bridging differences Archives

Obama small frownThe headlines last week read, “Obama Explains Black America to White America,” heralding a teachable moment in the country’s history.

The news article summarized President Obama’s speech to the nation a few days after George Zimmerman was declared “not guilty” by six women jurors  (five White and one Puerto Rican) for killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenage walking home to his father’s house.  Zimmerman, a White man with Hispanic roots, had thought Martin looked suspicious and followed him. During the trial, Zimmerman successfully argued that during the subsequent fight, he feared for his life and used a concealed gun to shoot Martin to his death.

The news article noted that the President’s intent was to explain that a collective history is the backdrop against which contemporary African Americans experienced that verdict:

I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away…. I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.  And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.

Those praising the President’s speech were exuberant that he had provided a historical context for the anguish experienced by millions of Black African Americans as well as sympathetic members of all races upon hearing the verdict.

Detractors of the speech pointed out that public policy addressing current issues of the day cannot be built by focusing on the past.  Most pertinent now, these commentators claim, are the high rate of Black-on-Black crime and disintegration of the Black family. Naturally, these claims led to counter-charges that a focus on what was happening in the Black community in the absence of historical context led to overly simplistic — and false — conclusions.

Reading the accusations back and forth, I was struck by the parallels between the dissension and what my coauthor and I had explained in Reframing Change about bridging differences. As we noted, dominant group members tend to see cross-cultural conflicts in the here and now.  Nondominant group members frame them in a historical context. Under these circumstances, differences are more easily bridged if dominant group members can display empathy for the past, even while promoting policies designed for the future.

civil rights students

The situation also reminded me of a similar public upheaval in 2008 after Proposition 8, a California ballot initiative was passed declaring that only marriage between a man and a woman would be recognized as valid in California.

A few days after it passed, I sat with a mixed group of straights and gays discussing the implications of the ruling.  The gays were especially distraught – speaking openly about the pain of being denied this very basic citizenship right to citizenship– the right to marry whom one pleased.

At the time, I was taken by the enormous parallels between what was happening with gay rights at the time and my memories of the civil rights movement in the 1950s.  The elimination of legalized segregation in the country had had a similar series of legal wins and losses along the way. Listening to my colleagues decry the implications of the California vote, I thought it was inevitable that equal rights for the GLBT community would eventually prevail and said so.  “This reminds me of the civil rights movement in the 1950s,” I declared.  “This will be overturned. The train has already left the station.”

The reaction toward me was swift and harsh.  One woman, carefully phrasing her words, told me that I had no right to try to tell gays and lesbians how to think or feel about the California decision.  “You as a heterosexual don’t know what it feels like to be denied to the right to marry someone you love,” she rights march

I was stunned.  Never mind that I had ridden the back of the bus for most of my childhood.  Never mind that as a young child, I had read about the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till for whistling at White girl.  Never mind that I had once loved someone of a different race and couldn’t see my way to bridge the racial divide to make it work.

It was their collective pain and their time to voice it.  As a heterosexual, I was a dominant group member and they as GBLTs were nondominant.  It was their turn to educate and explain and my turn to listen and learn.

I shut up and listened.


Note: Cross-posted at EthosConsultancyNZ:

Bio:  Dr. Jean Kantambu Latting is a leadership consultant and researcher, focusing on change at the personal, organizational, and community levels. President of Leading Consciously and Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Change in the Graduate College of Social Work, University of Houston, Jean specializes in helping people examine and change their systems, relationships, and perceptions so that they might better accomplish their goals.  She coauthored Reframing change: How to deal with workplace dynamics, influence others, and bring people together to initiate positive change with Jean Ramsey, published by Praeger.



Daughter of a wealthy industrialist, she married, raised a family, and then chose to enter the field of social work and dedicate her life to serving her community.

Revered by many throughout Houston, Maconda B. O’Connor was born on May 4, 1930 and passed from this life on May 19, 2012.

