Posts Tagged ‘cultural differences’

How ESPN Could Have Avoided the “LinSanity” Diversity Crisis

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

I like sports. I like competition, winners and losers, and displays of excellence. But I also like sports because they have been a rich context for talking about differences.  There are iconic stories about racial integration, gender parity, cross-national growth, and making the most of disabilities.

Now enter Jeremy Lin.

For those not especially tuned into the professional basketball world, Lin is a player for the New York Knicks team who has performed exceptionally well the past couple of weeks, earning him mad media attention.  He is also one of a very small number of Asian or Asian American players to ever play in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Adding these two elements together—heavy media attention and Lin’s ethnic background—created a nightmare for the multimedia sports network, ESPN, last week. The company issued an apology for a series of racist actions  (probably unintentional, but still racist) related to coverage of Jeremy Lin.  They noted “three offensive and inappropriate comments made on ESPN outlets during [their] coverage,” the most infamous of which was the headline under a picture of Lin making a mistake on court that read “Chink in the Armor.” You could argue this was simply an isolated mistake (or actually three) that just happened—essentially the explanation ESPN adopted. But if you did, you would be plain wrong.

The ESPN/Lin story underscores how challenging it can be to build what I call a “Leveraging Difference Capability.” In my new book, The End of Diversity as We Know It:  Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed, I describe this as what happens when an organization becomes so diversity-savvy that everyone in it develops processes for (and habits of) dealing with differences skillfully, even unfamiliar differences. Errors like those ESPN committed are evidence of an organization that lacks the Leveraging Difference Capability. If they had it, they would have created processes and procedures to prevent these mistakes. For example:

  • All of the eyes that reviewed any headline would have sensitivity to language and idioms that could be even remotely racist;
  • There would have been red flags, thanks to that awareness, followed by channels for information gather and discussion
  • There would have been lines of communication with people who would understand the experiences of Asian American professionals
  • There would be have been consultation with  people who are “firsts” in their industries and organizations

No reputable news outlet would describe a Mexican baseball player’s bases-clearing double as a “Spic ‘n Span” hit. Nor, as one radio commentator I heard suggested, would you likely see an outstanding run by a white football player who barrels over opposing players as a “Cracker Barrel” guy.  The reason these would be unlikely occurrences is that most people know better.  And if a writer misses it, her editor will pick it up.  It’s not about one person being vulnerable for making a mistake.  Rather it’s about an organization not knowing how to institute the checks and balances to make sure that mistake just does not happen.

By the way, the corollary here is that the punishments of those involved (firing the headline writer and suspending an on-air broadcaster) were probably too harsh. If this really was about a systems breakdown and not some rogue headline writer, it’s wrong to punish only the writer. That doesn’t properly deal with the cause of the problem (meaning it will happen again). Moreover, it sends the message that “We’re OK; we just had to get rid of the bad apple.” No, you’re not OK.

An Asian-American as a budding star and as media phenomenon is unprecedented in NBA history. There is no good roadmap for what to say and do and what not to.  But those are precisely the best reasons to develop a Leveraging Difference Capability, especially in a globally diverse world. People and organizations will constantly be faced with new differences and new challenges.  Having a way of operating—a mindset—that skillfully deals with those differences will prevent the kinds of public relations crises that ESPN is dealing with right now.

And it will make for much better sports reporting.

How I Learned To Be Black (Part I)

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

(This is the first of a five part series of unconventional reflections on race)

Lesson One: How I Discovered I am More than Just Black

I gave an informal talk last month to a group of leaders on what I have learned about myself and my leadership over the past seven years. I reflected on how I have used the tools and techniques I learned from attending leadership seminars facilitated by Learning as Leadership (LaL), a San Rafael, California-based leadership development organization. There, I participated with managers and executives from all over the world to learn how to grapple with my unproductive habits and behaviors and how to institute new ones.

