In this episode, I am excited to have Karen Fleshman on to talk about a different view of racism and the immediacy of the call to action she aims to instill in the future generations.
Karen Fleshman is an attorney, activist, and a nationally recognized expert on racism, workplace fair practices, and police brutality. Her recent video plea to white women to stop calling cops on people of color went viral, with over 4.2 million views. In 2014 Karen founded Racy Conversations, a training company to inspire the first anti-racist generation in the United States. She facilitates workshops on racism, unconscious bias, microaggressions, sexual harassment, inclusive management practices, and raising anti-racist children.
- What inspired her to leave the law, and how she stumbled upon her current career of activism and inspiration.
- How anti-racism can be considered a mindfulness practice, and how she defines mindfulness and wellness as a communal environment.
- Why she is so focused on white women, and how sexism and racism are intertwined irrevocably in their fight for justice and equality. She even shares her thoughts on how white sexism has been used to propagate racism.
- How we fight against diversity apologists who “would hire more diversely, but can’t lower our standards.” We talk on how this mindset started, how it has been spread through white privilege, and how we can communicate and seek each other out more to show diversity in it’s true form.
Learn more about Karen at:
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Karen Fleshman: [00:00:04] I think that’s where we get confused about what racism is; racism is a system of privilege and wealth accumulation, it is not a personal fault. And I think that’s where white people start to have the breakdown because they associate racism with a bad person.
Intro: [00:00:25] Welcome to The Resilient Lawyer podcast. In this podcast, we have meaningful, in-depth conversations with lawyers, entrepreneurs, and change agents. We offer tools and strategies for creating a more joyful and satisfying life. And now your host, Jeena Cho.
Jeena Cho: [00:00:46] Hello my friends, thanks for joining me for another episode of The Resilient Lawyer podcast. In this episode, I’m so happy to have Karen Fleshman. She is an attorney, activist, and a nationally recognized expert on racism, workplace fair-practices, and police brutality. Her recent video plea to white women to stop calling cops on people of color went viral, with over 4.2 million views. In 2014 Karen founded Racy Conversations, a training company to inspire the first anti-racist generation in the United States. She facilitates workshops on racism, unconscious bias, micro-aggression, sexual harassment, inclusive management practices, and raising anti-racist children.
[00:01:32] Before we get into the interview, I want to tell you about my new course Mindful Pause. So often I hear from lawyers that they know they should practice mindfulness, but they just don’t have the time. And I always tell lawyers, start with just six minutes or .1 hour. Of all the hours you dedicate to your clients, work, and others, don’t you deserve to have at least .1 hour to yourself? Mindful Pause is designed for lawyers like you to fit into your hectic schedule. Try practicing mindfulness for just six minutes a day for 31 days and see for yourself the difference it can make in your life. Think about it like taking your daily vitamins to boost your well-being. Head on over to JeenaCho.com to learn more, or check it out in the show notes. And with that, here’s Karen. Karen, welcome to the show.
Karen Fleshman: [00:02:15] Thank you so much, Jeena. I’m so excited to be here and to get to have a conversation with you.
Jeena Cho: [00:02:21] Thank you. Before we get started, can you just give us a 30-second introduction of who you are and what you do?
Karen Fleshman: [00:02:28] Yes. So my mission is to inspire the first anti-racist generation in America. 43% of millennials are people of color, 47% of Generation Z are people of color. And I’m trying to inspire 10% of white people in those generations, as well as 10% of white women, to flip anti-racist so we can have a majority anti-racist generation that will transform our society for the betterment of all people. That may be more than 30 seconds.
Jeena Cho: [00:03:03] Wow, I love your vision. When you say anti-racist, what does that mean?
Karen Fleshman: [00:03:11] Anti-racist, I really got that language.. I’m very much influenced by Dr. Ibram Kendi, the author of “Stamped from the Beginning,” and he defines racist thought as the belief that one group is inherently superior to other groups, and therefore are deserving of domination. And to be anti-racist means to not believe in the inherent superiority of any race, or believe that any one race should be dominant. And to actively engage to actually dismantle racism within oneself, within one’s community, within one’s sphere of influence.
