Who Are Your 'Friends'? Inclusive Leadership Starts With Your Social Circles
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Last fall, I remember my social feed being inundated with the piece of news that seemed to overshadow all else happening in our country: The Friends 25th anniversary. I was overwhelmed by the headlines: “Friends Hits Big Screen for 25th Anniversary.” “The Top 10 Ross Geller Moments.” “25 Things You Didn’t Know About Friends.” “13 New Behind-the-Scenes Stories.” “A Pottery Barn Friends Collection is Coming!”
The show debuted on NBC on a Thursday evening in 1994 and took American culture by storm. Critics raved about how relatable the characters’ lives were and how the cast actually became close friends.
Rachel. Chandler. Phoebe. Monica. Ross. Joey. Six friendly, smiling, white faces staring back at me. I had never watched the show; they were not my friends. Twenty-five years after it premiered, all I could think about while staring at these smiling faces was: Is that what everyone else’s friends look like? Where were all the friends who looked like me? Where were the brown and Black faces? Where were all the people of color?
Sex in the City. Girls. More recently, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women.
Our screens are filled with stories of white communities, white friendships, relationships, joys and struggles. Much has been written about the lack of diversity behind and in front of the camera, the whitewashing of stories and experiences. But it starts with the storytellers.
“I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me. And only later did I realize that it was four white girls,” Lena Dunham, creator of the popular HBO series Girls, said in a 2012 interview with NPR.
Dunham’s comments were honest, candid and revealing. There was no whitewashing of experiences or stories here. She brought to life on screen her predominantly white existence, a life likely surrounded by the comforts of white friendships and white relationships.
So the real question we should all be asking ourselves as we scramble to create inclusive work cultures: How can we expect to show up and be inclusive leaders in our workplaces if we live the majority of our lives in communities surrounded by people who only look like us?
Here are some of the questions I started asking myself and others I work with:
Where do you live, and who are your neighbors?
Who cuts your hair? Where do you buy your groceries? Where do you go out to eat?
How do you spend your weekends? Who do you spend them with?
Who attended the last community celebration you can remember? A birthday party, a wedding or a funeral celebrating a loved one’s life?
Who is in your trusted circle? Who are your friends?
Take a moment to ask yourself these questions. What do those faces look like? Do you see Rachel, Chandler, Phoebe, Monica, Ross and Joey staring back at you?
Diversity and inclusion is something I think about every day in my role at Unilever, and right now my focus is personally learning and helping our employees be allies — to build deep empathy and understanding for Black Americans whose experiences are vastly different from their own. That started with a series we call Courageous Conversations on Race, which we partnered with Monica Marcel and Chuck Adams of LCW (Language & Culture Worldwide) on.
Our first topic was “White Privilege and Race in Central Park: Let’s Talk About Amy Cooper.” Although it focused on the events in Central Park on May 25, we also discussed the larger context of the U.S. history of policing Black bodies. “Part of the incredible challenge we see when it comes to race in our society is our inability to talk about it as individuals,” LCW’s Chuck Adams said during the event. “We — Black Americans and non-Black Americans — tend to start the few conversations that do take place from entirely different worldviews. We simply see the world differently, informed by a lifetime of observations and experiences.”
Are we Christian Cooper? Do we know a Christian Cooper? Are we Amy Cooper? Do we know an Amy Cooper?
Think about your answers, and consider what it means for you as a leader. Before we re-enter our workplaces, we must recognize and remember that inclusion starts at home — it starts in all our communities. If you don’t have any meaningful cross-cultural relationships, I can’t expect you to show up at work and understand how to be an inclusive leader.
Having discussions like the ones we are having right now doesn’t solve the lack of diversity and inclusion in peoples’ home lives and communities, but it does start to hold up a mirror for each and every one of us to peer into.
Why is this the first time many of us are learning about these topics? If we can Google how to make killer banana bread, how to create the perfect messy bun and how to master remote work, what stops us from learning about experiences that aren’t our own?
Why is it so hard for some of us to understand what happened to Christian Cooper in Central Park that day? Maybe because our lives are completely void of any Christian Coopers, so we have never even questioned the need to understand his experience. We never knew this experience existed.
According to the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2013 American Values Survey — the most recent comprehensive study of race and social circles — data shows that a full 75 percent of white Americans have "entirely white social networks without any minority presence." The same holds true for slightly less than two-thirds of Black Americans.
“This country has a pretty long history of restriction on inter-racial contact and for whites and Blacks, even though it’s in the past, there are still echoes of this,” said Ann Morning, an associate professor in the department of sociology at New York University, of a 2013 Reuters/Ipsos poll that showed 40 percent of Americans and 25 percent of non-white Americans have no friends of another race. “Hispanics and Asian Americans have traditionally had less strict lines about integrating.” It is clear that we all need to travel beyond our current networks and social circles and break out of our self-segregation.
You can transform your own world through how you teach your children and how you speak to your neighbors and co-workers. Be brave and challenge it all. Start by challenging yourself.
Start challenging who is in your trusted circle and why. Who are your friends? If they look like you, think like you and act like you, it’s never too late to start investing in more meaningful relationships. This is the first step to being a more inclusive leader. It’s time to find some more friends — and venture outside of that Friends Central Perk coffee shop.