An open letter to Corporate America: I can’t feel my pain

Northern Trust Asset Management president Shundrawn Thomas reflects on race relations in the workplace, and in his heart.

Kenosha, Wisconsin, has become a new epicenter of both peaceful and violent protests sparked by the recent shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year old Black man. A viral video captures the crucial moments when Mr. Blake is shot in the back seven times by police officers, after appearing to ignore their orders. The incident eerily echoes a number of police shootings in cities around the country. It strikes a raw nerve in a country wrestling with ongoing systemic racism affecting communities of color — especially Black Americans.

Inequitable treatment within the criminal justice system has enlivened a more vigorous racial justice movement over the past several years. The movement, and associated crucial conversations regarding race, have made their way into the genteel halls of Corporate America. Race has been the dominant social construct in the Western world for nearly half a millennium. It impacts every practical aspect of society and is one of our deepest areas of divide. However, like politics and religion, race is a “third rail” in corporate cultures. It is commonly accepted that race should not be discussed in polite company. As a result, conversations about race within American companies are generally limited and prescribed.

As an African American executive, I can offer this assessment: the challenges that Black Americans face inside and outside of Corporate America are, frankly, unremarkable. Race, racism and racist ideas have impacted me in tangible ways throughout my life and career. What is remarkable, however, is the current shift in the dialogue about race and the increased acknowledgment of the unique experience and circumstances of Black people in America. Kenosha is about an hour’s drive from where I live in Chicago, so the coverage of the current unrest is practically local news.

It is against this backdrop that a fellow executive reached out to me.

“How are you dealing with the Jacob Blake shooting?” he asked.

I was struggling to process this most recent development in light of my active engagement in the racial dialogue over the past three months. “I can’t fully articulate how I feel except to say it is disheartening,” I remarked. That was all I could muster, though I appreciated his earnest inquiry. After we concluded our conversation, I came to a stark realization.

I can’t feel my pain.

Pain hurts because it should. It is the body’s way of telling us that something in our internal or external environment presents a danger to our physical or mental health. When the body is injured or something is wrong, our nerves send messages to our brains about what’s going on. Our brains then make us feel pain with the express purpose of saving us from further or critical injury. This is true as it pertains to our physical and mental health. In the same way that our nerves send constant messages to our brains to inform our physiological condition, our emotions send consistent messages to our hearts to inform our psychological condition. And herein lies the crux of the challenge for Black Americans navigating the social construct of race within Corporate America:

As Black faces navigating predominantly white spaces, we cannot comfortably address what we experience and feel.

To be sure, these cultural norms constrain all members of the corporate community. However, they are an acute burden for Black Americans who have long been the targets of systemic racism. Naturally, the image of a Black person being harmed, or any person for that matter, evokes real pain. Or so it should. A principal function of the heart is to internalize and process these emotions.

But sometimes, I can’t feel my pain.

People often reflexively prefer to avoid pain. However, in an imperfect world, the ability to feel pain is essential for our maturity and personal well-being. This allows us to empathize with others and maintain healthy relationships. Yet as a Black executive, I have been conditioned to restrain my emotions and suppress my pain. Practically speaking, this has been necessary for me to survive and thrive in Corporate America. And while pragmatism is generally considered a desirable quality in corporate cultures, it is a fallacy to assume that our emotions don’t matter. How should I feel and what emotions can I express when I encounter racial discrimination? I can’t be sad because it might signal that I am weak and unable to deal with the normal stresses of the job. Or, it might suggest that I somehow am not mentally tough enough. I can’t be surprised because the occurrences are far too frequent, too proximate, too real to actually be surprising. Bad things happen right? I can’t be fearful even when there are genuine concerns. Fear and its close cousins, anxiety and skepticism, are debilitating when navigating corporate culture. Most of all, I can’t be angry. Any demonstrative expression of anger evokes long-held biases associated with the stereotypical angry Black person.

And this is why it is hard, at times, to feel my pain.

There is, however, an inflection in my story. An empathetic question from a fellow executive — a white executive — has triggered further introspection. In part due to the gentle reminder that people from all walks of life are sharing this pain.

So, without reservation, I affirm that all lives matter.

Asian lives matter, Latino lives matter, white lives matter — and yes, Black lives matter. And this is an important statement and an important moment because, as a nation, we must process the pain caused by racism and address the impact on those most deeply affected. And to avoid any doubt: “all” means blue lives matter and red lives matter. Gay lives matter and straight lives matter. Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Christian lives matter. I could go on, but the point is simple: All means all!

However, “all” is both inclusive and specific. It extends to every group and every individual that is part of the human community. And if my explicit acknowledgment affirms the personhood and well-being of another, I will not hesitate to say it privately, publicly or personally.

Therefore, I say again for intentional effect that Black lives matter because this is an affirmation that must be made in both words and deeds to ensure all lives truly matter. To affirm that my life matters.

As I allowed my emotions to run their course and my heart to do its work over the course of the past week, I realize that I can now fully feel my pain. While it is difficult to continually witness and experience racial discrimination, it is also an instance of grace that I can still feel my pain. And it is a measure of grace that I can process it and speak candidly about it. The greatest measure of grace is that I can feel empathy for others. I can forgive and be forgiven. I can share in the hopes and hurts of all others.

I can feel their pain.

As we find ourselves at an all too familiar crossroads, I am frequently asked about what actions we should take to address the systemic racism that persists within our society. Many of us want a quick address. We want the pain to go away. And we want it to do so quickly. Remember the axiom that pain hurts because it should. The action required most urgently will evoke more discomfort and pain. We need to keep listening as we have only begun to hear. And while we certainly must act, our actions will only be effective and sustained if we continually listen intellectually and emotionally. We should always hope that we are afforded the grace to truly feel one another’s pain.

To this end, I do not offer answers but rather necessary questions. Three to be exact. I recognize that we are a nation of differing ideals and beliefs, but I seek to appeal to the ties — the values — that bind us. My questions speak to matters of the heart, which supersede racial classification, political affiliation and religious denomination.

  1. What has contributed to our current state of affairs?
  2. Why are others acting or reacting in a particular manner?
  3. How can I personally make a difference?

My mother has an inspiring personal narrative that involved resuming her education later in life, acquiring both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She pursued her calling in the field of social service. In my recent book, I recounted a conversation we had three decades ago. She was a caseworker serving disadvantaged children at an agency located in a troubled inner-city neighborhood.

“Mom why did you choose social work and why do you work in such a rough neighborhood?”

Her response was profound and echoes the challenges of the day.

“Son,” she replied, “most of the young people I serve are abused or neglected. They often feel as if their lives don’t matter and no one cares about them. Their lives do matter. They matter to God and they matter to me.”

In that moment, I fully understood her sense of calling and care for the human community. I knew that their lives deeply mattered to her. She could feel their pain. The answers to my three questions that speak to matters of the heart are very clear to my mother. And, in her seemingly small act by one — her ability to listen with her head and heart — she has touched the lives of many. I hope that her living testimony encourages us all to do likewise.

We must never lose the capacity to feel one another’s pain.

Shundrawn A. Thomas

President, Northern Trust Asset Management

@Shundrawn Thomas – LinkedIn