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How I let one dinner challenge my self-worth

Wednesday, March 02, 2016  
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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By Ancella B. Livers

We were sitting across the table from each other, a glass of wine in front of each of us.  I was a black woman, middle-aged. He was a white male, younger, although not young. It was all so civilized. A job interview. He was not the hiring manager, but was critical to the decision. Someone whose voice would weigh heavily in the hiring choice.

Related: 3 things multicultural employees need to thrive.

Having ordered the wine, we made our final food selections. Then, with the dining formalities out of the way, he looked at me and said, “So, I see you’ve written about diversity and maybe you and I could write something, but have you ever managed anyone?” His tone was dismissive. It was clear that he felt I would be honored to have him as a co-author. But he would not necessarily welcome me as a peer. I was surprised because he had seen my resume and my years of management experience. I had not expected his opening salvo to be filled with such nonchalant disdain of my work. Of me. And it threw me off balance.

He asked me what I thought of the work habits of a person we both knew. I said, “if it were up to me, I’d let him go.” I told him why. He told me how wrong I was and how much money this person brought in. He made me feel insignificant, and instead of being myself, I remained quiet and felt myself become something less, smaller, unsure.

He talked a lot that night, telling me how he had been raised poor but now was not. He told me of his brilliance, his skill, his worth. And, I did not counter with my own brilliance or my worth.

Race, gender and personality

Needless to say, I did not get the job. And for months, The Dinner loomed large in my thoughts. I felt I had performed so badly that I had caused myself to lose an opportunity.

My self-disgust over the incident flowed through my mind when months later, the employee whom I said I would let go, was fired. It seemed that he was more trouble than the money he was bringing in. I admit to feeling a flicker of vindication that I soon snuffed out with thoughts of “Why was I so passive that night? If I had been better, I would have gotten the job.”

Through all of my thoughts about The Dinner, I had not considered how the triad of race, gender and personality came together. Instead, I blamed myself. I didn’t want to use the crutch of diversity. I didn’t want to consider that I had been formed in the crucible of fires that have helped me to become less confident in myself and more willing to believe others’ judgments of what I wasn’t than those of what I was. My companion had been formed in different fires, those of poverty and white male privilege.

Later, I came to realize that the confluence of race, class and gender had to be involved because he and I were involved. Society has consistently told me and others like me that we have not been quite good enough –— not smart enough, not pretty enough, not white enough. These are messages we have heard throughout our lives as had our mothers and grandmothers.

As a white male, my dinner partner had been receiving different messages. His said he wasn’t good enough when he was poor, but he could change that. He was proud to have raised himself up by his own bootstraps and he assumed that he had and should control his destiny.

And, he and I had both been taught that white males were society’s power figures.

And so we both, knowingly or unknowingly, played our parts in the play society, history, culture and personality created for us.

Yet, not every act is bigoted and not everyone reacts to attacks by getting smaller. Some get larger. Others become confident and strong. But all, all, have been impacted by the way the world sees, us which influences the way we see ourselves.

The question then, becomes how we manage this dynamic on both personal and cultural fronts.

It took me too long to recognize that my companion probably wasn’t ever going to hire me. His opening salvo, dripping with contempt as it did, was a clue that I had refused to read.

The Dinner and my consequent consideration of it has helped me to become aware of how race, gender and personality — both his and mine — can influence situations. Not recognizing these implications can be as problematic as assuming everything is the fault of bias. Understanding this fact will help us all recognize the behaviors of assumed privilege in others and internalized oppression in ourselves. And by recognizing these behaviors, we can control our reactions.

Personally, I will never again allow myself to become small. Never will I forget that I have not just been formed in different fires from many others, I have been tempered in them and that tempering has made me strong.

As senior faculty and executive coach for the Center for Creative Leadership, Ancella Bickley Livers works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies and nonprofit organizations to design and deliver leadership solutions. She has interacted with thousands of managers and executives over the past 20 years, fine-tuning her expertise on diversity issues, particularly those focusing on African Americans and women.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.

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