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It’s OK to Not Relate — You Can Empathize

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Diversity, Empathy
CX Atelier's Ayan Adam

Ayan Adam

The recent events in the U.S. that sparked a wave of protests, civil unrest and profound societal turmoil created a wave that was felt in every industry. And the outrage is not diminishing now with last week’s grand jury decision not to indict officers involved in Breonna Taylor’s death. Black people in the U.S., black women, are feeling drained, discouraged and unseen.

The corporate world is responding to this civil rights spring by accelerating “diversity and inclusion” initiatives. The topic is becoming front and center for companies in the IT channel. IT leaders are devising new ways to level the playing field for people of color to enter the indirect technology sales industry and to thrive in it.

While some of those efforts are perceived as merely performative and limited to social media statements, the will to spark profound systemic change is real.

When I look around in the industry and see that leading events in the channel like the Channel Partners Conference & Expo embraced the conversation by giving the stage to 30% speakers of color at their recent virtual event, I feel hopeful and inspired.

The reality is that we all feel drained by the continuous flow of depressing news and we all wish to take action to tip the scales in the right direction. Because as human beings, we can relate to each other’s pain and feel rightfully outraged in the face of blatant injustice.

But we cannot relate to, or truly understand the experience and perspective of people of color in the U.S., if we are not a person of color in the U.S.

Channel Partners and Channel Futures are dedicated to fostering an atmosphere of diversity and inclusion in the channel and the technology community as a whole. Thus, we are featuring news articles, first-person accounts and strategies around topics of race, diversity and inclusion to spur discussion of these important subjects. Visit our webpage dedicated to the topic.

I, for one, cannot relate because I am not African American. I am African. I was born and raised in Djibouti, a country on the eastern coast of Africa, blessed with continuous peace for the last 40 years of its recent history.

I did not grow up as a minority; I grew up around people that looked like me and that were not denied opportunities based on their skin color. I cannot pretend to understand the plight of African Americans and the weight of a system that was designed to oppress them for centuries.

I am a bystander, a mere observer — and an ally at best. And I can relate. I can relate to the talking from a place of privilege and the feeling of uneasiness when the conversation of race and inequality arises. I understand the feeling of awkwardness, the not knowing the correct terms to use when discussing race, and the urge to ask African Americans to educate us on their perspective and experience.

I did put my foot in my mouth more than once in the past and was corrected with compassion, maybe because of the color of my skin. Thankfully, I do not feel unwarranted to participate in the conversation by my not relating, but I know some people are. And that’s a shame because I think we should all feel safe to learn and grow in our understanding.

It is OK to not know, and it is OK to feel awkward and uneasy at times. And really, it is possible to empathize while not relating.

Real change will be driven by our collective will to commit to compassion, empathy and self-awareness.

Ayan Adam is the founder of CX Atelier, a full-service digital marketing agency based in Montreal and focused on the channel.

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