January 17, 2011 at 1:12 am #120553
As we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Monday, I wanted to ask some tough questions. Here we are – almost half a century after the signature Civil Rights legislation of 1968 – and I’m wondering:
1 – Are we ‘beyond race’ in today’s workplace?
2 – Do our interactions appear to be “color blind” or is there still an awkwardness and uncertainty that seems to simmer just under the surface?
3 – Is there more that needs to happen to create equity and cross-cultural understanding? How does your organization address diversity?
January 17, 2011 at 1:19 pm #120585
I like to think we are, and I hope that it isn’t just in the workplace that we are able to move beyond things like race, religion, age, sex, etc. In my opinion this is one area where social media/networking plays a big role. When we interact online, whether it is through Twitter, FB, or in virtual worlds, many times we don’t really know who is behind the words or avatar we see. For the first time, these tools allow us to communicate without any awareness of any other aspect of a person other than their words and thoughts. So perhaps by interacting in this way we are re-training ourselves to realize all that other stuff should not be influencing our interactions in a negative manner.
However, as a genealogist, I do want to add that I in no way think we should be “blind” to race and culture as others sometimes suggest. Our ancestry and cultural background brought us to where we are today and helps make us who we are so understanding and celebrating everyone’s heritage is very important.
Perhaps that is where it becomes sensitive; in acknowledging and honoring someone’s heritage, we might have to treat someone a little differently to avoid offending their beliefs. But maybe this is no different than just being considerate of others in general – if we care about someone and know that something bothers them, for whatever reason, we try to avoid doing it.
January 17, 2011 at 1:30 pm #120583
Tough question. I think it’s too much to ever expect to be 100% be beyond race. Just like we won’t ever be beyond gender.
Most organizations I’ve worked in have diversity training as well as recognize various months (Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month).
Luckily the government is one of the most diverse working places in the U.S. (and military is #1). I think the effort in recruiting all races has paid off as for many racial groups the government is seen as a “great job” that will treat you well regardless of race.
January 17, 2011 at 2:34 pm #120581
I’m almost afraid to answer, but lets break the ice as it does no good to be silent.
Since this is not a “historical” but “current” question it seems race & gender are still an issue. Lets focus on race.
Since this question is asked today, Martin Luther King Day, may give the impression “today its safe to have a discussion”
A department can still be judged as “balanced” or “unbalenced” as far as race participation at all levels.
Hearing comments like “I’ve been over here (in America) for only two weeks and half the office seems tense around me for what happed 200 years ago in your history” What was interesting, *really* interesting is how I did not feel any difference in tension between any group or race. Hence my fear of answering – what is out there that I do not know.
Does not race add to the experiance? If so why?
In short – yes @Pam gave the best example
@Steve brings up a good point. Should we “blind” to race or truelyl blind. IMO Race, Gender, Age, IQ, Size, Handicapp, etc can all be factors – but not barriors. Yes I have examples upon request.
January 17, 2011 at 3:13 pm #120579
About a decade back, we had a visit here from the head of the Chinese public service. At the time, a fairly lean publc service, when you consider the ratio of public servants to citizens. Ours (Canada) was about 160,000 at that time, and yours (the U.S.) was around 1.5M. China’s was around 3M for a population many times the size of North America’s in total.
The head of the PS gave a public presentation to us through an interpreter, and at the end fielded questions. An audience member who headed up the Equity & Diversity Directorate in another agency, a fellow of Caribbean heritage, stood up and asked about what they had done in the area of employment equity. The Chinese official beamed, and said he was very proud of the tremendous strides they had made there in making their public service more diverse. He illustrated that by pointing out the many members of his delegation from “minority groups”. He started to point to this person and that, noting that this one was from Manchuria, that one from Tibet, another from Mongolia. And of course, all of us in the room, who were a pretty diverse crowd ourselves, were looking around, thinking “What the heck is he referring to? I don’t see it.”
The sorts of differences that prompt the need for equity and diversity measures can be so context-specific. Enough that while we may like to think of them as some sort of generic enterprise (you know….”diversity”), are often about specific historic issues, local socio-economic stratification, and local sorts of competition for jobs. Diversity in Canada’s north is an entirely different ball game than diversity in New York, New Orleans, or New Haven.
