Archive | May, 2013

On diversity fatigue

30 May

In the NY Times article “Racial Diversity Efforts Ebb for Elite Careers, Analysis Finds” (see Tuesday’s post), John Page, president of the National Bar Association notes, “We’re at a precipice. There is diversity fatigue. We could fall backwards very quickly.”

Just reading about diversity fatigue fatigues me. But as it rears its tired head once again, I feel compelled to say a few things:

First, the fact that we even have the term “diversity fatigue” says a lot about how we continue to think about diversity. Do we talk about “economy fatigue”? “Middle East peace talks fatigue”? “Job creation fatigue”? “Partisan politics fatigue”? While we may feel them, to my knowledge, those haven’t become phrases common enough to generate multipage online searches. It seems to me that we have more respect for the importance and/or urgency of those pursuits to complain of being tired of them, even when we wish the conversation would change.

Second, of course we’re tired. Any social change takes sustained energy and effort, well beyond the exertion required to maintain the status quo. Valuing diversity means continuously, ingeniously and vigilantly recognizing, rethinking and transforming our systems, policies, everyday habits and ways of seeing ourselves and the world. It means interrogating pervasive biases and prejudices that are all too easy to lapse into. It means being awake, present and aware. But in my experience, the effort diversity requires is worth it. The greater connectedness with yourself and others and the bottom-line better performance at whatever you’re doing make the fatigue a good investment.

Finally, my “yes, and” is that I’m glad we talk about diversity fatigue because that’s the only way we can challenge the idea of it, and effectively address it. All too often, the immediate response is to try something new(!), as if we need to keep people entertained. And while I agree that presentation matters, if the purpose and the vision aren’t compelling, all the caffeine you can pump into people won’t hold fatigue at bay.

As far as triage for “diversity fatigue” goes, I believe that more organizations need to name and talk about it to get clear on why they’re invested in diversity, what exactly people are tired of (are they exhausted by equity? overwhelmed by social justice? or just tuckered out by having to remember that other people may have different ways of seeing and being in the world that matter as much as our own perspectives and ways of doing?) and how much institutional tolerance there is for deciding that one has had enough of diversity.

With a clear sense of their why, what and because, organizations can have more effective conversations about how to implement diversity values and achieve diversity goals. Conversations in which normative hurdles, challenges, opportunities and responsibilities are part of diversity work, not superficial reasons to give up.

Redefining “the minority-retention problem”

28 May

In “Racial Diversity Efforts Ebb for Elite Careers, Analysis Finds,” Nelson Schwartz and Michael Cooper of the NY Times report on “how much progress minorities, blacks in particular, have made in integrating into some of the most sought-after professions, especially since the recession” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/28/us/texas-firm-highlights-struggle-for-black-professionals.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0). On page 2 of the article, they get to their interview with Emily Parker, managing partner at Texas law firm Thompson & Knight, who said:

… the firm was proud of its black partners and worked hard to promote diversity, but she noted that many top law firms had struggled to retain minority lawyers in recent years. She pointed out that the Diversity Scorecard survey had reported a decrease in the number of minority lawyers at top firms since 2008, even as more firms responded to the survey.

“Even though the number of surveyed law firms increased by 10 percent, the overall number of minority attorneys decreased by approximately 3 percent, which is a convincing statistical illustration of the minority-retention problem faced by Thompson & Knight and practically every law firm in the country,” Ms. Parker said in a statement. She said the firm remained focused on fostering diversity, providing law school scholarships for minority students and internships for students from historically black institutions.

“Minority-retention problem,” eh?

I find this language very familiar and problematic. It digests a little too easily, perhaps because it suggests that the problem lies with minorities. It would indicate a different mindset if we talked about the “organizational retention problem,” no? But we talk about “the minority-retention problem” as if to say there’s something about them (those darn minorities) that makes it hard to keep hold of them! The “struggle to retain minority lawyers” reinforces this notion by connoting a herculean effort on the part of the organization to retain the minorities they hire.

But what exactly is that effort? It typically comprises:

  • messaging diversity as an institutional priority (that everyone understands is the first to fall off when times get tough; diversity is often miscategorized as a luxury, non-essential priority);
  • hiring someone to be in charge of “the minority problem” (and the NY Times article makes an important observation about who that person all to frequently is: someone who lacks the status and influence to actually shape organizational policy, practice and culture);
  • using an anemic and unjust status quo as a metric for success/failure (thereby chaining the possibilities for change to a basement level expectation); and
  • offering periodic sensitivity or cultural competency training (see first bullet point: even when the budget is flush, these trainings often fall short of the comprehensive program of “recruiting and inclusion and training and development, with substantive work assignments” that former Thompson & Knight chief diversity officer Pauline Higgins recommends).

