isn’t a job requirement (and shouldn’t be). When someone offers to share that information with you, you should treat it like a gift, not an expectation.
If you’re truly curious about the experiences of marginalized people, you have to take some of the responsibility for educating yourself. You can’t just show up, order your nitro cold brew with oat milk (I told you coffee is always involved here!), and expect the person across from you—whose coffee you didn’t even offer to buy—to tell you their life story. Before beginning this dialogue, you should do some cursory background research (Google, anyone?) and prepare yourself with educated questions. It’s also equally important to listen—truly listen.
Here are three ways to give the people you want to learn from a voice and space to share their experiences, without expecting them to meet you where you are.
1. Let them have their unique experience
Understand that you likely don’t have an experience that mirrors theirs, and that’s okay. You’re not there to commiserate over similarities. You’re there to understand differences. Instead of comparing your experience to theirs, listen, ask a clarifying question, and say thank you for sharing.
2. Use your privilege to make things better
If you took the time to genuinely listen to the lived experience of a person of color, a transgender person, or another marginalized person, ask yourself how you can make things better. Don’t engage in this conversation if you don’t intend to take action. How can you use your privilege to benefit the people in your company? What one or two things can you commit to doing to improve the experience of your underrepresented friends, colleagues, or employees? Listening is just the beginning. Real change comes from action.
3. If you want to be an ally, be prepared to be uncomfortable
Allyship is a diploma, not a single class. Some parts of the coursework may be easier than others. It’s okay to be uncomfortable when you’re learning, and it’s okay not to get everything right the first time.
Learning to be inclusive requires those of us in a position of privilege to put aside our wants and expectations for other individuals. It also requires us to strive to understand—as best we can—the experiences and truths of those who aren’t in the same position. It begins by educating yourself, listening without judgment, and genuinely seeking to understand.
We should all be working harder to understand where our colleagues are coming from, especially those that come from different backgrounds than us. That work begins by acknowledging that you can’t expect people to meet you where you are. It’s on you to take the initiative and educate yourself, and it’s on you to act on that knowledge to take action.
Amelia Ransom is the senior director of engagement and diversity at Avalara.