Conversations Beyond the Performative

“The heart of justice is truth telling, seeing ourselves and the world the way it is rather than the way we want it to be.”
– bell hooks, All About Love


In the spirit of a nation that must be bridging, talking, and healing together, we have decided to launch a Blue Engine conversation series that we are calling Conversations Beyond the Performative*. Over the coming months, we will share a set of deeply personal, honest conversations with members of our Blue Engine community about their experiences with race, privilege, and power. By elevating different individual journeys, we aim to show what the journey looks and feels like for different members of the Blue Engine community–the gritty, messy, non-linear path of evolution. Our hope is that you will hear different perspectives and perhaps see yourself somewhere in this project; that you’ll reflect on your own mindsets and actions; and that you’ll join us in dialogue about the ways in which racist ideas permeate our institutions, lives, and classrooms. 

Transformed individuals are paramount to the kind of change and justice our country’s youngest generation so deserves. And transformation comes from learning, listening, and proactively working to change yourself, alongside the system. We have to be radical truth-tellers if we want the world to become a more just and equitable place for all of us.

The project launched on November 13, 2020 and will run through the end of the year. Check this page for new perspectives or join our mailing list to receive updates directly.


A white man reflects on race, power and privilege

Q: Who are you? 

My name is Seth Miran and I am the Senior Director of Talent & Operations at Blue Engine. I identify as a straight, white, able-bodied, upper-middle class male. In short, I enjoy pretty much every privilege there is and it’s incumbent upon me to constantly remind myself of that fact. 

 

Q: When did you first become aware of your own racial identity?

I am shocked to admit that the first time I really became aware of my racial identity was immediately after college during a DEI training session for my first teaching job. It was the first time anyone had really ever asked me about my identity. In retrospect, it should have been a sign of my privilege that I was able to walk through life up until that point, free to be my authentic self, without fear of judgement, physical harm, psychological harm, or harassment. I remember sitting in that session and hearing other people talk about how critical certain pieces of their identity were to them, and thinking about how different that was from my lived experience. At the time, I still wasn’t able to connect my identity to my privilege and the systems of oppression that persist to this day in America. 

 

Q: What is your earliest memory of seeing, hearing, or experiencing a racist idea?

I have two memories that stand out for different reasons. The first is when I was in elementary school. I remember walking around the neighborhood with my mom and making a passing comment about how, “people in Africa all eat bugs.” She immediately told me that wasn’t true and that I shouldn’t say things like that (in a nicer and more tolerant way than my words might imply). I have no clue where I got that idea, but it is a helpful reminder of how implicitly and easily stereotypes get ingrained in our minds at a young age.

The second memory is from when I was in middle school. One of my family’s favorite activities around Christmastime was driving around to see Christmas lights and decorations in our neighborhood. My grandparents happened to be visiting so we took them one year. As we approached one house, there was a large decoration with cutouts of five Black boys caroling in a choir. My grandfather said, “Look, it’s a basketball team.” At the time, I didn’t recognize this was a racist comment or idea and just laughed at the joke. It is another reminder of how and why racism is so pervasive and ingrained in our society. It is not just overt white supremacists who say racist things and sustain racist systems.

 

Q: How is your understanding of racism, and what it means in the United States in particular, changing?

Over the past 5-10 years, and the past 1-2 years at Blue Engine in particular, I have come to understand that racism isn’t just an active stance that people take. You don’t have to be an avowed white supremacist to be racist. In fact, it is far more common for well-meaning white people to support and perpetuate racism through their silence and complicity in maintaining racist systems, policies, and beliefs.

Even still, I find myself becoming defensive at times and have to remind myself that acknowledging the existence of racism is not a personal attack on me; it is instead an acknowledgement of the sustained attacks that non-white people in this country experience on a daily basis. And, to borrow language from Blue Engine, “neutrality in this fight is a myth.”

 

Q: You talked about an evolution in your understanding where you came to the realization that well-meaning white people commonly support and perpetuate racism through their silence and complicity in racist systems. The act of acknowledging that is an important bend in the road that a lot of white people struggle to or are unwilling to take. What got you there? 

It took time for me to get there, and having at-bats with the idea helped. One conversation with my wife in particular stands out. She was engaging in the Undoing Racism training with her staff at the time, and at home we were discussing the idea that all white people are inherently racist byproducts of a racist system. That early conversation didn’t fully bring me around, but it planted an important seed. 

Frankly, later coming to Blue Engine helped the shift along because here I’m surrounded by colleagues who push that conversation forward in an environment where we are expected to interrogate our beliefs. Of course, there is also the steady agonizing trickle of stories about all of the ways in which Black people in particular are experiencing everything from marginalization to murder. 

There is no singular event to point toit’s more of a steady evolution where it has become harder and harder to ignore. You have more conversations about it and you inch forward to the realization that well-intentioned white people who maintain racist systems by staying quiet or participating in them are just as harmful as outspoken white supremacists.

 

Q: What I’m hearing you say is that you put yourself or found yourself in environments and in the company of other people who challenged your assumptions and promoted your growth. There’s no change in a vacuum. What would you say to someone without those inputs in their life?

