Knowing when to say yes and when to say no

Many years ago, I was approached by a company that wanted me to be the representative of their coaching method in Finland. As a part of that process they invited me to take their test to find out exactly what kind of a person I was. It was a relatively short questionnaire and I admit I can’t really remember very much about it, except that based on the questions you were defined either as a ‘yes-sayer’ or a ‘no-sayer’. In the discussion that followed the test, it became clear that yes-sayers were considered good and desirable in the work environment, no-sayers weren’t. 

I was told I was a no-sayer.

I found this mildly amusing, although also somewhat irritating because based on the test they obviously didn’t know me at all. On the contrary, I have always had a hard time saying no, to a point of it actually being problematic for me, and especially around that time in my career I was definitely not one to say no in work situations. 

It seemed, however, that critical thought, which is so important in any situation, was easily translated to no-saying. Needless to say, in that situation I did have the presence of mind to say no and I didn’t take on the representation of their method. It was an easy decision, flattered as I was by their interest in me. I just didn’t believe in it. 

But always saying yes, being a yes-sayer as that coaching company would have it, isn’t necessarily always good. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard mainly people in the corporate world talk about how they don’t want to work with people who always say no to anything new and innovative and that they want to have people around them who say yes. Yes, I can see the appeal of that, but let’s also not underestimate the value of having people around you who can think critically. 

I’ve actually had to practise saying no. I have easily ended up taking on too much, or just been dragged into things I don’t really want to be a part of just because saying no has been difficult for me. A former colleague of mine used to celebrate the times she managed to say no and made a mark in her calendar. 

But just like always saying yes, saying no all the time isn’t good either. If we always say no we never take any risks and we never find ourselves on unexpected but meaningful and potentially successful paths. We never do anything out of our comfort zone and we may miss important opportunities that may not have been on the horizon.

The trick is to know when to say yes and when to say no. In fact, a wise friend of mine, Amanda Backholm, said the other day that knowing when to say yes and when to say no is actually a superpower. 

Those who follow me know that when I’m not doing research, I paint on silk and it has become a second job for me. It’s deeply fulfilling, not to mention fun, and I’m thankful every day that I had the presence of mind to just let it happen when the opportunity presented itself. I ignored all those voices of doubt in my head and I quickly said yes to queries of commissions and exhibitions before I could change my mind. 

I don’t always get it right, I’m not sure whether I have that superpower or not. Maybe that is something I will know only when looking back at this part of my life. 

However, getting it right every time isn’t crucial. Every once in a while, you will miss an opportunity you should have taken, or turned something down that you maybe shouldn’t have. But don’t worry. Mistakes can be corrected, minds can and should be changed if needed, and new opportunities always come a long. There are many roads out there that you can take (if you want to), you just have to keep your eyes and your mind open in order to notice them. 

And if you just don’t want to, that’s fine too.

Whoever coined the expression ‘it goes without saying’ had no idea what they were talking about

I read the other day that there has been a study that has found that while the world as we knew it was turned upside down last spring when we were hit with the pandemic, people have felt much more tired and have had a harder time coping this spring. I can really relate. I think we’re all pretty tired of the situation. Some have had an easier time of it during the pandemic and some have really struggled, but we’re all tired. Although I actually felt relief that I was forced to slow down last spring (despite the scariness of it all), now I just want it to be over. 

Those of us who have jobs that can easily be done from home have been especially lucky. A lot of people have really liked the opportunity to work from home and early studies found that most people hoped they could continue to do so after the pandemic was over. However, now studies have found that people feel lonely and they miss their colleagues, which really isn’t so surprising. It doesn’t mean that working from home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It just means that too much of a good thing isn’t necessarily great. And then there’s that pandemic fatigue I mentioned. 

Then yesterday I read something interesting in my local newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet. Columnist Annika Sandlund talks about how companies are calling their employees back to work at the office now the many countries are starting to lift their Covid restrictions. She cites a study conducted by Best Practice Institute that has found that while 90% of employees don’t want to go back to work in the office fulltime, 83% of managers want them too. This isn’t perhaps that surprising, reinventing how we work has after all been hardest on managers. They have had to rethink the way they manage.

