Reflections for Advocates: A Recent Convo with an Inequality Skeptic

I’ve been slightly delayed in releasing my first post of 2015. I’m currently in South Africa on a class trek learning about their economy. Of course, you can’t go to South Africa without checking out Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held, and the Apartheid Museum. These visits reminded me of the institutional racism that exists in America, particularly during Jim Crow (1890s-1960s). It also made me think of current situation in America. In a conversation with an American white male (I’ll call him Michael for simplicity), in his early 60s, we had strong opposition to the progress of America. He felt that the South Africans could learn from America because of how well positioned we currently are. I thought that the South Africans had, arguably, made more progress in their first 20 years of democracy than we did in America; even with this belief, I pushed the conversation further to discuss American racism today, as South Africa can learn from us in this regard and perhaps do it better.

Apparently, I struck a nerve with Michael because he stated that things were much better. He went on to talk about how angry Black Americans were during the Civil Rights Movement and that he and most of his friends were afraid to even approach or be near Black Americans for safety reasons. He felt that the South African Blacks had been more peaceful in their approach (which is not true). My response: did they not have a right to be angry? Degrading jobs. Subpar schools and resources. Physical and mental abuse. Unjust laws/enforcement of basic human rights. No sense of hope. I’d be angry too. Wouldn’t you? I didn’t get an answer to that one.

He proceeded on his rant though that things were much better (For the record, I never argued that things weren’t better, I merely suggested that “better” is subjective and in my opinion not sufficient). I tried to provide an example of current day racism – in the form of institutional racism since this one is easiest to “prove.” The fact that I felt like proving through logic should have been my queue that I wasn’t going to get far with Michael. I told him if my former employer, one of the big banks, can’t retain top, black talent then there’s an issue of institutional racism. He stated, “I can’t picture someone, like yourself, with your background having a problem like that.” (Secretly, I was thinking in my head, he can’t be that naive; has he been living under a rock the last 100 years? I think not.) I tried another example – a more personal one. “Michael, I’ve been told in performance reviews that I seem like I don’t want to be here,” or my feedback has implied that I need to make strides in “fitting in.” (I take these comments as I don’t act white enough or at all. I take these kind of comments as not explicitly racial, but definitely cultural – retaining Black culture openly isn’t acceptable in most Corporate environments that don’t retain employees of diverse background.)  Michael went on to explain his global experience, which required working with all types of people; this comment explained that he was well-intentioned but ridiculously naive. Then, he asked, “so if you don’t get a job after an interview, it’s because you’re black?” (My heart sunk at that moment. Michael had completely missed the boat on this one.) 

I tried explaining that this isn’t about the merit, it’s about the discomfort people of color bring to apprehensive, unconscious white people at the office (in my case, on a Wall Street trading desk). I persisted that black culture and identity isn’t one that resonates with some whites, mostly of his own generation, who are the senior leaders making the hiring/promotion decisions. Michael was perplexed. His own view was that diversity optimized profits and was just the moral thing to do. As suggested in my last post about Black men and their ideals for Black women, misunderstanding/ignorance is just as problematic to the progress of all minorities as racism. One is deliberate, while the other is accidental. Take some time to think about the ways you can improve your own biases, regardless of your views on minorities in America (and beyond).