Saturday, June 19, 2010

Little White Truths

Whites are ironically underserved in many diversity and inclusion efforts. This post is the first in a series on how we might address this.

One of the central assumptions of Middling to Fair is that the primary responsibility for ending racial inequity lies with Whites because it is we who run the systems that perpetuate it. Though many of the overt forms or racism that have existed throughout our history have become socially unacceptable for all but hardcore White supremacist, and in fact have been made illegal by laws such as the civil rights act, there is still a great deal of racial inequity in the US.

To combat this inequity we well-meaning Whites often engage in diversity and inclusion initiatives, especially in the business setting. The typical way this works is something like this: a member of one or more non-dominant groups will be hired to a position like “Vice President of Diversity” and it will be that person’s job to hold the task of “diversity” in the company. For example, a company with a mostly White, mostly male executive committee will hire a Black female to hold the diversity function for the company. She will be expected to create programs that highlight the “minorities” who work for the company, to help those people build skills so that they can be successful in the company as it is, and to recruit other members of non-dominant groups to help the company become more “diverse.” The mostly White, mostly male leadership of this company will openly support these efforts and join in on them when it’s deemed appropriate. Often there will be group work in which all are expected to contribute to the conversation and the people who are not considered “diverse” are expected to appreciate the people who are. The White male leaders will return to their day-to-day work having met their commitments to diversity and sometimes feeling good about having done it. The Non-White and non-male participants will be given continued remediation if it’s deemed necessary to help them be successful in the company. Power in the company remains with the same groups and meaning schemes don’t change.

There are a lot of problems with this model. While it is basically a continuation of the experience of inequity that members of non-dominant groups experience, and while ending that inequity is the goal of my work, their experience is not where my focus lies. It lies in how inadequate this model is at helping Whites learn how to view race and other aspects of identity differently.

Let’s use a very basic example: Bill is a straight White male who has worked pretty hard all his life and has the 80-hour workweeks behind him to prove it. He has finally achieved a leadership role that all would say is appropriate to a person of his career and skill level. He feels like no one has ever handed him a thing. He’s got a lot of people listening to him and not all of them for direction. As is inevitable, some people disagree with Bill’s methods and don’t think he should be in charge. Some want his job. Bill also doesn’t know what all the fuss is about when it comes to diversity. America is the land of opportunity and if you’re willing to work hard you’ll get a fair shake. People should stop complaining.

But Bill knows how even the simplest comment can get taken the wrong way. Joe Biden simply said Obama was clean and it almost ruined him. Bill is not going to make that mistake. So Bill goes diligently to the diversity seminar, listens to people talk about themselves, and nods approvingly. He never, never, would say, “I really don’t see what all the fuss is about.” The “PC Police” would surely come and take him away for that. Bill leaves the seminar without incident and doesn’t have to worry about diversity until the next round of seminars, hopefully not for a couple of years. The diversity manager can make sure the company hires enough of whatever minorities it needs to hire to avoid lawsuits.

It would be outrageous for me to tell people who are targets of identity inequity that they should be patient with “poor Bill” because he just doesn’t know any better. Bill makes decisions that materially impact people in profound ways and he doesn’t get a free pass for ignorance or good intentions. I respect and empathize with those who simply want a revolution to take the power away form those who have it and give it to those that don’t. The centuries that their people have waited for society to change is a compelling argument to which I relate. But the two extremes, the one where we Whites silently do nothing and the one where we Whites become silenced nothings, are flawed. Though it may seem fair to place Whites beneath other groups, to do so would not create an equitable society. It would simply shift the roles of oppressed and oppressor.

If White males are to be engaged fully in diversity, practitioners have to find ways to uncover and focus on Whiteness and maleness that respect and address their fears and concerns and also respect the content of Whiteness. This does not mean catering to their opinions. It means creating interventions that are culturally appropriate and empathetic. There are ways to measure identity awareness in Whites. In the next few posts I will discuss some of them and how they might be used. My own research (though yet incomplete) looks at the facilitators to racial awareness development in White males in an attempt to create better ways to help them move toward greater understandings of the role of Whiteness in their lives, work, and society.

I strongly advocate for an approach that, while it includes working in groups that are diverse, also offers White males the opportunity to connect with coaches who are also White males so that the men doing the developing are more likely to feel comfortable being honest and have the experience of other White males who can challenge their assumptions about themselves and about race. The role of “racial identity” coach or therapist is not one that can be taken up lightly by White males and such men would have to undergo a great deal of training, learning, and/or surfacing of their own racial identity development issues and have profound connections with people of multiple identities to help guide them away from falling into privileged thinking.

Most people want the system to be fair. We Whites are often mortified when we discover how unfair it is and how we benefit from that inequity. None of us were born wanting to be socialized into an unfair system. We are in the odd position of receiving both benefit and harm from the racial socialization of the US (as opposed to other groups who receive only harm). While growing up we have been acted upon by a system that was beyond our control. One of the differences between us Whites and Non-Whites is that, whether we know it or not, the system is in our control.

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