The Inclusion Illusion

by Paul Meshanko

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Earlier this year, my wife and I spent several days working with a realtor in another state looking at potential houses to buy. If you have been through this exercise yourself, you know that after a dozen houses or so, you often start to share personal information with each other. The realtor wants to get to know you so he or she can better understand your needs. Similarly, they often share information about themselves. Sometimes, it just helps to pass the time between house showings. Such was the case with our realtor, “Cathy.”

While friends with my wife’s parents, Cathy didn’t know much about us and casually asked in between showings one morning what kind of work we did. My wife Sheila explained that we were partners in a firm that primarily provided training and development services to corporate and government clients.

“Oh, that’s so interesting!” said Cathy. “What kind of training to you offer?”

When Sheila explained that much of our work was on the topics of diversity, respect, racism and bias, she got a puzzled look on her face.

“Really?” she asked.

At first, I thought that she might have been surprised that we were in that business since my wife and I are both middle-aged, white people (as was Cathy). But upon further discussion, it turned out that she was just plain surprised that there was even a need for that kind of training at all.

“That’s interesting,” she continued. “I thought we we’d made all kinds of progress on that kind of stuff already.”

“How so?” I asked.

“Well,” she said, “I mean we’ve had a black President already and he served for two terms. Isn’t that proof that we’ve already dealt with racism and stuff like that?”

Even prior to the Black Lives Matter movement, there were many misperceptions about the current state of equality and inclusion in U.S. society. Many people (mostly white) genuinely don’t understand (or don’t want to acknowledge) just how much overt racism is still exists in different parts of the country in some people’s attitudes. More problematically, they are blind to the myriad of ways that racism and bias still infect the very institutions  that we all depend on (like banking, retail, religion and law enforcement) to keep society running smoothly. Decades after the civil rights era, people of color are still stopped more frequently by police for the same infractions as white people. They are still incarcerated longer for similar criminal convictions, profiled by retailers hoping to prevent shoplifting and more likely to be targeted by voter suppression efforts. These aren’t opinions. They are statistical facts.

But people like Cathy are not blind to these facts because they are bad people (Cathy was genuinely one of the nicest people we’d met that week), they are blind because it’s easy to not see things that don’t directly affect our own lives. As long as you personally do not feel that you have been shadowed for no reason while walking through a department store, why would you notice that others are? If you personally have not had to have “the talk” with your driving-aged children about how to behave when (not if) you are pulled over by a police officer, how would you even have an inkling that your kids are the statistically safer in those situations for being white? Plainly said, it’s really hard to understand the impact of racism until you’ve either experienced it or researched it. For some people, the awareness that racism exists is made even more difficult to accept because to fully grasp that concept also requires white people to acknowledge the privilege we enjoy simply because of the wrapper we were born with.

White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks. Peggy McIntosh

Just like many U.S. citizens don’t understand or accept the premise that racism is still alive and well in our country, many business leaders and managers do not see how their internal cultures breed favoritism for some people over others. But to look at the demographic make-up of senior leadership teams and board members, the conclusion is inescapable: white men still enjoy an enormous advantage in our top employers and economy overall. Consider the following statistics:

Quite simply, there is no escaping the conclusion that we have work to do if truly desire to create a more equitable economy and society.

So here I ask you, the reader, an important question: Is inequity in our society compelling enough for you to commit to take action? If not, I make no judgement. We all have multiple fires burning in other areas of our lives. Family issues, health issues, job and income security issues…you name it. There are only so many hours in the day and we each have to choose which fights we’re willing to take up. If this battle isn’t yours, you can exit the article here with at least (hopefully) having your awareness expanded a little bit. But if you do feel compelled to actually take meaningful actions to become an active “inclusionist,” here are a few things you can do to start:

  1. Educate yourself. One of the biggest and most persistent roadblocks to overcoming racism and other forms of societal and economic exclusion is ignorance. Because history is most often written from the perspective of the dominant culture it chronicles, many people simply do not understand (or ignore) the scope of present-day inequities nor have an understanding of their multiple root causes. Fortunately, there are many resources available to research racism, gender inequality, homophobia and other forms of cultural exclusion for those truly interested. While not without some controversy (nothing worth reading usually is), the Pulitzer Prize winning Project 1619, developed by the New York Times in 2019, is a great starting place for those seeking a deeper understanding of historical racism.
  2. Define the perimeter of your own scope of influence. While we can all make a difference, how we can make a difference will depend on multiple factors, including our discretionary time, level of peer influence and positional authority in our respective organizations. If you are in a positon to influence hiring and compensation decisions for your employer, then do so. This can include intentionally broadening your hiring pool to include more diverse candidates. When your existing associates are promoted, you can make sure that they demographically reflect the make-up of the broader community in which your organization conducts business. You can also insure that compensation is not higher for some groups relative to others. Even if you are not directly involved with these decisions, you can personally make it a point to be more inclusive with who participates in and is recognized for their contributions to important business decisions and deliberations.
  3. Map out your plan of action. Whatever actions you decide are appropriate for you, don’t just think about them. Write them down as specific goals and even include them as discrete actions in your daily or weekly to-do lists. For example, “Look for opportunities to champion Aaron’s ideas in meetings” or “invite Beverly to join me and Cassie for lunch this week.” Like other endeavors, the road to inclusive work cultures is unfortunately paved with good intentions that never quite make it to daylight. If it’s important to you, right it down and hold yourself accountable.
  4. Don’t forget the little things. Above all else, becoming inclusive is the by-product of intentionally doing little things that eventually become habits. Things like cultivating friendships with an ever-expanding mix of people, personalities and beliefs. Things like keeping an eye out for those in your workplace (or neighborhood) who are always not invited to participate socially…and inviting them. Here is a link to an article on these “little things” that I published earlier this year titled, 10 Simple Things You Can Do (and NOT Do) to Practice Civility, Respect & Inclusion at Work.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. Margaret Mead

Change is difficult. Deconstructing and revamping our individual and societal behaviors to tackle racism, sexism and other forms of exclusion is not easy.  It takes hard work, reflection, and no small amount of courage on occasion to step out of our comfort zones and challenge injustice. So what’s the big payoff for this effort? I can’t speak for others, but for me, it’s simple. It’s a better version of us.  As we collectively become more inclusive, our economy and society become healthier, friendlier, safer, more innovative and ultimately more sustainable. I personally (as will you) benefit from these things and so I also choose to invest in them.

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