How Black History Month Can Help Us All “Uncover Ourselves”
Issue 190 — February 7, 2022
Nikole Hannah-Jones, author of the 1619 Project said it like this: “At some point when you have proven yourself and fought your way into institutions that were not built for you, when you’ve proven you can compete and excel at the highest level, you have to decide that you are done forcing yourself in,” she writes in her statement explaining why she left the University of North Carolina after an acrimonious but ultimately successful tenure battle to take the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Reporting at Howard University.
America owes much more to its Black citizens than performative events celebrating Black History Month. Social media posts highlighting Black achievements, many not recognized in the history books are valuable. Representation is meaningful as well when it shows Black men and women of achievement today.
But I say we owe a debt of gratitude for the opportunity, should we take it, to uncover ourselves as a nation.
When I wrote the #Leadership #intentioning Tool #1 “Uncover Yourself” in my book Intentioning: Sex, Power, Pandemics, and How Women Will Take the Lead for (Everyone’s) Good, I aimed it at individual leaders. I thought of it as an individual process. I made “Uncover yourself” the first of the 9 leadership tools, because I have learned through personal experience that what sets you apart is what gets you ahead.
But now I see that the principle also applies to organizations and nations. And that our organizations and nation will be much stronger for it, even though for many people the process will be disconcerting.
I tweeted about the importance of uncovering ourselves as leaders and as a culture in response to music producer Drew Dixon’s tweet that said, “When American history omits the brutality of the Atlantic Slave Trade and the genocide of Indigenous people that’s a form of gaslighting writ large. A country can be an abuser, too.”
Just as to be a great leader, it is essential to uncover yourself, to know yourself deeply — know your values, acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses, and be willing to show your authentic self to others. To be great as a nation, we must come to terms with who we are at our core, both good and bad, so that we can amplify the good, rectify the bad, and learn from both in order to create a better future.
The current spate of book banning and railing against Critical Race Theory is baldly an effort by white supremacists to keep students from learning our (their) full history. They fear losing their traditional hegemony by letting the light of truth shine in. It would be easy to paint them as evil, but it’s much more productive to recognize the depths of the fear that causes them to go to such extremes, while at the same time we focus our energy on creating a culture of inclusion and appreciation for the simple justice of valuing diversity.
To uncover ourselves as a country or company, we first have to grapple with ourselves as individuals.
Fortunately there are shining examples of uncovering in a healthy way. Jeopardy champion Amy Schneider’s authenticity is what most captured watchers of the game show. She simply is who she is, comfortable to her own skin. Fully uncovered, she let a nation see the humanity of its transgender citizens. Anyone who has gone through the process of a major life transition has had to look deeply into herself and uncover her essence, her warts and zones of brilliance. In representing a group often subjected to discrimination on the basis of their gender identity, Schneider enabled many transgendered people to feel seen for the first time in popular media.
There was a moment for me — I don’t recall exactly what prompted it — when I realized there was nothing wrong with me for being who I was, but there was a lot wrong with people who thought there was something wrong with me for no reason other than who I was. As a child and grandchild of people who lost many family members in the Holocaust but never shared that history, I grew up feeling disempowered because I was Jewish, different from most people in the small Texas towns where I lived.
So I covered myself, trying to be like everyone else, the all-American girl or so I thought. I’m only now coming to understand how profound the pressure is to take on the plumage of the birds we are living or working with. And in many instances, we do it to hide pain too heavy to bear. “I tried to never talk about my suffering and survival,” says Ella Blumenthal, a survivor of the Holocaust. But now at 100 years old, she’s sharing her incredible life story in a new documentary, I Am Here, the trailer which PEOPLE premiered on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Germany has struggled with uncovering itself as a nation to recognize and atone for the wrong done to those they considered inferior races. Can America do the same?
Ella and I were not alone, by far, in covering.
According to this study by Deloitte, covering is a concept “coined by sociologist Erving Goffman in 1963 to describe how individuals with stigmatized identities try to keep the stigma from looming large. In 2006, Kenji Yoshino further developed the concept, identifying four axes along which people may cover: appearance (e.g., don’t dress too “gay,” Black women may straighten hair), affiliation based (women advised not to talk about being a mother or even having photos of children in her office in order to negate stereotypes about women being less committed to their work), advocacy-based (not sticking up for their group — women or Latinos advised not to join ERG for their group), and association-based (not hanging out with one’s ethnic or gender group “too much” or gay person not bringing partner to the company holiday party).”
In their study, they found that at 75% of respondents say they covered at some time along at least one axis at work: 94% of African Americans, 91% of LBGQ+, 80% of women. Only 50% of straight white men reported covering. But 2/3 overall say covering is detrimental to their sense of self and confidence.
Does this ring a bell for you?
Have you been covering yourself? How and why? What would it feel like to uncover yourself? What would it feel like for America to uncover itself and its full history? What are the risks and rewards of each? What would you hope to achieve with your authentic power and intention? What would you fully, joyfully manifest? How would our company or our country benefit from uncovering itself?
To get a free workbook with this and other exercises to help you on your journey, go to www.gloriafeldt.com/intentioning. Read more about why racial and gender justice must go forward together or neither will be fully realized in our culture and companies, check out the book here.
GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of five books, most recently Intentioning: Sex, Power, Pandemics, and How Women Will Take The Lead for (Everyone’s) Good. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet Gloria Feldt.