By no means am I suggesting organizations should not do these things. I’m just suggesting that the above hardly constitutes, in my mind, a real roll-your-sleeves-up struggle to retain minority employees.

Shifting to a perspective that defines the issue as organizational retention, law firms, schools and other institutions can tap into some more pervasive solutions to this “problem.” The Times article offers some insight into other vital aspects of organizational opportunity and responsibility when its comes to cultivating a diverse workforce:

  • creating a robust and comprehensive approach to diversity akin to how the organization tackles other top priority initiatives (why reinvent the wheel, when you already know how to successfully harness your organization’s resources?);
  • acknowledging and creating access to the “social rituals [and relationships that] can play a big role in determining who makes it on to the partnership track in the exclusive world of white-shoe firms”;
  • acknowledging, educating to and establishing a zero-tolerance policy regarding the “rebuttable presumption” that minority employees are “there to fill a quota and [are] not as qualified as white colleagues”;
  • hiring leadership who will actively advocate for minority employees’ access to opportunities and resources (especially in tough economic times);
  • creating a culture where employees at all levels prioritize the work of your organization’s diversity committee or office because they understand that diversity is vital to unleashing everyone’s potential;
  • setting an audacious goal for diversity. Instead of settling for adding one additional employee of color, why not shoot for being the top choice school, hospital, nonprofit or corporation for professionals of color? (And here, I’m using a BHAG lens to reframe diversity goals: http://gazelles.com/columns/BHAG%20–%20A%20Companys%20Most%20Important%20Long%20Term%20Decision.pdf); and
  • providing and mandating mission-vital, “substantive” diversity and inclusion professional growth throughout your organization, as per Ms Higgins’ experienced recommendation.

Of course, all of this means a lot of work. Some real effort, you might say. Because at the heart we need to flip the script on the retention problem and focus on the elephant that is the room: the organizational culture and practices that create access to resources and freedom for more people who aren’t like each other to thrive while working side by side.

** Thanks to my colleague SK for this article.

Geotagging hate

20 May

geography-of-hate

The Hate Map is “part of a project overseen by Humboldt State University professor Dr. Monica  Stephens, who, along with a team of undergraduate researchers, wanted to test  for geographic relationships to hate speech” (http://newsfeed.time.com/2013/05/20/the-geography-of-u-s-hate-mapped-using-twitter/#ixzz2Tr1lKONS).

While the project has admitted limitations–as Time reports, “the only attitudes captured here are of people who actually use Twitter  and have geotagging enabled (slightly more than 1% of all Twitter  users). Within that group, it only reflects those willing to engage in  hate speech publicly”–it raises some enduring questions about the nature of hate: what are we willing to say aloud or even to publish? What do we think even if we won’t say it? Beyond slurs, how do we give voice to our intolerance

Here is the map, if you’d like to check it out: http://users.humboldt.edu/mstephens/hate/hate_map.html#

Before you take a look at the map, take a moment to notice your expectations about the places in the US you already have ideas about: the regions you come from, live in, know of and avoid. And as you click-through it, how does this data about hate in the US reflect or contradict your experiences? How do your identities shape your exposure to hate?

 

Escape from Camp 14: “Freedom is Another Word for Grilled Meat”

13 May

Following up on today’s earlier post, here’s a thoughtful and compelling review of Blain Harden’s Escape from Camp 14, written by Noah Cho, whom I’m privileged to call a colleague:  http://www.hyphenmagazine.com/blog/archive/2012/12/books-freedom-another-word-grilled-meat.

And while you’re there, check out the site. Hyphen is “a magazine that look[s] beyond identity… [to] explore cultural issues while tackling what is Asian American by accident, by tangent or by happenstance.”

Thanks for sharing the review, Noah.

The story of a story

13 May

According to Wall Street Journal blogger Jeyup S. Kwaak:

When Shin Dong-hyuk published his first-hand memoir of a life spent entirely inside a North Korean concentration camp in 2007, it garnered little attention in South Korea.

Then last year, Mr. Shin’s story of brutality inside the North Korean gulag gained global notoriety after “Escape from Camp 14,” a new account written by journalist Blaine Harden, became a bestseller (http://blogs.wsj.com/korearealtime/2013/05/02/north-korea-prison-escapee-slams-indifference/).

OK, I can see how a professional journalist’s rendering of Shin’s story might be more artful, in terms of storytelling and other literary presentation. Still, it’s striking that we need a certain presentation in order to pay attention to the brutal fact of North Korea’s labor camps, which fellow survivor Kang Chol-Hwan describes as “like Hitler’s Auschwitz concentration camp, [although] not as large and there is a difference in the way people are killed. Hitler gassed people, Kim Jong Il sucked the life out of people through starvation and forced labor” (http://www.cnn.com/2012/05/27/world/asia/north-korea-labor-camps-hancocks/).

