White is beautiful. Black is too.

Social Sector

Actually, every color is beautiful.

But let me tell you why I chose the title I did for this article.

Last November the Pact board of directors, which I chair, held our meeting in Zambia. Part of our meeting included visiting villages where Pact and its partners work. We asked board members to shift perspective and view their experience from the point of someone very different from themselves – and then to write a six-word story describing that experience.

My six-word story is: White is beautiful. Black is too.

Our village visit took place on November 9th – the day after the elections in the U.S. Like so many others that day, I was shocked and troubled by the outcome. It took all my energy to focus on our purpose and fully engage with community. I was asked to share some remarks. As I did, I looked around at the many beautiful, smiling faces of children who came out to celebrate with us. As the morning’s program continued I couldn’t wait to step away from the head table and plop myself onto the ground, surrounded by all those children. I craved the innocence, joy and hope they represented. I wanted to immerse myself in their laughter and curiosity. And so, I did.

After a bit, I started a conversation with a girl named Lelato. I learned she is 13 years old and wants to be a teacher or a pilot – although she’s never flown on an airplane. She is smart, bubbly, energetic, ambitious and helpful to the other children. She speaks English very well, and took great pride in showing me her school books. She has big brown eyes that seem to soak everything in – like she just can’t get enough of the world. She has one of those smiles that beckons you to say hello to her the second you see it. She is an authentic and beautiful person – inside and out.

A few minutes into our chat, as she was playing with my hair, she looked up at me and said, “I wish I was white.” Surprised, I asked why. She responded, “Because white is beautiful.” I held back tears. Her statement – so obvious and matter-of-fact – broke my heart. It still breaks my heart. Hardly a day has gone by since November 9th that I haven’t thought about Lelato and her belief that she could beautiful, if only she were white.

Why does she believe that? She lives in a small village outside of Livinstone where she is surrounded by beautiful black faces. Her teachers are black, the tribal leaders – including powerful women – are black. I know the famous 1940s studies by Kenneth and Mamie Clark using dolls to test children’s attitudes about race. I didn’t expect, however, that those same attitudes persist today or among children in Africa. How naive of me.

About 24 hours after returning to the U.S., I attended a conference presentation titled, “The Added Burden of Race,” by Harvard University professor David R. Williams. His mountain of statistics and stories about long-term health and economic impacts of race and discrimination didn’t help my feelings of despair – and responsibility.

Following his talk, I read the book he recommended, Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People.  I have a deeper understanding and appreciation of the bias we all have – and of the inputs, information, and images that create and reinforce that bias. We’re all ingrained with a belief that white is beautiful – and good, and powerful. And that black is the opposite – even if we are black.

I can’t change or eliminate all the unconscious bias, conscious bias, discrimination or hate in the world. I may not be able to influence the behavior of even one other person. But I can change myself. I commit to practicing self-awareness, to stopping – even for a half second – to pay attention, to question my assumption, to see if I can open my mind just a little bit more – if I can stop the bias from influencing how I act or what I believe to be true.

As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”