From manifestos to Charlottesville: Two sides of the same coin?
I started this article last Wednesday in response to ex-Googler James Damore’s manifesto. And then over the weekend the white-supremacist terror attacks happened in Charlottesville, VA. Today I picked up wondering if these seemingly disconnected expressions of anti-diversity are more connected than we might guess. And if so, what opportunity do we have to learn about our own organizations?
Before I begin, please read me loud and clear. A scientifically argued position for male and female differences in no way compares to the horrific acts that took place in Virginia. Plain and simple. But if we’re courageous enough to dip below the surface, we might see a red thread that is connective and strong throughout.
From a systemic view of oppression (the way we must view oppression in my opinion), what happened in Charlottesville and what happened at Google are two sides of the same coin. Both are examples of the way in which cultural violence (racism & sexism) interacts with direct and structural violence. Each incident is predicated on the message that the “other” (read: woman, black, immigrant) is not valued or wanted.
Charlottesville and Google share another thing in common: both are reinforced by unconscious biases. In organizational settings, for example, research finds that we are nearly as likely to select the resume of a white applicant with no elite status as compared to a black candidate with a prestigious background. So, every time we overlook a black candidate as a result of their name, we add to this narrative. Research also finds that women tend to get vague, non-specific and non-actionable feedback at a rate much greater than their male colleagues. So, every time we give vague feedback to a woman but not a man, we continue this story.
While we may not be writing manifesto’s or marching with torches, our unconscious actions silently reinforce a long history of overt acts of discrimination and violence. As my colleague Robleh Kirce says, “We’re all responsible for our corner of the world.” And every time you do not speak up, we are saying that this behavior is ok in this space.
When I train people in dealing with unconscious bias, I often ask what’s hard about conversations related to diversity & inclusion. Unequivocally, people say fear. Fear of being wrong, judged, misunderstood and the like. These fears are real and valid. And the emotional baggage of conversations of this nature are heavy. Like paying extra for oversized luggage heavy.
Fear, shame, and anger are but a few outcomes for those who daily are told they are racist, sexist, privileged, and homophobic without even knowing it. And if we continue to invalidate the deep well of emotions we have to these events, if we brush our colleague off for being another white guy that doesn’t get it, or we fail to acknowledge how racial tension over the weekend impacts how I show up on Monday, we miss an opportunity to engage in real change. And if the past two weekends have taught us anything, denying emotions, no matter how unimaginable to us they feel, never results in change.
So, what is the everyday role of business, our organizations & industries, to collectively add to this narrative for good? I have three recommendations regardless of your role of position in your org, but especially for those of us who come from more dominant parts of our culture.
- Start creating space. Create space to vent, to grieve, to disagree. This can be as formal as a town hall. Or normalized as a weekly tea time to discuss relevant topics. It could be as easy as designated slack channels. And as simple as asking people their thoughts on what has transpired over the last week. Whatever the format, simply start creating space. Stop denying that what happens “out there” does not impact how we show up “in here.”
- Start being an ally. Start assessing your blinds spots, your gaps, and areas for growth. We all have them and to deny their existence is to deny yourself one of the richest opportunities for learning. Practically this means that men, you need to start speaking out against other men who act in biased ways. White folks who have become aware of your biases, this definitely means we need to start talking to our friends, our families, and yes, even that crazy uncle. This is what we can do. And in fact is what we have to do.
- Start getting used to being uncomfortable. Engaging in the deeply systemic nature of bias, power, and privilege is insanely challenging and messy work. And it may mean offending someone. Or it may mean getting called out for your own biases. And it may even mean giving feedback to your boss. But I will pose to you the question I give to every person who I train in this content, “what is at risk if we say nothing?” And while we’re on that, let’s chat about what we should stop doing.
- Stop allowing behavior that does not facilitate inclusion to exist in your space. Whatever “your space” entails whether it is literary yourself and one other colleague consider what kind of inclusive environment you are creating. Practice asking, “where can I increase inclusively?”
- Stop letting the fear of being wrong keep you from acting. Every major shift towards innovation and growth requires bulldozing through fear. Just consider the many inventions we would have never had, had someone not given the middle finger to fear. We sure as hell wouldn’t have the internet. Definitely not Bitcoin. And for sure not the selfie stick. No selfies? Unacceptable.
- Stop shaming people into change. Shame is the only emotion that actually draws us inward and leaves us feeling isolated and unwilling to share. Conversely, one of the greatest indicators of an individual’s willingness to change their perspective is when they authentically engage in taking the perspective of another. Until “their” issue feels real and close to you, it will remain difficult to engage in solidarity.
- Continue putting one foot in front of the other. People’s careers, their development, their mental health, and their lives in some case, are literally depending on it. Just like any difficult race, challenge, or endeavor, the only requirement to finish is to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
- Continue bringing up these difficult conversations over and over and over again. And when you’ve done that, bring them up again. Organizations today are being asked to deal with society’s long standing problems like never before. While that may be a tall order to fill, what a valiant challenge worthy of our time.
- Continue challenging the status quo. I often ask clients I work think to consider, “what if here at work, under this roof, was a safe place for everyone in your organization?” “What if the world out there actually got a bit quieter in here?”
My charge to organizations, and particularly organizational leaders, is to be bold. Be courageous. Start, literally today, creating space for people to process. Challenge the assumption that because people are not rioting down the halls of your organization’s walls, that an inclusive environment has been created. Our cohesion does not come from our diversity alone but from our commonalities. Create a common goal of deep inclusion that we all can get around.
If these two incidents can teach us anything, it’s that we share different sides of the same human experience coin. And if we’re not willing to reach around to the other side, we will wake up only to realize we’ve made another deposit into the bank of repeating history.