Seek them out. Have a conversation with someone you trust to get yourself a little closer to being able to see other perspectives and begin to be more open and aware. You need to be uncomfortable to engage in this journey. The burden cannot be on the oppressed to lead and to teach white people how to unlearn racist ideas. So many systems and institutions are designed to make white people comfortable at the great expense of the livelihood and well-being of people of color.

 

Q: Let’s talk about the defensiveness piece, because I think it’s something that many if not all white people, regardless of how they tend to show up on the spectrum of anti-racist practice, experience. Defensiveness is one of those basic human ego-centric emotions that none of us is immune from, but as applied to the project of combating racism in this country, becomes gravely dangerous. You’re a human being, but you’re also a white man in this work, and a leader in the workplace who struggles with this. What advice would you give to others who struggle with defensiveness about their whiteness?

Own your defensiveness. It’s a natural human emotion, but it’s an impermissible barrier to the work. Personally, going to therapy has been extremely helpful in flexing the muscle of understanding how or what I’m feeling in a moment. That’s something that white people have to learn to do. If you’re going to be uncomfortable, and to do this work you must, you will get defensive. It’s far more important to step back and acknowledge that emotion and unpack where that’s coming from so that you can show up productively. 

Something else that has helped me is thinking about how a system impacts individual behaviors within that system versus the idea of personal choice. There are broader systems at play that influence our behavior. As a white person, being racist doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in Charlottesville with tiki torches. We are all operating within racist systems and structures. The first thing we have to do as white people is recognize and acknowledge the racist systems around us. What you do with that information, however, is individual choice. If you know that you are operating as a white person within a systemically racist structure, will you continue to do things that perpetuate and maintain that system?

 

Q: How is your thinking and sense of identity evolving regarding what it means to be “not racist” versus anti-racist?

For far too long, I think I assumed that because I was doing work in Black and brown communities on behalf of Black and brown children, that it meant that I wasn’t racist. As I’ve grown and spent time reflecting on this, I’ve come to understand that racism is part of a system that pervades everything in America. And so, even if I have the best of intentions, by participating in and propping up certain systems, I’m actively contributing to the perpetuation of racism. For example, if I’m committed to creating a more just and inclusive education system in my day-to-day work, but I’m also still willing to send my children to a predominantly white school, there’s a disconnect that I have to reckon with. 

 

Q: I can imagine a white person reading your response, identifying with your experience, and thinking “but the systems I’m part of aren’t racist.” As white people, we’re given the eternal gift of unmitigated ignorance. What led to your understanding that you were participating in and propping up certain systems, thereby perpetuating racism?  It’s one of those things that once you see it, once the veil is lifted, you can’t unsee it. What helped you see that clearly?

There are a few moments that come to mind. When I was a teacher, I took my kids on college trips to my alma mater, Middlebury College, which is a classic bastion of whiteness and privilege. I remember on the first trip my students were literally counting people who looked like them as we walked around campus, and they could do it on one hand. That was a big moment of realization for me. I had been so deeply ingrained in it and I didn’t even realize it. I could look at it objectively in a different way because I was watching my students do this, having a completely different experience with the exact same campus. 

I have two daughters and having your own kids and making home and school decisions, balancing what you believe is best for them with what you believe is best for society, is not always simple. I have to pause and ask myself, Am I really willing to live out my values? Part of the next step for me in my anti-racism journey is figuring out how to walk that line. We moved out of the city to a suburb in Westchester that is predominantly white. You try your very best to find communities that are diverse, that have schools that are diverse, but it’s hard. I still wrestle with it. 

 

Q: Each of us plays many rolesparent, leader, family member, educator, colleague, congregant, neighbor, etc.in our daily lives. What does your anti-racism practice look like in each of the spaces that you occupy?

I am the father to two young girls, and so I think a lot these days about how I am raising them to be anti-racist. I struggle with this a lot and think I still fall short on most days, but this is the primary lens through which I view my anti-racism practice currently. 

Specifically, I think about this on two fronts. First, in what ways am I modeling for them what it means to be actively anti-racist in my own behaviors and the way I talk about everything from global events to what happened with them in school today? Second, in what ways am I actively creating and seeking out discomfort for them and our family? How am I acknowledging difference and talking about it in a way that helps lay the groundwork for them to understand racism in a way that is developmentally appropriate? Given our many privileges, I’ve been thinking a lot about how it’s incumbent upon us to consciously create time and space for discussions about difference and racism in a way that is different from the lived reality of Black and brown families who have no choice but to address this at an early age. 

When I mess up, I do my best to listen, avoid becoming defensive, hear the other person’s perspective, and acknowledge what they are saying. I have to admit that I am still not nearly as bold and courageous as I should be in calling out racist ideas when other people express them.

 

Q: I think a lot of people would self-evaluate themselves that way. Why do you think that is? What is holding you back? What might embolden you?

