Posts Tagged ‘race’

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.

Drive Toward Oneness

Monday, January 16th, 2012

On August 24, 2011, I first posted this blog that I had written for The Washington Post‘s On Leadership series, on our perversion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. As we celebrate Dr. King today and this week, I feel like this message is worth sending again.

Our perversion of Martin Luther King’s dream

In reflecting on celebrations of the new monument commemorating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I get queasy.I get the same uneasy feeling whenever the King holiday rolls around.The reason is that these become occasions when speakers and pundits routinely tarnish King’s dream.

 Nearly 50years ago, Dr. King spoke of his dream that racial inequality—as well as other forms of inequality—would dissipate with time and people would be judged only by “the content of their character.” “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

 Many people think they are leading toward Dr. King’s dream in politics, education, business and other social domains when they argue against separating people into categories by race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.  They worry that highlighting these different social identities is the antithesis of King’s vision.  They say we can’t treat people based on the content of their character (or their qualification for a job or political office) if we remain focused on the color of their skin or the sound of their accent.

 But few things pose a greater threat to King’s dream than this drive toward “oneness.”   Pretending that differences don’t matter is not the same as having differences no longer matter. The push to make us all just human has two benefits for people who espouse it.  First, it’s comfortable because it avoids the hard work of negotiating differences.  People retreat to the familiar place of just assuming that “deep down other people are just like me.”  But a lot happens on the way down to deep.  Peoples’ background and experiences, many of which are shaped by their social identities, make them not at all “like me.”  And that means that if we really want to get to the place in which our differences are unimportant, we must roll up our sleeves to do some work, starting with an honest exploration of how we are different.

Our society is made up of people with vastly divergent experiences, perspectives, backgrounds and talents. Often those differences are defined by the structural inequality that exists today, just as it was in King’s day.  A Gallup Poll of more than 1,300 people nationwide found that 90 percentof whites and 85 percent of blacksthink civil rights for African Americans have improved in their lifetimes. Yet wide gaps between blacks and whites remain in average income levels, and access to housing, education and employment.Similar statistics can be found to make the case for gender and class inequities.And a few sound bites from contemporary debates on gay marriage reveal how far we are from treating people of different sexual orientations equitably.  On the positive side, differences that are well embraced can generate the breakthrough innovation, community cohesiveness, and the commitment to making society extraordinary rather than merely ordinary.

 The drive toward oneness—toward “we’re all just human beings”—tends to discount both facets of difference.  It rewrites the story of structural inequality as one in which the Promised Land has been reached.  We hear things like, “We are post-racial.”  “Discrimination is not as bad as it used to be, and it’s getting better.”  “Young people don’t worry about this stuff the way the older generation does.”

 This denial infuriates people who live a life in which their experience of being disenfranchised is glibly attributed to them being oversensitive.  And it creates privileged but vulnerable people who think they live in a world where everything is really getting better, leaving them unequipped to deal with the discontent of the disenfranchised.  The drive toward oneness also deprives us of the opportunity to come up with new ideas and perspectives because it makes it undesirable, or even dangerous, to express a novel and unusual way of seeing the world.  It becomes bad to be unique.

 Of course, it is possible to foster divisiveness by overemphasizing differences. Poorly executed diversity initiatives like hiring or admitting candidates based too heavily on skin color or gender is not good for a company or school, nor is it usually good for the person of color or the woman who enters the institution.  Overemphasizing social identities can relegate people who are different to being seen (and feeling like) one-dimensional aspects of the people they truly are.  King’s dream comes to fruition only when we neither ignore nor overinflate the importance of social identities in how we engage differences, whether in neighborhoods or schools, businesses or government agencies.

Getting to King’s“content of their character” place requires more than just leveling some metaphorical playing field.  This place of clarity, in which people truly see one another for who they are, comes from being willing to engage—not avoid—our differences.  It comes from letting go of the mindless habit of looking for similarity and commonality, and cultivating the ability to open oneself up to looking for and learning from difference. This is the leadership charge we should hold before us as we memorialize Dr. King’s legacy.

