Zach has the honor of sitting down to chat with award-winning journalist and author Pamela Newkirk to discuss the historical failure of diversity and inclusion. They talk a bit about her 2019 work “Diversity, Inc.: The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Business,” and Pamela explains how and why transparent metrics across the board are the first step to actively addressing any diversity problem. She also implores institutions that truly want to embrace diversity to just stop doing what they’ve been doing and lean into the successful models that can be readily replicated that already exist out there. Check the links in the show notes to find out more about Pamela’s work!
Interested in Pamela’s books? Click here to read more about them on Amazon.
Find out how the CDC suggests you wash your hands by clicking here or below.
Help food banks respond to COVID-19. Learn more at FeedingAmerica.org.
Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate, and it’s a Tuesday. You know, it’s interesting–as a sidenote, y’all, you know, we pride ourselves in recording content in bulk, and, you know, we had a lot of different, interesting content that we were gonna share, but because of just where we are, we had to really shift some things. So thank you in advance for the folks being gracious with us, ’cause I know we’ll–you know, a little bit behind the scenes. You know, we’ll tell folks when we post and things of that nature, and we’ve had to change a lot of different things just because of where we are as a nation. And, you know, with that being said, y’all should know, if you don’t know maybe you’re a first-time listener. We actually are a platform that exists to center and amplify marginalized voices at work, and of course, again, considering where we are today, this work is all the more important, and we’re really blessed and excited for the guest that we have today, Ms. Pamela Newkirk. Pamela Newkirk is an award-winning journalist whose articles have been published in the New York Newsday, the New York Times, and other publications. She’s written a book called Spectacle, which was named one of the best books of 2015 by NPR, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, and The Root. It won an NAACP Image Award. She’s the editor of Letters From Black America and A Love No Less:” More Than Two Centuries of African-American Love Letters and is the author of Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media, which won the National Press Book Club award for media criticism. In addition to this, and what we’re really excited to talk to her about today, she is the author of the 2019 incredible seller Diversity Inc.: The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Business. Ms. Newkirk, how are you?
Pamela: I’m fine considering all that’s going on in the world.
Zach: I hear you. I’m exhausted, frustrated, anxious. I’m still somehow hopeful though.
Pamela: Yeah, you know, I think that’s kind of where I’m coming out on this. I have seen more progress over the past few days than I have in the 20 years that I’ve been writing about diversity and race and inclusion. Like, suddenly it seems to be breaking through, and I think there is no longer a place to hide and to pretend you’re innocent or ignorant about what African-Americans are living through day-by-day. You know, as if the George Floyd travesty, tragedy, was not enough, we’re still seeing constantly these videotaped images of police officers, you know, brutalizing peaceful protestors. So it’s like suddenly it’s all out in the open, and while those of us who have been living this for our entire lives, none of this is new to us. We’ve been saying it. We’ve been documenting it. But for some reason, the constellation of incidents, you know, from Amy Cooper to Ahmaud Arbery to then the most shocking, horrifying video of George Floyd being murdered on camera, this, you know, continuing saga of the African-American experience, to finally break through to the mainstream of white America.
Zach: You know, it’s interesting that you go there, ’cause I was curious, you know, in your book, Diversity Inc., you talk about the adverse impacts of unconscious bias training and how it’s been proven to be ineffective, and yet that still seems to be, like, the mainstay or, like, for some organizations, like, their crown jewel. Like, they build everything around unconscious bias, the concept of unconscious bias, training around unconscious bias, you know, language that really focuses on bias only being unconscious.
Pamela: Right. It’s like drive-through diversity. You know, drive-by diversity. That’s what the civil rights lawyer Cyrus Merry calls it. Companies are willing to spend billions of dollars every year on all of these, you know, the apparatus of diversity, but they’re not willing to devote their money to interventions to actually doing diversity, actually hiring a diverse workforce. It’s not that complicated, it’s not rocket science, and yet, you know, we live in a world where you can go on Google and find out almost anything, and yet even in major cities companies pretend that they cannot find, you know, diverse candidates. It’s really absurd, and I think, you know, that the level of frustration and the number of people out on the streets is now really shining a bright light on injustice writ large. It’s not only the injustice of police brutality. Racial injustice has just been normalized, you know? Whether it’s African-Americans dying of COVID at, you know, 4x the rate of whites, whether it’s the radical underrepresentation of African-Americans in practically every professional field. You know, the health disparities. You go down the line, and we have, for centuries, normalized this as if it’s, like, determined by God that we should have, you know, these kinds of disparities when it really is a function of policies and practices that are human-made, right?
