It’s Complicated: Explaining The Role of Race in Police Brutality

*I originally published this in June 2015. In wake of more deaths approximately one year later, I am sharing this again…today.*

 

I’ve opened the past two semesters talking about police brutality on the first day of class in my Cross-Cultural Communication course at Lipscomb University. This is a required course for communication and journalism majors to grasp the challenges of communicating in today’s complex society so we go there and get pretty deep. Building communication strategies to address obstacles and opportunities within a client’s organizational culture is something I know very well but grappling with the thorny issues of our times with a room full of college students means I must dig deep and go all the way. There are a wealth of topics I could start the semester with instead but it just so happens the biggest story in the news at the time concerned violence, race and injustice – in fall we dealt with cases of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, and in spring, the cases of Eric Garner and Freddie Gray. It looks as if perhaps this coming fall in August I will unfortunately and again have new content on the same topic – now with the incident in Mckinney, Texas and who knows what else between now and then.

For all of these tragic instances, a firestorm of commentary and disagreement ensued across news media and social media, and protests arose all over the world. Some students wonder how this could happen in the United States. For others, unfortunately, police brutality and discrimination are all too familiar. Yet for a large majority of my students at our private, Christian, predominately white University, police brutality and the racial disparities that accompany the topic are foreign concepts. They are often confused but curious and compassionate in their attempt to make sense of tough issues that even us mature adults struggle to comprehend. Naturally, they are faced with anger, frustration, sadness, disbelief and lots of questions.

“The victim had to be doing something wrong, right Professor Ellis? Wouldn’t the news media tell us if something was done unfairly?”

“Professor Ellis, wasn’t this an issue during segregation? Why are we seeing so much about it today?”

“But Professor Ellis, does this mean most cops are racist or that we should fear them?”

“So Professor Ellis, how do we fix stuff like this?”

My answer to them: “Well, it’s complicated.”

 

I could share with you how I lecture on the basis of these questions but that’s a 2000-word essay, not a blog post. I tell my students we have many things to consider…

  • We’d need to consider how racism has always played a key role in our country and how it became embedded in our criminal justice system. We also need to talk about juries, how difficult it can be to find the truth and how media coverage and social media conversations impact the perceptions of what we believe is true. We’d need to consider the origins of racism and the repetitive narratives of injustice, violence and poverty in communities of color to examine the correlations.
  • We’d need to look at the public’s general perception about the problem of police brutality and its history in America from the civil rights movement of the 1960’s to the transition from community policing to military policing in the 1980’s. We’d need to examine data that shows if you are black you are far more likely to die at the hands of a police officer than you would if you are white, and how that knowledge has perpetuated a relationship of conflict between police officers and the black community. We’d need to talk about how the outrage makes people feel hopeless and inspired to react in protesting or even rioting.
  • We’d need to examine the disturbing trend in the news media where a person is often criminalized when they have been killed by a police officer rather than insisting they deserved to a chance to be charged, brought to trial and have remained among the living. We’d need to research at the trend of citizen journalism becoming a powerful catalyst for the narrative of injustice as a tool for breaking news. We’d need ask if we can discern by only looking at the mobile phone footage of a bystander how an unarmed citizen is to blame for the overcorrection, extra force or lack of control displayed by police officers.
  • We’d need to assess how police administrators are training officers and addressing criticism since police brutality has gotten so much national attention recently. We’d need to consider that what a police officer could despise more than anything is when their authority is challenged, regardless of your color, and that could get you thrown in jail or met with excessive force. We should acknowledge that there are officers and administrators who understand how this crisis is impacting public trust and are trying to handle the issue with care and concern because their profession requires that they put their lives on the line everyday.
  • We’d need to consider our role in calling out injustice as a social and moral responsibility when the dynamic of the unknown convicts us to acknowledge stereotypes and reveal blind spots. We’d need to be honest about the relative silence over unfair treatment when it doesn’t impact us directly. We should admit we are imperfect people who have a tendency to limit our perspective, opinions, beliefs and comfort zones to be in agreement with those who relate to us most. We need to remember that what affects one affects us all, or at least it should.

