"They are hiring Black support staff for Kori because her client says diversity is important." This claim made in clusters of groups led to several conversations in an organization I once worked at. When I started working at the organization, I was one of only two Black people. Over time, and with new administrative leadership, a Black female administrative staff person was hired. And then a second one was being interviewed to support me and my team. I came to learn there was scuttlebutt and this statement was made.
Apparently, the hiring of new employees who were diverse (specifically Black) was of concern to some. The discussion was how there seemed to be a push to hire racial minorities. The evidence was "look at all the Black people they are hiring”, as one employee said. Let me give you some context. There were more than 100 employees in the organization, two senior Black professionals (I was one), and one Black support staff member at the time we were interviewing another Black candidate. I laughed it off as foolish talk not to be given air to breathe until I was told the Black staff member had been approached by one of the “stirrers” and told she probably was only hired because of her race. Deep breaths.
Over time I have learned that the nasty things you pretend don't exist simply multiply. When we hired White person after White person, there was no problem. No one said, "Are the only people capable of doing this job White?" But, apparently, the idea of two Black support staff members got people talking. Does this sound familiar to you? The problem was not just that an employee had started making these comments. The problem was also that the culture allowed for such behavior to occur as groups continued to discuss this, for it to develop momentum because no one wanted to address it, and because those who disagreed and were offended, chose silence instead.
Frankly, this scenario is symbolic of many conversations in our cities, organizations, and in the country. At times, it may not be as blatant, but it is just as real as the story I told you. Other times, it is explicit, loud and clear when people tell you that considering diversity is racism, or they consider a commitment to having organizations that reflect our community as genocide. For many the subject of diversity, improving racial equity and access to opportunities is a threat. For some, the increase in diversity raises questions (suddenly) of whether standards are being lowered. Think about that — why would any leader respond to the question of not having enough diversity in their organization with “we want diversity but we don't want to lower our standards”? The premise to such responses is that increasing diversity requires lowering standards.
When you question the qualifications of some more than others, when some have to defend their right to be at the table, when some have a presumption of competence and others have to prove theirs, it is essentially the same story as the consternation when an organization with over 100 employees was about to tip the balance by hiring a second Black staff member. When a White athlete insinuates that a Black athlete won agymnastic championship not because of artistry that exceeded hers, but because she was Black and the rules had somehow been changed, it is the same story. When a White college baseball player who should know better is so offended by a Black teenage girl’s success in Little League World Series baseball that he calls her a “little slut" in a tweet obviously intending to denigrate her, it is the same story. When an editor of TV programs bemoans that there is too much diversity on TV, it is the same story. When we notice a widely different response to Serena William’s athletic accomplishments than any other White comparative athlete, we realize this isn't a conversation limited to inside our organizations, or to intellectual pursuits. In fact, while I am talking about an uncomfortable topic, I will go ahead and go all the way: the way in which Barack Obama’s qualifications and intellect were questioned for more than eight years exemplifies the higher standard, the proving process people of color are subjected to in many of our spaces — from work to community leadership.
The underlying notions are that these spaces — offices, law firms, gymnastics, baseball — should look a certain way. There are presumptions of who belongs. And frankly, there are systemic reasons our organizations have remained lacking in diversity. And so, when things begin to be change, folks get confused. Too often we do not ask the same questions under similar circumstances. We do not question the qualifications of White men in the same way we do women and minorities, but wait for minorities and women to prove their abilities. We promote men based on potential and women based on proof. And once in, women and minorities must continue to prove themselves over and over. We even judge the actual results of work differently, allowing our confirmation bias to cause us to overlook errors by White men and judge Black men harsher. And while some of these analyses and behaviors happen unconsciously, some are overt.
Imagine a law firm hiring an entire class of new associates who were (obviously and clearly) racial minorities, LGBT and women only year after year. Can you imagine that chatter? That would be radical. And yet in many of our workspaces we have been doing it the other way too long, and been okay with that.
My encouragement to everyone is to engage in dialogue when something happens that indicates people are uncomfortable with increasing diversity, or are questioning the right or ability of some to be included. Ask questions — get people to name and claim what they are actually saying. Invite a conversation on what great talent at your organization looks like and what attributes they bring. Have direct conversations with employees who make statements that are explicitly biased and erode the culture you say you believe in. Provide training on implicit bias, micro-aggressions, micro-inequities and micro-affirmations. Create opportunities and incentives for people to grow and be more inclusive. Chatter such as the story at the start of this article and the underlying attitudes which reveal themselves in behavior that impact others cannot be left unaddressed if we seek to have inclusive cultures.
We must challenge how we decide who belongs and confront the fear often unnamed. I am okay with some discomfort and resistance. But let us make it work for us.
Kori is a people inclusion strategist, advocate, speaker, writer, wife and mother of two spitfires who loves to sing, cook, entertain, dance in the hallways and read when she is not equipping leaders to be inclusive and interrupt bias, and developing and implementing strategies to build bridges across differences and improve inclusion. You can also find her on Twitter as @koricarew.