Commentary & Opinion

Diversity Is Not an Excuse to Attack White People

By Kellye Whitney

Oct. 12, 2016

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Bashing white people does nothing to solve the greater issues around workplace diversity and inclusion.

A white man emailed me recently, a software developer I’ll call Portland, since that’s where he comes from. He gave me permission to post and discuss his email — thank you, sir — but he asked to remain anonymous, which I respect. This is sensitive stuff, and while many of us are open to learning, we don’t need drama.

His words are in italics. My responses are in plain text:

I’m a software developer working for the City of Portland, Oregon; and I recently attended a meeting in my organization entitled “Celebration of Hispanic Heritage.” It was the first time I decided to go to perhaps “passively” participate in what the city calls an “Equity in Motion” event in a series of events/meetings meant to empower and help dignify “disenfranchised” members of the community but really to educate our own people.

This could be me — a professional wordsmith — reading too much into this, but if those quotes around passive and disenfranchised are your additions, Portland, I’m sensing some skepticism or at least disagreement with the foundation of the gathering. That’s OK. Skepticism can be healthy.

WF_WebSite_BlogHeaders-09It was not at all what I was expecting. It had nothing to do with Hispanic Heritage nor was it a celebration. At the beginning of the meeting, our lovely host played a video depicting both Whites and Blacks as goofy imbeciles saying all sorts of careless, politically incorrect things in various conversations and settings with a “White Hispanic” woman who’s barely offended and just looks at her offender with a smile. This video was not only offensive to Blacks and Whites; but it was even more offensive to Hispanics because before the video was started, the audience was told the video is just meant in humor [to break the ice]. I thought it was in poor taste because it makes light of the very identity and dignity of Hispanics and sets a tone that equality and equity need not be taken seriously.

I agree with you wholeheartedly, Portland. It’s important not to buy into and feed stereotypes — especially negative ones — even among members of the same group. Always, always, always portray strong, realistic, positive, diverse images so we can change the narrative, and constructively challenge the bias and ideas that pigeonhole minorities. Only then can we broaden the collective mindset with diverse thoughts, ideas and accurate, three-dimensional human portrayals. We don’t need to coon and perform to break the ice. A hello might work just as well.

You have to understand I work in a relatively professional environment where everyone is generally courteous to each other. That is, the City of Portland really doesn’t have a problem with employees with different backgrounds getting along. The real problem is people over socialize, but that’s another story. No less, it’s not like we’re running a failing trucking business with a bunch of disgruntled workers saying hateful things about each other and their boss behind their backs. Although the racial diversity of Portland is relatively low compared to other metropolitan areas, and the diverse makeup of our organization in fact relatively proportional to the population and more diverse than the population; the Office of Equity still makes a good effort to get the word out in an effort to hire more minorities.

Then the complete opposite occurred. The rest of the meeting took a 180 and consisted of the few Hispanic employees we have sharing where they’re from, how they got here, and then depressing instances of hate and/or discrimination they’ve suffered [from White people]. I put “White people” in brackets because the offenders were not always racially identified but implied to be White. This is the part that got me angry, because I felt like it was an attack on White people to shame us and, alas, on myself (as a White person).

Portland, I’m not being flip here, but this was a meeting for Hispanic people. Is it appropriate for you, a visitor, to deny them an opportunity to get some issues off their chest? The Hispanic people who were airing their concerns were upset too, and they are entitled to talk about why — just as you are — since they feel they’ve been mistreated. This was an appropriate venue for them to share their stories.

Therefore, listen; and listen to learn without taking things personally. Unless someone was talking to you, this isn’t about you. That’s easier said than done, I know. But part of creating inclusive cultures where diversity is truly a business advantage requires that we become comfortable with discomfort.