I’m really convinced if banning discrimination were enough, we wouldn’t be where we are 50 years after a very successful movement that got our laws changed to ban discrimination. This has to be a grassroots, from the bottom up movement. And some people look at me like I’m crazy, but I do firmly believe that racism is not in the self-interest of the vast majority of white people. It is definitely in the self-interest of a tiny fraction of white people, and they have been able to convince the rest of us that it’s in our self-interest too. But it’s actually not, and I’m trying to help people to see that.
Jeena Cho: [00:04:52] Say more about that, how is it that racism doesn’t benefit the majority of whites?
Karen Fleshman: [00:05:00] Well, we are a society in which 20% of the people control 95% of the wealth. And apparently that’s not enough, they’re trying to make it be 100%. Which I really don’t understand, that just does not end well.
[00:05:18] So you have many white people in the 80% of people in who are controlling 5% of the wealth, and they are somehow lulled to think that the 20% has their interests at heart by this notion of racial superiority. And that’s been the whole history of racism in our society, is that it was created by a tiny group of white men as a means of wealth and power accumulation. And then they were able to persuade white people without power and wealth to be their enforcers of it, by persuading them that they were racially superior to other people.
And then, of course, it makes sense to massacre and genocide Native Americans. And of course, it makes sense to enslave people from Africa and run around capturing them, bringing them back and torturing them, and doing all the horrible things that we’ve done. And I really do think this whole concept of white fragility is our post-traumatic response to all of the horrible things that our ancestors did and that we’ve never reconciled. We’ve never faced this history, we’ve never confronted its outcome and how it continues to impact us today. And I think that’s why many, many white people experience a lot of trauma if you bring up the issue of race. Because I think we have very deep-seated fear and shame and guilt. Stemming from generations of trauma that we inflicted.
Jeena Cho: [00:07:18] Yeah, I get the sense that when we talk about racism and the privilege that whites have, the pushback that I often get is something like, but I’m not racist; I’m not doing anything to contribute. I have black friends. So when we’re having this conversation, what is it that you’re trying to get people to do or see or think about in a different way?
Karen Fleshman: [00:07:58] Well I think almost all white people in our country grow up learning what racism is from our white parents. And I don’t think it’s intentional on their part, they just literally did not know what they were doing. So I grew up with learning racism is terrible, Dr. Martin Luther King is wonderful, and the way to be not racist is to be colorblind and to treat everybody equally. But I grew up in an all-white community, so I never saw my parents interact with people of color. It wasn’t intentional on their part, we just literally did not know any.
[00:08:49] As I grew older and started to notice, well why is there so much racial inequality in our society? The story I got back was we used to have terrible racism in our society, but then there was the civil rights movement led by Dr. King, who is wonderful. And now opportunities are distributed equally. And some families, like ours, choose to work really hard, and that’s why we’re in our situation. And other families choose not to, and that’s why they’re in their situation. And no recognition of all the racial wealth accumulation strategies that my grandparents had access to that other families did not have access to.
And it’s undoubted, my grandparents, great-grandparents, they worked their tails off. They were farmers, they were the general contractors. But everything that they did, they had access to because they were white. And other families did not have access to that. And all of that magically lands on me, and I have no idea that racism played a role in that. And I’m sure probably they weren’t racist either, I don’t think they harbored.. I think that’s where we get confused about what racism is.
Racism is a system of privilege and wealth accumulation. It is not a personal fault. And I think that’s where white people start to have the breakdown because they associate racism with being a bad person. And I am not a bad person; I’m an ethical person, I’m a kind person. I am all these things that are good, so therefore I can’t possibly be racist without understanding. But when you exclusively associate with white Americans and maybe a few Asian Americans, and when you do all these different things. Who we who we believe when we serve on a jury, who we socialize with, where we send our kids to school, where we live, who we hire, who we promote, who we listen to.