 

Five Myths That Doom Diversity Efforts

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

Greater diversity does not easily translate to greater performance. It takes work to make that happen. Yet many leaders are content in the illusion that symbolic activities and underfunded training classes will turn their increasingly diverse organizations into world-class performers. Understanding why diversity is so often mismanaged requires debunking five strongly held myths about diversity:

Myth 1: Having diversity will increase performance and profits

Why it’s a myth: Having greater diversity in your team and in your organization only helps if you understand what to do with it.  Bringing together people of different ethnicities, genders, or sexual orientations and saying “go to work” is a blueprint for failure and several studies bear this out.  The key is being strategic about what kind of diversity you need to get the job done and going after it.

Myth 2: If you increase the number of women and people of color, you have increased your diversity

Why it’s a myth: Of course gender and ethnicity play a role in the way people see things. But the value of diversity doesn’t come from the appearance of a person.  Rather, it comes in taking advantage of diverse perspectives to create business results. You can have a group that very much looks like the rainbow, but thinks pretty much the same.  In that case, you haven’t increased your diversity at all.

Myth 3: Diversity efforts always benefit women and people of color

Why it’s a myth: White males are the generally the dominant group in the U.S. workplace and often believe they have the most to lose—jobs, promotions, status—when it comes to diversity.  But women, people of color, and other people who are different also resist when diversity rhetoric and norms of behavior single them out and put them under a microscope.  If diversity is only about counting heads, neither the organization nor “diverse” employees benefit in the long run.

Myth 4: A diverse workplace is ideally a harmonious and integrated workplace

Why it’s a myth: When diversity is working at its best, people are constantly bumping up against new ideas and perspectives that challenge long-held beliefs about how they see the world.  I don’t know about you, but that activity usually unsettles me.  A workplace in which differences are being leveraged is dynamic, energized, emotional and rarely boring.  If you think that the ultimate vision for true diversity is constant harmony, think again.

Myth #5: Corporate leaders who want to increase race and gender diversity will make it happen 

Why it’s a myth: Leaders constantly juggle the need to meet business goals with the need to meet diversity goals. That causes them frequently to make choices between a focus on either increasing race and gender diversity, or focusing on corporate performance.  Because diversity is not well-linked to perfromance, they have to choose which will take precedent and diversity efforts almost always fall by the wayside.  And an added cost: these leaders—who really want to do the right thing—end up worried that they will be seen as biased because they aren’t making progress with diversity.  The only solution to this is to make diversity efforts and corporate performance one in the same.  Leveraging difference, not managing diversity, can do just that.

How I Learned to Be Black (Part II)

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

(This is the second of a five part series of unconventional reflections on race)
Lesson Two: On not being black

One day, in a land far, far away, I realized that I was not black.

The pivotal experience for me was a trip I took to Shanghai several years ago. I led an MBA class abroad and that was the occasion of my very first trip to Asia. On my first day there, I was walking down a busy street and seeing the many Chinese people of all walks of life along the way. Some were curious to see me, others polite, but most were indifferent. As I walked, I noticed myself becoming mildly uncomfortable for no apparent reason. I just felt uneasy and the feeling intensified with every step. At one point, I came to a crosswalk and on the other side of the street I saw a tall white man standing there. He looked to be about 35 years old, around 6 feet tall with straight brown hair and pale chalky complexion. As soon as I saw him, my heart leapt. I thought to myself, “Look, someone just like me!”

In that moment I laughed in delight. At no other time in my life had I instinctively identified with a white man like that. Just like me? That experience shifted the way I thought about myself as a black person. So strong and unyielding was my sense of myself as black that I could not have conceived of viewing myself like a white person. Don’t get me wrong. I can understand intellectually the commonality I have with white people. Truth be told, some of my best friends really are white and I love them deeply and profoundly. And in my younger days, I may have tried to fit into white environments by acting like a white person. But I have never been under the illusion that I was ever one of them. In China, though, I experienced this instant of being the same as that white stranger and it captivated me. It spurred me to ask the question of what if my existential certainty that I was black was not as steadfast as I had thought. Hell, I was in China for one day and I thought and felt (if only for an instant) like a white guy. And by the way, I have no idea if that guy was an American. He was just a Caucasian from somewhere. Who knows, maybe I was identifying with a German white guy.