Even when we enact measures to provide protection, such measures can often stumble over the neglect of history. To whit. Canada’s Afro-heritage population has several streams. We have one stream from the Maritimes, whose families have “been here” much longer than mine has. We have another stream from English speaking Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean and Africa. We have another stream coming from French-speaking countries in the Caribbean and Africa. And finally, we have former Americans. Is this a homogenous group? Not by any stretch. The impediments to gainful employment and equal treatment differ by sub-group. Some of it is cultural difference, some of it is language and accent. Unfortunately, the law is mindful only of “race” and geographic/ethnic origin, and neglects, or at least does not integate very well the barriers that simply sounding different can have.
For those folks of African heritage but deep Canadian roots, there are generally few impediments in the workplace (at least none that you can measure objectively), but if you don’t “sound Canadian”, that can be a barrier.
Where am I going with this? I think we are always moving past barriers of one kind or another, but there is no fixed set of barriers that, once overcome, mean it’s smooth sailing from here on out. North America’s complexion and demographic makeup is in a state of flux, and due to shifts in human migration, will remain so for the forseeable future. Certainly one of the challenges we face is tackling the next big diversity challenge before previous ones are thoroughly resolved.
In many ways, your nation and ours are the flag-bearers and trend-setters, when it comes to diversity. While Europe may be grappling with diversity issues too, these days, THIS continent has a much longer experience in addressing diversity. That may be because both our countries are large and stretch from coast to coast and lack the opportunity to be ethnically homogenous the way that many other nations around the world are (e.g., Japan).
January 17, 2011 at 3:37 pm #120577
Your comment is long – good and once again show how much we have to learn when others visit our country.
I totally understand what the Chinese guy meant. I embarrassed myself once at a meeing. A council member asked about our diversity. I pointed out we are very diverse. We have people who’s heritage is from England, Estonia, Northern Ireland, Portugal, parts of Africa, Spain, Isreal, India, etc. We openly discuss our cultures and differences.
At this point he looked very confused for he saw 23 whites, an Indian and two African Americans.
January 17, 2011 at 3:53 pm #120575
Such a great thoughtful note. I’ve noticed that myself when I go to Spain (my g/f is from there) and she says stuff like they are Catalan vs Basque vs etc. And to me, they all look very similar but there’s a real difference inside the country.
January 18, 2011 at 2:16 am #120573
1. Not hardly. It’s still an issue in our culture and therefore, still an issue in the workplace. I think we’d like to think we’re beyond it because we have minorities represented in a wide variety of jobs, ones that they may not have been represented in before, but if you look at the top levels of business and government, it’s going to look pretty male and pretty white.
2. I’d say there is still an awkwardness that is simmering under the surface. We may not recognize biases that we still have and we probably live in fear that we will be thought of as “racist” for saying the wrong thing, so we say nothing. It’s very sad.
3. I’ve only been at one organization that truly attempted to address the issue of diversity. I served on the diversity committee for my department. It was very enlightening, cause we discussed issues of race and gender on a regular basis and how to highlight cultures and educate staff members. We were able to talk about things that don’t normally get talked about in a safe environment. I think every organization should have such a committee and all employees should rotate through and serve on the committee.
One of the best experiences I had was working with a very diverse team during my MBA program. We kept the same group for about four different core classes. In our group of five members there were three women and two men, two white, one Indian, one African-American and one Asian. We became comfortable enough to talk about race with each other and I learned so much from the varied perspectives and experiences that my teammates had.
I wish we all could have a positive discussion about race and what the current state of our union is regarding it. One without accusation. I’m glad we’ve started one here on GovLoop.
For what it’s worth to add to the conversation, my children are biracial. I’ve just begun to grapple with conversations about it with my 4-year old when he’s asked about his aunt he hasn’t seen in awhile and whether she has a “white face” or a “black face”. I’ve tried to mix up the complexions of the dolls and the characters in books we have. I’m glad that there are more options now than ever before. I’m excited that they are growing with history being made and us electing our first black President. They can look up to him and see themselves.
January 18, 2011 at 12:02 pm #120571
Workplace discusions of race, gender, sexual orientation or any form of diversity consist of input from those who parrot the polite politicaly correct approved verbiage and input from those who will be unemployed fairly quickly. Until this changes we will never have honest discusions of diversity in the workplace.
