Posts Tagged ‘identity’

Men, Women, Mindfulness

Friday, December 29th, 2017

I read an article on sexual misconduct  recently in which actor Minnie Driver offered a scathing critique of men—one man in particular, actor Matt Damon—who attempt to categorize  the different behaviors that constitute sexual abuse. In an interview with ABC News, Damon said alleged sexual misconduct by powerful men involved “a spectrum of behavior,” discussing his perception of the impact of various kinds of sexual transgressions. In her comments after that interview, Driver countered that whether the behavior was verbal taunting or casual touching or rape, men “simply cannot understand what abuse is like on a daily level” and therefore, should not attempt to differentiate or explain sexual misconduct against women.

I reacted as I read the article. Ok, I copped an attitude. What was Driver talking about? As a man, I agree I can’t understand the experience of being the target of constant sexual abuse the way women are in a heteronormative environment. But I sure as hell can comment on it and analyze the phenomenon. Indeed, I have a responsibility to engage this way if I am serious about trying to change the toxic status quo. She was straight up wrong, I concluded. Oh, and the article noted that she used to date Damon. Ah, that’s part of what motivated this whole thing, I surmised. She didn’t like her ex commenting on this. I wondered if this was a veiled attack on him. Bad relationships can lead people to be bitter toward one another.

There was quite a show going on in my head.

Then a funny thing happened. While I was being outraged and sanctimonious and sexist, I was simultaneously watching myself be outraged and sanctimonious and sexist. I was aware that I was having this string of reactions. I was being mindful. In a nutshell, mindfulness is the practice of bringing awareness to 1) what you’re directly experiencing via your senses, or 2) your state of mind via your thoughts and emotions. It can sound esoteric, but it is actually important in very practical ways. A growing body of research points to a variety of physical, emotional, and psychological benefits to cultivating a practice of mindfulness. In her article “Can we Talk?,” my Darden colleague, Lili Powell writes about how to use mindfulness practices to enhance one’s ability to have crucial conversations.

Far too little attention has been paid to how mindfulness can be an asset in working amidst difference. What I discovered with my Minnie Driver extravaganza was that because I was aware of my reactions, I was able to 1) reflect on and analyze those reactions, 2) learn from them, and 3) change my behavior (instead of stewing in front of a computer screen, I shared my thoughts with friends and eventually I crafted this post)!

In an interview with philanthropist and wellness advocate Sonia Jones, I talked about how mindfulness can be instrumental in creating generative outcomes to intractable diversity conflicts. But, getting through conflict is just the tip of the iceberg when we reflect on the potential for living and working with those who are different from us.  Mindfulness can be a powerful tool for leveraging difference, helping us connect with one another to get real work done well.

I really want to explore this more.

Why Black Professionals Need to Learn to Drive a Stick Shift

Monday, December 18th, 2017

Maybe it’s because I’m sitting in my local auto repair/dealer lobby waiting for my oil change. I woke up this morning with a metaphor when I reflected on the advancement of black professionals in corporations. The more I read and learn about stereotype threat, the more I liken it to sitting in a running car, your feet poised to make that sucker go.

To understand the analogy, you need to know that there are two kinds of transmissions that make cars go—automatic and manual. The more familiar of the two these days is the automatic transmission where you move the drive stick from Park (P) to Drive (D). Then you place your right foot on the accelerator and off you go. In addition to (D), automatic transmissions have two or three lower gears that are used when you want to slow the car. If you try to drive at high speeds in a lower gear, you use up lots of gas and potentially wear down your engine. Simple enough.

Progressing through a corporate career is like driving the car. Putting the stick in the right gear is akin to developing oneself and building one’s skill set. Pressing the accelerator is effectively performing. If you perform, your car(eer) moves forward (corny, I know, but you get the point). However, a significant body of research tells us that the process of career advancement is more nuanced for black professionals. A variety of barriers—discriminatory practices, racism, internalized dysfunctional behaviors—interrupt the natural progression for otherwise highly talented black professionals. One such barrier, stereotype threat, is the psychological experience that materializes when negative stereotypes are present regarding a specific group. When stereotype threat kicks in, a member of that group is likely to become anxious about her or his performance, which in turn, may hinder optimal performance on a task. This probably occurs because working memory is compromised so the individual just can’t process thoughts as efficiently. Interestingly, the individual need not subscribe to the particular negative stereotype to be vulnerable to stereotype threat. So for example, if a pervasive stereotype about blacks is that they are less intelligent, tasks that highlight the importance of intelligence are likely to trigger the stereotype and hinder a black person from performing well on the task.

What does this mean for how black professionals move through their careers? Imagine that normal career progression is driving an automatic transmission car in (D) and zipping along. Stereotype threat abruptly downshifts the car to first or second gear. If I want to combat stereotype threat and maintain my speed, I have to use a lot more fuel, and incur much more wear and tear on my engine over time. The life of so many black professionals in corporations is precisely this. They constantly exert greater effort than white counterparts do because they have to manage stereotype threat while also preforming the work at hand. They experience physical and emotional stress and when all is said and done, they typically cannot progress to the levels commensurate with their talent. They depart their careers feelings of resentful and carrying a sense of diminished self-esteem that can haunt them for the rest of their lives.

If this analogy holds, though, how do we understand the many black professionals who are wildly successful in spite of the stereotype threat they face?

They learn drive a stick shift.