Prior to this trip, I had lived a life in blackness. Like being a fish in water, it never occurred to me that there was life outside of my color. Intellectually, I guess I could imagine it, but why bother, when it ain’t ever gonna happen. I had traveled to Africa, Europe, and to different parts of the Americas and everywhere I was in the middle of a race/color story of some kind. As the backdrop, all of those places had black slavery in their cultural stories. In addition, my experience in each region had a color-coded flavor. In Europe, I was the exotic black American, beloved for my creativity and my insights on oppression. In Africa, I was cautiously engaged by black Africans. They saw me as similar in skin tone and in experience related to it, but very different by virtue of my national origin (which was usually far more problematic for most of those I talked with).

In the South America, remnants of color bias were apparent, too.
But in China, I felt racially irrelevant. I was unable to tell if anyone cared that I was black and they really didn’t seem to. And in that moment when I lost my mind on the street corner when I was so very surprised I had to laugh? That was true liberation.

The Drive Towards Oneness

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

Timed to the unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, this week’s Washington Post‘s On Leadership roundtable explored King’s leadership legacy and where we stand today in fulfilling his vision for the nation. They asked me to write an opinion piece.

In reflecting on celebrations of the new monument commemorating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I get queasy.  I get the same uneasy feeling whenever the King holiday rolls around.  The reason is that these become occasions when speakers and pundits routinely tarnish King’s dream.

Nearly 50  years ago, Dr. King spoke of his dream that racial inequality—as well as other forms of inequality—would dissipate with time and people would be judged only by “the content of their character.” “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Many people think they are leading toward Dr. King’s dream in politics, education, business and other social domains when they argue against separating people into categories by race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. They worry that highlighting these different social identities is the antithesis of King’s vision. They say we can’t treat people based on the content of their character (or their qualification for a job or political office) if we remain focused on the color of their skin or the sound of their accent.

But few things pose a greater threat to King’s dream than this drive toward “oneness.” Pretending that differences don’t matter is not the same as having differences no longer matter. The push to make us all just human has two benefits for people who espouse it. First, it’s comfortable because it avoids the hard work of negotiating differences. People retreat to the familiar place of just assuming that “deep down other people are just like me.” But a lot happens on the way down to deep. Peoples’ background and experiences, many of which are shaped by their social identities, make them not at all “like me.” And that means that if we really want to get to the place in which our differences are unimportant, we must roll up our sleeves to do some work, starting with an honest exploration of how we are different.

Our society is made up of people with vastly divergent experiences, perspectives, backgrounds and talents. Often those differences are defined by the structural inequality that exists today, just as it was in King’s day. A Gallup Poll of more than 1,300 people nationwide found that 90 percent  of whites and 85 percent of blacks  think civil rights for African Americans have improved in their lifetimes. Yet wide gaps between blacks and whites remain in average income levels, and access to housing, education and employment.  Similar statistics can be found to make the case for gender and class inequities.  And a few sound bites from contemporary debates on gay marriage reveal how far we are from treating people of different sexual orientations equitably. On the positive side, differences that are well embraced can generate the breakthrough innovation, community cohesiveness, and the commitment to making society extraordinary rather than merely ordinary.

The drive toward oneness—toward “we’re all just human beings”—tends to discount both facets of difference. It rewrites the story of structural inequality as one in which the Promised Land has been reached. We hear things like, “We are post-racial.” “Discrimination is not as bad as it used to be, and it’s getting better.” “Young people don’t worry about this stuff the way the older generation does.”

This denial infuriates people who live a life in which their experience of being disenfranchised is glibly attributed to them being oversensitive. And it creates privileged but vulnerable people who think they live in a world where everything is really getting better, leaving them unequipped to deal with the discontent of the disenfranchised. The drive toward oneness also deprives us of the opportunity to come up with new ideas and perspectives because it makes it undesirable, or even dangerous, to express a novel and unusual way of seeing the world. It becomes bad to be unique.