And this bias for a story well-told (entertaining, intentionally suspenseful or whatever we’re looking for in a recital of abuse and terror) has, it would seem, an impact beyond who gets access to an international audience.

Consider Harden’s raison d’être for retelling Shin’s story: “I think Mr. Shin’s story is a very powerful way of waking people up. It won’t change the camps, but knowing about them, empathizing with the daily misery of what’s going on inside the camps is better than not knowing what’s going on.”

To summarize: Harden wanted to raise awareness.

Now consider why Shin originally wrote his memoir. According to Shin, he was “see[ing] commercials on TV about helping African children. But those born in North Korean political prisons are also children that need help.” What does Shin mean by “help”? He means awareness that leads to action. He means intervention and rescue. And since there has been neither to date, he has “argued that South Korea should be put on trial next to the North Korean regime for turning a blind eye, should the International Criminal Court decide to preside over the case.” Shin isn’t content to settle for “empathizing with the daily misery” inside the camps. He believes we need to stop it.

So it seems to me that it matters who gets to tell a story because they’re not just telling it, they’re selling it. And they get to use their narrative authority to tell us how that story matters and what our role in it can–and should–be.

I hear you

10 May

Lee Mun Wah is a SF Bay Area “diversity trainer” (his words, not mine) and documentary filmmaker (perhaps best known film for The Color of Fear). My style of facilitation is very different from Lee’s, and I have actually felt unsafe in his workshops. Still, I think there’s a need for a diversity of facilitators to help diverse people reckon with their own identities, the diversity of the world and their aspirations for equity and justice. So I read his newsletter from time to time.

In the latest edition, he shared this story and perspective:

Recently, I led a workshop in which I shared a very personal life experience as a Chinese American child growing up in Oakland, California. After I finished sharing, a European American man, Michael, in the front row, raised his hand and declared that he had a story he wanted to share. I was surprised and shocked. Like so many other minorities in a predominantly white audience, I hesitated. Why? Because at that one moment I had to decide: Do I tell him truthfully how I felt about what he said or do I play it safe and listen to his story? Each of these scenarios carries a price to be paid both personally and professionally for someone who is a minority. If I tell the truth, I might be labeled as overly-sensitive or, at the very worse, invalidated, trivialized, or not invited to return. If I listen to his story, I leave feeling not heard and angry at myself for not telling him the truth. The latter experience is not my first reaction, but rather one that has been ingrained in me as a means of survival from my family and the history of being a minority in this country. There is a price to be paid if a white male is made to feel uncomfortable, out of control, irritated or angry.

For those of you who know me, you know that I chose to tell him the truth. I told him that before he shared his own story, I needed to hear how he felt about my story. He was obviously surprised and explained that his story would illuminate how he felt. Once again, I felt unheard. But, I also felt he was being evasive. I could also feel the discomfort of the group and the sense that we were entering uncharted ground. But I persisted. “No, I want to hear how you felt about my story as a child.” He paused and looked upward trying to ‘think’ about how he felt. After what seemed like forever, he said, “I don’t know how I feel about what you said.” I shared with him that not knowing how he felt was a white privilege. That perhaps his not knowing revealed a white history of being able to go “numb” whenever the pain or experiences of minorities are shared. And then just as I finished, a white woman blurted out, “I still want to hear his story.” Once again, I was at a crossroads and it took all my courage to tell her that before I could hear his story, something was missing for me as a person of color–how did she feel about what he said or what I had shared? How did the rest of the group feel about what either of us shared?

It was at this point that Michael interjected and thanked me. He shared that he had never thought about how he, as a white man, had often bypassed how he felt. And that perhaps what he was really hiding was that he had difficulty sharing his emotions and maybe even hearing someone become emotional. That this numbness was something he seriously needed to look at. He also thanked me for my courageousness in confronting him. His admission was the turning point of the discussion, because soon afterwards, two women from South America shared that they had similar experiences to mine when Michael wanted to share his story and how often they, too, had been ‘talked over.’

This ‘disconnect’ is something I have often experienced time and time again whenever whites are confronted with reflecting upon their own racism. There is either a long silence, a change of subject, questioning the integrity of the speaker, or wanting to interject with their own story.

What is needed from whites is an authentic emotional response to what they’ve heard from people of color, an acknowledgement of what has been shared, a sense of genuine curiosity, taking responsibility and a willingness to reflect and to change. Maya Angelou once said, “Some may never remember what you said or did, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”  The truth is always there. Saying it out loud…that’s the hard part.

