Diversity, equity, inclusion scholars reflect on progress, peril of 2020
January 19, 2021
|Image by Blackillustrations.com|
Editor’s note: This article was written as a reflection on the “Race, Justice, and Equity in the Workplace and Beyond: A Call to Action” panel event held in June. Interviews were conducted with presenters in late 2020, before a predominately white mob stormed the United States Capitol during the presidential election certification vote. The rioters were lightly policed, in contrast to Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer. President Donald Trump subsequently was impeached for the second time on a charge of inciting insurrection for his role in the incident. The deadly attack came as Georgia made history, electing its first Black and Jewish representatives, in a hotly contested Senate runoff election. The dueling events underscore the push-pull nature of progress that the presenters highlight below.
As a new year — with a new presidential administration — begins, we have a collective opportunity to capitalize on the lessons of 2020 and make a fresh start on issues of racial equity. The question is: Will we?
The brutal, public killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in May stunned observers and touched off a summer of protests, while the COVID-19 pandemic exposed health disparities between whites and people of color. The life-and-death consequences of systemic racism became impossible to ignore and inspired many white people to confront their ignorance and shame around race for the first time.
Suddenly, diversity, equity, and inclusion experts — many of whom had struggled for years to find support for their research on the policies and practices that could help dismantle systemic racism — were in high demand.
In response to these events, Center for Positive Organizations Research Advisory Board members Stephanie Creary and Brianna Caza, in collaboration with the Managerial and Organizational Cognition (MOC) Division of the Academy of Management, convened a panel discussion in June called “Race, Justice, and Equity in the Workplace and Beyond: A Call to Action.”
Just two weeks after Floyd’s killing, the normally objective presenters struggled to separate their personal pain from their academic insights. Along with the science, they expressed grief, rage, frustration, sadness, and a wary hope that the events of 2020 could spark change for individuals, businesses, governments, and academic institutions.
“[W]e’ve been here before, many, many, many times. And the solutions that people are suggesting aren’t really that novel. The difference is that people were moved emotionally. More people and different people were moved emotionally in a way they had never been moved before.” — Stephanie Creary
“Yes, we’ve been here before, many, many, many times. And the solutions that people are suggesting aren’t really that novel,” panel co-curator Stephanie Creary, an assistant professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania, said during her reflection interview. “The difference is that people were moved emotionally. More people and different people were moved emotionally in a way they had never been moved before. So, it begs the question: If we really think about our own vulnerabilities and our own emotional experiences around witnessing other people’s pain and suffering, and we act in a way that is compassionate — even when it’s not about ourselves or we don’t see ourselves as being the person at the point of suffering — how much can we actually change?”
Here, we look back at how the experts addressed that question during the panel and gather their thoughts looking into the new year.
A moment or a movement?
The first of three dialogs during the June panel was titled “Why (Not) Now? Understanding the Urgency of the Moment.” Participants discussed whether the current attention to issues of race, justice, and equity is different and how to harness it to create lasting change.
Martin N. Davidson — who serves as senior associate dean and global chief diversity officer and the Johnson and Higgins Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia — kicked off the conversation.
He acknowledged two key differences about the summer of 2020. Technology allowed more people to witness incidents of police brutality and the pandemic removed distractions that normally would allow them to move on without taking action. But Davidson expressed skepticism people would stay engaged beyond the moment, noting that flare-ups of racial unrest are cyclical in the United States, happening almost every decade for the at least the past 100 years.
Looking toward 2021, Davidson said he was “actually on an upswing of hopefulness.” He cited President-elect Joe Biden’s staffing of leadership roles with women and people of color, and his own observations of corporations spurred by the moment into doing long-term work around equity issues as reasons to be encouraged.
“I think it’ll be incremental work, incremental change. I’m just happy that more is happening now.” — Martin Davidson
“But it’s not going to solve the fundamental dynamics that created not only the tragic reality for people that’s happening on the streets, and that’s happening for people in organizations — the microaggressions, the institutional bias, things like that,” Davidson said. “This one moment isn’t going to wipe all that away. I think it’ll be incremental work, incremental change. I’m just happy that more is happening now.”
