Leaning in to uncomfortable conversations

By Langdon Evans

How I’ve learned to talk about race and privilege in my majority-white family business.

Family businesses in the United States have been hit hard this year from a variety of angles. Stress on operational business activities due to the global pandemic and ensuing recession have necessitated many difficult decisions and conversations. One family business leader who was considering laying off employees told me that the decision “flies right in the face of our values of creating a safe and stable working environment.” These decisions may have lasting impacts on a family enterprise, but it is important to remember that most multigenerational businesses have weathered big storms before.

The unrest after the recent killings of unarmed Black men and women and subsequent focus on the Black Lives Matter movement has left many family business leaders and members searching for ways to respond. Prior to asking, “What do we say?” many families have asked themselves, “Do we say anything at all?” Some businesses may have put out statements without having done much work on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI, i.e., attempts at allyship that are often performative). My family business hadn’t done much of this work either. In talking with members of my own family enterprise and other family businesses, it was clear that this was not a conversation they had previously thought to have. They had never discussed their biases and social equity issues. Avoiding the topic of privilege and race has been a mistake. We are now taking steps to help correct that.

The majority of businesses in the United States are white-owned. According to data from the Small Business Administration, Blacks own roughly 9.5% of all U.S. businesses compared with 70.9% owned by whites. However, there are a number of multigenerational family businesses that are Black-owned (Urban One, James Group International and Earl G. Graves Ltd., to name a few). Unfortunately, in my experience, when you attend most family business events in the United States it is likely that attendees will be white and experience similar privileges, including wealth, education and access. As such, discussions about racial bias, equity and equality have not been on conference agendas. To be clear, my experience is that these events are not intended to be unwelcoming, but it is a disservice to everyone when the lack of diversity in the room is not acknowledged and inclusivity is not promoted.

Many family businesses and their leadership have been unprepared for a societal shift such as the one we have seen recently. This is also a situation where silence can speak louder than words. Inaction may have been viewed by many as complacency at best and aggression at worst. In my own family business, I was frustrated when days, then weeks, went by without a public statement from any of our operations. I asked myself, “How could this be? Don’t we focus on issues of equality and equity actively in our foundation? Haven’t the views of the family on this matter been expressed to leadership?”

This was a wakeup call for me. As with many family businesses, outsourcing societal impact initiatives to our foundations can be a common practice, but it is not enough. My family foundation’s Human Services Fund Advisory Committee had engaged in discussions about how to make an impact on racial and societal imbalances, and I am pleased to note that a broader conversation with the family and within the business is now taking place. Active discussions occurring throughout our family enterprise include the development of action plans to ensure racial equality within the workplace and within our communities.

To broaden our discussion and engagement, the chair of our family council, in coordination with the family foundation, decided to create a webcast series to bring this conversation to the family. As a white, privileged male, I had not previously been called to engage in these types of conversations, and I have found them to be uncomfortable at times. By leaning into that discomfort, I have recognized the overwhelming benefit of active engagement. Recognizing and naming this discomfort was our first step, and being willing to lean in and learn has made the process generative.

To start the conversation, my family first had to build closer relationships, and some that are brand new. The two main areas of focus that have been essential are shared language and strategies for connection to help drive change and learning. We started with a base lexicon of terminology. Here are a few key terms we discussed:

EQUALITY: A state, quality or ideal of treating everyone the same (e.g., everyone gets the same bike regardless of usefulness).

EQUITY: A state, quality or ideal of being fair and just within the context of historical and current power dynamics (e.g., everyone gets a bike that they can actually ride).

PRIVILEGE: Unearned advantage. Systemic favoring, enriching, valuing, validating and including of certain social identities over others. Individuals cannot “opt out” of systems of privilege; rather, these systems are inherent to society.

RACISM: Prejudice plus power; a system of privilege based on race. In today’s context that means discrimination against people of color by white people (i.e., reverse racism is not a real dynamic). Internalized racism is internalization by people of color of the stereotypes/myths about members of their own group, including themselves.

WHITE FRAGILITY: According to author Robin DiAngelo, white fragility refers to white people’s extremely low thresholds for enduring any discomfort associated with challenges to their racial worldviews.

These definitions are part of a living document created by our facilitator, Fleur Larsen. Larsen uses this list as part of her process to help set common language and to spur conversations. Where have you seen Privilege in your family business? What are some examples of Equity and Equality in ownership and access to resources for family members?
On our first call, two of the key terms we discussed at length were Privilege and White Fragility. In my opinion, these two terms are intrinsically linked. The privilege of having views that are challenged less frequently can create an extremely low threshold for difficult conversations about race. Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility is an amazing resource for those looking to learn more. Other great resources include So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo; How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi; and The Great Unlearn (a monthly learning collective), by Rachel E. Cargle.

A key conversation topic on our second call was how to connect with family members when they make inappropriate comments. While it is likely that these statements are made from a place of ignorance rather than aggression, it can still be tremendously hard to “call out” anyone, especially a family member, on such topics. The older family members on the call expressed that “silence is golden” was the rule for their generation — taboo topics were not discussed. Our younger-generation members have not been restricted by these same societal norms, in large part because of social media and unlimited access to information. This was a key example of a generational difference and the impact of having a range of ages present at these meetings.

The family members on our call had some great suggestions on how to speak up:

Use “I statements.” It is very easy to have someone quickly shut down criticism if they feel personally attacked because of what they have said. “I statements,” such as “I felt uncomfortable when you said that because it makes me feel ____,” direct the response through your own experience of it, helping to increase empathy between you and the person you are correcting.

Repeat the statement. Sometimes people don’t hear their own words. If someone takes a moment to relay the statement back to the speaker (i.e., “What I heard you say is ____”), they may be more open to considering what may have been wrong about it in the first place.

Clarify. Before reacting to a comment, take a breath. Sometimes we may hear statements from others the wrong way. Asking an individual to clarify their statement (i.e., ‘Tell me more” or “What did you mean when you said that?”) helps both parties understand the intention and helps build a better starting place for further conversations. 

We are just getting started with these conversations in my family, but they have already gotten easier. On our recent call it was expressed that we should make sure to have similar conversations at every family meeting and continue to engage more family members. A key step was to bring in a facilitator who helped us get the conversation rolling. It was a leap to look past the discomfort of starting these conversations, but so far, it has been a worthwhile and valuable experience for everyone involved. We will be stronger as a family business and as individual members of our society by having these discussions. I hope you and your family take your own leap. I can’t wait to see the positive impact it will make!                                                                        

Langdon Evans is a sixth-generation member of the Laird Norton family enterprise and manager with PwC’s Private Company Services, Family Enterprise Advisory Services.

Copyright 2020 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.    

Article categories: 
November/December 2020

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