This has led to a lot of improvements in work routines. Sandlund talks about how employees at Apple have found that working remotely has had a lot of advantages like spending less (or no) time commuting, having more time with family, being better for the environment and leading to better communication. Now here is where I come to my point. Sandlund found this last bit quite surprising; that communication was better when people worked remotely. 

I don’t find it surprising at all. On the contrary. If you don’t have all your people gathered around you, you have to make a point of telling them what you want them to know. This has been part of the reinvention of work routines that managers and other employees have had to do. And I think it’s great. 

The thing is, many seem to believe that if people physically work in the same office, information will pretty much flow automatically. I mean we see each other, we sit together in meetings, we bump into each other at the coffee machine, we strike up conversations in the hallway. That should do it, right? 

Wrong.

People really don’t automatically get to know things by just being in close proximity to each other. If you don’t make a point of systematically spelling things out and doing so in ways that enable people to actually receive and understand the information, they really won’t know what is going on. 

During my years as a consultant, one thing that almost all clients struggled with was challenges with communication. Employees didn’t feel informed even though employers felt that they shared information all the time. Apparently, many weren’t doing that great a job of it. Not until they were forced to restructure and reinvent their way of communicating when no one could come in to the office all of a sudden. 

I’m pleased that communication has got better for many. Let’s keep it that way regardless of how we start working once this pandemic is over. 

And let’s hope that’s soon!

You’re on the right track

I feel like I just scaled a mountain. I launched my webstore yesterday. 

Getting the webstore set up has been on my to do list since last summer when I first decided it was what I wanted to do. When I first started looking into it, I felt like I was standing in the middle of a jungle and had no idea in which direction to start walking. I just didn’t know where to start and I suddenly acutely missed all the tech support departments I have worked with and have had access to during my professional life, departments that I am embarrassed to say I took for granted. Now that I am on my own and have to do every single thing myself, I finally appreciate what I no longer have. Little did I know the amount of work that goes into what they always make seem to effortless. (I apologize profusely to all the wonderful tech support professionals who have helped me over the years!)

Fast forward to the present. I can tell you I have really learned a lot. I have had to figure it all out: shipping solutions, payment methods, return policies… not to mention the actual software that I had to get my head around just to get the information on to my website. At times, it has been really frustrating and I have all but changed my mind about the whole thing. When I haven’t been able to figure something out or struggled to get something to work to the point of it feeling almost hopeless, I have learned that it is best to just stop, take a break, and come back the next day.

It was at a time like this when I received an uncannily well-timed email from Susan David. You may have heard of her. She is a psychologist and an expert on emotional agility. I have signed up for her newsletter. If you want you can do so too here

This particular newsletter was about emotional difficulty and how it isn’t necessarily an indicator of anything actually being wrong. Susan talks about how one shouldn’t mistake “an uncomfortable part of the creative process for a symptom of dysfunction that must be stamped out.” In reality, according to her, it actually often means we are on the right track. 

She had my full attention. Did the fact that I couldn’t seem to get my head around how the shipping template worked just be a part of my creative process? It was stressing me out, to say the least. However, when I read the newsletter, banal as it may sound, it was like Susan was telling me not to let it get to me, that feeling the way I was, is completely normal. It wasn’t just me, and it didn’t mean that I was on the wrong track. Thank you for that, Susan!

Her advice is to first let yourself process these emotions. They are valid and they are bound to emerge. Second, she recommends to try to reframe these experiences not as roadblocks but as evidence that you are actually taking steps to achieve your goals. 

Well, that was definitely what I was doing, I was setting up a webstore for crying out loud! And, as it turned out, the next morning, after having slept on it, I had a light-bulb moment and figured the whole shipping thing out. 

