Recent events have ripped off the scab of decades of injustice to reveal the gaping wound still festering and bleeding from individual and systemic racism in America. No matter whose side you’re on, or your political leaning, to deny the reality of the impact of oppressive and dehumanizing attitudes and behaviors has become in itself an act of violence.
How do we as people and as a society respond? When inaction and denial become untenable, people rise up. We’ve seen: demonstrations, looting, finger-pointing, cries for reform, violence begetting violence, and calls for peace-making. In approaching all issues, context matters. My context is that of an older white male who has made the commitment to live and lead from the framework of servant leadership. First, let me be clear, being white, male, and someone who has had the privilege of serving in a leadership role for years, has put me squarely in a place of privilege. Second, my servant leadership beliefs and values cannot be used to justify a belief that I have arrived at an evolved attitude or a practice of equity in relationships.
The reality is, I am a part of the problem. In this admission, I am saying that talking about valuing all people, without a plan of action that impacts my behavior, leaves me in the position of silently condoning the problem rather than being a generative participant in the revolution needed to effect real change. Racism has been, and continues to be, a deadly mindset that leads to the breaking of people, families, institutions, and our very nation.
So, what am I going to do? Options include: feeling guilty, getting angry, becoming overwhelmed, striking out in overzealous ways to fix things, or (you name it!) What if there is a starting point…a place to orient myself toward others who are also seeking a new path of redemption, equity, and inclusion?
Today I am suggesting that there is a “fixed point in a spinning world.” Every human being approaching this issue needs to come to terms with their context and what it is calling them to do. For me, that fixed point in my context as a white male leader is humility.
The word humility has been around for a very long time, and yet it’s meaning is often misunderstood. It is derived from the Latin word humilis, meaning “low.” In ancient Greek it literally means “not rising far from the ground.” The Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of humility as a noun is “the feeling or attitude that you have no special importance that makes you better than others.” This meaning is picked up and expanded upon in the lyrics of an ancient song recorded in the Bible in the book of Philippians; “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but he emptied himself…” Here Jesus’ attitude is being held up as a word picture for what the attitude for humility looks like. This attitude is one of seeing and believing that every human being is a person worthy of being respected and valued, and that no matter what status I have inherited or attained, I am willfully emptying myself of prideful elevation of self.
It’s in a further reading of the lyrics of this ancient song that the meaning of humility, or the ripple effects thereof, are expanded upon. The lyrics go like this; “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” This next step on the journey toward humility ties the outcome of a humble attitude being humble action or behavior, even if/when that action leads to personal loss. This is a revolutionary idea, that if adopted, could upset the power balance and change the world as we know it.
Humility is a very personal thing based on values, beliefs, and one’s worldview. No one can make you into a humble person, and if you try to act humble without an authentic change of heart, people’s B.S. detectors will all sound in unison. The question is, can humility be learned? In the book, “Start With Humility: Lessons from America’s Quiet CEOs on How To Build Trust and Inspire Followers,” authors, Merwyn Hayes and Michael Comer, say the answer is “yes!” Maybe there still is hope for an older white man like me?
Hayes and Comer start by offering defining characteristics of humility including: humanness, vulnerability, and the ability to keep one’s perspective. Humility is not weakness, the absence of ego, or lack of assertiveness. They go on to lay out a practical process for growing humility as a person. The formula goes like this:
Human Authenticity + Humble Behaviors = Trust/Respect
How does this relate to personal and systemic racism? First, for me as a white man, human authenticity can and must be based on a commitment to empty myself of any and all feelings of superiority – to see myself on ground level, embracing the humanness of others with respect and dignity, no matter the differences. I know I do not have the self-awareness needed to do this on my own. I need Black and Brown and all Minority brothers and sisters to speak truth and tell me what they see, feel, hear, and experience.
On a systemic level, humility requires practices that lead to humble habits and behaviors. These include but are not limited to: admitting mistakes, acknowledging where the system is broken (even if I struggle with the false belief that I’m not responsible for breaking it), admitting my ignorance for all that I don’t know or can never fully understand, and striving to be empathic at every stage of the journey. As it turns out, these are practices I can commit to grow habits and attitudes that connect my heart to behaviors that have the potential to effect lasting change.
In Jesus’ response in the ancient song recorded in Philippians, we see that humility was very costly. I believe the same is true for me, and for us today. The world around us is spinning out of control on an axis of racism and violence. Humility is a fixed point. Change starts one person at a time. Change starts with the transformation of one human heart. Change starts with me. Will you join me?
Ritch Hochstetler, President and CEO at ULEAD