On this day, I was inspired to talk about being black. I was one of only a handful of black people in this largely white gathering, but this was important, I thought. I had always taken comfort in the fact that I’m a black man. Even though being black in the U.S. is challenging, seeing myself that way has provided a source of clarity. When I needed that boost of self-confidence, I could remind myself that I was an intelligent and strong black person. When I needed social support, I knew I could rely on other black folks—even those I didn’t know—to offer it. When unjust events happened to me, I could explain them as a consequence of the intentional and unintentional racial bias that permeates this country.

But the comfort of my blackness has also held me back. When I undertook this leadership training, I entered with the goal of deepening my understanding of myself and of diversity. I expected the exercises and reflections to help me with this. To my surprise, though, over the course of the 12 months in which I participated, race came up infrequently. I found myself much more preoccupied with new concepts like “desired image” which captures behaviors I’ve taken up—both consciously and unconsciously—to try to get others to see me in a particular light. Or the “driving idea” or prevailing anxiety I hold that deep down, I’m really a fraud and not as capable or competent as I think, and worried that others will figure it out and I will be exposed. This was very weird stuff that may have been affecting me in my work and my relationships. With these kinds of things on the table, race fell into the background for me, important, but not central. Had being focused on myself racially kept me from attending to these other really important issues?

The real “aha” emerged when I learned about my “mattress.” That is the term for the psychological habit of preparing ourselves for failure in the activities we undertake. In short, we all have ways of thinking that protect us from the painful thoughts and feelings that emerge when we fail at something we really want to succeed at. A mattress, like a soft landing surface, does just that. One of my stronger mattresses is that that the odds were so stacked against me because of my race that I just couldn’t succeed this time. In fact sometimes this is true and sometimes it isn’t. At times, I am the victim of systemic biases that favor others and disadvantage me. And sometimes I just didn’t prepare well enough. And sometimes (heaven forbid) I’m just not good enough. The beauty of the mattress is that these more ego-based, painful options disappear in the outrage of the blanket assertion that I could have been successful if factors outside my control weren’t conspiring against me. In other words, “it’s not me, it’s you. Or him. Or them. Or the system.

My insight that I have these habits does not negate the fact that real discrimination happens and that I and other black people suffer when it does. For me, that is a fact of life and if you don’t believe it, I have a long list of resources to help you with that one. What I realized was that I was not always skilled at knowing when the real discrimination was happening (and needs to be fought) and when I was protecting myself from feeling pain that had little, if anything, to do with my race. This was not about “playing race cards” or any other such nonsense. It was about learning to be skillful in separating my authentic but incorrect belief that I was suffering because of discrimination from really suffering from discrimination.

I felt like I was beginning to have an experience of myself as larger that only being a member of my racial group. I realized that with expanding and deeper understand of history and culture, my blackness was becoming a huge and nourishing vessel in which to live. And as I said, it helped me in many ways. What I was beginning to explore was that there may have been an even larger, more nourishing vessel in which I was embedded. I was beginning to understand in a much more profound way that I was more than my race. That was lesson one in learning to be black.

Walking In Traffic

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Hanoi Traffic

In Hanoi, there are millions of motor scooters in the streets and not so much traffic management.  You get across the busy thoroughfare by simply walking into it.  If you wait for an opening in traffic, often you would never be able to get across the street.  So the new skill I learned is to just walk into oncoming traffic…

I’m becoming way too comfortable traveling all over the world.  I’m on an excursion that began in Hanoi, Vietnam, and sends me to Paris and then Moscow in the space of three weeks. When I first traveled overseas, I remember that difficult and exciting time when you first have global encounters and it seems as though there is something new to learn every hour of every day.  But in my recent travels and global engagements, I had been feeling increasingly confident of my ability to navigate in different cultures, to manage both the logistics of getting around in places where I don’t know the language, for example, as well as to manage the emotion of being immersed in situations that are ambiguous and sometimes scary.  I learned to just walk into oncoming traffic.  And I felt good doing it.  I felt like I had mastered a new skill and with my new ability, I could afford to relax and daydream as I walked.  I wasn’t in danger.  I was untouchable.

