Okay first things first. I already know what you are thinking.
“I don’t have racial bias; my best friend is Xyz. I don’t have gender bias; I was raised by hardworking a single mom. I don’t make people of other ethnicities feel uncomfortable; I went to a liberal arts college and I even took a sociology course.
“I may live and work surrounded predominantly by people who share my race, class and gender, but I am the exception to innate and unconscious bias!”
In short, hate to burst your bubble, but... no. You’re not.
As well intentioned and accepting as we may perceive ourselves to be, there are hurdles to overcome in the way of understanding our unconscious bias and its negative affects the way we do business. Half the battle is acknowledging that we all have built-in biases.
I’ll give you a moment. Phew!
That was touch and go there, but now that you realize that we all have biases, let’s explore ways to overcome the barriers that prevent us from optimizing the value of our team members.
Let’s start with a conversation about race. Contrary to popular belief, race is not a rude or forbidden subject. Rather, it is the lack of discussion surrounding race that fosters our discomfort with it.
Is it racist to acknowledge that someone has a different skin color? To put it plainly, no.
It is not racist or prejudice to acknowledge a person's racial or ethnic identity. The context in which we acknowledge a person's race, however, is important. By assuming an “I don’t see color” or “I don’t know what people were like where you worked before, but here everyone is the same” attitude, you are actually denying people their identities and experiences. It’s noteworthy that people operating from a place of privilege and ignorance are most likely to make these remarks. Albeit well intentioned, announcing that you ignore the diversity of humankind is misguided.
We all see color and that isn’t and shouldn’t be a bad thing. It only becomes a problem if we make others feel alienated or divided based on their color. So, let’s talk about some do’s and don’ts when it comes to racial diversity in the workplace.
- Don’t assume... it is rude to assume that people have had the same opportunity as you had while achieving their successes. It is equally rude to assume that they haven’t.
If it’s essential for you to know about an aspect of someone’s personal life, politely ask them about it. If it is not relevant to any business requirement, reflect on why you have that curiosity in the first place. Why do you want to know this particular thing about a person? If they shared your race and heritage would you still be curious? Remember your bias itself is not a bad thing; it’s something you can’t eradicate. What is truly harmful is not recognizing your bias and denying its existence.
- Beware of micro-aggressions. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, micro-aggressions are indirect, offhanded, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group. An infamous example of this, would be when the famous Somali model Iman was referred to as “a white woman dipped in chocolate” by the former Essence editor in chief Marcia Gillespie. Iman not only took offense to the implication that white women were the only ideal standard of beauty to aspire to, but that a Somali woman with traditional East African features would have her beauty celebrated despite her heritage rather than because of it.
Keep in mind that not everyone aspires to look like you, act like you, speak like you, eat like you or be compared to you. People have every right to take pride in their culture. You are not the standard against which everyone else must live their lives. This lesson is especially important when encountering people that are immigrants, descendants of immigrants, or people who grew up in neighborhoods different from your own. The lesson is that the world is larger than your own backyard. People out there are just as brilliant and interesting as you are, so listen to their experiences and perhaps learn something from them.
- When people come from a different walk of life than yours, and they tell you about experiences and issues that are specific to them, believe them. You do not live their experience. Period.
The fact that you know, and may even be close to, someone who shares their race or ethnicity, doesn’t make you an expert. It is foolish to think that we can speak to experiences that aren’t our own better than the people who actually live it. We all have a natural human tendency to understand the world from our own spectrum of experiences, and the experiences of those around you.
It is important to comprehend that, just because you’ve never personally seen or experienced something, nor even perhaps have never heard of anyone experiencing it, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It is important to understand that privilege is invisible to those that have it and we all have some sort of privilege of which we are largely unaware.
With this in mind, race is always a relevant factor to consider in business. Different races of people are oppressed in different ways in every possible realm of life from education to politics and especially with respect to opportunity.
By acknowledging our individual and collective built-in biases, we move them from being unconscious biases to conscious ones. It’s a fool’s errand to attempt to remove them. Just be aware of them. If we remain mindful of that fact that varying types of people receive varying types and levels of opportunities from our own, we can be better prepared to pro-actively provide new and broader opportunities to a wider array of races, genders, ethnicities, sexualities, ages, abilities, and religions in the workplace and beyond. And by doing so, we will increase the value and resiliency of our teams by making them rich in perspective.