Racism in corporate America
What I learned from 24 hours spent wading through a mostly-racist comment thread on LinkedIn.
Last week I published this same article on LinkedIn. Their editorial team promoted it, leading to tens of thousands of views and over 800 comments.
I spent a solid day responding to as many of those comments as I could. As the author of the article, I felt it was important to engage directly with people who took the time to read it and post a response. Especially given that the majority of the comments were quite negative.
I was expecting people to disagree with me on this topic — but I have to say the intensity of the overwhelmingly negative response in the comment thread caught me a little off guard. It was a stark contrast in tone to the kind of healthy dialogue I’ve seen in Medium comments, so thank you for participating in respectful conversations here.
I was called a racist. Called stupid. Called other things that I don’t want to repeat. Threatened. Bullied by—of all people—a police lieutenant from a major US city (he later apologized).
And I have to say, I’m a little embarrassed by the culture of the professional working class in America. This was not some anonymous forum. Everyone was personally identifiable—and many of the people spewing overtly-racist vitriol held significant roles at major American corporations. This is the world that educated working people are surrounded by every day. I’ve been in that world myself for the past 15 years and honestly did not realize how deep-rooted and pervasive this mindset was, bordering on and very often crossing the line of racism.
I realize my ignorance of the depth of the problem is, in itself, due to my privilege as a White male. As a White male, I can just ignore race and these conversations literally never come up. So for those of you who do not have the privilege to simply ignore conversations like this, I’m sorry.
As I responded to people, I began to notice themes. Most of my responses in the comments were along one of these lines:
- No one should feel guilt or shame about the color of their skin. I was very careful to make that argument explicitly in the article. I know most people probably didn’t read it fully and just skimmed it, saw the word guilt, and jumped to conclusions. I’ve done that myself plenty of times. Please know that I do not feel guilt for being White, nor do I want or expect anyone else to.
- While I agree that we should not divide people into groups based on skin color and gender, I think that ship has kind of sailed in America. We built our entire nation on racial and gender oppression. It was baked into the fabric of what it means to be American. I’m simply trying to point out that we have not somehow eradicated those divisions from our culture by admitting that Black people are humans and allowing women to vote and own property. We’ve made huge improvements as a society. I’m simply saying we have more room to improve yet — and generations of compounding inequity can not be erased by simply changing our laws.
- Just because White privilege exists does not mean that it is the only form of privilege that exists. Privilege comes in many forms, and race is just one of them. Gender is a HUGE one. And there are many many more. This was not meant to be a comprehensive survey of all forms of privilege in society.
- Denying the existence of privilege — believing that if one person succeeds more than someone else, they must have worked harder or been smarter than the other person — is actually just as damaging to society as attitudes of entitlement and supremacy. The world is not a level playing field. My children have way less opportunity than those of Bill Gates and way more opportunity than those of children born into the slums of Calcutta. Recognizing this reality should help people to be thankful for what they have and to want to reach out and help others who have been given less.
- Believing that you literally had zero help from others leaves you no room to appreciate the blessings in your life. If you can not appreciate that you might have benefited from the kindness of others toward you (including your ancestors), and you believe that you were solely responsible for your success (or lack thereof), then I’m really sorry. It probably feels a little lonely to believe everything is up to you.
After a couple days of writing responses like this over and over, I had to shut it off and get back to work and family. I am ultimately thankful that so many people took the time to share their thoughts. And I’m glad I took the time to read and respond to as many of them as I could.
That said, the experience left me with an uneasy feeling and sadness for the state of healthy dialogue in the world. It is worth continuing to try, but I wish it were easier. Talking about these topics and biases among professionals is important. It is the only way we can ever hope to see them change.