[00:11:11] Yes, you are racist; because you are perpetuating white supremacy in all those daily interactions, in all those little decisions that cumulate to the situation that we are now in. And I think that’s where the breakdown occurs, is that they say, “I’m not racist,” because they think that racism is to harbor ill-will toward black people. But we all have extremely deep-seated, unconscious bias that has been intentionally manipulated for us to fear black people. And if we don’t recognize that and start to work on it, we just keep perpetuating it. I’m sorry, I’m going on and on.
Jeena Cho: [00:12:06] Yeah, I am totally on board with you and everything that you’re saying. And then my next question is so then, what? And I know you speak a lot to white women, and I want to get more into why it is that focus on that group. But let’s say you’re a white person and you’re like okay I see what Karen is saying, that there is a system set up that is there to make things easier or make things more challenging, depending on the color of your skin. And I am part of that system, but I am just one person. How do I fix it, what do I do?
Karen Fleshman: [00:12:50] Oh my God, I love that question. And I will say this, if you are a white person and you want to become a radicalized white supremacist, you have 18 bazillion, right? You’ve got your InfoWars, you got your Breitbart, you’ve got StormFront, all these places to go. But if you are that white person that’s like, I think there might be something wrong, where do you go? I think this is a really bad problem. And what I would say to that person is that it’s about mindfulness and changing your heart and your mind, the way that your mind works to come in alignment with each other. And then paying attention to these everyday interactions; things are happening all the time.
And I think that because our brains are not designed to handle the way we are just bombarding them with so much information, like social media and online. We need to pause (I like your pause thing), take some time, pause, slow the heck down, spend some time in nature, get really quiet, and really start to think about why do I have these beliefs? Where did they originate, what kind of narrative about race did I grow up learning? And how am I demonstrating that in my daily interactions? And then start to change; start to intentionally seek out and develop relationships with the people against whom you’re biased.
[00:14:51] All the literature on unconscious bias says that the way to get rid of it is to start to supplant all those negative stereotypes with actual relationships with people that you know and care about. And then we’re not dehumanizing people based on race, then we are re-humanizing them and we can start to recognize things. And in the building of those relationships, we also start to share social capital, which is a big part of this.
Like if a white friend invites me to any kind of social event, their kid’s birthday, a barbecue, a networking event, 9 times out of 10 90% of the people there are white, with maybe a few Asian Americans. If a woman of color invites me to a networking event, 9 times out of 10 I’m one of maybe 2 white women at the networking event. So we have to get to know each other because in these social settings is where we’re exchanging all this social capital that is also really leading to the wealth inequality, right? How did you get your kid into that school? My company has an awesome opening I think you’d be perfect for. Oh, can you help my kid get an internship at your company? Whatever it is, that’s where these things are happening. So if there are no people of color present, then we are perpetuating the racial wealth gap in these social settings. And then the next step beyond that of the building of the relationship is to really take a look at, you know people are like systemic racism, institutional racism, it’s out of my hands. Bullshit, okay? Institutions and systems are created by people.
[00:16:52] So look at whatever sphere of influence you have; it could be your kid’s school, it could be your workplace, it could be your faith-based organization. Whatever it is, how does racial inequity show up in this organization and what am I going to do? Am I going to change where we’re recruiting positions for, apply the Rooney Rule in recruiting? Whatever it is, each of us can do something that is going to move us toward racial equity. And that’s how these systems are going to change. The people in power in these systems could not give a hoot, they have absolutely zero interest in changing them. I mean, I’m really so down on the whole Diversity and Inclusion profession. And I feel sorry for my friends, I have many, many friends who are heads of diversity for organizations. It’s an extremely stressful and isolating job because, in the end, very few companies have any interest in actually changing this. It’s going to take a groundswell of people saying no this is unacceptable and this has to change.
Jeena Cho: [00:18:14] Yeah. And I often find that those people that are responsible or put in charge of diversity and inclusion get scapegoated. Because it’s like, well yes it’s true that all of our incoming group of new hires is white, but that woman of color over there was supposed to fix this whole diversity thing. So why isn’t this happening?
