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What We Don’t Know
Published Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Those who have gone through Leadership NH recently will have heard me remark often that there are things we know we know, things we know we don’t know, and then things we don’t know we don’t know. One would think that a person of my age and experience would have a fair bit of knowledge and perhaps even self-understanding. But it was not until I was invited a year or so ago to join 20 other NH leaders in a workshop to consider the issue of racial equity that I had to question that assumption. Only after we’d all gathered at a lovely retreat center in the woods did we recognize that all of us invited to consider the topic were, in fact, white middle class folks. “An odd way to start?” we wondered.

Over the course of several days in which we read articles, watched videos, shared stories of personal experiences and reflected on what we heard others say, did we come to acknowledge that each of us moves through our daily lives very differently than do people of color. It was not just those options we had as well-educated professionals, but additionally those considerations we never had to entertain, such as how will I be treated when I walk into this store, ask help from this white person, am stopped by this white police officer, apply for this apartment or try to join this organization? We recognized that the color of our skin rendered us immune from such experiences. In short, we simply had never reflected on what it would be like to live in this very same state with a different skin color.

In her latest novel, "Simple Great Things," Jodi Picoult describes a scene in which a white, female attorney goes shopping with an African American nurse and notices that the store clerk is following the latter around, carefully watching what she does, and then, as they are leaving, stops the nurse to check her receipt and compare it with her purchases. It is only then that the lawyer recognizes what she didn’t know she didn’t know, namely how her companion goes through life.

It was profoundly humbling for me to experience the equity workshop because it challenged me to acknowledge that no matter how committed I might be to education and its efficacy, there were gaping holes in my own knowledge—holes that prevented me from knowing what I should know in order to be more responsive to conditions in our community and state.  

I share this experience because every day the media make us aware of the pain and suffering of people in places near and far. Many suffer simply because of how they look, the ethnic group to which they belong, the religion they espouse, their gender, sexual orientation or some other feature that sets them apart from the dominant power. Some of these stories move us to send a financial contribution, write a letter of support, sign a petition or take some other action to help. And then we move on.

But then there occurs an event that so starkly brings home to us the horrific results of deep-seated hatred of difference that we are forced back upon ourselves and challenged to question our own understandings of the society we inhabit. The white supremacist and pro-Nazi protesters’ show of force at Charlottesville recently, and the deadly consequences thereof, reveal what perhaps too many of us fail to acknowledge—that intolerance of difference, and its opposite, celebration of diversity, if unmet, threatens our very society. We need not go back far in history to recall what such bigotry, if empowered, can bring about.

Today, NH is 93.5 percent white, only marginally more diverse that it was 25 years ago.  The growth of native communities of color, however, together with newcomers to our state who are a mix of nationalities and ethnicities, are more quickly changing that percentage. How are those of us in the majority sector responding? Are we even aware of this? Do we know what we don’t know?

I conclude writing this piece while on a visit to Berlin, Germany, where, all around me are monuments, exhibitions and plaques that the German people have set up to remind themselves of the dark side of human behavior and its terrible consequences. One cannot, for example, visit the Monument for the Murdered Jews of Europe, located across the street from the U.S. Embassy, without reflecting on what can happen when intolerance combines with widespread apathy and inaction. Many here tell me that the lesson of the past is clear to read; respecting and embracing diversity are the keys to a strong and productive society.

Leadership NH was established 26 years ago essentially to challenge each successive cohort of rising leaders, to answer
three questions:

“What kind of state do we have?”

“What kind of state do we want?”

And, “What must we do to realize that kind of state?”  

We cannot do justice to the first question without first understanding the racial inequities in our own communities. We can begin by reflecting on our own implicit bias, by recognizing bias when we hear it from others and by speaking respectfully but persistently to counter it.

And lastly, we need to engage with our growing communities of color. Michelle Obama might well have been speaking to us in NH when, in her final remarks as First Lady, she said, “Our glorious diversity—our diversities of faiths and colors and creeds—that is not a threat to who we are, it makes us who we are.”

Stephen Reno is the executive director of Leadership NH, a statewide leadership development program. He can be reached at 603-226-2265. For more information, visit

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