And I did it! Yesterday I finally crossed ‘webstore’ off my to do list and I can tell you, it felt pretty great. 

So check it out! You can find it at www.theartplacefinland.com

Learning about men and what they have to live up to

When I set out to research men, I admittedly felt a little daunted by the task. I mean, would I as a woman be able to really understand what it means to be a man? Would I be able to give an accurate account of the opting out and in experiences of the men in my research project? This is something that gender scholars spend a lot of time thinking about. For example, how do I as a researcher affect the research and how does my position and perspective color the way I see the world? These are important things to reflect over. Although researchers strive to be as neutral as possible in the face of their task, we are all human and how we understand and interpret things are invariably affected by who we are.

Anyway, so when I embarked on my research project on men opting out, I set out with the intention of learning as much as I could about men and what it is like to be a man from as many sources as possible. I basically read everything about men that I could get my hands on, from research to fiction, hoping to become enlightened and better prepared for my task. I was expecting to learn a lot.

Well, the feeling of a new world opening up to me never really happened. It was almost a bit anticlimactic because I kept looking for that source that would provide me with some Earth-shattering insights, but it never came. I was starting to wonder whether I was missing something or just not seeing whatever must have been right in front of me all along. 

I mean as a sociologist and a person who has just always been interested in people and psychology in general, I already knew a lot about the societal expectations we place on men. I mean who hasn’t heard about what a ‘real’ man is and should or shouldn’t to. You know what I mean, things like men don’t cry, men shouldn’t show weakness, the strong silent type… But I thought there must be something more. 

Okay to be fair, I did learn a lot. For example, I did learn about social codes among men that I had no idea existed. That is, how men interact with each other. But on a whole, I have to say I was really struck by how stereotypical everything I was reading about really was. 

The social expectations on men are to this day really very one dimensional. Men are in a nutshell expected to be manly, strong, competitive, stoic, unafraid and definitely not show too much emotion or any weakness of any kind. The media depiction of men, whatever the genre, is also very stereotypical. It was actually quite disheartening to tell you the truth. The reason is that I know as a researcher who has interviewed men and as a person who knows men that these one-dimensional ideals of what a man should be don’t even nearly describe what real men in the real meaning of the word really are like. They are also difficult to live up to.

Men and women alike are multidimensional. We are all human, and part of being human is experiencing the whole range of emotions that are available to us. We are strong and we are weak, and we are all vulnerable at certain times in different ways. We all need love and closeness and we all have meaningful relationships we want to nurture. And we all cry. It’s part of being human.

The fact that men and boys are discouraged to partake in much of this saddens me. Researching men has taught me that social masculine ideals are very problematic in many ways as they foster violence on many levels in society (including in the home and at work) and have a negative and sometimes detrimental impact on men’s health. I put my hope in younger generations. Research has also taught me that, thankfully, there are a lot of young men who are breaking these unrealistic and unhealthy masculine norms.  

The truth is, that talking about the difference between men and women is actually not really very helpful at all. Even though there are biological differences, obviously, the actual differences in what we are like as people and what we need are really not that great. There are greater differences within the sexes than between the sexes. All men are certainly not alike, nor are all women, and thank goodness for that! So, the idea that all men should act in a certain way is simply ludicrous.

On that note, I have been going over the proofs for my book Men Do It Too: Opting Out and In this week. I don’t have an exact publication date yet, but it will be some time during the summer. In my book I write in-depth about all this, about men and the expectations placed on them; about how that plays out and the impact it has on their lives and life decisions; and what it is they want and need and how they go about creating meaningful lives. I will keep you posted!  

Introverts mostly among women? No, I don’t think so.