Karen Fleshman: [00:18:38] Yeah it’s all her fault, right? Meanwhile, she’s looking at them like, I told you what needs to change and y’all don’t want to do anything. So don’t scapegoat and isolate me. And that’s why the role of the white ally in the workplace is so important because the poor woman of the color head of Diversity and Inclusion needs real supporters pushing for her to be listened to and for actual change to happen.
[00:19:31] And you asked why do I focus so much on white women? It’s many, many reasons; I do believe that white women are sexism’s number one tool. Because white men use white women to maintain racism, and we cannot end sexism without ending racism. But no matter how many times black women have tried to tell us this, for centuries and centuries we’re like, “Oh no no no, we must end sexism first.” And we remain factionalized as women, and this is how sexism just keeps going and going and going.
[00:20:23] That’s part of it. I also think white women in the workplace can be very harmful to other white women; I’ve been harmed by white women in the workplace, as well as to women of color. They’re not leveraging their positions of power within the workplace to open up opportunities for other women; they view other women as threats, and they don’t ally with the women of color in the workplace. And this is why we don’t ascend. We cannot ascend if we remain divided, we only ascend when we unite and when we have the numbers to actually transform this. So I firmly believe it is in white women’s self-interest to get over our racism, unite with women and men of color, and really take on the inequality in the workplace.
Jeena Cho: [00:21:23] I think how this normally shakes out though is you have a bunch of white males on a board or some executive committee and they’re like oh, we need a little bit of diversity so we’re going to open one seat up. So now you have all the people of color and all the women competing for that one seat. And when you get into that one seat, you don’t want to be like hey can you pull up some extra chairs here? Because you don’t want to be thrown out of the group. Because I think the perception is that then the other men in the room will say, we’d be happy to, you can surrender your seat.
Karen Fleshman: [00:21:58] Right. And they intentionally seek out people with the Clarence Thomas viewpoint for that role. Like we just want you for the photo opportunity, but we don’t really want you to change anything. And that’s kind of an unfair characterization, there are plenty of people in that one seat who don’t have the Clarence Thomas viewpoint. I agree with you, but people have to take some risk. We only have one life, are we going to allow this inequity to just keep going? Or do we actually care about our children? Do we actually care about this more than we care about our own narrow, short-term self-interest?
And people have to take some risk and they have to make other people uncomfortable. All of this gets perpetuated because, well making so-and-so feel uncomfortable we’re putting so-and-so on the spot. Who cares?! Go for it! You know what I mean? And if you wind up losing your job, I think you have a lot to be proud of. Look at the woman from Uber (whose name is eluding me) who memorialized all of the terrible things that were happening, and then found another job and went public with her memo. Look at all the change that has been spawned from that one blog post. Or look at Leslie Miley not signing the nondisclosure agreement about why he left Twitter, saying he mentioned in front of an all-hands engineering meeting, “What are we doing about diversity?” And the head of engineering turned to him and said, “Well diversity is important, but we’re not going to lower the bar.”
[00:24:07] How much of an impact did his going public with that have? And it’s not like these people are now destitute, because you become like a paragon. Look at Ellen Pao; you become a role model for other people. So I think those are the people that we need to highlight and uplift and support when they’re going through this. I am friends with one of the plaintiffs in one of these horrible Silicon Valley sexual harassment cases, which we can get into another conversation about how it’s Asian American women who are being targeted for the sexual harassment in Silicon Valley.
[00:24:54] It is emotional to be a whistleblower; it is extremely difficult. So when women are bold enough to do these things, we need to be by their sides, holding their hands and supporting them in doing this, because it does take a lot of courage. But that’s who makes change, the meek don’t make change. The bold do. And I want to encourage everyone listening to this to be as bold as they can be.
Jeena Cho: [00:25:28] I love that. I want to go back to something that you just said a moment ago because it comes up for me all the time; that idea of “we’re not going to lower our standards.” I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard this, because I will be at some conference somewhere and I’ll see a sea of white male speakers, all the “manals.” And I’ll be like, hey you have a diversity and inclusion issue here. And they will say, well we wanted to have the best or most qualified speakers. And it drives me crazy, I mean it’s frankly insulting. Like how dare you, how can you think that? But where does that idea come from, that we’re only going to pick the best people, and the best people happen to be only white men? And also, how do you respond to that?