This problem feels deeply personal to me. Growing up, harmony was prized in my family. Even today, it is still easier for me to put myself in situations where I will feel uncomfortable through self-reflection than to create discomfort for other people through interruption. To me, it feels central to who I am as a person, encompassing all the ways in which I engage with the world rather than a specific reluctance about difficult anti-racism work. 

 

Q: I’ve often wondered about this. It’s almost as if harmony as a virtue is deeply ingrained in us for a reason, to tamp down productive conflict and stifle change. 

It’s something I need to continue to work on and reflect on so that I can grow. There are things that I will say in conversation with Black friends or white friends who are similarly-minded that I am far less comfortable saying when I don’t know where someone stands. That’s a big next-step for me. 

 

Q: I want to talk about how your personal anti-racism journey informs your work as a talent leader. Blue Engine has a set of organizational values written through a DEI lens that no doubt informs your team’s work on a high-level as well as on an operational level. But how has your anti-racism journey impacted how you lead your team, how you make decisions as a team, who you hire and why, how candidates are evaluated, and so forth?

The most important thing that someone can do as a leader in an organization focused on talent is constantly interrogate, ask questions, and push assumptions. It means constant reflection. I have the benefit of starting to work on talent at a time when Blue Engine is much further along in its journey than it was in years past. We have these strong anti-racist organizational values, but the question for me is how do we look at data and process to ensure that we are actually living out those values? 

For the first time this year, we’ve undertaken an equity audit where we look at compensation, promotion, and titles to find out if we are actually practicing what we preach. Are our compensation and processes equitable? That’s a scary undertaking, because what if they’re not? What does that say about you? Your work? It goes back to understanding that we operate in inherently racist systems and structures. Even if we aren’t actively trying, there are times when we are going to perpetuate them through inaction. 

Going forward, we also need to do this type of audit every year as part of our planning process before making final decisions about compensation and promotions. To be truly effective, this can’t only be a backward-looking post-mortem; we need to get it baked into our processes at the point of decision-making. This is a really tangible example of how my own anti-racism journey has informed my work in the talent space. As a white man, it’s imperative that I constantly push past my own blindspots to see what’s underneath the iceberg, and the decisions that I am involved in at work are not immune from that.

 

Q: You see a lot of talent leaders take this colorblind “best person for the job” approach to hiring, and maybe there are some demographic targets for the applicant pool, but there are two big problems with that tack if the decision-makers are predominantly white. First, the measuring stick is almost certainly white. Second, anti-racism work requires white people to give up power, to give up a seat at the table, to step back so that BIPOC can step into their power. How do you and your team think about this?

We have to constantly push ourselves to do better and to do more on the staff side. We’re currently hiring for a grant writer, which in our organization is a senior Development role. It’s no news to anyone that non-profit fundraising needs to be more diverse. We are operating within a system where it is not a particularly diverse field, resulting in a fairly non-diverse candidate pool. So we ask ourselves, how do we think differently about the way we source candidates? We still haven’t figured it out. I am proud of the work that Blue Engine has done to examine and rebuild the way we think about competencies and candidate evaluation criteria. Unchecked, these processes at many organizations embody white supremacy culture in a litany of ways. This trend of hiring for “grit” and grind culture, someone who will “do whatever it takes,” has to be abolished. 

In the talent space, we have to do the work on the front end to look at how candidates are being evaluated to ensure we’re not relying on a set of criteria that advantages certain folks over others. We recently re-evaluated our stance on requiring a 4-year college degree for employment at Blue Engine and decided that it wasn’t something we wanted to blindly set as a requirement for all roles as a matter of course. If we are going to claim that we occupy this space in part to knock down systemic barriers that have historically held people of color back, why would we continue to perpetuate one of those barriers within our organization?

 

Q: What is next for you and your anti-racist journey?

As are many people, I find myself struggling with the gravity and enormity of the pervasiveness of racism in American society, and also what I as an individual can do to combat it. At times, it can feel like the problem is so large that it is paralyzing and I wonder whether anything I do matters. At the same time, I know that if I don’t do small things on a daily basis, it won’t change anything. In short, I constantly feel like I’m not doing enough but also question whether my individual actions can lead to the large-scale change our country needs.

Given all of the privilege I bring to this work, I need to be constantly pushed out of my comfort zone and forced to confront realities that I don’t see on a daily basis. I struggle with ensuring that the responsibility for opening my eyes to the injustices of the world doesn’t fall on the shoulders of the oppressed, and so I need to do a better job of actively seeking out experiences and perspectives that are different from my own so I can continue learning, growing, and doing my part to disrupt systems of oppression at their root.


*Participating in this project requires energyto reflect on ideas and personal experiences centered on race, power and privilegethat we acknowledge and appreciate. We specifically recognize the emotional labor involved for members of our team who identify as Black and/or People of Color; this reflection process is fundamentally different and perhaps more laborious for them than for our white colleagues. The unrestrained honesty, sincerity, and vulnerability is much appreciated and grounded in the collective belief that, by sharing these reflections, each of us will see ourselves, reflect on our own mindsets, join in the dialogue, and commit to actions and that will ultimately lead to justice and equity in our institutions, lives and classrooms.