Get curious about what makes you uncomfortable

Encouraging curiosity can minimize false assumptions, judgment and unwarranted tension and strife.

I recently was in the salon when another guest came in with her teenage daughter. After sitting quietly for a while, the mom leaned over and asked my stylist, "What do you do to her hair?" Instantly, her daughter screamed, "Mom, you can’t ask her that!"

But it was ok. It was an honest question that came from the heart of curiosity. Hair, on a number of levels, is a defining point of heritage and culture – particularly for Black women. For as much as it isn’t talked about cross culturally, I would imagine it’s often thought about. And clearly this woman had questions.

For the next 20 minutes or so, our small group engaged in a conversation that went from hair to whether or not it’s politically correct to say Black or African American. And though some may have been uncomfortable with this flow, we all seemed to welcome it.

It was honest and genuine. She made the choice to push past her thoughts and engage in a meaningful chat, providing an opportunity to become more familiar with what she did not and would not know without asking. There we were, three women, different in many obvious ways but in some very fundamental ways the same.

I tell this story not to talk about hair and the intricacies of how it aligns with my blackness. Rather, I bring it up because I believe it demonstrates that small, everyday opportunities exist for openness.

As leaders in your industry, think about how you can proactively address and minimize false assumptions, judgment and unwarranted tension and strife by encouraging and fostering an environment of curiosity and grace.

Also, think about how starting or continuing to open doors for others from diverse backgrounds and different experiences doesn’t dilute your culture, but instead makes it stronger.

And if you are a leader representing any group considered ethnic in this country, think about how you can show up whole and confident about who you are and about how your background and experience brings value to the role you’re in.

I can’t tell you how many people I know in organizations and industries who feel they can’t be themselves because their organization doesn’t wholly see "that" part of them. Many feel they don’t have a path to model or can’t see anyone who embodies their sameness in decision-making positions. And even the people making those decisions may feel limited in their ability to influence and be seen or heard.

Hopefully you are aware this is Black History Month. Now is an opportune time to have a candid conversation about what it really means to be inclusive. Hopefully, these discussions reach beyond brainstorming or activating Black History Month programs (although both are very important).

For the 20 years I have worked in public relations, I heard, read about, or participated in discussions focused on how to move the diversity needle. But if you look across the industry today, it looks pretty similar to how it looked back in the late 90s when I started. Here is a glaring opportunity for companies to get real about whether this is a top line and bottom line tenet that makes up the core and fabric of who they are or are committed to becoming.

And in this field, where a primary responsibility is to develop messages that reach core audiences, I find it hard to believe that we can’t find value in the co-creators of those messages who represent the customers, constituents and citizens the messages are intended to reach.

This is not a matter of right or wrong, us or them, win or lose. It’s a matter of perspective, priority and business imperatives. I often hear people talk about getting comfortable being uncomfortable. Let’s take some time today to explore what makes us uncomfortable and why – and let’s allow our genuine curiosity to make room for learning, understanding, and productive actions that bring about necessary change.

Rashada Whitehead is a reputation, culture and business transformation leader who helps brands consciously navigate big changes.

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