Even after forty years, I still remember the most important lecture I heard at college. It was delivered to me by a friend, standing in the dormitory hallway. I had once again done something thoughtless and self-centered. She had had it with me. She delivered a lecture on all of my failings, all of the ways I had let people down and acted in selfish self-interest. Defensively, I pushed back. But I also absorbed what she said.
The friendship didn’t survive, but her message to me did. I consider that the beginning of the creation of my adult self and, for that, I owe her thanks. Her lecture is the only one I remember clearly, even though I attended one of Minnesota’s best colleges, known for the quality of lectures delivered by its professors.
I went on to make a lot more mistakes in life. And I continued to learn from each failure. Now I am winding down a successful and satisfying career in management, leadership and supervision. What I value most about my career is the feedback I received from people I supervised who described me as their best supervisor, a valued mentor, and someone who could be counted on to communicate clearly and to be fair, even when making painful decisions. I was seen as a team player who focused on what was right for the organization as a whole rather than on my own self interests. I clearly didn’t start out this way. Those parts of my personality and skill set that I used and valued most were learned as a result of failures on my part. Failures from which I learned valuable lessons.
So, when my daughter was fired from her first job after graduating from another elite liberal arts college, my first thought was: What can she learn from this experience? That’s how you grow; that’s how you get better. But I soon realized her experience was fundamentally different from mine. She is a person of color, adopted by two white parents.
Was she fired because of mistakes she made and needed to learn from? Or was she fired because she was a person of color, didn’t fit in, and wasn’t going to get the kind of help other new employees receive? Her employer was created in Minneapolis in the turbulent 1970’s. They consider themselves a progressive organization with liberal values and pride themselves on being community oriented. Yet my daughter was the only person of color on staff and virtually none of their customers are people of color. She was fired after only two weeks on the job. She was given no warning. She received no coaching or feedback that she wasn’t doing well. She had no idea what went wrong. They just said she didn’t fit in.
Thus I faced a parenting dilemma. I wanted to comfort my daughter. Yet I also wanted her to learn from this experience just as I had learned from my mistakes in life. She won’t succeed in life if she doesn’t learn from her failures. Then again, she also won’t succeed if she internalizes every act of intentional or unintentional racism and blames herself.
I went to a trusted friend, an African American male. His words to me were blunt: You’ll never know if she was fired because of race or performance. That’s one of the tolls that living in our society takes on people of color. Every bit of feedback you receive needs to be filtered through a lens: is this about me or about society’s prejudices? If it is about me, I’d better take the feedback, learn from it and improve. If it is about race, I’d better learn how not to take it personally and continue to trust in myself and my self worth and skills.
People of color who always blame racism don’t grow personally and professionally. They irritate people who are white and they give ammunition to those who say people hide their own weaknesses behind the race card. However, people of color who never blame our society’s complex relationship with race simply can’t gain the confidence needed for success. Nor can they learn from their mistakes because they don’t know how to judge their failures from things that are not their failures. Useful feedback is lost in a haze of confusion and second-guessing.
I grew from my failures because when I was told about them I knew the feedback really was based on me and what I did; it wasn’t about what someone else assumed about me because of racial prejudices. I had to hear the feedback and figure out what it meant for me. I had clear opportunities to grow from it.
Successful people of color also learn from and grow from their mistakes, but before they can do so they need to master the skill of sorting out and filtering the feedback they receive. That is an emotionally exhausting and confounding process. It adds stress.
Professional success also requires an ability to assess and take calculated risks. Few really successful people achieve their goals without taking some risks along the way. Risk taking is clearly associated with the possibility of failure. When I took risks I felt confident that I could calculate the possible outcomes. If I had to factor in people’s possible reactions to my race, those calculations would have been much more complex. I would have taken fewer risks and would have missed opportunities. Or, perhaps, I would have ventured into riskier deals, knowing I could always blame failure on race. That too would have cost me opportunities to experience and build on success and to learn from failures.
White privilege is a hard concept to grasp. It has to do with being a step ahead at the starting line, being able to take things for granted that others must work hard to achieve, not living with the stress of living in a society that devalues your race. As a white parent of a person of color, I have come to realize that being able to fail and learn from my failures is a privilege not granted to all people in our society. My daughter has to work harder simply to sort out the causes of her failures and the lessons for her to learn. This adds stress to her life that as a white person I didn’t experience. This can also slow down growth and development.
My daughter is now a successful professional. I am proud of her and with good reason. But it wasn’t easy. And, even with years of hindsight, we still don’t know why she was fired at that first job. But I’m guessing it was unintentional racism. And I’m glad I didn’t prod her over and over again to identify what she did wrong in that job. What she needed to learn from that particular failure was that not all of her failures are due to things she can correct or control, but some are. She has had to learn how to distinguish one from the other in order to learn from her mistakes and grow into the professional she is.