I had an encounter with a coworker over racism in 2016 that’s stuck with me and resurfaced in my mind since the George Floyd murder and protests.
I’d read a piece in the Harvard Business Review talking about creating a more diverse workforce and how it isn’t as simple as bringing in more minorities and women to interview. The premise was that if you have five white men and one black person to interview for a job, it’s a phenomenon of difference. People are generally more comfortable choosing something from the majority than an outlier so the minority is still unlikely to get hired. If you have multiple minorities or women to interview it’s less likely they’ll suffer from this “outsider” phenomenon.
I repeated this to my team simply because I thought it was interesting, and with the company HQ being an hour north of a small city, the workforce was very white. The developer who happened to be sitting nearby somewhat aggressively said, “Well what if all the best candidates happen to be white?”
This guy was typically soft spoken and not what I’d characterize as an aggressive individual by any means. I was taken aback by his reaction.
I calmly explained that I didn’t think there was anything wrong with our current skill set in the company, and in fact I really love the company. It’s the only company I’ve worked for that is very active in employee appreciation and engagement. However, I was used to working in London, which is highly diverse. One of the first things that stood out when I moved from a major city to a small town was how white the workforce and leadership tended to be.
BUT. When you don’t have people from different genders, cultures, races, etc., how are their perspectives supposed to be heard? As a global company, how can we truly be global if our workforce only represents the rural Midwest?
The developer got angry. He repeated that there was nothing wrong with people in the county where HQ was, and why should they be punished if they happen to be the best for the job?
I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t encountered this type of underlying racism suddenly and aggressively thrown out into the open. He was extremely offended at the thought of outsiders taking jobs away from the hardworking people he’d grown up with, and couldn’t even begin to see the benefit a different perspective could bring to a business.
Fast forward four years, and here we are having these same conversations. It’s so encouraging that for the first time, much of the population seems to get it now. My main concern is what happens when the fire calms. What happens when people stop sharing lists on what books to read, where to donate, what black businesses to support?
It’s not enough to educate ourselves and donate to causes. We need to learn how to have uncomfortable conversations with people we love, work with, associate with. I don’t think most people are ready to do this.
Anecdotally, what I’m seeing on social media among friends and family (as opposed to large-scale “detached” social media like Twitter) is a continued lack of willingness to confront the many forms of thinly-veiled racism. Many of my friends are posting about Black Lives Matter, but they aren’t confronting the people who are posting racism masked as conservatism.
I have one friend in particular who is white, hyper-conservative and posts only about black people who say there is no such thing as white privilege and discrimination. He’s one of those people whose persona is “see, here’s a black person saying this is fake news.” He’s outraged about the riots but completely unconcerned about the murder of black people or George Floyd. Exactly one of our mutual friends has reproached him on this. One!
It’s not OK. It’s fine to have differing political views and not want to make waves with friends/family/coworkers, but allowing this sort of racism to continue to flow around us is not OK.
I’m not saying we need to start fights with these people, but we do need to start conversations and use our collective voices to let them know it’s unacceptable. Staying silent negates every financial contribution and book read.