I participated in an online seminar last week about introversion and leadership. I’ve been interested in the topic of introversion and work ever since I read Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. For me, reading Quiet was a huge eye-opening experience. There was so much in the book that I recognized and for the first time I realized that I myself am a bit of an introvert. I say a bit because I had never thought of myself as introverted before. I can be very talkative and I have always been told what a social person I am. But reading Cain’s book, I realized that it was not about sociability but more about how you interact with others, how you work, and where you get your energy from. Growing up, I liked spending time with friends, like most kids do, but I also found that after being with friends for a while I was often quite tired and just wanted to go home. To be honest, I thought there was something wrong with me. Why didn’t I want to continue hanging out and having fun like everyone else? Why did I want to be alone? This continued to be true as I grew up. As a student at university, I just didn’t have the same stamina as my other friends did when it came to parties and social activities. I just didn’t want to be together all the time and I was starting to wonder whether I was just not a very good friend.

Well, when I read Cain’s book I realized that no, there is nothing wrong with me, that up to 40% of the world’s population is, in fact, quite like me. The problem is that especially Western culture revolves around extraverted values and ways of being. The same goes for workplaces. Workplaces and work ideals are organized according to extraverted behavioral norms. The standard is already set in business schools where courses are structured so that extraverted behavior gives more points and better grades. 

It needs to be noted, however, that extraverted does not necessarily mean better, and being outspoken, social, and talkative does not guarantee good results. On the contrary, research has found that stopping, reflecting, and thinking before speaking and acting may actually be better for the bottom line. 

The reason I originally became interested in this professionally, is that through my opting out research I have met and interviewed many people who have not felt that they have been able to be themselves in the workplaces they opted out of. It has been one of the factors that has added to a difficulty to create a coherent narrative of work (which we need to be able to do for our well-being), which, in turn, is one of the main reasons why people opt out. This is true for both men and women. In fact, more of the men than the women I have interviewed have described themselves as introverts, and both the men and the women have talked about not wanting to work and pursue a career in the way that is expected.

So last week, when I was listening to the discussion in the seminar, I was surprised when it was suggested that more women than men are introverted. I don’t think that is true and nothing I have seen in my research suggests this. If you think about it, suggesting that women are more introverted is really quite a sweeping generalization and a bit of an essentialist view of what men and women are. It suggests that women essentially are a certain way and men, in turn, are another way, whereas in reality, research has shown that stereotypical generalizations like that just aren’t helpful. There are more differences within the sexes than between the sexes. What that means is, there are more difference among women and among men than there are between men and women. 

Women are socially conditioned to spend more time thinking about and being in touch with their feelings and the feelings of others. They are taught to talk about their feelings, whereas men are taught to pretty much ignore them and definitely not talk about them too much (although seriously, men have just as many feelings as women). As a result, women invariably tend to spend more time engaged in self-analysis, which is a reason they may be more likely to recognize themselves as introverts than men are.

And let’s not forget, girls are still in this day and age taught and expected to be more still and quiet, and less rowdy than boys.  

This does not mean that women have a greater tendency to be introverted than men. 

If you’re as interested in this as I am, here are the readings from the seminar last week. I, for one, am going to check these books out!

Creating Introvert Friendly Workplaces by Jennifer Kahnweiler

Quiet is a Superpower by Jill Chang

Introverted Leadership by Karolien Koolhof

A letter to my readers (and my new book is on the way!)

Hi everyone,

First of all, I want to say thank you for your patience! I haven’t updated my blog for over two months. I have been working like a madwoman to finish my book on men opting out and to get the manuscript ready to send to my publisher. I haven’t had the headspace, creativity or energy for anything else. Everything that hasn’t been absolutely crucial has been on hold, but the good news is, I submitted the manuscript this morning! I cannot begin to tell you how wonderful that feels. I feel relieved and quite pleased, to be honest, with how it turned out. A cover has already been designed and the book is going to be published in 2021 if everything goes according to plan. I can’t wait for you to see it!

I also want to take this opportunity to welcome all my new readers! I have been so pleased to see that many of my older posts have got new hits and that you have found my blog even though I haven’t published anything since October. I am going to take some much-needed time off during the holiday, but I promise to be back after the new year with new blog posts. I have a lot of new material and thoughts to share, so stay tuned for that!

