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Updated: February 6, 2023 Outside the Box

When trees fall in the forest, they do make sound

A picture of Bonnie J. Walker Image | Courtesy of Bonnie J. Walker Bonnie J. Walker
To read Bonnie J. Walker's other Outside the Box columns, follow the links at the bottom of the article.
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Inquiry should always trump assumption. An assumption allows us to believe our own version of events, without knowing so factually. Author Geneen Roth explains, “When you believe your own version of events, it’s like sitting in front of Niagara Falls with blinders on your eyes and earplugs in your ears, and believing that you are gazing at a wall.”

Assumptions carry many unknown gaps, experience, understanding. These gaps lead to misunderstanding, insensitivity, and a lack of empathy and compassion, and those things lead to a weakened, if not broken, organizational culture. Given culture and climate are so interdependent, it’s important for employees and critical for leaders to lean into inquiry (a form of humility) to best support their people.

When trees fall in the forest, they do make sound. Just because you don’t experience something or witness something happening in your organization, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. People of color are gaslighted often. We are told, “Maybe you misunderstood that,” and asked, “Is it really that bad, maybe you are being too sensitive?” I have been told by a colleague, after explaining the generalized, collective racism experienced by Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in predominantly white institutions, “I’m not sure that people have experienced that here at this institution; the students of color that have been here historically have been very involved, in leadership roles, and well-liked and successful.”

Many BIPOC experience racism in the workplace, often. In a résumé study by the economists Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, applicants with white-sounding names (such as Emily Walsh) received, on average, 50% more callbacks for interviews than equally qualified applicants with Black-sounding names (such as Lakisha Washington). The researchers estimated being white conferred the same benefit as an additional eight years of work experience.

Even managers who recognize racism in society often fail to see it in their own organizations, sometimes pointing to their organizations’ commitment to diversity on paper, as evidence for the absence of racial discrimination, dismissing that the commitment is absent from the culture, policies, and practices. If your non-BIPOC, majority-race employees don’t believe racism exists in the company, then diversity initiatives will be perceived as the problem, not the solution.

In 2020, one study by the Gallup Center on Black Voices found the following:

• One in four Black or Hispanic workers report recent discrimination at work. Discrimination reports are even higher among young Black employees.

• Three in four Black workers say the discrimination they felt was race-based.

“Over time, the way in which people discriminate, what they acknowledge and admit out loud, has changed,” Chicago lawyer Linda Friedman, who represented 700 workers in a race-discrimination lawsuit against Merrill Lynch, resulting in a $160-million settlement in 2013, said in an interview with Vox. “But the ultimate end, which is differential treatment – treating whites more favorably than African Americans – has not changed.”

Racism can derive from many different things, including implicit bias, stereotyping, worldviews, psychological insecurity, and prejudice. What’s important to understand is racist beliefs are learned, which means they can be unlearned. What is most important to know is racism is the result of structural factors: policies, institutionalized practices, laws, and unjust systems. Leaders in organizations need to focus time and action on changing broader structural factors, rather than focusing all energy on weeding out the people with racist behaviors. There needs to be a deeper focus on organizational structures and culture.

Discrimination in the workplace often comes from kind, well-meaning, not malicious, educated, even well-intentioned people who have so much privilege they are not impacted nor aware of the racism perpetuated by policy and practice. The all-encompassing center of privilege is not recognizing your privilege, because you don’t have to. In my opinion, the ultimate challenge for organizations is not figuring out what they can do about racism in the workplace, but rather what are they willing to do about it.

Bonnie J. Walker, a Worcester resident, is principal diversity & inclusion officer at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington.

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