Although most cars today are automatic transmission cars, there was a time when manual transmission or “stick shifts” dominated the highways. With these cars, the driver manipulates the drive stick. However, in order to make the car move forward the driver has to manage two pedals—an accelerator and a clutch. The right foot occupies the accelerator, but the left foot must deftly press and release the clutch, pressing it all the way down when the car is at a stop and slowly releasing it while the right presses the accelerator simultaneously. As the speed of the car increases, the driver manually shifts the stick to higher gears. When the coordination between clutch movement, accelerator pedal movement and stick shifting is off the car usually stalls, and goes nowhere. When the synchronization is right, the car zips along.

Successful black professionals manage their careers like mindful and skillful drivers handling a stick shift. They learn to use the clutch to release the pressure of stereotype threat, simultaneously pressing the accelerator to move their career forward. Absent the distraction of stereotype threat, they are able to make career decisions (like choosing or refusing stretch assignments) strategically. Put another way, they shift gears at the right time to make sure the car doesn’t stall.

Careers develop in an organizational landscape. Successful professionals possess talent—that is a given. But successful careers are crafted and navigated through, with attention paid to developing strategically important relationships, managing politics, and learning continuously. It is incredibly difficult to attend to these career demands while also worrying about the ways in which stereotypes attributed to you by virtue of group membership might be shackling you. Successful black professionals learn to free themselves of these shackles by utilizing a different kind of transmission, one that makes visible the tools needed to overcome limiting ways of operating. Automatic transmissions are convenient and elegant, but their automaticity makes it difficult to alter dysfunction: it costs an awful lot to fix an automatic transmission. Manual transmissions, on the other hand, reveal more clearly the inner workings of driving.  It’s easier to feel the car, to know when it’s running smoothly or when the engine is stressed. And it is easier to adjust when dysfunction emerges. Successful black professionals thrive because they are masterful drivers who choose the right kind of transmission.

Duped By Dominance

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

This post first appeared on the MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) web site, April 30, 2012.

I had a friend in graduate school, Miriam, a tall vivacious woman who was both gregarious and grounded in a really appealing way. A conversation we had one day has stuck with me over the years. She remarked that she and I might be able to work together in interesting ways because we had complementary perspectives on the “Race and Gender 2X2.” Of course, she meant that because she was a white woman and I was a black man, we held diagonal positions on a 2X2 matrix that captured our racial (black or white) and gender (male or female) identities:

This was one of the first times I had ever reflected on what had previously been an invisible consciousness. I knew I was black and understood my place in the dynamics of race in the U.S. But what surprised me was how that focus prevented me from paying as close attention to my identity as a man. With time, I reconciled this shortcoming by focusing on my fallback position—I was, in fact, a black male! That felt much better. I was giving a nod to my gender but not forgetting the ever-important race struggle that was integral to my U.S. experience.

In fact, I was playing an identity mind game. I was looking for a way not to deal with my male identity.  My colleague Heather Wishik and I are working on a new line of research that begins to map what was happening to me as I was confronted with my identity as a man. Our social identities—race, gender, sexual orientation, able-bodied-ness, etc.—are always imbued with a dynamic of power. We call these “dominance” or “subordinance.” In any of these identities, you are generally one-up or one-down in the social order. Subordinance identities in the U.S. include being a person of color, female, LGBT, or lower class. Dominance identities are being affluent, heterosexual, male, or white. (By the way, in our research, these two labels don’t convey value judgments about a person’s character. Being a member of a dominant of subordinant group is just a description of how that group identity is situated in larger society).

Racially, I carry a subordinance identity by virtue of my blackness in the U.S. But by gender, I live a dominance identity. I am the youngest of three boys in my family and over the years, the next two generations of my immediate family are all boys. As I often tell folks, we have to bus women into my family. Masculinity is a deeply rooted part of my upbringing and my background.

And that is precisely why it was so invisible—and so uncomfortable—to me. One of the greatest subtle biases we all carry are connected to those identities in which we carry dominance. And most people have one or more of these dominant identities. It’s almost a guarantee that when we look closely at our dominant identities, our vision about them is clouded and distorted. Most of the time, we have a very hard time talking about them. We don’t have lots of insight into the experiences of being of that identity. With race in the U.S., I often encounter white people who don’t know what to say about their experience being white; they just have not thought about it that much. By the same token, I had a hard time just reflecting on my maleness in response to Miriam’s invitation. I wanted to make it my “black maleness” that was at issue. That was just another way of trying to cling to race and avoid dealing directly with my dominant identity as a man.

Peggy McIntosh’s classic 1988 essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” helped articulate the experience of privilege and the role that power plays in our everyday experience. What we have to reflect upon today is how subtle and insidious power and privilege is in the way it shapes our perceptions, relationships, and colleagueship. In my case—like that of many others—my dominant identities hid behind my subordinant identity, pushing race front and center while maleness remained stealthily in the wings. Indeed, it’s no accident that power and dominance are often such difficult topics to address in the workplace. Dominance perpetuates itself by being psychologically and behaviorally elusive. The bias of privilege has a life of its own and no one is immune to its effect. Every man, no matter his race, creed, or color has to come to terms with how the dominance of maleness quietly shapes him.

How do you overcome this bias? There is no better antidote than awareness. By just reading this blog post, you’ve affected the bias by making it more visible. In addition:

  • Make sure that people who are conscious of these dynamics are a part of your network. Having social support in identifying, and when possible, counteracting the fruits of dominant maleness is essential. Like-minded allies help you to see biases and can support you and hold you accountable for doing something differently.
  • Keep people in your circle who are mostly oblivious to this stuff. Being aware of your dominance is exhausting. Give yourself a break and commune with people who are similarly committed to not being intense about this stuff every waking hour. I don’t suggest this lightly. Remember that dominance is as smart as you are and probably a little more devious. You have to feed it a little to keep it calm. Do so with benevolent intent.

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.