Robin J. Ely — the Diane Doerge Wilson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard University — echoed Davidson’s sentiments.
“I think things are going to be better than they were in the last few years,” she said. “But is this moment of last summer really going to spur significant change in our culture and in organizations? The jury is still out on that. I’m a little worried that the news cycle is over and companies are not feeling the pressure.”
Ely said the events of 2020 provided the pain point many organizations needed to shift from talk to action. But lasting progress on race and gender issues won’t be achieved unless leaders continue to question themselves, have difficult conversations, be emotionally vulnerable, and create a psychologically safe environment where employees can do the same.
“I think we need to figure out how to make this discussable. If we cannot talk about it, we cannot change it.” — Robin Ely
“I think we need to figure out how to make this discussable,” Ely said. “If we cannot talk about it, we cannot change it.”
During the panel, Laura Morgan Roberts — professor of practice at the University of Virginia — provided historical context for the events of 2020. She said the moment exposed the roots of a system formed hundreds of years ago to protect property ownership, at a time when Black bodies were viewed as property that could be used to create more capital. To this day, the same system continues to pit those in power against those in subservient roles.
“[O]ne of the things that we saw when we began to define essential workers [during the COVID pandemic] was this system [rooted in the ownership of Black bodies as property to create more capital] and the way that it disproportionately exposed poor people of color, especially Black people.” — Laura Morgan Roberts
“Within the context of COVID …, one of the things that we saw when we began to define essential workers was this system and the way that it disproportionately exposed poor people of color, especially Black people,” Roberts said. “The choices that administrators made about whose lives should be protected and the lengths we should go to protect people’s lives also called into question how invested people are in maintaining this system.”
Colorblindness equals silence
The second dialog, “The Upsides and Downsides of Seeing Race,” tackled the impacts of colorblindness within the racist system and how it prevents uncomfortable conversations that could stimulate change.
“Colorblindness is an incredibly convenient, particularly for white people, way to sidestep the issue of race altogether.” — Evan Apfelbaum
“Colorblindness is an incredibly convenient, particularly for white people, way to sidestep the issue of race altogether,” Evan Apfelbaum, an associate professor of management and organizations and research director of the HR Policy Institute at Boston University, said during the panel. “We’re talking about a generation of parents who have shushed their kids when they innocuously point out someone’s skin color in public, adults claiming that they don’t see race or don’t think about race.”
Sonia Kang — the Canada Research Chair in Identity, Diversity, and Inclusion and associate professor in organizational behavior and human resource management at the University of Toronto — said colorblindness communicates that racial differences are something to be ashamed of, rather than celebrated. In the workplace, this can prompt employees to hide their authentic racial identities to fit into the historically white system.
Apfelbaum and Kang suggested that a more constructive approach, in the workforce and for parents, is to be honest with yourself, listen to others, and have uncomfortable conversations about race.
“Thinking about all of the things that we talked about on the panel, it’s really disheartening,” Kang said. “Sometimes you feel like, it’s hard to believe. You feel kind of helpless, like what can really be done? At the same time, I do remain hopeful that we’re paying attention to these things right now and it’s really becoming part of day-to-day conversations of people who maybe had not thought about these issues before.”
Kang said she was encouraged that President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris used their victory speeches to reignite the conversation around inequality.
“I think people have this idea that you can’t say that inequality exists without also saying that I’m a bad person for being a part of this system that created inequality. I feel like what we need is to be able to say, look: Two things are true … inequality can exist and you can still be a good person working to fight it.” — Sonia Kang
“That kind of signal around the norms and expectations for society hopefully will bring people back to this message of understanding that inequality exists,” Kang said. “I think people have this idea that you can’t say that inequality exists without also saying that I’m a bad person for being a part of this system that created inequality. I feel like what we need is to be able to say, look: Two things are true … inequality can exist and you can still be a good person working to fight it.”