In the mean time I want to say Happy Holidays and wish you all the best for the New Year. I think all of us are hoping and waiting for good things to come in 2021. 

Until then, take care!

Ingrid

So what is the difference between men and women then?

I have spent the last five years studying men and opting out. It was something I knew I wanted to do right from the start, when I started working on my research on women opting out. I was convinced that opting out was much more that the women’s issue it had been treated as, and now I can confirm this is indeed true. Opting out is a contemporary issue; it’s a societal and an organizational one. All kinds of people opt out, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, marital status, whether or not they have kids… They leave because the way they have been living and working just doesn’t work for them anymore and they can’t or won’t go on the way they have. 

I get asked a lot about the difference between men and women who opt out. Are there any differences? Do they opt out for different reasons? Do they experience it differently? The answer is yes and no. 

Their situations are a bit different. This is not because of biological differences or differences in character, traits or values. It is rather because of the different expectations we place on men and women in society.

Women are taught to be nurturers, men are taught to be fighters. Women are taught to be empathetic and emotional, men are taught to be strong and not to cry. Women are told that they can be anything they want to be (thank you feminism!), men are told they need to be able to support a family. 

This may sound archaic and stereotypical to you, by I assure you that today, year 2020, this remains to be true, even in my home country Finland, that is considered one of the most gender equal in the world. 

Opting out is harder for men because part of ‘being a man’ is making enough money to support a (real or hypothetical) family. It’s easier for women because being a good woman does not (according to societal norms) hinge on having a good career, but rather on how good a care taker (or mother) a woman is. 

So yes, there are differences, but my research has shown me that their reasons and experiences are still surprisingly similar.

Both the men and the women in my research have felt the environment and/or way of working that they opted out of was unsustainable. Many of them – both men and women – felt that they couldn’t really be themselves. Both felt they didn’t have enough time for loved ones and wanted lifestyles that allowed them to really be there for the people in their lives. Many of them started working in areas with more compassion, where they could work more closely with and help people. 

The men and women that I have interviewed all went through a similar process when they opted out and in, and they had similar hopes and dreams the futures.

So yes, although their experiences are somewhat different, they are also very much the same. The differences lie in social and societal expectations and norms; the similarity consists of their humanity.

At the end of the day men and women really are much more alike than we tend to think. After all, we’re all human.

Remote working: why does it have to be either or?

When I opted out in 2009 to start working on a PhD, I also started working from home. My university department and colleagues were literally on the other side of the planet, because instead of enrolling at a university closer to home, I of course chose one that was pretty much as far away as you can get. I like to joke about that because it sounds so crazy, but actually it made a lot of sense, and in hindsight I clearly see what a wise choice it was for me in many ways. 

But the point is that I went from a job in consulting where I was expected to be at the office every day, to setting up a home office and always working there. For me personally it was wonderful. I like working at home. I like being alone, I find it easier to concentrate and I don’t get distracted by laundry or unmade beds or other non-job-related things that need fixing. Besides, my kids were quite young at the time and things tended to be so intense after school and daycare, that the quiet of my work day was pure bliss. 

However, in 2009, when I opted out, working from home, or any other place than the office, was not a widespread practice. To be honest, although some organizations have had a remote working policy and made it possible for employees at least some of the time, more organizations haven’t. Face time has been considered essential – you know, if you don’t see your employees how do you know that they are doing what they are supposed to be doing? (For those of you who haven’t realized this yet, seeing them is no guarantee. If they aren’t doing what they are expected to do the problem has little to do with them being there physically or not.)

It wasn’t until this past year when people were forced to stay at home, that many organizations that previously had been reluctant, had to try remote working in earnest. And surprise surprise, they realized that not only was it possible, for some it was better than working in the office. But many have also realized, that having people work in different physical places, puts new expectations on managers and work routines. You cannot lead people in the same way you would if you were all in the same location. This is the reason that the lockdown remote working experience of 2020 has generally been most draining and stressful for managers. They haven’t been able to just fall back on familiar routines.

