Growing up, I always felt I didn’t have a “cool” heritage like other people. Some kids had big extended Italian or Greek or Irish or Polish families with weird food on the holidays and interesting traditions and beliefs. Then I met and married my husband who is Mexican American, and I was introduced to a whole new world of food, traditions, and discrimination. And I came to realize that the reason I felt as though I didn’t have a heritage was that my heritage was the dominant culture: White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant — the proverbial WASP. And that the reason these other folks had identifiable heritages is that they had been marginalized in some way in the United States. Now people who have ethnic heritages of Italian, Greek, Irish or Polish can choose to retain their heritage or they can disavow it and assimilate – because they’re white. Those who are not white do not have that luxury. I have been reading two fascinating books, “White Fragility” “The History of White People” and listening to a very informative podcast series “Seeing White” (Scene on Radio – Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University) that explore this idea of “whiteness.”
I used to be a “diversity facilitator” for my company in the 90’s. It was our job to put every employee through an all-day workshop on the dimensions of diversity. Like many early efforts in the diversity arena, all that these workshops did was make white men defensive and women and people of color uncomfortable. The white participants were indignant at the idea their whiteness had afforded them any advantages.
Diangelo in her book “White Fragility,” says that this discomfort comes because as white people, we’re not used to seeing ourselves racially. We say things like, “I don’t see color,” “I judge people as individuals,” because we don’t want to admit that our race matters. We also believe that only bad people are “racist,” and we must forcefully defend ourselves against that label at all costs. “I’m the least racist person you know!” Both the authors and the host of the podcast make the point that we can be good people with good intentions and still benefit from a system that has been designed by and benefits whites.
I do a lot of work on unconscious bias with organizations. One of my bottom-line points is that you can’t fix unconscious bias with good intentions. You have to build in systems and processes that mitigate the built-in, often invisible barriers to equal access and equal opportunity for all. Unlike the early years of diversity training, my current work engenders far less defensiveness because my clients recognize the proven business value of identifying and mitigating unconscious bias in their environment.