I told you. It’s complicated.

I have the next generation of FOX news anchors, CNN producers, national radio hosts, online news editors, public information officers, non-profit leaders and crisis PR practitioners in my classroom. They will shape public opinion and determine how we consume messages through media. These students are studying to go into newsrooms to write stories and headlines about issues they’ve never witnessed personally, go into communities that may not look like the places they grew up in with cameras to capture the conflict of people who don’t look like them, go into companies to help generate awareness among a target audience whose lifestyles they can’t relate to, or go into organizations to help senior leaders to communicate about issues that might make them uncomfortable.

If I don’t get real with them, who will?

Now, I could be the kind of professor that ignores the cultural sensitivities that surface from answering these questions or I could be the kind that challenges students and myself to explore our self-identities and look at how fit they into the world. This is where we must consider our younger generations who are confused but curious about their role in improving our society in ways that enlighten and empower them. Violence, race and injustice – the anchors of the cultural discourse around police brutality – aren’t the easiest concepts to grasp and are no longer the kinds of one-time shallow conversations we can sweep under the rug. Ignoring the facts dehumanizes us. They have to be talked about on an ongoing basis every time a story comes out.

I challenge you, whether a professional, professor or parent, to start having open discussion about cultural issues with the young students in your communities. Address your personal biases internally, dig for more than what is reported through media, be okay with the discomfort of disagreement when a different opinion is expressed, search for a historical context connected to these issues we’ve increasingly seen in the news, seek meaningful conversations with people who’ve experienced the cultural struggles that you haven’t, and empower a young student to intelligently assess their role in doing something about the issues.

I’d like to hear from you.

How has your perspective of race and police brutality been impacted by recent events?

How has media coverage of the current events heightened your cultural sensitivity to racial issues and police discrimination?

How do you intend to help the next generation of leaders understand and address difficult issues like race, violence and injustice?

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Inclusion Must Honor the MLK Legacy

As we return to work after observing the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, we must pause to honor his legacy and reflect on the impact of his work as it lingers throughout our communities.

If we consider the presence of that legacy being carried out in our organizations, we would immediately consider the practice of diversity and inclusion.

Sadly however, many organizations spend more time talking about how they can and should improve workplace diversity than taking any measurable action toward workplace inclusion.  Statements and declarations, committees and councils, trainings and assessments — all sound great. None of those things truly move the needle toward inclusion. When policies are not matched with strategic efforts, results will never come about.

In light of this much needed work, I was happy to create and coordinate the annual MLK Diversity Breakfast hosted by the Lipscomb University Department of Communication and Journalism and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences on Friday, January 15, 2016 in partnership with the Council on Workforce Innovation and National Organization for Workforce Diversity.

This event is aimed at inspiring interactive conversation among local leaders who are champions for diversity and inclusion by sharing ideas, addressing issues and rethinking practices that affect our multicultural communities.

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(Aerial Ellis opening the 2016 MLK Diversity Breakfast at Lipscomb University.)

The MLK Diversity Breakfast is an opportunity for area professionals to gain a greater understanding of how to communicate about diversity and inclusion as a priority within their organizations and have access to a network of colleagues who collectively celebrate the cultural progression of the Nashville community. Our keynote speaker is a C-suite or civic leader connected to the practice of cross-cultural communication with a passion for the ways in which diversity and inclusion impacts business and community.

This year’s event featured Rose Jackson Flenorl, Manager, Global Citizenship, FedEx Corporation as keynote speaker. Flenorl directs and implements the company’s community outreach strategy in the areas of disaster relief, safety, environment, education, and diversity. She leads a team of professionals committed to representing the heart of the corporation by executing strategic programs and maintaining relationships with national and international non-profit organizations. Flenorl provided insight on the global corporation’s work in serving an evolving base of multicultural consumers, strengthening its pipeline to recruit, retain and advance diverse talent, and supporting minority business owners and community initiatives through citizenship engagement.

