…Polylogue… voice 2

A young White woman says to her African American peer, “you always say everything on your mind” to which the African American responds, “you never say truly what is on your mind”. This exchange occurred in the early 90s and was shared by a fellow Black professor who was studying how to get young women, Whites and Blacks, engaged in communications about sexual health issues that affect them. In the study, she had a group of young women come together and discuss these health issues. Group activities addressed personal and group communication issues within relationships. Within racial group discussions occurred but some of the more salient points were made during cross- racial dialogues. One activity during which differences between White and Black communication styles were discussed resulted in a tense verbal exchange between a Black and a White participant, and is the origin of the comments quoted at the beginning of this blog. This quote became the primary lesson of the exercise. The professor used this example during a lecture as part of a panel that I shared with her, to open up space to further interrogate the intersections of race and gender in messages about promoting health among young women. While race may have been the reason to bring the groups together, the underlying source of the conflict in the exchange between these two young women was cultural difference.

Last week I was in France with my wife, Angele, and we discussed the mission of U-RISE and some of the issues I would like to engage as polylogue. During our conversation, she shared with me an experience that took me back to the story above. For years, Angele has led a program to prepare her students to study in France. One of the most important part of students’ preparation to study in another culture is to learn about the culture of what would become their temporary home-particularly because they live with host families for a semester or a year. As part of the preparation, she presents to them certain French cultural ways of being and knowing that are particularly important for these young students to understand. One of these has to do with the way the French interact; French are very direct with you about what they think and feel without intending to offend or devalue. It is the French way. The students needed to understand that their French host families will be very direct with them in communications, as they are with their family members– as would classmates and most people they would come in contact with–and these students should not take it personally or as an affront on their character. As a way of trying to understand what her professor, was saying to them, a White female student asked rather casually “you mean, they are not two faced like us?”. This remark was not meant to be self-critical of her American culture or as the first case above might illustrate, her White American culture. Rather, she was simply making a statement of fact to illustrate her new understanding of the French culture as very different from her White American culture. This rather innocent comment illustrates a deeper understanding of the question of one cultural agent always saying what is on her mind and the other never saying what is on her mind. The difference is that this comment was made in reference to global cultural spaces.

Two faced? This question of expressing one view in one space, yet turning around and expressing an opposite view on the same subject in another space remains at the core of the legacy and currency of distrust and suspicion in racial and gendered spaces. The question of trust across identity spaces, whether racial, gender or global, is particularly most revealing and yet pivotal in leadership. I have served many years in academic leadership positions with a most recent position as a Dean of a college. I submit that this matter of two-face in leadership was one of the most salient communication issues that I observed that separates Blacks and Whites leaders generally. Over the years and particularly in the last few, I observed that, generally speaking, my co-leaders who are Black tended to voice their likes or dislikes in the presence of a more senior leader. Typically, their views of these leaders are consistent with what they would say about them in their absence. Whereas for my White co-leaders, the experience has been the opposite. My White co-leaders who actually dislike, and in some cases despise their leader, tended to voice statements of support in the presence of these leaders, such as during meetings. As soon as the meetings were over, and in the absence of such a leader, disparaging comments about this same leader would rain down to the point of active expressions of angry at the leader. The question of being two-faced is problematic whether it is in racial or gender exchange. But when this is happening at the level of leadership, it creates and deepens distrust and could lead to institutional dysfunction that in turn could widen different forms of inequities in society. “Two-face” in leadership is clearly an issue not addressed in books and manuals that teach about leadership, yet it should be at the core of initiatives for racial healing, global partnership and transformative leadership.

Our society has become more and more diverse and we are training and expecting the younger generation to lead in multicultural spaces. How about we make this our first communal conversation – our polylogue – by responding to or commenting on these two questions based on your view and/or experience.

Is being ‘two-faced’ cultural, racial and/or gendered?

What lessons in leadership should we learn from the experiences shared above?

Please share your thoughts?