Race, gender in the workplace
The third dialog — “Sisters or Stepsisters? Relationships Between White Women and Women of Color, Including Black Women” — explored the complicated racial and gender dynamics of workplace advancement.
Tina Opie, an associate professor of management at Babson College, and Shannon Schuyler, chief purpose and inclusion officer at PwC US, crushed the notion that gender is an all-encompassing identity that puts Black and white women on a level playing field. They examined how women of all backgrounds can acknowledge their differences and unite to promote collective advancement in the workplace.
During the panel, Schuyler cautioned that, without introspection and self-correction, white women who have broken the glass ceiling run the risk of mirroring the unconsciously biased behaviors of white men, who often promote people who look like themselves and unintentionally exclude others who don’t.
The key to changing the narrative begins with soul searching, Opie said. White women must learn about their own racial identification, reflect on their attitudes toward people with different heritages, and confront their shame and ignorance around race so they can have honest conversations about it. Opie developed the Shared Sisterhood framework to help women work through this introspection and learn to connect across racioethnic and other differences.
“I’m not Casper, I am not invisible. I’m right here. I’m a proud Black woman. I’m proud of my heritage. So, what I need you to do is not affix value or not denigrate the fact that I’m Black, but to consider my full humanity.” — Tina Opie
“This often works with white women: I say, let’s not talk about gender. [What] if a man came up to you and just said, ‘I don’t see you as a woman. I just see you as a human.’ That’s how it feels to me when somebody says, ‘I don’t see race,’” Opie said. “I’m not Casper, I am not invisible. I’m right here. I’m a proud Black woman. I’m proud of my heritage. So, what I need you to do is not affix value or not denigrate the fact that I’m Black, but to consider my full humanity.”
Before systemic change can occur, Opie and Schuyler said CEOs must model this self-analysis and create a safe environment for employees to do the same, knowing they have permission to try and fail before they get conversations around race and gender right.
“I think this is going to be incredibly challenging. A lot of wounds have opened over the past eight months. You don’t just have somebody win and get past those. A lot of healing needs to happen, and that will have to occur before any progress is made.” — Shannon Schuyler
“Even with that tremendous outpouring and certainly a reckoning that we had (over the summer) around social and racial injustice, we’re a very divided country,” Schuyler later reflected. “I think this is going to be incredibly challenging. A lot of wounds have opened over the past eight months. You don’t just have somebody win and get past those. A lot of healing needs to happen, and that will have to occur before any progress is made.”
Do we have the courage?
Empathy. Honesty. Vulnerability. Introspection. Difficult conversations. Change.
Many solutions to racial inequality in business organizations and communities at large already exist. Many of these require quiet, personal, painful work, rather than splashy public gestures. Others call for systemic change that can empower organizations with new perspectives.
The presenters say such steps are crucial to creating lasting change on issues of race. Leaders must model the behavior they want to see in others, promote people of color into leadership roles, create safe spaces for honest conversations, and pay employees appropriately for their diversity, equity, and inclusion work.
But the scholars cautioned that individuals, businesses, governments, and even academic institutions like the Center for Positive Organizations have a long way to go before equity is achieved.
“Hearing that honest and raw set of dialogues [during the event] uncovered an important and pervasive set of issues that had previously been overlooked, buried, and, in some cases, completely integrated into the way we led our organizational lives.” — Brianna Caza
“I think (the panel) has had an impact on the way we have conversations and develop practices in many places, including the Center for Positive Organizations,” said Brianna Caza, a panel co-curator and an associate professor of management at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “Hearing that honest and raw set of dialogues uncovered an important and pervasive set of issues that had previously been overlooked, buried, and, in some cases, completely integrated into the way we led our organizational lives.”
The fact is, we all exist in a racist system created hundreds of years ago to empower white men. The question for us now is: Do we have the courage to confront our roles in this system and have the honest, empathetic conversations that can help us take action to change it?