Zach: Right, right. No, I agree with you. You know, I want to ask you a question about the book title before we get to the next question. It’s Diversity Inc.: The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Business. Can we talk about what promise corporate D&I has failed to deliver on?
Pamela: Oh, God. You name it. I mean… so, you know, in doing the book, I wanted to interrogate the tension between the rhetoric of diversity, the apparatus of diversity, you know, the diversity czars and the diversity studies and the diversity reports and the diversity organizations and all of this–you know, this huge apparatus. You know, the climate surveys, the training. I wanted to look at–you know, we’re devoting so much time to that, and why we consistently fail to achieve diversity. Like, what’s going on? Why are we spending billions of dollars on something that has been shown year after year to fail? Like, it just… it seems ludicrous, but yet, you know, you have a company like Google that will spend more than 100 million dollars a year on diversity initiatives and year-after-year end up with a workforce in which African-Americans are, like, 2% of the employees in tech. Like, how do you spend that much money and fail so spectacularly year after year, and could that money instead be used to actually hire… [laughs] Silly me! Like, do you really need to train 30 and 40 and 50-year-olds to think differently about people of color who are just, like, totally missing in those spaces? How about bringing some of those people in those spaces? And guess what, they’re gonna have to learn how to deal with them. They would be their colleagues. Like, I don’t need to be trained on how to deal with diverse populations, but I do need a job, and if I am in a workplace that has people from different walks of life and different races and different, you know, whatever, I mean, I will learn how to deal with that. I don’t need to be trained.
Zach: And, you know, it’s interesting, because to your point, we talk about this training. It doesn’t go anywhere, and frankly I’m frustrated by the space. And so as I continue to look at it I see certain patterns, and it seems almost like diversity and inclusion is a space where–I’m gonna paint with broad brushes here, but you know what? It’s my podcast and I can do that. So it seems as if diversity and inclusion as an industry is, like, a space where white women can go to, like, help them with their careers or to help give them certain levels of access or profile. So I’ve explicitly seen white women, like, talk about diversity and inclusion at, like, these big platforms, like, at Davos, right? And they’ll stand up there and they’ll say something fairly pedestrian if not outright obvious, but they’re applauded for it, and it’s like they’re applauded by other white people. So it’s almost like a community within itself, right? Like, they use a lot of language that we really don’t understand.
Pamela: Right, and worse than that. I’m gonna go further on your podcast. [both laugh] Diversity has come to mean everything and nothing. What is diversity? Most institutions don’t even agree on what diversity is. Diversity could be more women, more white women, diversity could be more LGBTQ, and they can be white. Diversity could be people with mental or physical, you know, issues, and they can be white. So diversity can totally eclipse racial diversity and still, to many institutions, qualify as diversity. You know, the diversity czar at Apple went so far as to say 12 blonde blue-eyed white men could illustrate diversity because of their different backgrounds. So this diversity has–which is why, in my book, I focus on racial diversity, because I think race has sort of been set aside, you know? Because supposedly after the election of Barack Obama we were suddenly a post-race nation. You know, people are not saying that anymore. No, not today, but they were saying that, you know, for 8 years, and here we are, you know, with the same issues and with the needle barely moving for decades in most influential fields, whether we’re talking about journalism or academia or museums or the law firms. Like, look around, and while all of these institutions will wave the diversity flag, very few of them are diverse.
Zach: Right, especially when you start looking higher and higher, right? So when you start looking at spaces for the folks who actually make decisions and really are responsible–like, who own a P&L, like, that’s where you start just seeing–I mean, you may at best see a sprinkling of non-white people, and that’s not even to say black people. You might only see a sprinkle of just non-white people. And so I’m curious, when we talk about this space, and you kind of alluded to it when I asked you about how you’re feeling and talked about hope, but I want to talk about the fact that we had Howard Bryant, ESPN senior contributor, NPR contributor, on the podcast on Saturday, and I shared that I think right now is a watershed moment essentially exposing how by and large inept diversity and inclusion is at really engaging black and brown employees explicitly. And I’m curious, do you think that we’re in such a moment?
Pamela: You know, I’m hopeful. Of course, you know, the proof is gonna be in the pudding, you know, whether we actually see change, but I do–you know, I’m heartened by seeing so many white people even out on the streets, you know, protesting. You know, that’s not something that we’ve seen. You know, Black Lives Matter has really been limited to black and brown people who have been out there on the frontlines of that battle, and it’s almost as if white people have, like, cast themselves as sort of innocent bystanders in this whole racial conversation. Like, they have, like, really nothing to do with it when they have everything to do with it, and so it’s really encouraging to me to at least see whites engaging in a way that I have not seen in my lifetime.
