While everyone makes some adjustments between work and other aspects of our lives, people of color (POC) are often required to check their cultural cosmology at the door and put on their make-White-people-comfortable faces. Women face a similar challenge in having to mimic the work and leadership styles of their male bosses on the one hand, while being covertly and overtly ridiculed as being unfeminine and unattractive in doing so. Women of color are beleaguered by both of these oppressive dynamics.
POC often chafe under unspoken and expected Eurocentric professional standards of dress, speech, inter-personal communication, and even thinking. These corporate cultures are dominated by White, male, Eurocentric ways of seeing, thinking, and doing, and the unconscious bias they create. These cultures are usually embraced and maintained by leaders who claim to value D&I. They issue “diversity statements” and say all of the right things, but they continue to lord over disproportionately White workforces dotted by the occasional “senior or associate vice president” of color, who serves, as one diversity leader described to me, the “chocolate or peanut butter chip in the corporate cookie dough.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. had no room for the faux commitment to equity and inclusion that we see in the business worlds. He declared:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is…the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
The moderates King criticized were like “practical atheists” who were, in his eyes, as problematic as non-believers. Practical atheists, King argued, “affirm the existence of God with their lips, and deny the existence of him with their lives and their actions. They have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.” His “practical atheism,” can be used as a prism through which racial disparities in employment can be illuminated. Corporate leaders often affirm the existence of racial disparity with their words, and reject its existence in their hiring, mentoring, promotions, and board appointment. The consequences of which include low morale, decreased productivity and attrition, in addition to lost creativity and goodwill with larger communities of color.
In order to truly honor King’s legacy in the business world, we must strive to reconstruct our corporate cultures in ways that value and nurture our shared humanity and the unique needs and talents of POC. The tree is known by it’s fruit. Leaders cannot claim to value diversity in an environment in which White social conventions become the cornerstones of corporate cultures that function as subsidiaries of suburbia. Practical racism in the workplace must be displaced by full-bodied and sustainable efforts to leverage our greatest strength, our cultural diversity.
This article is adapted and revised from Matthew C. Whitaker, “Practical Racism in the Workplace,” and “Matthew Whitaker on Race and Social Justice VI: The ‘Ivory Tower,’ ‘Practical Racism,’ MLK, and the ‘Matrix’”.
Dr. Matthew C. Whitaker is the Founder and CEO of the Diamond Strategies, LLC (DSC). He is also an award-winning educator, author, community engagement specialist, motivational speaker, and founder the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, winner of the 2014 Arizona Diversity Leadership Alliance Inclusive Workplace Award, at Arizona State University. He can be followed on Twitter at @Dr_Whitaker and DSC can be followed on Twitter at @dstategiesllc