Discomfort is natural in any environment where there is difference, so we who appreciate diversity must therefore become agile, even diplomatic in how we deal with those differences. It would be wonderful if every meeting was candlelight and roses, but that doesn’t happen in most meetings, let alone one for an employee resource group. We can’t reasonably expect that minorities won’t have grievances, and then if they do, not to air them in an appropriate venue because there’s a white person present who might be offended.

But if there was no follow up, no discussion of action items, no learning, no takeaways or anything after the grievance airing, I query the group leader’s effectiveness. Or, I query the purpose for the meeting.

I think the audience had been duped with a bait and switch, if you will. People coming to the event were expecting some celebratory content such as, say, the historic triumphs of Mexican-Americans with the help of Cesar Chavez and perhaps a proud cultural exhibit.

I think you were expecting celebratory content. But I wonder if the other participants were. I know what the title was, what theme was advertised, but somehow I doubt most of the attendees were actually expecting a cultural exhibit. Employee resource groups have traditionally been opportunities to promote community and support for specific groups within the workplace. The best ones also have keen business connections, and they contribute with new products, services, process improvements, etc.

However, Portland, I can totally understand your shock when the content veered so sharply off course. It was quite natural to think there was something underhanded going on. To bill something as a historical celebration, for instance, and then not talk about historical celebrations at all is essentially a lie. At best, the meeting’s origins and purpose were not well conceived or thoughtfully constructed.

But it turned out to be a session of indirect bashing. I was very emotional by the end and when the host asked for feedback, a co-worker spoke for me saying the same. The host’s response was very callous: “Maybe you shouldn’t take it so personally,” she said, as she was turning away and continued on with the conclusion of the meeting. It seemed as if for an instant she was making a subtle statement, “That’s what you get for hurting us.” The host is a much older, nearly elderly African woman (actually from some country in Africa).

Her response does seem short. It wouldn’t have hurt her to address your concerns, at least suggest that you guys talk afterwards. But the personal comment, I’m afraid I agree with that. The meeting wasn’t for you. It also wasn’t about you. Therefore, it shouldn’t have been offensive to you. Easier said than done, I know, but this was no deliberate “attack on Portland day.” Consider the source, the venue, the unwritten purpose of the meeting. It could be it should have been renamed, “Get crappy treatment off your chest at 4 p.m.” But if it were, I doubt there would have been meeting space available.

As soon as I got home I started researching this phenomenon of diversity training in the workplace and what I’m discovering is a convenient indirect tactic of beating up on White people which is growing in popularity. As someone who came to that event willing to champion the cause of diversity, I felt betrayed and that an injustice had been done. On the other hand, if the host had prepared us by letting us know beforehand the intent is not to shame; then I would have been much more understanding and accepting of the content. But it seems the audience was tricked.

This wasn’t diversity training. It was an employee resource group meeting. And you can look up and find support for almost anything on the internet. Further, if you’re a true champion for diversity, one bad meeting won’t throw you completely off course. If anything, it will fire your passions even more because you’ll see the work that needs to be done, and you’ll gird your loins to do it because it’s not easy. It’s a battle, uphill, and for every success there are a dozen failures.

Your feeling of injustice is just that — your feeling. It’s not this group’s responsibility to pat you on the back and congratulate you for wanting to be open-minded. Also, you say the audience was tricked? But you only mention one other person who was upset. I don’t know if it’s appropriate for you to speak collectively for this group or audience.

However, I agree with you that a bit of context could have alleviated some ill feelings. A preface like, “I see we have some new visitors today. Please don’t be alarmed if we get a little personal. This is a safe space for us to share our workplace concerns,” would have been appropriate.

How do you feel about this tactic of White-bashing to audiences who are caught “off-guard?”

I think white-bashing stinks, Portland. It’s callous, silly and purposeless. It does nothing to solve the greater issues around workplace diversity and inclusion. On an individual level it barely gives you even momentary satisfaction. Organizationally, it may actually contribute to the very problems that lead to white bashing to begin with.