Zach: It’s incredible that you say that. I was speaking to my father this morning, and he said, “Son, I’m 55 years old, and I’ve never seen this in my life.” It’s incredible. So here’s what’s scary, police been beating us, you know, since antebellum, but to see white folks out there getting beat down alongside us…
Pamela: Yeah, but we have to remember that white abolitionists were treated [just?] as badly, you know? During slavery, white abolitionists were killed, you know, just as readily as black people were. So it’s really not that unusual. What’s unusual is that they’re out there, you know? They’re out there holding signs saying “Black Lives Matter.” I mean, that, I do think it’s a watershed moment just for that. I think there are people who are being really cynical about the level of activism we’re seeing, saying they’re performing, you know, racial politics or whatever. All I know is that they hadn’t done that in all of the days of my life, and so the fact that many are now openly expressing their horror in a way that they should have all along–I mean, no doubt, but the fact that they’re doing it now, I welcome it, because, like, hello, welcome to, you know, your humanity, you know? We’re all implicated in this, and black people should never have been the only ones to single out police brutality, racial inequality, the radical underrepresentation in all of these workplaces. That, you know, injustice affects all of us. And, I mean, I do understand that white people have benefitted from inequality, but they’re also paying the price of inequality as well. I mean, you know, no justice no peace. There won’t be peace in the land as long as you have a system that’s so blatantly unjust.
Zach: And so, you know, you talked about white folks coming out and supporting and having Black Lives Matter. I’ma tell you, Ms. Newkirk, when I knew it was a thing was when this Amish came out there. [both laugh] I said, “How did y’all even get the word?”
Pamela: I guess what got me was the thousands of people in Berlin, you know? And in Paris and in London. You know? Australia. I mean, around the world, you know, the whole world is watching.
Zach: And so, you know, we’ve talked a little bit about what we think this is. There are plenty of organizations, right, that are–and I say this as someone who, because of my network, I’m able to see… like, I know the diversity and inclusion consulting spaces and stuff out there, right? And I’m seeing there’s a sharp uptick in demand for [?].
Pamela: Oh, my God. My phone is ringing off the hook and I don’t do diversity training, and I tell them I don’t do diversity training. “If you’ve read my book, you’d know how I felt about it.” But I know a lot of people who do it and, you know, you’re welcome to, like, speak to them. I’m all in for a candid conversation about what you can do differently to change the game, but I don’t think it’s something that you need someone in week after week–I mean, if that’s gonna help you get to a place where you actually, you know, create opportunity for non-white people, if that’s what it’s gonna take, fine, but all of the studies have pretty much conclusively shown that training doesn’t work. The numbers they report year after year show that training doesn’t work too because most Fortune 500 companies have been doing this training for years and the numbers don’t budge. And yeah, there’s that Harvard study by Frank Dobbin that shows that these studies, especially when it’s mandatory training, it triggers a backlash among white men who, instead of supporting diversity, it makes them even more resentful of it. And even worse, the study showed that 5 years after this training, the percentage of black women and Asian men and women actually decreased, their numbers in management. So why are companies doing the same things and expecting different results?
Zach: And it’s interesting because they’re coming in and they’re doing that, right? Like, the same training. I agree that ultimately–the whole idea of “We need to come and have a dialogue” is frustrating, because I feel like we’ve dialoguing–I’m 30, and I feel like we’ve been dialoguing for a long time.
Pamela: Oh, my God. I’ve been in journalism and higher ed for more than 30 years, longer than you’ve been alive, and it’s the same conversation. It’s the same conversation from, you know, the 1960s, you know? And I guess the optimistic way of looking at it is–and, you know, after the uprising in the 1960s when the doors finally opened to people of color in fields that had historically excluded them, we did see, you know, the numbers jump up, you know, considerably. We saw more African-Americans, Latinos and others going to colleges, you know, entering fields that they had been excluded from, but as that progress became to metastastize, then we came into the ’80s and we had this backlash against diversity, you know, under Reagan, and we had this, you know, systemic dismantling of every policy, every practice.
Zach: All those social programs got gutted, yeah.
Pamela: Yes, everything got gutted, and then the backlash–we’re still living in that backlash to the progress that had been made. So, you know, the interesting thing is that all of these institutions can turn on a dime when they’re ready, when they want to. Like, we’re seeing companies now suddenly devote millions of dollars. I just heard Bain is gonna, you know, donate 100 million to, you know, black causes, and all of these things are suddenly happening, so it’s so easy for them to turn it around, to open that spigot, but what has been lacking is the leadership, the will, and the intention.