January 18, 2011 at 1:15 pm #120569
We are biologically hardwired to notice differences between each other and to categorize other people. This is a result of our emotional and territorial brain structures having evolved before our higher-thinking brain structures. When I first see a person the processes that enable me to identify gender, age, skin color, and other traits have already finished their processing before my cerebral cortex has pulled out the name of the person. We are always going to notice the differences in each other because that is the sign of a healthy working brain.
The advantage people have is that they can arrest these impulses with rational thought. To be honest, I often have discriminatory thoughts when I am angered by someone cutting me off in traffic or I have had bad service at a restaurant. But then I catch myself and remind myself that I am being an idiot for labeling an entire group based on the actions of a single individual. I have yet to see any rational arguments for discrimination.
What is interesting about discrimination is the shifting nature of it. David Berreby writes about an incident where a southern plantation owner and one of his slaves were captured by Indians. Before they were captured, the plantation owner was very racist toward the slave but once the owner and slave faced similar peril the owner put aside his differences to work with his fellow prisoner to get out of the situation. In several studies where participants where reminded of their race versus the participants who were not, test scores differed significantly based on the positive or negative perceptions of the particular category (Asian maths whizz and talkative females: how stereotypes can actually boost performance).
I think that the best approach is to admit that we will sometimes react in a discriminatory manner and that we just need to constantly remind ourselves that is not a rational or constructive response. We should also celebrate our differences and strive for diversity because that makes us better as teams and organizations. And we should realize that individual personalities are composed of a multitude of group identities and that each person is unique. Look beyond the labels to see the real person.
January 18, 2011 at 2:55 pm #120567
As an African-American IT Professional I would definitively say that we haven’t moved pass race in the workplace. I am frequently referred to as the big Black guy in the IT Security group, not just as Lavon. I think that the historical election of President Obama gave many a false sense of security when it comes to dealing with race not only in the work place, but in society in general. The Federal Govt is very diverse, but that diversity is primarily at the “worker-bee” level. I believe that race and gender are still the deciding factors at the senior levels of the Fed. The term “post-racial” society has been thrown around quite a bit and I would like to think that this is a spin-off of Dr. King’s hope that we (Black,White,Brown,Yellow, Male and Female) are truly judged on our abilities and the content of our character.
January 18, 2011 at 4:28 pm #120565
First, as Lavon so aptly illustrates, there is a difference between “employment equity” – which deals principally with access to jobs and opportunities, and the role that visible differences between people may play with respect to workplace relations, collegiality, marginalization-vs-inclusion, and so on. Tackling the one problem successfully, doesn’t mean you’ve tackled the other.
I’ll address the one, and leave the other alone since my work context is very likely MUCH different than yours.
While employment equity is not about quotas, and most of the folks I know who work in the area will emphasize that it is not about quotas, there is something I like to refer to as “the epistemological challenge” that keeps sucking us back to strategies that walk, talk, smell, and taste like quotas to those not inside the HR/HRM circle.
What IS “the epistemological challenge”? Quite simply, it is this: how would you know your organization was fair in its hirig and promotion practices? When posed that challenge, the traditional response is to opt for estimates believed to be valid reflections of absence of bias. So, if X% of the population, or rather, the labour market availability, belongs to THIS demographic group, then we would expect that X% of the people who get hired, or promoted from this level to that, would belong to that demographic group, and that if they don’t line up, something must be wrong.
Now, at one level, that makes eminent sense. Unfortunately, at another level, it seduces us into being obsessed with “our numbers being too low”. And THAT is where the general public and staff start to come to think that its all about quotas, rather than simple fairness of access.
I will pose the rather seditious suggestion that maybe its time we started thinking about a Post-EE era, and what we will use to face our epistemological challenge. Let us say, for argument’s sake, that access to jobs has generally moved beyond the point where there are concerns about this group or that being able to break in to career-type X or organization Y. There might be some anomalies, but in general it doesn’t seem to be an issue (hey, it’s the future! ease up a little). Okay, what would we use to gauge whether an employer has drifted off the path? Forget about the old hiring-rate-vs-LMA formula. What would we look at in their hiring practices to be able to say, “Hey, these folks are doing alright” or “These folks have to get their house in order”?
