I spent the last few days engaging in conversations about the recent NFL “protests.” One the one hand, I’m glad I did it, even if it made me less productive at work! I do believe, broadly speaking, that having conversations about injustice is a positive. It’s our civic responsibility.
On the other hand, I was really disappointed by the level of denial by many of those I interacted with. Most frustrating were the “Yes, BUT…” folks:
“Yes, I believe in their right to protest, BUT…”
“BUT their way of protesting is upsetting people!”
They couldn’t let go of the “BUT.” Not even a little bit.
I wonder why people who aren’t facing oppression consistently think that there’s a correct way to protest? Where is this magical playbook that protesters should be utilizing? Is there a webinar perhaps?
Protest is about disruption. In a business context, disruption seems perfectly okay for many folks (think of Uber and AirBnB, for example). But when people protesting against police violence and racism apply this (quietly, I might add–you would think that NFL players taking a knee were actually kneeling on the flag itself), it’s suddenly not okay. It’s as if people fighting for their lives should seek permission from the status quo. How did that work out for the revolutionaries at the Boston Tea Party? Some of whom, by the way, dressed as Native Americans while committing this protest against British taxation. But I digress…
Also, I found it fascinating that most people I interacted with around this issue wouldn’t actually say “police violence” or “racism,” even when I noted it. Yet they would consistently mention how people may feel disrespected by the act of protest.
Again, the overwhelming position was:
“They have a right to protest (but I won’t name the specific injustices they’re talking about) but some folks feel it’s inappropriate/offensive/distracts from the meaning of the protest (but I won’t name the specific injustices they’re talking about), therefore they should try a different form of protest (BUT I WON’T NAME THE SPECIFIC INJUSTICES THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT).”
And I should be okay with your lack of comfort in confronting systemic injustice? You didn’t come to help, you came to *whine* and be accommodated, and I won’t do that.
From Robert Jeffress, Pastor of First Baptist Dallas:
“These players ought to be thanking God that they live in a country where they’re not only free to earn millions of dollars every year, but they’re also free from the worry of being shot in the head for taking the knee like they would be in North Korea.”
From Paul Smith, the chief of the volunteer fire department in Cecil Township, Pennsylvania:
“[Steelers coach Mike] Tomlin just added himself to the list of no-good N****rs. Yes, I said it.”
And from Col. Kriste Kibbey Etue, the director of the Michigan State Police:
“Dear NFL: we will not support millionaire ingrates who hate America and disrespect our armed forces and veterans. Who wins a football game has zero impact on our lives. Who fights for and defends our nation has every impact on our lives. We stand with the heroes, not a bunch of rich, entitled, arrogant, ungrateful, anti-American degenerate.”
“Signed: We the People.”
These are people in positions of authority and power, acting in an atrocious fashion. These are “leaders” of organizations and people. More importantly, their perceptions can have a real world impact on whether or not they will treat me and those like me as a human being. Their bias (esp. the two I cited which are public servants) can literally kill, as it did for Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, and so many others. And yet, taking a knee is the greater offense.
When employees are complaining about workplace issues (or issues outside of work that makes its way into it), telling them to be grateful is counterproductive. That negative perception of those you’re supposed to be leading will color (pun intended) your interactions with them in the form of explicit or implicit bias. This could result in negative consequences, such as bad publicity, termination, or a lawsuit.
Effective leadership is about recognizing and embracing disruption, even if you don’t agree with it. It’s not about comfort. If you want people to stop protesting (at work or elsewhere) find a way to listen, assess, and address the core issue. Otherwise, you’re just part of the problem.