Last year, our inaugural event featured Anthony Carter, Chief Diversity Officer at Johnson & Johnson. Take a look at our 2015 highlights.

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(L-R: Rose Jackson Flenorl of FedEx – 2016 keynote speaker, Jacky Akbari of Now Diversity)

In addition to the breakfast, Rose Jackson Flenorl spent time talking with our communication and journalism students about the path to success in the industry. Discussions about diversity allow our students to better identify bias and stereotypes, discover advocacy with an objective lens, and communicate across global cultures as future journalists and public relations practitioners.

Though her visit, I believe all were able to consider diversity as a social action that challenges those norms, values, styles and patterns of thinking that can inspire more inclusive conversations.

If organizations strive to live up to the tenets of Dr. King’s vision, they must honor his legacy through actions that show real progress toward workplace inclusion. Initiatives must not only embrace employees for their individuality but also celebrate the differences that contribute to the success and innovation in the workplace regardless of gender, creed, color or sexual orientation.

Beyond commemorative events and celebrations, we have an obligation to act. Inclusion at any point should always be our goal. In this new year and moment of cultural reflection, I challenge you to thinker deeper about the ways Dr. King’s legacy can inspire and shape your organization’s practice of inclusion.

See a few highlights from the 2016 MLK Diversity Breakfast.

A New Reality: Women of Color Meet at C2 Miami

As organizations adjust to cultural shifts within their businesses internally and search for ways to connect with multi-layered audiences externally, diversity becomes a major topic for senior leaders. A new reality for women of color in the communications industry leading the conversation around issues of diversity and inclusion is now before us.

I had the exhilarating experience of attending the ColorComm C2 Conference last week in Key Biscayne, Florida. Women of color in public relations, marketing, advertising, media, and digital gathered from all across the country to share experiences and learn from one another to enhance their personal and professional development.

The three-day event for women focuses on leadership training, executive positioning, business development, and expanding financial literacy. The event also attracts leaders in diversity and inclusion.

I asked some of the nation’s leading women in the communications industry their thoughts on diversity and inclusion, and they all agree on one thing: the practice must be a priority.

Hear what they had to say.

With a star lineup of speakers including women’s activist Gloria Steinem and CNN’s Lisa Ling, the women dived deep into discussions about diversifying the communications industry, remaining professionally competitive, navigating promotions and achieving work-life balance.

This event exchanged rich moments of wisdom, intellect and sisterhood. Click below to see the great rundown of highlights from social media with the #C2Miami hashtag.

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I’m definitely counting down to #C2Miami 2016!

Are you a women of color in communications? How do you think diversity impacts our new reality?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave your comment here and tweet me @aerialellis using the hashtag #PRdiversity.

Conversations about Race at Lipscomb University’s Summer Celebration

PSX_20150702_113200Ferguson, Baltimore and now Charleston – tangible and tragic moments in a much larger national dynamic that involves an increasingly diverse nation trying to understand and practice racial harmony.

This morning, I had the chance to talk issues of race and injustice around these events and the media coverage surrounding them in a class led by President Randy Lowry at Lipscomb University’s annual Summer Celebration. I was certainly happy to do it (see my photo? 🙂

One of my fellow faculty members asked me at the end of the discussion in reference to my comments, “how do you talk to your students about race as a black woman in a majority white environment like Lipscomb?” and we had good dialogue around my answer.

I am always amazed when a community of faith comes together to talk about such a difficult topic as race in a spiritual context and encouraged by the honesty of those who admit their shortcomings when dealing with issues of race.

I have much more to say about these topics as we dwell deeper and deeper into an era of racial understanding so I plan to write a few pieces around the subject in the coming months.

Thankful to President Lowry for inviting me to be a part of the discussion today! ‪

Straight Talk: Communicating Gender Transition in the Workplace

If I worked with Bruce Jenner on the job for a few years, I would have gotten to know quite a bit about him. I’d know he was married to a woman, how many children he had, how to spot him in a crowd at a company event, and that he typically wear khakis on casual Fridays.

