Before I was in my teens, I had lived in three countries: Germany — where we were the only Black family in a small town — the United States, and the UK. Our German neighbors were so kind and gentle that I didn’t even know racism existed until we moved to North Carolina, when I was 7 or 8. Then a few years later we moved to England, where my brothers and I observed a lot of schoolyard fights between white kids and Indian kids.
In North Carolina, I went out to get the mail one day and saw a KKK sticker on our mailbox. I had no idea what those 3 letters meant. I went back inside and told my Jamaican-British mom about it. In her face, I instantly saw anger, frustration, sadness, and concern. That’s when I started getting the “The Talk” from my parents about racial tensions and issues. Every Black kid can tell when they had their first talk.
Growing up in 3 countries taught me how to understand and embrace people from different backgrounds. I had to figure out the social norms in 3 different cultures. I learned a lot about integrating. And above all, I became curious about people.
I’ll never cast anybody as belonging to a certain type or category. I don’t like the way Americans tend to categorize people. I knew at a young age, 10 or 12, that I didn’t want people to be judged based on assumptions or stereotypes. And that’s why I started the Breathing Inclusivity initiative, in partnership with the Stoke Group. Building more inclusive workplaces and communities starts with curiosity and empathy — looking beyond labels and categories and trying to understand people as human beings. I see it as a 3-step process: (1) Learn, (2) Connect, (3) Act. Allow me to show you what I mean…
When white people meet me, they sometimes say, “You’re not like most Black people.” And my response is, “Well, I think most Black people aren’t like what you think they’re like.”
Inclusion starts with being exposed to somebody who’s different from you, whether it’s through direct experience or reading literature or consuming other types of content. And if you’re genuinely trying to learn, then hopefully that learning can lead to dialogue.
My whole approach has always been to show people a level of respect and love and dignity, and that makes them feel comfortable. When I share things related to racial issues on social media, people will say, “Tell me why you feel this way.” That gives me a chance to share some of my own experiences. A lot of my experiences with racism haven’t been life threatening, but they could have been. Telling stories is powerful, because stories help us to look at a situation from someone else’s point of view.
I think I make it acceptable for people to ask the questions, because they know I’m not going to berate them or chew their head off about the topic. I’m just going to tell them, “Hey, this has been my experience. You can take it or not. But I’m not going to shy away from what I know has been my experience. I’m not going to sugarcoat it, because it’s true.”
I want people to be able to have those conversations. We really should just forget the political parties and think about each other as human beings. I want people to say: “I’m going to spend time being curious about that person. I may have preconceived notions about them. I may have a perspective. But I’m going to push that to the back of my mind, and just do as much as I can to learn about them and understand them.”
You have to be willing to open yourself up. It’s a dialogue, not a debate. You’re having dialogue not to judge or to develop your rebuttal. You’re just leaning into your own curiosity and trying to understand the other person better. Developing a deeper understanding doesn’t mean you have to agree with the other person. You can have a sense of understanding and empathy, and embrace that person as an individual, without agreeing with their beliefs. It starts with exposing yourself to the culture and the issue — being willing to talk about it and learn about it.
When you make the effort to understand someone from a different background, you get to a point where you feel a connection. You realize that some part of that person’s experience is similar to your own. It’s a shift that happens in both your mind and your heart. Over the past year, I’ve seen that shift happen in a lot of my white friends, as the issue of systemic racism has become harder for them to ignore. That’s been very encouraging. At the same time, I find it sad that it’s taken such a massive eruption of anger around this topic for people to say, “Wait a second — I missed this. I missed the cues all along.”
I have a white friend from college who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. In the summer of 2020, he reached out to me and said, “Ronell, you’ve been telling me for years that this type of prejudice still exists. I’m sorry I didn’t believe you. I’m sorry I didn’t recognize that you still have to live with this type of concern and apprehension.” I can’t force somebody to see it. But when they do see it, it’s powerful when they come back and acknowledge it. This friend is politically conservative and supported Donald Trump, but he recognizes that his views on racial issues have nothing to do with politics. It’s really about the ability to look at people as individuals.
My in-laws, who are white, used to tell me that Black people talked way too much about race — that we should stop over-thinking the issue. Now my mother-in-law is seeing the issue through a different lens. She’s saying, “I need to learn more about this. I need to figure out how I can be a change agent and an influence for good in this sphere.”
For white people who are open to learning about the experiences of Black people, it’s a very personal journey. It can’t be forced. Proximity is important. You have to be willing to expose yourself to the culture and the issue. We all own that, because we own how we connect with other people. Black people own it as well — we have to be willing to create a safe space for our white friends and colleagues to ask questions and have meaningful conversations about race.
Once my white friends start paying attention to the issue of systemic racism, they go from curiosity to empathy to a desire to make things better. They’ll ask me what they can do to make a difference. There are things everyone can do to build bridges of understanding within their own communities. For Breathing Inclusivity, our goal is to teach people how they can help create a culture of inclusion. We’re especially focused on the business community, but many of the resources on our website are relevant in other settings as well.
If you look at the economic gap between white and Black Americans, the statistics are sobering. Black unemployment is nearly double the white unemployment rate. And the net worth of the average white family is nearly 10 times more than that of the average Black family. In the tech industry, where I’ve spent most of my career, Black employees make up only 2.9% of the workforce.
There are a lot of ways that people in the business community can help shift those numbers. In Utah, where I live, we have a Utah Black Chamber of Commerce. Supporting your local black chamber or another nonprofit focused on the issue of economic empowerment is a great way to start making a difference.
When you’re involved in a hiring decision, you can consciously broaden the candidate pool. If you’re engaging an agency or a consulting firm, you can look at whether they have a diverse workforce. Building a more diverse workforce isn’t just a socially responsible thing to do — it’s also a smart business strategy. Numerous studies have shown that diverse organizations are more innovative and more profitable.
During a hiring or vetting process, there are things you can do to minimize your own unconscious biases. We all have biases — every single one of us. That doesn’t mean we’re bad people. It just means we’re human. So it’s a matter of taking the time to educate yourself and become aware of your own biases.
In the summer of 2020, many Silicon Slopes tech companies participated in a full-page ad that ran in the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News supporting the idea that Black Lives Matter. My question for those companies is: “It’s great for your brand to be there, but what are you actually doing differently? How are you changing your recruiting, hiring, talent development, and promotion practices?”
I’m asking members of Utah’s business community, because that’s where I happen to live and work, to help breathe inclusion into our communities and our businesses. It’s not a political thing. It’s not Democrat versus Republican. It’s about setting labels aside and having meaningful conversations — and then asking yourself, “What small step could I take, within my own sphere of influence, to create a more inclusive culture in my workplace and my community?”
On the Breathing Inclusivity website, we’ve curated resources that can help white Americans better understand the unique experiences and challenges of Black Americans. The intent isn’t to make anyone feel judged. Our history, as a nation, contains a lot that has been kept hidden. There are some bad things that happened that we have to reconcile — even though none of us created these issues that still plague us today. We have to be willing to acknowledge and wrestle with the uncomfortable truth. Then, we have to stand up and move forward together to create a new future of true inclusion.
We’ve pulled together these resources to make it easier for people to learn, then connect, and then act. At the end of the day, the biggest goal for me is to have people realize how much we have in common — and that we should be embracing our commonalities rather than our differences.
Ronell Hugh is head of strategy and product marketing for Adobe Experience Platform. Before joining Adobe in 2016, he worked for organizations including Microsoft, Walmart, and HP. He holds a BA in communications from Brigham Young University and an MBA from BYU’s Marriott School of Business. He is the founder of Breathing Inclusivity.