Karen Fleshman: [00:26:29] Well you know, our society is very intentionally set up that way. You look at the Declaration of Independence where it says, “All men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” then 30 lines below it it says, “The merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare is the destruction all ages, races, and sexes.” So it’s in the founding documents. Because when they were talking about all men, they were talking about white men who were landowners, and many of whom were slave owners. This is who the United States has always been designed to serve. I mean, look at the U.S. Senate. And I really do think that the rise of 45 is white men’s freaking out about the demographic change. They’re like, oh my god we are going to ban Muslims, we’re going to build a wall, we’re going to do everything in our power because our numbers are dwindling and we have to go into battle to preserve our power.
[00:27:56] It’s this zero-sum game notion of power where only we can have power, and if we were to share power with other people that would mean there’s less power for us. So I think this whole, “these are the best people,” is the grassroots manifestation of that and the accumulation of privilege and status conferred upon white men. Well, of course, they went to Stanford, and of course, their IPO was successful and now they’re millionaires; all these things without any recognition of the fact that all of this success was totally weighted in their favor because of their status as white men, to begin with.
[00:28:47] And this notion that everything they accumulated is to their own individual merit, and their own individual intelligence, to their own individual work. And this notion of rugged individualism is such an important narrative in American history, and it’s completely inaccurate. But try convincing them of any of it. They literally don’t see women and people of color as fully human; they don’t see them as their equal. So it’s very difficult for them to imagine that a woman of color or man of color has a viewpoint that could possibly be as intelligent or as insightful as they are because they don’t see them as fully human.
Jeena Cho: [00:29:40] Right. Or if they are going to choose someone that’s a person of color or a woman, then the person has to be so incredibly exceptional. It’s not enough that you went to Harvard and Yale, you must have clerked for a Supreme Court Justice. It’s just all the nonsense, and it happens so often. And I always struggle with what do I say? What do I say that isn’t going to make the person feel defensive?
Karen Fleshman: [00:30:19] Listen, I just troll the hell out of it. I quote them, I make fun of them, and then at the end I write a blog post about it. Because honestly, I don’t care about making them feel defensive. That’s my style, other people have different styles, but I am so tired. And also quite honestly, these “manals” or the white woman equivalent, it’s just boring. It’s completely irrelevant. You’re only talking to other people with your shared life experience, you know what I mean? There are no real learnings to be had there. So those are the types of things that I like to point out.
[00:31:13] But if you look at some of my blog posts, I wrote one after going to a UCLA Anderson Women Lead conference about how you can’t throw a women’s empowerment event and only focus on white women. Especially if you’re UCLA! But we’re so in our little bubble that we don’t recognize this until somebody points it out. My style of pointing it out is not very gentle, other people’s is more gentle. I think we all have to do what works for us.
Jeena Cho: [00:31:52] Yeah. For me, it’s a constant trial and error. Sometimes I say, okay I am going to write an article about this conference where it’s a sea of white men speakers; I’m going to write an article about you on Above the Law and call you out on your bullshit. And then they will issue a non-apology and basically, say, but we’re not going to lower our standards.
Karen Fleshman: [00:32:24] Oh yeah, that’s what UCLA did. I started tweeting, it’s noon and we haven’t heard from a single woman of color at this conference, unacceptable. So then UCLA Anderson tweets back, oh my god you’re 100% right. We should have a conversation about this. And then they never actually follow up to have a conversation. Again, they honestly don’t give a hoot but they just don’t want to publicly make it seem like they didn’t acknowledge the criticism. So just keep at it Jeena, just keep at it. And you don’t have to do it all the time either. Sometimes we’re tired and we don’t have to fight this battle every single day, you have to practice some self-care in there too. But when it does feel right and we’re feeling bold, I say go for it.