But this is all fine and good. It is lightbulb moments like these that lead to changed behavior and new practices. However, one thing continues to baffle me. Just as many have previously held that their employees need to be physically present at all times for things to work, now I see debates about how always working remotely really can be a strain and difficult in many ways. I get the feeling it might be a defensive reaction of sorts to all the hype we’ve seen around remote working during the past few months? I mean, it turns a lot of the assumptions we’ve had about working life for a long time on their head. 

But who says working remotely has to mean never coming in to the office at all? Why would it have to be a question of either or? 

Even when employees are presented with the option to work remotely, some will want to continue going to the office every day. A study has shown that few people are like me, and most people prefer a combination of the two. And I think that makes perfect sense. It allows people to come in and meet colleagues, have face-to-face discussions, have in-person meetings…. But it also allows people to work from home or somewhere else when they need to and gain more control over where, when and how they work. My own research has shown that this is something people find extremely important, mainly because it increases quality of life. Simply put, it just makes life easier. 

So yes, having to work remotely all the time is not necessarily a good thing. We have seen that during the pandemic. Although many have reported that they are more productive, they have also reported that they feel tired and miss their colleagues. But that does not mean that we should forget working remotely altogether. Allowing people to have a combination – the best of both worlds – is very doable, as is allowing them to decide what they want their mix to look like. 

And yes, it involves a change of management routines.

What is the new normal anyway?

Have you noticed how everyone seems to be talking about the new normal? It’s like it’s a new catchphrase that people slip into their conversations when talking about life after corona, or rather during corona since it obviously isn’t over yet. Not even for those of us living in countries where it almost feels like life is going back to ‘normal’.

I put ‘normal’ in quotation marks because what is really normal about the life we lived before corona anyway? Is it normal that mental health is higher than ever before mostly due to workplace stress and insecurity? Is it normal to spend so much time sitting still at your desk that you have chronic neck pain and you have to schedule time to just move? Is it normal to deplete the Earth of its resources in the name of prosperity? Okay, you catch my drift.

Well, what is the new normal then? We are in a situation where we still don’t know what is going to happen and how the next few months/years are going to look. During corona, the situation has constantly changed from one day to the next. There is so much we still don’t know about the virus and we don’t know whether there will be a second wave, or splotches of outbreaks, which seems to be what the experts are talking about at the moment.

Yes, a lot has happened since the outbreak, and we have had to reinvent the way we do countless things. Things that have previously been considered impossible are suddenly a necessity. Working remotely is an example. Other examples include consumer habits; we have cooked our own food more, as opposed to eating out. The staycation has become the new vacation.

And the environment has thanked us. We have seen reports of clear waters and starlit skies in cities where there have been none. However, although many of us, me included, hope for a lasting effect regarding this, a few weeks ago I read that the air in some Chinese cities is actually worse now after the lockdown has been lifted than it was before corona.

In a study conducted by YLE in Finland, about half of those who have been working remotely during the pandemic would like to continue doing so, at least sometimes, as they feel it increased their quality of life. According to a study conducted by KPMG, 64% of office workers and managers in the US have said that their quality of life improved thanks to the disruptive impact of COVID-19 (although it has been harder on managers).

But what does this really mean? Does it mean that we will take all our new insights and improve both the world and our lives?

Unfortunately this won’t happen by itself. It is simply too easy to just slip back into old habits and routines. Besides, I think a lot of people don’t want to change, but are rather just waiting to be able to go back to doing things in the ‘old normal’ way.

But seeing what the alternative could be, which many of us have done these past few months, is what makes change possible. So, I do hope we take what we have learned with us and implement the good stuff, I really do! But we have to do it consciously.

In the meantime, I think it’s a bit early to be talking about a new normal. Unless of course the new normal is that there is no normal. Yes, maybe that’s it. I mean what is normal anyway?