I think the sooner we start to imagine what our normal practices would be AFTER the basic problem has been solved, the sooner we will move ahead.
January 18, 2011 at 5:22 pm #120563
Thank you for using Dr. Kings words. “Content of our character, not the color of our skin” – for that is the goal.
I am going to agree with Mark in that size, height, gender, color are used to disquish people. It can also underscore what is different. My experiance was being the only non African-American. No one in the office listened to the same radio station, same TV shows, use the same slang or told the same jokes. Jokes? Mine is a dry sense of humor that not everyone gets regardless of gender, race, etc.
Could you comment on office tension, who speaks to whom first, etc.
January 18, 2011 at 5:28 pm #120561
Thanks for the last pargraph – for its speaks volums.
About upper management, government or corporate, being “pretty male and pretty white” – I know what you mean. To that I added, which may not have been your intent, and excludes me. Even though I’m pretty old, very male and white there is no chance of me or my friends joining that group. I feel pretty exluded and can only hope my kids make it.
January 19, 2011 at 12:46 pm #120559
“Respecting individual diversity” – eh that seems simpler. After a few years sub groups form. We in tech support use “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” almost as a logo. Yet when we go outside – i.e. down the hall, our response changes depending on who’s office we are in. We know who has diabeties, hence the can of coke on the shelf sitting by itself in plain sight. We know who is vegan and bring out tinfoil so their veggie burger is not “touching the grill used to char mamal flesh”
We like people bring in King cake for Mardi Gras, Guy Fawks day, Castelle day or even a Festivus pole. Dangerouse? yes but its the response. No legal wrangling, no court martial – instead its all good. We say “sorry” and nothing less is thought of the person who did not like ______ (fill in the blank)
This is much harder for race where laws, regulations, media and such pre dispose some tension. Rules dictate the correct “ratio of race per capita” as well as punishment.
January 19, 2011 at 2:51 pm #120557
Where might the tension points be?
Hispanics, native American, African American, Baltic (Poland, Ukraine, etc) Germans, whites, Canadians, Peoples of South pacific (Philippines, Guam, Samoa) ?
January 19, 2011 at 3:54 pm #120555
I don’t know if we’ll ever be beyond race or gender issues in the work place. As a female I have experienced a lot of gender bias. Not necessarily here but in the private sector. Where I had a sales manager that gave the better accounts to the men because ‘they have families to support’ but the female sales people were given a hodge podge of littler accounts to handle because ‘they’re just working until they get married’ (of course one of them was a divorced single mother so his own theory was garbage in his own department).
I’ve worked in places where only men – white men at that, preferably graduates of a local college – were to be the managers of teh larger departments and the women got to do those little ones that no one cared about, health and beauty, deli, etc.
There are two sides to the racial issue though. Yes, some employers need to get beyond a person’s color and hire, especially promote based on a person’s skill not race. Yet the other side of the coin that seems to be a forbidden topic is that some people of color need to stop using their race as a ‘i’m above the rules’ card. There are no end of anecdotes where the person of color calls in, breaks the rules, etc, and when threatened with discipline bring out ‘well, i’ll just call my civil rights attorney’ and the company backs down.
As this continues for weeks, months, years, co-workers begin to resent the person using their race to not perform to the level of everyone else, and it also perpetrates stereotypes. management needs to apply discipline in a color blind manner and if the documentation is there, and it’s evenly applied, then you get everyone held to the same standards, which helps to break those stereotypes.
I’ve worked with a person of color who, if someone spoke to him in a way he didn’t like, he automatically assumed ‘well, they must have an issue with black people’…umm, no, maybe they’re just having a bad day or maybe they didn’t like the way you spoke to them. Don’t just assume they have issues with your race because you’re very likely pulling racism into a situation where it’s not.
So it takes give and take on all parts. People not of color need to treat everyone as evenly as possible, and not be afraid of coming down on a person of color if needed. But people of color – some people of color – need to realize that equalty means taking the good and the bad.
If a person, regardless of color or gender, wants to be treated equally, then don’t use your gender or your race to not follow the standards expected of everyone.
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