Move the Conversation About Race Forward

By Kathy Gurchiek Oct 27, 2016
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AUSTIN— A thought-provoking presentation on how—and how not—to have a deep discussion with co-workers and employees about race in the United States kicked off the second day of the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition on Oct. 26.

 "We need to have an honest, direct conversation around race. There's no way for you to build new business if you're not talking about race in America today," said James E. Wright, SHRM-CP, a diversity and inclusion strategist from Los Angeles. "The face of America is changing:"

  • 20,000 Baby Boomers will turn age 65 every day through 2030.
  • In the same time period, 74 percent of new employees will be Hispanic or Latino.
  • In 2014, there were more than 20 million children under the age of 5 and 50.2 percent of them were minorities, making up a majority minority, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Start the Conversation

A short exercise that preceded Wright's presentation had attendees discussing their experience with unconscious bias—assumptions about others that people make based on their past experiences. SHRM Vice President of HR Bettina Deynes, SHRM-SCP, who is of Uruguayan descent, shared her own experiences with unconscious bias.

At a previous high-powered job where she was open about her humble upbringing, Deynes said she routinely received phone calls from friends and co-workers asking her to refer them to anyone "in my circle" who worked as a housekeeper. At another job where she was a vice president, she routinely was mistaken for the secretary. She initially thought it was because of her youth, but it has continued to happen throughout her career.

Conference attendees watched a clip of a research experiment done with children who were asked to answer a series of questions by pointing to one of five cartoon images, each showing a child with skin color that varied from light to very dark. The children were asked to point to the mean, nice, dumb or smart child.

The white children, in general, tended to identify positive attributes with light skin and negative attributes with dark skin. Even black children, in general, showed bias favoring white or light skin, but not as much as the white children. The research found that children's ideas about race did not evolve as they got older.

Adults in the U.S. often are reticent to even describe a person by color to another person, fearing that he or she will appear racist, Wright said, referencing various research and anecdotal examples.

But How Do You Start the Conversation?

Wright pointed to Starbucks as an example of a company that has tried to start a conversation about race in the United States.

In March 2015, Starbucks initiated a controversial campaign requiring its baristas to write "Race Together" on drink cups to encourage customers to discuss race relations in the U.S. The initiative was in response to protests after grand juries chose not to indict white police officers after the deaths of two black men—18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and 43-year-old Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y.

There was near-immediate backlash from critics accusing the company of a publicity stunt. Starbucks scrapped the idea when it became evident that its baristas didn't have time to efficiently perform their jobs and have deep discussions about race.

"Where does your company stand with this dialogue?" Wright asked conference attendees. If a company's leader resists having the conversation for fear of stirring up employees, rest assured "that conversation is happening all the time around the watercooler. ... Anyone who believes you're stirring the pot, [know] it's already stirred," Wright said.

The way to have these conversations, he said, is to:

  • Practice active listening by asking probing questions to gain understanding.
  • Be introspective.
  • Be a critical reader, viewer and listener of all types of media.

Wright gave the example that Latinos are rarely shown in the media unless it's as an unflattering stereotype.

He showed a photo of Rosa Rios in a red power suit, but no one in the conference hall was able to identify the Mexican-American woman. She is the 43rd treasurer of the United States. Her name is on billions of pieces of U.S. currency.

"Why do we think [Latinos are only] cleaning toilets?" he said, illustrating his point of how stereotypes in the media influence bias.

  • Learn the language of inclusion. "That language is different because we're talking about valuing differences. At the end of the day we're all looking for equality."

He illustrated his point with a clip of a fairness study conducted with two capuchin monkeys that lived together in a group. During the test, the monkeys were placed side by side in separate cages and were awarded a piece of cucumber every time they handed the researcher a rock.

In the beginning, they were satisfied with the cucumber as the reward. Then one received a grape—the preferred treat—while the other received a piece of cucumber for the same task. The one that had received the cucumber threw it at the researcher, shook the cage and pounded the table, looking for a grape.

"This is just an animal," the researcher said in the clip, "and he or she gets it."

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