Racism

When I was working on my PhD, quite a few years ago by now, I read a book that made a deep impression on me: The Impossibility of Sex by psychoanalyst Susie Orbach. This was an important book for me in many ways, maybe mainly because I got ideas for how to interweave real people’s narratives with theory and debates in a way that really engages. Another thing that made an impression was Orbach’s open and unpretentious way of sharing her personal thoughts and feelings.

The book has really been quite groundbreaking, mainly because Orbach writes so openly about her work and experiences as a psychoanalyst. This is a rare treat. Doctor-client confidentiality makes it tricky, but Orbach solves that by creating fictive characters based on real-life experiences she has had during all her years as a therapist. None of the clients in her book are, in other words, real, but they are based on real situations.

However, gaining insights into the ongoings in a psychoanalyst’s office isn’t the only thing that makes the book so special. It’s also Orbach’s openness and candidness when it comes to her thoughts, feelings, and reactions in therapy situations. It’s quite unique, really. She’s so honest, open, and thoughtful about it. It’s powerful, but also helpful and valuable, not least to other therapists or those training to become therapists.

But that’s not actually what made such a great impression on me when I read the book. It was rather what she wrote about racism. When Orbach analyzed her reactions to different clients and situations, she at one point kicked herself for being racist. She had a client of a different ethnic background and skin color than herself, and she noticed that she was extra careful not to do or say anything that that would seem racist and to treat this person just as she would treat anyone else. I was baffled by this because I just couldn’t see how that was racist. Wasn’t that what she wasn’t?

Well, years later, I now think I know what she meant. The reason it was racist was that she was so conscious of the other person being of a different race, that she invariably ended up acting and treating the person differently anyway, Maybe she concerned that her client wasn’t perhaps getting the best possible care after all; at least not the care a white person would have gotten.

I have grown up abroad and gone to school with kids from all over the world. I have had friends with all possible different shades of skin color and I have never considered myself racist. I mean, how can I be racist since I don’t care where people come from or what they look like?

But the truth is, it isn’t that simple. The reason is that we aren’t just individuals, we are also all a part of our cultures and the social and societal structures that surround us. We are given values to live by as we grow up – sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly. Much of what we have learned and gotten, we aren’t even aware of. And even if we are aware of it, it isn’t something that is easily changed or unlearned.

I know this now. I also know that I can’t just say that I’m not racist. The reason is that racism is such an integrated part of what I have been given in my culture, even though it hasn’t been conscious or consciously racist.

We know that racism is ubiquitous, but still no one – or few anyway – consider themselves racist. We are not aware of it, or if we are, it’s very hard to admit because most of us don’t want to be racist.

But as long as we don’t see it or admit it, we are a part of the problem. Because as long as we don’t, we are part of maintaining the existing structures instead of building new ones. This is actually not only true for racism, but all questions pertaining to different aspects of equality. It feels uncomfortable to think that you can both believe in equality and be a part of the problem.

I recently read an excellent book that explains all this very well: White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo.

DiAngelo is a sociologist. She has been a professor but now works as a diversity educator. She writes openly and disarmingly, without pointing fingers. She explains how our society is built on a racist foundation and how racism is integrated in the very structures that surround us. With us, she means us white people.

Racism of course exists elsewhere too, not just among white people, but this book is explicitly about white people’s racism and white supremacy. DiAngelo is able to explain, in a way that is easy to understand, that our actions and what we say can be unconsciously racist even though we don’t mean them to be. Most of us don’t want to be racist and consider ourselves good people, but also good people do and say unconsciously racist things just because we have grown up with racist principles and assumptions without even being aware of it.

If we realize that this isn’t about whether or not we are good people, but about societal structures that we need to learn to recognize and question, we can work with ourselves and learn to gain a greater understanding of these underlying processes without feeling wrongly accused. If we can assume that we are good people and that this isn’t about our character as individuals but about the society that surrounds us, we don’t have to feel uncomfortable or insulted when the word racism comes up. Only then can we have a constructive dialogue around racism and work for a more open and equal world.

Let’s do that! Oh, and please read DiAngelo’s book!