If Data Won’t Drive Change When It Comes to Race, What Will?

By Jim Morris, VP of Client Experience

In these exceptional times, we hear leaders wanting to eliminate racism in their companies ask what to do about detractors or critics who like to engage in a debate about data. By “data,” I mean information that supports views on either side of arguments about social issues, from how we think about policing to the business case for inclusion.  

Even though I know better, I allow myself to get sucked into using data to counter someone else’s assertions: When I hear someone claim, We don’t have a gun control or police attitude problems in the U.S. The problem is we don’t have adequate public mental health services in most cities, I’m compelled to find the data that tells them how wrong they are. 

But these sorts of arguments don’t work. Ever. Data isn’t the answer—mindset is. 

When it comes to having real conversations about equity, systemic racism (or any “ism”), justice, diversity, or inclusion, discussing “data” is fruitless: The data points overwhelmingly to the virtues and benefits of a pro-inclusion strategy. The business case for inclusion is conclusive; more inclusive organizations outperform less inclusive organizations in almost all of the most important ways.

Arguing about statistics shields us from having to do the hardest but most potent singular behavior that could and does create change: Admitting that we have a lot to learn and we don’t know what to do to help. And, saying this from our hearts, as well as our heads.

Some of the best data is not in statistics but in dialogue. Dialogue IS data. You can collect more data to share with “them” any time you connect with someone across difference. 

When you do make that connection, remember:

  • Lead with vulnerability and set the tone. Instead of saying, how are you? start by sharing how you are, and when the time is right, ask them how they’re doing. Especially now, black men and women want to know if we white people are seeing racism and if we are willing to help work to eliminate it, even when we don’t know what to do or where to start. Start the conversation not with what you think, but how you feel: I’m embarrassed that we have not found a way to stop the disproportionate rates of police violence against black people. I can only imagine how what is happening is impacting you.
  • Be curious and caring. Don’t turn the conversation into an interview. Remember that men and women of color, especially Black people and especially now, are fatigued by the recent killings and having to explain and explain and explain. Resist the urge to tell them you “get it” or you fully understand. You might say, Thanks for listening to me, I cannot imagine what it must feel like for you.
  • Listen without the need to explain, justify, problem-solve or analyze. This is hard.  Sitting with people’s pain and anger takes courage and restraint. Remember that it is an act of trust when someone shares their raw, unscripted feelings, even if those feelings sound angry. Don’t talk yet; listen with your heart and listen for a long time.
  • Share their stories and feelings with others. Don’t name them if it puts them at risk or violates confidence. Do tell other whites about what you are hearing and seeing about the impact of our current system on the men and women of color with whom you talk. When you do this, you are sharing useful “data.”

In my work, I notice that the people who are the most interested in discussions about the data on racism and equity are often the least experienced in actually having dialogue with people who are different. Dialogue is data. Maybe if we keep sharing it with them in enough ways and at a high enough frequency, they will start to hear it as data—very important data.  

Our lives and the future depend on it.