An Open Letter to White Males January 1991

Long ago a Black Puerto Rican man said to me that the organizations and institutions which are run by whites will go on just as they are with little change so long as the decision makers continue to believe, perceive, decide, and act as they have always believed, perceived, decided, and acted. That conversation illumined for me an important connection between individual and institutional change.

Since it is most often white males, like myself, who are in positions of organizational decision-making, we are going to have to decide whether or not we want to contribute to or block the implementation of change. As we move into the twenty-first century, if there are not significant changes in the way our institutions operate, many will eventually become anomalies, outmoded, left behind in the flux of increasing diversity. That diversity, molded in the population of the future, makes change both certain and necessary. The demographic diversity may come faster than change will be accelerated, but the choice about the speed of change is partly up to us. A “train” is coming down the track; our major decision is whether to board it or to watch it go by.

The changes that will be needed are both institutional and personal. There are some changes coming in me and in the institutions where I have a voice. I can control to a large extent my own openness to change; for the institutions it will be more difficult. Institutions can last a long time without change, but like white or male-only clubs, they eventually become extinct. More motivating than the threat of extinction, beckoning us somewhere “beyond” the change is an enriched life for individuals and for our institutions. The remarkably diverse century into which we are moving will require me to change my ways of perceiving, believing, deciding, and acting. As I and other perceivers, believers, deciders, and actors work together, we will develop new institutions the nature of which we cannot even envision today.

Recently I had an experience which “signified” for me some of the blocks to the changes which I believe will come. I was working with an African-American woman in a series of workshop sessions for a staff which had identified some internal problems as race-related. At one point I presented a theory about a particular form of communications, which participants were asked to practice in a skill-building exercise. After I had presented the theory, a black man said, “fm not sure I understand all of that, and the parts that I understand, I’m not sure I agree with; it’s not my way of puttin’ information out there.” Nevertheless, he was willing to participate, and he proceeded to do so, quite helpfully.

After the session was over, I had to do some searching in my head and heart. I had used a theory with which I felt comfortable; it came from a context of a white, male, and middle class view about how to communicate. I still think the theory is a good one, and it has proved helpful to many people of different races and cultures. Nonetheless I now found myself asking why I had implicitly assumed that the way of communicating on which it is based is necessarily the best or most helpful one for all people. Clearly, my black friend had not found it so. He grew up in an environment of street survival for the early part of his life, and had learned a whole different way of communicating, of “puttin’ information out.” How can I assume that his way is inferior to mine? Might it not be possible, if he and I were to be on the same staff together, that I might profit much from learning his way of communicating? Projecting myself into an imagined staff relationship with him over a period of time, it is probable that he and I might develop some new ways of communicating which neither of us can articulate now because we don’t know what they will be. Given a staff of people of greater diversity than the two of us represent, many different ways of believing, perceiving, deciding, and acting would evolve out of a willingness to learn from each other and to let develop what as a group or staff we found most helpful. It might mean that at different times and in varied situations we would exercise very different styles of making decisions or relating around staff responsibilities.

The kind of change I am suggesting here will be threatening to some, because it will necessitate new learning and in some cases whole new ways of doing things. If we begin with an assumption that all people from all cultures have something to contribute to our multicultural style, then what emerges on the “other side” of change will be more productive than what we know now. The process of getting to that new place will be difficult at times, but learning to believe, decide, perceive, and act in new ways adaptive to a multicultural world can be exciting and fun. Learning is always stimulating; by its nature “to learn” implies growth and growth is better than stagnation.

What can I learn from this experience about the future of working in an increasingly multicultural setting? First I need to understand the huge cultural gap represented in the theory I had presented, which originated in a white, male, middle-class way of dealing with information exchange between people, and the way in which the young black male had learned to “put information out” from his long experience of street survival. Across that gap, there was no reason for me to assume that the way I had learned to exchange information was better than or more helpful than his way. Second, I need to begin to listen to the “other” person’s way, and as we work together over the months, some new and very different ways of “sharing information” may emerge.

When we enter into collegial relationships with a spectrum of people whose patterns of perceiving, believing, deciding, and acting are defined in part by significant cultural differences, it is my prediction that some very new ways of doing any of these things will emerge. The same will be true of learning theories by which educators plan, of ways of managing, of doing research, indeed of practically any human endeavor. The possibility of change will be constant, and that brings both threat and excitement.

The “blocks” to changes are several, but are primarily in the heads and hearts and habits of the decision-makers. Since that group is primarily white males, I address this letter to my friends in that category.