A few months ago, we wrote about how COVID-19 is revealing the depth of our interconnectedness, and how we’re refusing to acknowledge those connections. Today, we’re returning to the topic of relationships, which at this moment are complicated, to say the least.
We’re seeing each other differently, maybe even for the first time. We’re seeing race instead of opting for “colorblindness.” We’re seeing black people with their full histories and collective trauma. We’re seeing new allies. We’re seeing ourselves as responsible for dismantling systems of oppression.
Yet, there remain many ways in which we’re still failing to see each other:
One client asks a male colleague and fellow law partner to brainstorm ways of attracting new clients. Rather than share his network and resources, he proceeds to offer advice in a tone more appropriate for an underling. He doesn’t see me as a partner or an equal.
Another client advocates for a new task force at work, only to have her supervisor take her idea and present it as his own. He expects her to be grateful he likes her idea. He sees my ideas as his for the taking. He doesn’t see me as the owner of my knowledge.
I’ve heard so many similar stories over the past few weeks. Marginalization and not being seen have always been a reality, but right now, we’re feeling them more keenly. It hurts more. It’s more devastating and less tolerable.
What’s going on?
Relationship To vs. Relationship With
I think the answer starts with distinguishing two different kinds of relationships, and what happens when we think we’re in one, but the other party thinks we’re in another.
We are often in relationship to each other. This is where we keep the other person at arm’s length, separate, without much risk of vulnerability. We do this with neighbors, fellow parents at a child’s school or sport, coworkers from another department. Relationship to is transactional, sometimes competitive—you are provider, recipient, contestant, or simple participant. Everyone maintains solid control in relationship to others. We know our place, our level of power, our rank on the hierarchy. We remain individuals circling each other.
Being in relationship with someone is radically different.
It’s based on mutual trust, vulnerability, and risk. Think of domestic or business partners, each with as much to gain and lose as the other. Think of co-teachers, co-parents, and co-founders. Shared goals, creative agency, mutual respect, and seeing each other’s humanity up close are markers of being in relationship with.
At Leverage to Lead, we know from experience that it’s just as hard as it sounds. Being in relationship with someone is scary and risky. You are open to getting hurt, betrayed, or left behind. But such are the risks of anything worth our precious time and energy.
And we also know that it’s better. It just is. Sharing yourself, your aspirations, your fears, and your full self, and receiving the same in return, is the only way to create something new, something that wouldn’t have been possible without the relationship.
When Relationships Don’t Match Up
So, how did my partner mistake me for a mentee? How did my supervisor mistake me for an idea repository? Often the answer is: you think you were in relationship with them, but they think they’re in relationship to you.
The mismatch is painful.
You think you’re seeing and being seen. You think you’re sharing equally and risking together. And then you discover you’re not. It’s jarring and sometimes even devastating. We fall back on blaming ourselves for having been a fool, then we close ourselves off from ever risking this humiliation again.
The other thing to know is that the mismatch isn’t always conscious. There may be a deep systemic block at work. I believe that the supervisor who takes credit for another’s idea is locked in patriarchy, and rather than sharing power and opportunity, only knows how to reinforce the hierarchy and keep himself free from vulnerability. The dominant culture works hard to preserve its centered role.
What can be most devastating is the hope you’ve built up after doing the hard work to be seen as an equal, hoping your perseverance will have paid off. And yet, come to find you’re still seen through a set of limitations and biases. Seeing someone you thought you were in relationship with act to preserve their power can be crushing.
How to Build the Same Reality
You can’t make someone be in relationship with you. But you can take steps to assert your boundaries.
First, let’s call a crisis a crisis.
The pain of not being fully seen is shedding light on another disconnect. The global crisis of COVID-19 is sharing the stage now with the crises of police brutality and anti-black racism. Each are their own kind of pandemic, requiring collective action and major reform.
For people of color, the crisis can’t be relegated to the world out there. Racism is an internal crisis, an office crisis, a company crisis. That feeling of everything being on the line, of life-or-death stakes, isn’t just out there. It’s for people of color working in your firms right now, whose integrity, autonomy, hope, and creativity are all on the line. When the company disconnects racism (out there) from its black employees (in here), the crisis deepens, and the hurt is exacerbated by being made to feel invisible.
So, call it the crisis it is. The power of naming your reality cannot be overstated. Name the mismatch, the power structure, the pain. Normalize it.
Then, let’s clarify our values.
A mismatched relationship doesn’t always need fixing. You can, if you’re able and inclined, start a conversation with someone who has revealed they see you as a means to an end or holds you at arm’s length when you thought you were in this together. Maybe you can come to a new understanding and move forward together.
But you may not. It’s your call. You decide how you move forward, with agency.
At the very least, you can respond to the call to reexamine your boundaries. Maybe that partner who doesn’t see me is no longer in my network of allies. I can move forward with people who are willing to be mutually vulnerable. Before I again assume who I’m in relationship with, I’ll look carefully at whether the person is sharing my risk, adding to my creativity, and seeing my humanity.
The brutality we see in violent anti-black brutality is shining a light on the brutality in our own lives. Your outrage is warranted, as is your sadness, disappointment, fear, and confusion. No, we can’t make others see, understand, or feel it with us. But we can hold stronger boundaries and stand on more solid ground as we assert our reality, find likeminded folks to partner with, and move forward with clarity.