The Houston Chronicle and others have listed her long list of achievements.  She received over two dozen awards and honorary degrees, served on Houston’s and the nation’s most prestigious boards, and founded or helped start innovative programs dedicated to helping people improve their lives. As Angela Blanchard, president and CEO of Neighborhood Centers Inc., was quoted as saying, “There isn’t a place to go to in this city where you can get help that she didn’t help nurture.”

A colleague introduced us while Maconda was completing her doctoral studies at Smith College. She was looking for a research project for a required internship, and the colleague suggested my grant from the National Science Foundation might meet the requirements. Maconda was immediately interested in my project and, over time, in my work. She provided or helped arrange financial support for my research every year since.

Saying she supported my work, though, doesn’t quite get what she meant to me. We became friends. I loved her – still love her — dearly. We shared a similar fire for helping others improve their lives, and for setting up systems and organizations that would foster people’s growth and development. I see the world differently because of her, approach my own work differently because of her, have a deeper commitment to what I do because of her.

For me and many others, she has been an inspiration and a model of personal achievement and success. Following are some of what we can all learn from her:
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Count me among the millions of people around the country–if not the world–who are gratified that President Barack Obama has come out today in support of marriage equality. I was similarly overjoyed when Don’t ask, Don’t Tell was repealed this past December, as I explained in the post, “With Liberty and Justice for all: DADT and Civil Rights.

While millions of us are cheering, I imagine millions of others are dismayed, believing that their cherished values have been dealt a huge blow.

I was a child when Harry Belafonte (African American) and Joan Fontaine (Caucasian) were the lead actors in the movie Island in the Sun. The film was hugely controversial and they were not allowed to kiss, because an interracial couple kissing would have violated many people’s cherished values about keeping the races separate. Miscegenation (“race-mixing”) was against the law in my state.

So while I recognize some people’s dismay at the President’s stand, my memory of what it feels like to be viewed as less than a full citizen is still too vivid for me to do more than acknowledge that this may feel like a setback to them. For me, though, this is an important victory in the march toward equal rights for all in this country.

“The right of every American to first-class citizenship is the most important issue of our time.” — Jackie Robinson

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In the previous post on the Skill of Speaking Up, a Responsible Conflict Resolution Technique, I described a case in which Yolanda, a new Latina staff member, made a suggestion at a staff meeting on how to increase their sales. She noted that she liked to spend time in small talk and relationship building before launching into the sales pitch. Jim, her White male colleague, dismissed her statement by responding, “I disagree completely. People want you to get to the point and not waste their time. All that small talk and personal stuff is so Hispanic.”

Josh, a coworker, spoke up responsibly using the three guidelines provided in the post. Not surprisingly, Jim took offense and countered to Josh, “Are you implying I’m racist?”

Jim graciously accepted Josh’s implicit disclaimer that he meant no harm, albeit acknowledging that he felt confused about what had happened. They all then went back to the meeting agenda.

That was the gist of the post. To read the full post, click here.

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Suppose you were at a meeting where one of your coworkers insults another? This is the stuff that breeds festering conflict in organizations.  What’s needed is a good conflict resolution technique.  Well-meaning people who are unfamiliar with conflict management may try one of these approaches:

  • Stay silent (after all, you are not involved)
  • Stay silent in the moment and talk to the offender privately later (this is consistent with the adage, “praise in public, criticize privately”)
  • Tell the offender in front of everyone that he’s completely out of line and explain why he is wrong
  • Change the topic so that the meeting can move on to more safe topics

If none of these options sounds satisfactory, then you’re right, there are other alternatives. We call it Speaking Up Responsibly.

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Bridging cultural differences is challenging enough when people agree on the labels used to describe those differences. But when someone believes a label ascribed to them doesn’t fit, all kinds of hot buttons are pushed.

Let’s take race as an example. Most people assume that race is a biological concept. Whether this is true or not, though, is being hotly contested among physical anthropologists, the one group we would expect to have the definitive answer.

What we do know is that the meaning assigned to one’s race is what makes it significant. So how does it work when people believe that the label ascribed to them doesn’t fit?

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Yesterday morning, my niece called me. With rage in her voice, she explained that her thirteen-year-old son had received a text message from a friend saying, “You f**king n****r”. “I called his mother — they’re Mexican American,” she explained. “I wanted to know if they understood the significance of that word.”