I must admit that I’d be confused and cautious if he showed up all of a sudden with a new face, name, hairdo and outfit. Bruce has become Caitlyn. The same man I’ve gotten to know, respect and work closely with is now living life as woman and no one told me what to do or expect.

While many organizations put time and effort into developing a culture that supports gay and lesbian employees they often ignore the culture shift that takes place when an employee chooses to become transgender. A transgender employee is defined as someone whose gender identity, expression or assignment differs from the gender assumptions made about him or her at birth. There are workplace barriers and challenges facing transgender employees. Some transgender employees will undergo gender transition while within an organization – a process that may take months or even years. Others will have completed the transition before they were hired or have a history of a transition in their younger years.

How should organizations prepare to communicate this shift in ways that support transgender employees while sustaining the culture of the workplace environment?

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Organizations should have a transition plan in place to set guidelines for safe and healthy development of transgender employees and to assist other employees in their adjustment to the shift. A gender transition plan should feature three parts: the organizational policy, a training component and a communication strategy. The communication strategy within the plan is critical and should be carefully thought out and executed. The strategy should also be supported by the organization’s non-discrimination policy used to manage a gender transition.

When tackling communication about the transition of a transgender employee, messages should be strategically scheduled and segmented. Start with gathering the employee’s immediate work team/group for an intimate meeting with discussion and training to ensure clarity and confidentiality. The employee can opt to make a statement at the meeting or prepare a personal letter to be distributed. From there, the messages must be gradually integrated with HR policies and directed from senior leadership to co-workers and key constituents who are in frequent workplace contact with the employee. Allowing the voice of a senior leader to set the tone of the announcement with supportive communication for the employee creates expectations for co-workers going forward. While the announcement may lessen the likelihood of confusion and lay a foundation for acceptance (relearning names, matching pronouns, etc.), an organization should allow the employee the liberty to choose when the announcement should be made, if/she wants to help craft the announcement and a chance to cancel or delay the announcement if needed.

A key point in the messaging about the use of restrooms should state that the transgender employee would use the restroom of the gender he/she presents for practical reasons. The safety of the employee should also be considered. Direct communication with the organization’s security team should occur specifically to be on alert about any harassment or bullying.

Enlist a senior leader, a licensed counselor, an employee who has undergone a gender transition, an HR professional and the employee’s supervisor to assemble a transition team. Identify a senior leader who can sponsor the employee as a supporter who is engaged throughout the process. The sponsor can be charged with helping a transgender employee manage his/her transition in the workplace and also help advise the transition team on inclusive messaging. This helps to minimize any disruption in the workplace and convey the message that everything is business as usual. Additionally, developing a resource group for LGBT employees creates a sense of community for the transgender employee as they transition.

gender-reassignment-surgeryWhen communicating with the transgender employee, inform him/her what to expect from the transition team and senior leadership in facilitating the transition. Have an open yet reassuring discussion with him/her about potential hostility or perceived discomfort with certain co-workers and that the organization is prepared to help them with transition as well. Explain the process of how the transition will be announced and steadily implement the tactics of the communication strategy soon after the employee notifies HR of the transition process. Explain what the procedure is for implementing any workplace and personnel changes such as name changes, business cards, and security badges. Work with HR to monitor the adjustment of the employee and his/her relationship with co-workers through a follow-up after the transition to be aware of gossip, mistreatment and offensive communication that can impact the overall workplace culture.

An employee’s gender transition can be a major shift for an organization but embracing a workplace culture where diversity and inclusion thrives can happen at any time. Combating potential issues and preventing misinformation can be addressed through educational diversity training specific to sexual orientation or gender identity issues. Without a communication strategy, the doors swing open for confusion, tension, miscommunication or even grievances and lawsuits.

While each employee is entitled to his or her own opinions and beliefs, no one should take the personal privilege to judge or dictate the rights of other employees within the workplace. When a gender transition is communicated properly and succinctly, the transgender employee can be met with a level of inclusiveness that translates how well your organization values diversity within the workplace culture.