As for you being caught off guard. This was your first employee resource group meeting. Maybe you should attend a few more. Make some notes. Absorb what’s being said critically, and consider the speakers’ positions, concerns and how you might feel or behave in their shoes. Ruminate, and let your emotions cool. Then come forward and objectively state your opinions and offer suggestions on how the leader could make the meetings more productive, and more importantly, more inclusive.

Portland did talk to the employee resource group leader and share his suggestions to allow all groups involved to be able to comment and to keep the material at least as positive as it is negative. This is a follow up email he sent to me:

My final suggestion (kindly expressed) was to seek out an education in intergroup dynamics (social psychology) and intergroup conflict reduction. I don’t think my message got through, though. She insisted that an event for a certain group is their “space” and that it would be wrong to have White people controlling/changing up the material.

My first thought when I saw the phrase “kindly expressed” was, unasked-for assistance, no matter how well intended, is in fact interfering patronage. Portland, you may think the leader needs conflict reduction skills training, but that’s a sweeping judgment based on your attendance at one meeting. Further, you didn’t actually detail any conflict within the group. The conflict was with you and your reaction to the group’s activities.

The group does seem to have some issues: It was wrongfully billed/labeled, there were offensive images and activities, and on the whole it was not inclusive of other cultures or of diversity of thought.

Employee resource groups should be about teachable moments. Here, there were missed learning opportunities on both sides. But the dialogue has started, which is great. Now it’s time to do the work to find some consensus.

I get her point, but I don’t think she quite gets mine — that White people are being inadvertently demonized. I think she wants the White audience to go away feeling badly perhaps as a strategy. But most of us have been victimized by persons of another race or gender or sexual orientation. Seems like Whites are being singled out anymore based on the historical misgivings of the rich and powerful (who happened to be White). I can deal with the history lesson, but I’m not convinced of the suggestion of the case in today’s environment that Whites consciously oppress non-Whites (which is what these events are really suggesting). Really? Is it 1971 still?

Portland, I think your intentions are good. But you seem to have some pretty healthy skepticism about the purpose for the employee resource group or maybe about diversity and inclusion work in general? You say you’re not convinced that Whites consciously oppress non-Whites “which is what these events are really suggesting.” So, does that mean the opinions or experiences you heard from the Hispanic employee resource group members are untrue or exaggerated?

For many minorities it is very much still 1971. Our feelings about the reality of our lives and experiences are routinely denied. Many experts — of which I am not one — say that’s why racism, sexism, gender bias and all the rest of the -isms have not been successfully routed from life and from the workplace, because so many — particularly those who have power to change things — deny they actually exist.

Remember, just because these things are not a part of your daily reality — or your family, friends and even your community’s reality — doesn’t mean they aren’t incredibly real for others.

Discrimination is not happening like it used to. I would, for example, love to work with a team of Black co-workers but there aren’t hardly any Black computer programmers because they’re not going to college for that. What’s really going on here? Are we addressing the real, root problems? Or just scratching at the surface?

No, discrimination is not happening like it used to. Some things are not as prevalent, but it’s also happening in new ways now. It is still very much alive. We’re fighting many of the same battles we’ve been fighting for the past 40-plus years.

So, please, Portland, be careful with blanket statements. You don’t actually know what Black people are going to school for, do you? I have covered quite extensively the issues that women and minorities face not just pursuing and then advancing in tech careers, but even thriving in the academic environments they need to learn necessary job skills.

I’m grateful Portland was brave enough to write and that he gave me permission to share his words. He was open about his experience and his feelings around diversity, and that is important and rare — not just for a white man but for most of us. I hope I was reasonable and objective in how I addressed different points in his letter.

Some learning needs to take place. Not just for him, but for the employee resource group leader too. But he’s right to question: What’s really going on here? Are we just scratching at the surface when it comes to workplace diversity?

Kellye Whitney is Workforce’s associate editorial director. Comment below, or email editors@workforce.com.

Kellye Whitney is associate editorial director for Workforce.

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