What strikes me first is the masterful facilitation. I know what it feels like to be in dialogue with a group, trying to help them to their best thinking and action–and feel like I just got hit upside the head or punched in the gut, intentionally or not, because, after all, I’m in the conversation, too, and it’s not about theories or other people–it’s about us. I also know what it’s like to feel haunted by what I did and didn’t say in those moments. And to realize that I got lost in the weeds, thinking that what we were doing was more important than what was happening. So I really appreciate this example of being able to discern, call out and persist in naming what is important to name.

I appreciate Lee pointing out how leveraging other people’s stories instead of listening to them is an everyday act of dismissal that may be so subtle that we fail to recognize it (which is the definition of a microaggression). This happens a lot in social conversations I find myself in, a kind of one upmanship to entertain, in which the response to your story is my story, her story and his story and then back to you for another round of narrative shock and awe without much, if any, recognition of how these stories or the story-telling process have made us feel. Sure, we laugh, exclaim or nod but isn’t that more punctuation than any sharing of what the act of listening has been for me? I sometimes think about it internally, but so far I haven’t named it. I haven’t said to my friends, hey, you ever feel like we’re just throwing stories down just to throw them down? And does it sometimes feel more like we’re performing than connecting?

Now to be clear, I’m not saying my friends and I are just a bunch of self-absorbed people who don’t care about each other. Rather, my point is that what happened in Lee’s workshop is familiar to me as an acceptable behavior that gets practiced every day, making it all the more likely to be our reflexive response when the story isn’t just a funny retelling of our crazy day at work, but a personal disclosure of a life-shaping experience.

Given the layers Lee and Michael had to peel through to move from “what’s the big deal?” to why their exchange  was a big deal, Michael’s self-reflection is powerful. And if you’re having trouble reading Lee’s language about what “is needed from whites” by people of color, consider this: yes, an authentic emotional response to what they’ve heard is what all people need from other people. And that need is informed and shaped by our social identities because we aren’t just essences of humanity trying to connect. We’re that and the bodies, families, histories and experiences we’ve been born into, in a world in which people see us differently and systems treat us differently. Lee is not saying that white people don’t need an authentic emotional response to what they’ve said. If anything, Michael’s numbness suggests that experiencing authentic emotional feedback would help him learn to appreciate and offer it back.

In naming how race persists in shaping the dynamic between not just Michael and himself but entire groups of people, Lee offers us another opportunity to recognize and challenge a system of racial privilege. Because ultimately, if we don’t name how race matters, then we can’t do anything about it. In Michael’s case, if he doesn’t name how race informs his numbness, he’s less likely to regain his feelings. And on a societal level, this scenario has me thinking about how we teach social justice: through the lens of white numbness (and, I would add, wealth numbness) we can swap a lot of stories about injustice from a distance. How much more effective would our conversations and efforts be if we acknowledged how its feels to hear about injustice and how trying not to feel anything defines our responses?

No, seriously

9 May

Quick quiz: What is Dia de los Muertos?

  1. a “centuries-old holiday, with roots in indigenous Aztec culture” that is observed throughout the world(http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/cotown/la-et-ct-disney-dia-de-los-muertos-20130507,0,5334483.story?fb_action_ids=10200509346030641&fb_action_types=og.likes&fb_source=other_multiline&action_object_map={“10200509346030641”:481461728592968}&action_type_map={“10200509346030641″:”og.likes”}&action_ref_map=[]).
  2. an upcoming Pixar film

Answer: Both of the above.

In preparation for the film’s release, Pixar filed to trademark “Dia de los Muertos” to protect the profits it envisioned from making plastic trinkets and sugar-coated snacks.

Oh yes, they did.

But oh no, they couldn’t.

The day after news broke of Pixar’s filing, a change.org petition to stop Pixar hit the internet. And Pixar “has since been determined that the title of the film will change and therefore we are withdrawing our trademark filing.”

When I heard this story on NPR yesterday, a commentator made the comparison that trying to trademark Dia de los Muertos was like trying to trademark Mickey Mouse.

Huh?

I’m trying and failing to find the “yes, and…” here. Because it’s not at all like trying to trademark Mickey Mouse (which is probably trademarked). It’s like trying to trademark Thanksgiving, and in the process, trademarking dinner with family and watching football in a food coma. It’s trying to trademark culture and tradition.

Now what would possess Pixar to try to do that? I suspect that in addition to being their standard procedure for business (which raises the question, has Pixar trademarked the word and concept of “Up”?), they just didn’t realize that other people already “own” Dia de los Muertos. That the rights to Dia de los Muertos are everyone’s.

And beyond retracting their ludicrous trademark filing, the opportunity for Pixar here is to figure out what went off the rails (groupthink, anyone? failing to take diverse perspectives because of a perceived homogeneity, and baseline assumptions that go unchallenged?) and how to be as visionary in their business practices as they are in their art.

P.S. Apparently, Pixar is changing the name of their film. To something they can trademark.