was about 10 years ago when I decided not to help my friend when he needed someone to stand up for him. To this day, I regret my lack of action and advocacy. We are in a national discussion around the idea of respect: respect for Black lives, respect for differing political voices, and learning how to respect others with different or contradictory beliefs. Respect matters more than ever, but seems further and further away, and harder to actualize in today’s world of “us vs. them.”
Growing up in the Midwest, I often felt that being respectful relied upon being “Minnesota Nice.” For me that meant avoiding conflict, being self-deprecating, and understating myself or others. By trying to avoid conflict with others, I felt like I was being respectful. However, I now see that I was often avoiding the real issue, protecting myself, or trying not to rock the boat.
Now living here in Utah, I observe this familiar trapping of niceness: the lack of action in an uncomfortable moment is seen as an act of respect. I am guilty of this and have been silent when I witness others acting in a way that hurts, mistreats, or degrades. I have justified my inactions by telling myself it is more respectful to say nothing, rather than saying or doing something. Maybe you can relate in your own life?
Going back to my story from 10 years ago, my friend had recently retired after a long career and I invited him to dinner and a hockey game in Chicago. It was a great road trip up from Champaign with plenty of laughs, reflection, and, on his part, excitement for his next chapter. I had been lucky when starting out in my career to have him as a mentor.
At the game, our tickets were checked by the usher and we sat down waiting for the puck to drop. He got up to get popcorn and mentioned his ticket was checked when returning to his seat. I thought nothing of it, but it happened again when he got our sodas. He joked that being a Black man at a hockey game must have been a surprise for the usher.
When we both returned from getting our next round, my stomach sank as my ticket was not checked but my friend’s ticket was checked another time. In that moment, I felt the urge to argue with the usher about the unfairness. But instead, I sat back down and chose not to say anything at all. The rest of the night I watched as people came and went and I saw no other tickets checked except for my friend’s.
As leaders, we set an example of inclusion and respect, whether we intend to or not. And as such, we are held to a higher standard of seeing others for who they are and considering their needs.
The “R” in both our staff PROMISE standards and our WE CARE leadership model stands for respect. As leaders, we set an example of inclusion and respect, whether we intend to or not. And as such, we are held to a higher standard of seeing others for who they are and considering their needs.
In my situation, rather than honoring my initial inclination to speak up for my friend, I dishonored that feeling and mentally justified my decision not support him. At the time, I felt it was better to not make a scene. My choice to not take action for my friend was a safe and comfortable action for me. I should have said to the usher, “Why are you checking my friend’s ticket over and over again while not doing the same for anyone else who leaves the section. Can you tell me why?”
I don’t know what his response would have been, but it would have started a conversation for him to consider his actions, with minimal cost to me. More importantly, it would have shown my friend that I don’t agree with or tolerate that behavior.
I see now my silence was not respectful and helps me view situations differently. As a white, educated male, I have a voice of privilege. It allows me to speak up for others who don’t have a voice or are treated differently because of how they look, act, or where they come from.
Even though I may not always have used the perfect words, actions, or opportunities, I resolve to do better and demonstrate respect by not being silent. I will speak and act differently. Jose Rodriguez, U of U Health’s director of the Office of Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, shared three ways diversity and differences can be better respected in the workplace:
- If you see someone being disrespected, say something. The reality is that the risks for individuals with privilege are often minimal compared to the individual being harassed or disrespected. This is allyship, white allyship specifically. Allyship is when individuals with access to power are a voice for those disenfranchised or situationally powerless.
- We can open our minds and do better. The concept of privilege can often be uncomfortable. People have been treated differently. It is important to recognize that taking action to benefit a society’s least privileged creates a more equitable and just society for all. This doesn’t have to be grand gestures. It is done when everyday people commit to a set of shared behaviors geared to mutual respect each and advocating with our words and actions.
- Look at our systems and programs for opportunities to advocate for others. The Civil Rights movement improved school access for Black children and opened work opportunities to women. This is a tangible example of how privilege can be used to respect others and show they are valued in our society. There is more to do.
It is important to recognize that taking action to benefit a society’s least privileged creates a more equitable and just society for all.
My challenge to you is to reflect on how you demonstrate respect to others. When approaching and interacting with people who seem different from you, consider if you are listening and considering their needs rather than prioritizing your own comfort. As we move forward as a community here at University of Utah Health, Utah, and the world at large, let’s make a commitment to do more to create respect for one another.
1. Dear anti-racist allies: Here's how to respond to microaggressions https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/05/health/racial-microaggressions-examples-responses-wellness/index.html
2. Anti-Racism Educator Jane Elliott: ‘There’s Only One Race. The Human Race' | NBC BLK | NBC News https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eFQkLp5u-No
3. Why being respectful to your coworkers is good for business | Christine Porath https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YY1ERM-NIBY