People & Perspectives

Get uncomfortable

A message to our non-black co-workers, friends and neighbors from the African-American Leadership Network at Walgreens.

By Tina Wilson and Nikisha McDonald
Tina and Nikisha
Tina and Nikisha

Walgreens is not just a company – we’re also a global family. I’m grateful to have the privilege to work here and have been given many opportunities to grow and develop. When I look at the memorial museum located in one of the buildings on our corporate campus, I see the legacy of family that is linked to the success of Walgreens since 1901.

However, part of being a family is being able to talk to each other, and learning how to have uncomfortable conversations.

So, let’s start one.

We are all aware of the tragic incident on May 25. George Floyd was killed by the Minneapolis Police Department on camera and in broad daylight. We all watched as the video was played on television and shared on our social channels. Every one of us saw what happened to that man with our own eyes. It was tragic, upsetting and heartbreaking.  

In the immediate aftermath, we sent a message on behalf of the African-American Leadership Network, a Walgreens business resource group, supporting our colleagues who identified with George Floyd, and also providing allies with some resources to help them understand how they can best support us. We received several positive responses to that message from both black and non-black team members asking us versions of the same questions. What can we do to support? And where do we start? 

We think the best place to start is to look at this moment as an opportunity.

For African-Americans who work alongside people who are non-black, this is an opportunity to be heard and to be understood. Our non-black colleagues may not always fully understand the mental place many of us are in right now because they don’t have a reference point for it – and that’s OK. What we need most from them right now is to demonstrate the willingness to actively listen and the ability to empathize.

We’re not looking for answers, or for responses, right away, but what we need is a simple acknowledgement of the fact that how we are feeling right now is real. Unfortunately this is not a one-time incident. African-Americans understand that the underlying issue is the fact that inequality toward blacks still very much exists in this country. This is a very uncomfortable conversation to begin, but one that needs to happen among people of all races.

Start by listening

There are two sides to the table, and if non-blacks are willing to actively listen, we can begin to move forward with a real conversation. Otherwise, we’ll sink back into the perpetual non-conversation, surface-level communication that’s been the norm in this country – when an incident happens we address it on the surface, and then just move past it. That isn’t a conversation.

To have a real conversation about this, each of us on both sides of the table need to be willing to feel uncomfortable.

Walgreens is a family. Sometimes in families, there can be uncomfortable issues that must be acknowledged and that warrant a serious conversation. Even when everyone in the family knows there is an issue, but nobody wants to address it, then you can’t take steps to fix it. Someone has to have the courage to start the talk.

As African-Americans, we don’t mind talking about it with others. There are some non-blacks who listen with filters, meaning that as we begin to share with them how we feel, they talk over us to prove that they understand. While this proves to us that you’re not actively listening, it can also be a teachable moment. Take the time to understand where we are coming from first, and then let that inform your response.

Speak, even if it’s not perfect

Sometimes you may be afraid to say something for fear you might say the wrong thing. That’s always a risk, and part of any uncomfortable conversation, but not saying anything at all is likely much worse. There’s great value in being willing to at least start the conversation. Yes, you may say the wrong thing at times, but in our eyes, if it comes from a place of trying to empathize and a sincere desire to learn, then it’s easily forgiven. In difficult matters such as this, you won’t always have the right words or the perfect thing to say, and truthfully neither will we.

When you worry that you’re saying the wrong thing, you’re also making an assumption about what the response will be. Don’t assume every black person will have the same response to what you’re going to say. If your narrative about black people was developed from any place outside of actual conversations with people of color, then you will more than likely say the wrong thing. But if you are courageous enough to say the wrong thing, and open to being corrected in a gentle and non-accusatory way, then we’re on the right path.

Understanding our own biases

One thing people, by and large, still do not understand is how deeply ingrained in mass culture unconscious racism is among non-black people. You’ve never said a racist remark to anybody in your life. You don’t even feel any sort of desire in your heart to dislike people of different races or colors. You may say that you don’t see color.

So where does unconscious bias come from?

I (Tina) grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the ’70s. It was a mixed-race neighborhood that eventually became all black. It was still a neighborhood of families, and we knew every family on the block. We would still have the occasional white visitor to the neighborhood, but usually there to meet friends. No harm ever came to them. But I’ve had comments made to me on more than one occasion by Caucasian people, that they would be afraid to be the “only white person walking in an all-black neighborhood.” This comes from a place of fear, but also from misunderstanding.

The truth is, there are actually still neighborhoods in Chicago that, if you’re a black person, you just do not go there for the real fear that you would be approached by someone who does not believe you have a right to be in their neighborhood. This may sound unbelievable, given all the progress we’ve made since the Civil Rights Movement, but that has simply been my experience.

You won’t often see it from this perspective, especially if your only frame of reference is mass media. But as Mary T. Lathrop says, “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.” Empathy can be the key to understanding.

Where do we go from here?

It’s not our desire to force everyone to understand us. And honestly, we understand there are people in our nation who are very comfortable with their place in our society and have no desire to see that change. But in light of what’s taking place in the nation right now, we see an opportunity to take a step toward changing our culture by starting this conversation.

We listen to what you say, but we also pay attention to what you don’t say. Without a conversation, we can’t know if we’re being heard, acknowledged or understood. Without a conversation, it implies that all is well in our nation and people are moving on. Without a conversation, pre-existing narratives and biases rule the day.

Don’t let your silence speak for you. Let’s have the conversation. There is strength in unity no matter what race or ethnicity you are.

Tina Wilson is the vice chairwoman and Nikisha McDonald the chairwoman of the African-American Leadership Network, a Walgreens business resource group for team members.

We strongly encourage those who are interested to support the following organizations focused on racial justice. Learn more by visiting their websites: My Block, My Hood, My City, NAACP, Color of Change and Chicago Bail Fund.

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