What do radical relationships look like in America? Consider an episode of Black-ish in which Dre Johnson finds a girl in an elevator.
Dre begins the scene with a question: “What truly makes America great?” Then he steps towards the office elevator, where he finds a little white girl, alone and on the verge of crying. After frantically looking around, Dre, a Black man, decides to skip the elevator ride rather than risk being caught with her and face any potential misunderstanding.
His white coworkers are annoyed with him after they watch the interaction on a security camera. His boss declares that this girl has lost her faith in humanity and that Dre cannot use the “race card” to get out of this situation. It isn’t until two of his Black colleagues also run into the same girl and respond in the same manner that his actions prove justified.
As Dre explains, “We don’t have the luxury of being helpful because we’re instantly seen as threats.”
After watching the video but before the honest conversation, Dre’s coworkers goad him, saying, “That is how serial killers are born.” After hearing the story that evening, even his wife says she is “married to a monster.” But Dre’s father (like his Black male colleagues) understands. “As a Black man, you can never be too careful,” he says.
These interactions reveal the power of radical relationships, especially at work. In Dre’s office, although people don’t always see eye to eye, each voice is heard and respected and each viewpoint is considered.
Now imagine a workplace scenario where it’s not safe to have real conversations. Any mention of race is seen as pulling the race card. Instant value judgments are based only on the boss’s or the majority’s perceptions and biases. There’s one way to view every situation.
In that kind of workplace, no amount of guidelines or diversity training or box-checking will lead to authentic inclusion, because there’s no room for authentic relationships. There’s no safety in vulnerability, only fear of retribution.
That’s why we’re here: to help blow up the status quo of long-held beliefs and norms. Designing a human-focused, inclusive community requires us to approach relationships differently, to consider who we are in relationship with and how we relate to them. It’s difficult, challenging, and time-consuming, but if we do the work, we can build something new together that’s better than anything we’ve had before.
Let’s Go Old School: Rethinking Relationships
To reset our approach to relationships, we’re going back (waaaay back) to the old school. Why? It’s not to revisit that one playground incident you’d rather forget. We’re going back to childhood because we children can teach us the importance of honesty, cooperation, and justice.
As humans, we’re born with innate abilities to sense injustice and to collaborate with others. In a study in Nature magazine, researchers described how children as young as six years old can spontaneously find ways to collaborate. Using a sophisticated water distribution mechanism, the researchers challenged the children to maintain a water source. In no time, the children were able to generate inclusive rules among themselves on how to use this resource and distribute the rewards afterward.
Despite this innate ability, coordination among adults often fails. Why? One of the strongest barriers to cooperation is the simple lack of communication. Building a bridge between races through dialog will support collaboration. As shown by the experiment, we are naturals at cooperation and collaboration if given the opportunity.
Including all the voices that we need to form radical relationships will require parking our egos at the door. We could sugarcoat this, but we’re not going to. You have to intentionally engage with people who don’t view things as you do, even people who you think are wrong and/or who get too much credit for their opinions.
You have to be OK with including inexperienced people on important committees because you value their perspective over your need to seem important. You have to be OK with acknowledging that your perspective is more limited than you think.
Finally, inviting people into radical relationships requires admitting that you aren’t so good at this radical relationship thing yet and inviting others to hold you accountable, even though you don’t want to be perceived as needing help.
Talk less, listen more. Show vulnerability. It’s that simple—if you invite the right people into the conversation and give them a safe place to share.