Jeena Cho: [00:33:20] Right. And also, I will say it’s exhausting to be the woman of color in the room that’s constantly the one that’s pointing it out. I’ll have other white friends tweet at me and say, oh look at this “manal”, expecting me to do their job. And I’m like no, you call them out on their bullshit; that’s not my job. But somehow they think that’s now my job, to call out all the “manals.” It’s like no, you can also take part in this movement.
Karen Fleshman: [00:33:49] Since they obviously only want to listen to white men, wouldn’t it be more effective for a white man to call them out on it? Use our privilege, use our power; that is something that we can use. Sometimes I think I shouldn’t comment on something because this is for a person of color to comment on – no it’s not. Calling white people out on their bullshit is white people’s 100% prerogative. Go for it.
Jeena Cho: [00:34:33] Yeah. What I have heard, and I’ve had this conversation with several white men, is that they feel uncomfortable saying there are no women or there are no people of color sitting around the table. Because then the room, whoever’s sitting around the room, is going to look at them and say, “Well what do you care? You have a seat.”
Karen Fleshman: [00:34:54] Well yeah, that’s what this is all about; making people feel uncomfortable, including ourselves. When you start to go down this path it is not a path of comfort, because white people want nothing to do with you. And then a lot of people of color, because this is such a very sensitive, longstanding, painful thing. When white people start to engage in it, then you get a backlash from people of color too, who don’t trust you or who don’t think you’re engaging in it in the right way. Which I totally welcome, but some white people are like, oh my god why did I do this? Now I’ve alienated both the white people and the people on whose behalf I was trying to be an advocate.
My whole thing is, apologize if you’ve made a mistake. Take ownership of it, learn from it, but don’t stop; just keep going. There are people of color who are always going to be offended, there were some people of color who were mad at the video plea I made for white women. They were saying it should have been done by a woman of color, you know why are you making this video? My whole thing is, just like everybody else, white people can’t be who they don’t see. So I’m going to keep raising my profile. We don’t have a single example, there is not a white woman celebrity, executive elected official, we do not have a single example of a household name white woman who can be a role model of what it is to be an anti-racist white woman.
And so I’m going to keep raising my profile because I want to encourage many, many people to come on this path. Is everything I’m doing 100% right? No. I’m a human being, I’m making mistakes left and right. But I want to encourage 10% of my white millennials, 10% of Generation Z, 10% of white women; if we can flip those people (and we have the numbers) we can actually have an anti-racist generation. And that’s what’s going to transform our society. That’s what I’m trying to do, is build a movement that’s big enough to have a transformative impact.
Jeena Cho: [00:37:30] Powerful message. Karen, for the folks that are listening to the show and want to learn more about you and your work, where is the best place for them to do that?
Karen Fleshman: [00:37:42] RacyConversations.com, there’s a contact me form on there. I do workshops on unconscious bias, microaggression, sexual harassment. I’m an attorney admitted in New York, so I’m able to do California-compliant sexual harassment training. I love to work with a company to facilitate the creation of their harassment policy, and then train everybody up in the company. I also give talks and I host a lot of events around interracial sisterhood, and I’m super passionate about stopping Cavanaugh; I wish we had time to talk about that.
Jeena Cho: [00:38:24] I might have to have you back to chat again now.
Karen Fleshman: [00:38:27] Yes! If you are in a red state and you have a women’s group, a young people, a group of people of color, I want to come to your state and talk to you about what we can and must do to stop the Cavanaugh appointment. It is the number one threat to every marginalized group in this society, we have to stop this appointment. So please contact me and I would love to meet you and to work with you.
Jeena Cho: [00:38:58] Karen, thank you so much for being with me today.
Karen Fleshman: [00:39:00] Oh my god, Jeena thank you. I’m delighted and I can’t wait to hear this, I’m so excited to listen to it.
Closing: [00:39:11] Thanks for joining us on The Resilient Lawyer podcast. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please tell a friend. It’s really the best way to grow the show. To leave us a review on iTunes, search for The Resilient Lawyer and give us your honest feedback. It goes a long way to help with our visibility when you do that, so we really appreciate it. As always, we’d love to hear from you. E-mail us at email@example.com. Thanks, and look forward to seeing you next week.