Then I took a walk in Hanoi, about 1 kilometer, through bustling streets.  I was on my way to find a belt from a local mall (I thought I had packed everything) and as I walked, I noticed how chilly it was.  There was a cool breeze blowing off of Westlake where I was walking and I was a little underdressed.  The streets were generally narrow, but seemed to get more constricted when scooters and cars came zooming through at me, horns blaring (beeping horns are a way of life on the Hanoi motorways.  People just drive with their hands on the horn all the time).  There were vendors and kids and chickens and roosters all along the roads I walked (rarely was there a sidewalk) and there was all kinds of wet blotches in the road.  Not sure what they all were.  The air was full of exhaust and I started coughing a little.  As I walked the sun began to set and by the time I was halfway into the walk, it was dark.  The oncoming traffic became only oncoming bright lights and I was increasingly uneasy as I walked.  It was rush hour now and there was much more traffic on the road.  Suddenly, I was dodging bright-light-scooters and weird wet spots and horns constantly blaring, nervously looking in front of me and behind to make sure I wasn’t about to be swiped.  And all I can remember is the story I had heard from another visitor of a bloody accident he saw on the way in from the airport a few days earlier.

I got to the mall, got my belt and got back to my hotel.  But I realized that I was not safe and sound and in control in Hanoi.  It was scary and dangerous and just because I learned to walk into traffic arrogantly did not mean that I would not get hit by a scooter or car.  I was just lucky up to that point.

It’s not that confidence in new cultural contexts is necessarily bad.  It’s just that it’s hard to balance that confidence with the reality that when I am out of my home country, I am in a pretty precarious position.  Always.  I live in the illusion that it will all work out, an illusion that has a particularly American quality to it borne out the pervasive comfort with which I, as a U.S. citizen, experience on a regular basis.  My problem was just that I started to believe my own hype that I had this global thing down.  I’ll never have it all down.  I’ll just keep experiencing and learning and trying to remember with clarity how challenging it is to be present in the world.

Being In Hanoi

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

As I flew home to the U.S. after spending two weeks in Vietnam, I couldn’t help but think about the classic photo of a young Vietnamese girl running naked toward the camera in a war-torn country. I could not have been older than that girl in the late sixties and early seventies when the Vietnam War took place (or as the Vietnamese describe it in English translation, the incursion of American aggressors.) Vietnam was a beautifully rich mosaic of culture, history, economic development, and unfathomable patterns of highway traffic. But I was most moved by my own experience of being a U.S. citizen in this country that was site where U.S. military forces battled Vietnamese forces on their home soil. And there I stood on that soil.

My identity as an American first surfaced powerfully as I stood within the walls of Hoa Lo Prison erected by the French to imprison Vietnamese people who were suspected of resistance to French colonial rule. The prison was built in 1896, but in the wake of the ousting of the French in 1954, eventually became a site where U.S. pilots—Senator John McCain among them—were imprisoned during our Vietnam War from 1964 until 1973. The prison became a museum in 1993 as a “monument to revolutionary patriotic soldiers who heroically lay down in Hoa Lo Prison.”[1] It was disturbing enough to view so much of the brutality visited upon the imprisoned Vietnamese as seen through the eyes of those who erected the monument. But in an odd way, I found a morose comfort in that part of the exhibit because I knew I would come upon the part where the U.S. presence was documented, and I worried that would be worse. It wasn’t, as it turns out, but the video images of planes dropping bombs kept me off balance, nonetheless. My American-ness came strongly to the fore in these moments.

When I travel internationally and I allow myself to sink into the place in which I am situated, I am reminded how much of who I am changes. In academics, we call this “fluid identity” and “context-driven identity.” But my experience was simply that I realized that I become invested in being someone when I am in the comfort of my homeland. I am American, a U.S. citizen who is African American, a scholar and expert on diversity, a native Clevelander, an educator. All of these selves have meaning and power for me and help me maintain my sense of self-esteem. It is who I am.

But when I go to places like Vietnam, I remember that when I am at home, I am a fish in a pond swimming around in water as though there was nothing in the world but water. It is not until I get out of my home and settle myself in that I realize I can come out of the water and experience something else. And come to see myself as someone else.

[1] Quoted from “Introduction on Remains of Hoa Lo Prison” placard at the museum site.