Of course, it is possible to foster divisiveness by overemphasizing differences. Poorly executed diversity initiatives like hiring or admitting candidates based too heavily on skin color or gender is not good for a company or school, nor is it usually good for the person of color or the woman who enters the institution. Overemphasizing social identities can relegate people who are different to being seen (and feeling like) one-dimensional aspects of the people they truly are. King’s dream comes to fruition only when we neither ignore nor overinflate the importance of social identities in how we engage differences, whether in neighborhoods or schools, businesses or government agencies.

Getting to King’s “content of their character” place requires more than just leveling some metaphorical playing field. This place of clarity, in which people truly see one another for who they are, comes from being willing to engage—not avoid—our differences. It comes from letting go of the mindless habit of looking for similarity and commonality, and cultivating the ability to open oneself up to looking for and learning from difference. This is the leadership charge we should hold before us as we memorialize Dr. King’s legacy.

 

Black Russians

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

I met Black Russians today.

No, I don’t mean Russians of African descent. And I’m not using a euphemism for going on a bender of delicious vodka-laced drinks during this exciting trip to Moscow. Rather, I’ve just finished teaching an amazing session with a sharp group of Russian executives who I’ve been helping foster a high-engagement, high-performance culture in their company. They have been struggling with a culture that has pockets of cynical, demoralized people and they really want to do better. But it wasn’t until we dove more deeply into what was happening in the company that I stumbled onto this fundamental insight:

This young, talented group of Russians is having an experience inside the company that is remarkably similar to that of black people in U.S. corporations.

The parallels are fascinating. I’ve learned that the history of this generation of Russians is, in some ways, disheartening. First, the demographic patterns over the past couple of generations mirror the story of African Americans. Just after World War II, there was a major shortage of males in the population: there were 2.2 females for every male in the population.[1] While those numbers have evened out over the years (1.2 females for every male in 2009), the legacy of the devastation of the male population during the 20th century remains—significantly higher health vulnerabilities than women, shorter life expectancy, and higher incidences of substance abuse, especially alcoholism. 2 These are all issues that have been visible and widely discussed in the African American community, too.

Culturally, the Soviet political structure left many challenges in its wake. For example, one participant shared with me that one consequence of Russia’s late entry into a capitalist economy is that Russian professionals receive a pretty consistent message from the multinational business world: your markets are lucrative, but as skilled managers and leaders in those markets you are lacking. No matter how competent they are objectively, there is a sense that many young Russian professionals feel as though they are not perceived to be competent enough to take senior leadership positions locally in global corporations. They don’t yet see many role models in their organizations that would counter that concern. And while they acknowledge that as a group, they do have a lot to learn professionally, they also feel that some are talented, experiences, and very ready. And they are frustrated by not having that talent, experience, and potential recognized. They spoke of wanting to have more authority and responsibility and of simply wanting a fair chance to advance to the highest levels of the company, messages I continue to hear in my work with black professionals in the U.S.

So often, I hear that “diversity” is a U.S. thing that has limited relevance globally. No one denies there is tremendous diversity globally—that’s obvious. But often, executives and students I work with see the way U.S. folks deal with difference as idiosyncratic. We are obsessed with race, they say, and we are too focused on attending to differences without seeing how similar we are.

Ironically, my experience reinforces how similar we truly are all over the world. We struggle with similar inequities borne of the unique circumstances of our societies and our histories. Whether it is slavery in the U.S., or the government political system in Russia and the former Soviet Union, or the ethnic divides in Vietnam (I learned that some people from certain provinces in Vietnam tend to receive preferential treatment within the labor force), every nation and every society has a story of difference, power, and inequity. Leaders and managers do a disservice to all of their stakeholders when they deny these realities in their organizations.

Leaders and their organizations do better when we engage these issues and these differences with openness and an attitude of exploration and learning. Today, my Russian colleagues will initiate a conversation about their experience as Russian professionals with their ex-pat leaders. It’s a great start.

[1] Age structure of the Russian population as of January 1, 2009 Rosstat Retrieved on 2009-10-08.
[2] Wikipedia entry “Demographics of Russia”