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Many people are confused about what term is appropriate to use when referring to different others. I provided examples of this in Part 1 of this series on bridging cultural differences. This topic is a hornet’s nest because a term that is appropriate in one context may be inappropriate in another.  Choosing the right word can be a daunting task for who wish to avoid offending others and are horrified at thought of being judged.

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In my workshops and classes on bridging cultural differences, eventually someone asks, “What should we call a person with such-and-such background or characteristic?” Here are true examples of how this question has been asked:

  • “Is it better to say Hispanic or Latino?  Asian or Oriental? disabled or handicapped?”
  • “Should I use the term ‘Black’ or ‘African American’? After all, Whites from South Africa who are naturalized in this country are African Americans, aren’t they?”
  • “Why is it okay to say ‘people of color,’ but not okay to say ‘colored person’”?
  • “Why can’t I refer to people with AIDS as AIDS victims? They are victims, aren’t they?”
  • “I don’t see why some of the women in my class object to being called ‘girls’. My wife and her friends all refer to themselves as girls”.
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With Liberty and Justice for all: DADT and Civil Rights

With Liberty and Justice for All

I have been eagerly devouring the news bulletins on the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — delighted beyond description that the repeal finally passed with bipartisan support and is now signed into law.

The similarities between this repeal and the march toward civil rights in the 50s and 60s are uncanny to me. I remember sitting on my uncle’s knee as a child, listening to him talk about serving in a segregated unit during World War II. I was too young to fully understand what he was saying, but he, my parents, and their friends all talked about what an injustice it was.  He and other brave Negro (as we referred to ourselves at the time) soldiers were willing to die for their country, yet their country denied them equal rights under the law. They had separate units, inferior equipment, inferior assignments, and were routinely insulted and harassed.

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Workplace Undercover: Suffer in silence or speak up?

Preface:  Workplace Undercover will be a recurring segment of this blog, featuring a workplace scenario and a response by a guest consultant.  The scenario below was written by Eillen Bui, our research associate.  Mary Harlan of Harlan Consulting is guest consultant for this scenario.


The scenario: Carina was recently promoted from Operator Technician to Engineer after working at TLC Co. for 15 years. To Carina, this promotion was bittersweet. She knew that she deserved this position, but felt it should have happened long ago. She was already doing everything the Engineer’s job description entailed years ago and was very experienced. The only thing was that she never earned a degree in engineering; everything she knew, she learned from working at the company.

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Stereotyping: Is it okay to label people?

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine spoke passionately about his opposition to labeling people. We had been talking about differences between Republican and Democratic philosophies, and he objected to the whole concept.

Focusing on these differences was, in his mind, “labeling”, and he thought we all should move beyond labels and simply view people as individuals. He certainly didn’t want to be labeled, he said, nor would he label others.

I also have friends who think that racial/ethnic designations are offensive, unnecessary in this day and age, and potentially stigmatizing.

On the other hand, I have friends who proudly identify themselves as “Republican” or “Democrat” or “progressive” or “conservative.” And, of course, I know many people who proudly wear the label of “African American” or “Black.”

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Preface:  Workplace Undercover will be a recurring segment of this blog, featuring a workplace scenario and a response by a guest consultant.  The scenario below was written by Eillen Bui, our research associate.  Mary Harlan of Harlan Consulting is guest consultant for this scenario.

The scenario: Thomas just began working at XYZ Corporation and still had not met everyone who worked there.  Today he decided to eat in the cafeteria instead of bringing his own lunch and sitting alone in his office.  He spotted Michelle, someone that he had spoken to briefly the other day and decided to go over to say hi.  Michelle was sitting with a group of her friends and they seemed to be in a deep conversation. As soon as he got near though, the group at the table suddenly became quiet and no one would even look up at him.

Thomas felt uncomfortable so he passed by the table without even acknowledging Michelle. At first he felt saddened by the fact that his new coworkers were being unfriendly to him but then he became angry.  “Why are all Asian girls so stuck up and rude?” he thought.

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