What Exactly Does It Take?

My last two posts have been about recent events that have occurred in my life. I find myself in these discussions around inclusivity and intersectionality often, and I’m fairly comfortable addressing people’s ignorances on a regular basis. However, I’ve had conversations with friends, particularly those within the business school (where the culture is representative of corporate America: incredibly pretentious about anything social and extremely comfy with all things economic), around respectful disagreement.

I also had a class last semester in the Industrial and Labor Relations school called “Values, Rights, and Justice,” which focused on individual and collective values, the rights that we claim are important, and the just/unjust methods that actually exist. In a nutshell, we spent time reading fictitious works (essays, poems, short stories, and books) to pull out the truth: America is one big contradiction, or MindFuck (we read this book in class too). We spent a large amount of time, not only identifying the institutions that informally allow unjust values to exist (with their cultures), but also on what our roles, as responsible citizens and/or contributors to America (and the World), should be. The conclusion was to discuss the issues as they come up, particularly those that occur at everyone’s kitchen table.

The infamous “kitchen table talk” is when people talk about race, gender, religion, politics, and a slew of other “untouchables” with close friends and family members; the conversation is often understood not to be shared outside of the group. An example might be when you’re racist, white uncle mocks black people through tragic stereotypes, or validates his preference for “a real American,” or “a devout Christian” when asked for his assessment of President Barack Obama’s tenure. A second example is when your black grandma calls all white people the ugly devil, all of whom will burn in hell for their behaviors on Earth. Another example is when your close friend asks you if you really think that women can perform as well as men in business, in general (this one really stung).

I’ve been confronted with “kitchen table talk” both at the kitchen table, but also at school and work. People show their true, ignorant colors in these moments. At school and work, the delivery is often softened, but still very transparent. I’m interested in what motivates people to actually do the right thing? I believe that people have some sense of the “right” thing, but refuse to accept it as truth for fear of loss of their own privileges. The cover story of last week’s The Economist, my favorite magazine, “America’s new aristocracy” focused on how the elite, upper/upper-middle class, through legacy is taking all of the opportunity unfairly. For example, let’s say you have two kids: 1) a kid from Little Rock, Arkansas who grew up in a single-parent home where the parent has an Associate’s degree and 2) a kid from Washington, D.C. who has two parents in the home, both of whom have master’s degrees. The Little Rock kid will be disadvantaged throughout life (college search, college admission, job prospects, career decisions, etc.), while the D.C. kid can perform better with less diligence; the D.C. kid is in an elite circle, regardless of whether or not they attend public/private school, because of her parents. In the book, Freakonomics, a similar argument is made: “Intellectual capital is heritable,” (The Economist, week of 01/24/15). At one point, the article highlights the importance of privileged individuals to recognize their privilege and the negative, unfair impact their privilege has on, arguably, harder working individuals with limited resources; the article isn’t suggesting that I make my future kid give up her spot to Bowdoin in 2040, for example, but that I look for ways “to level the playing field.” Perhaps, I participate in Admissions work to create formulas/metrics that weave in more kids with limited resources, making my kid’s chances of getting into the College harder, but fairer. The article argues for systemic change agents from America’s elite.

So what exactly does it take to get more courageous, honest people? I’ve never had a problem with calling people out, respectfully, of course, or being called out for my own flawed perceptions (I’m also of the belief that bigoted people aren’t the problem, but your/my reactions to them are). Do people actually have to see a net benefit for themselves and their businesses in order to act in the interest of the whole? This has been a recurring metric within several of my business school courses, and I’m not totally sure that I buy it. I also think that I can show a net benefit for acting in the interest of the whole country, company, or whatever over oneself. But why do I have to? Do we?

With an degree in Economics, I’m happy to prove through cost-benefit analysis that diversity and values rooted in equality are going to benefit entities more than individual prerogatives. I’m still perplexed by this issue, maybe it’s purely a human trait that people only care about themselves. I welcome additional thoughts or comments on this issue.

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