Zach: Yeah, yeah. And to your point, right, we’ve seen this organizations–a lot of these organizations, these big ones, like, they solve big problems. They solve really big problems. But the frustrating thing for me I think is that we treat racism as an abstract, right? So we’ll say things like, “Well, we just need to open our hearts and minds.” It’s like, “We don’t really actually need to open our hearts and minds. We just need to tie these things back into tangible outcomes.” You know, create and add new policies that hold and drive accountability, increase transparency, and make certain demands and expectations, right? Like I said, I’m alluding back to the Saturday episode, but it’s just fresh in my mind, because I think about the fact that Howard Bryant, he said, you know, “The reason you come in [and] you don’t sexually harass somebody isn’t–you know, it may be because you’re a decent person.” [both laugh]
Pamela: It may be, and it may be because you’ll get fired.
Zach: You know that there’s gonna be consequences and repercussions if you come in here acting stupid, harassing women or harassing anybody, saying something inappropriate. You know that.
Pamela: Exactly. And do you need a training program to tell you that?
Zach: I genuinely don’t, and I loathe every single one of them. But you’re right.
Pamela: Yeah, and the thing is it’s not even that I’m just so against the idea of training–even though I kind of am, but if there was anything, any proof, that they actually helped realize diversity, I’d be all about it, you know? There are measures that we know work, and I just don’t understand why we keep doing something that has not borne fruit and we ignore the things that do, and that leads me to believe that there’s not an honest intention to actually realize diversity.
Zach: I agree. So some of it to me is, like, when you talk about, like, programming for diversity, equity and inclusion, you know, it’s typically some type of instructor-led training, but a lot of studies continue to show that being able to have authentic conversations and build stories, again, tying and really having the critical conversations to tie goals and values to policy, is really what drives results, but we’re just still not there yet. I’m curious, again, there are plenty of organizations who are just now trying to build, like, some type of office, right? Some type of council or department or whatever you want to call it. What would you say are some of the biggest mistakes folks–and when I say folks I mean organizations–commit when they try to launch initiatives or departments or groups like this?
Pamela: Yeah, I think the biggest mistake is that the leadership sort of farms out this diversity issue to the most marginalized person in the organization, which is usually the diversity czar, whatever they call the diversity professional in that organization. Usually that person is the most marginalized executive of the team. It’s usually a person of color or a woman, and they usually don’t have much power, and so don’t do that, and if you’re going to do that, if you’re gonna go that route, then you have to empower that person to actually get results. One thing that we’ve seen from studies, there was a study done a year ago, a survey of Fortune 500 D&I professionals, and I think it was somewhere around 65% did not even have access to the metrics, the diversity metrics, in the organization they work for. So how could they hope to fix a problem that they can’t even see, right? So they’re shooting in the dark. We know the most effective way to tackle a diversity problem is first to have transparent metrics across job categories, across, you know, bonus systems, any kind of award systems. Who’s getting, who’s not? Right? You know, you have to look under the hood and see what’s actually happening in these companies, because we know with unconscious bias you can keep blaming everything on unconscious bias, but whether it’s conscious or unconscious, let’s see how it’s working in your organization. Only then can you hope to even have an intervention, you know? Whether it’s in your promotion system, it’s your hiring system, it’s looking at, you know, who’s even being interviewed for positions, you know? What kind of outreach are you doing? So you have to have transparent metrics across the board. It is the first step, and once you do that then you can hope to have the kind of interventions that will allow you to actively address the problem. It’s what–I do a chapter on what happened at Coca-Cola after they were sued for racial discrimination, and part of the settlement was having this task force that oversaw what they were doing to correct the problem, and over 5 years they were able to make substantial improvements through a system of transparent metrics and accountability.
Zach: And, you know, it’s interesting because I think when we talk about metrics–and it goes back just to, like, the lack of inclusion in this work, but when you talk about metrics it presumes that the people who are measuring understand what they’re measuring for, right? But if you have a group–and there’s plenty of articles, you know, op-eds, analysis, reports, all kinds of things about just how behind the majority population on matters of race, so then why would that same population then be responsible for measuring the nuances of race and diversity? [both laugh]
Pamela: Are you saying the fox is guarding the chicken coop? Is that what you’re saying? [laughs]
Zach: Absolutely. Absolutely it is.
Pamela: Well, yeah. So if you’re not allowing the person charged with increasing diversity, if you’re not giving them access to those numbers, you know, you’re hiding something for one thing, right? And you’re handcuffing them. There’s no way that they can hope to correct those issues without having that kind of information. I mean, that’s just basic to their job, but yet you talk to most D&I people and they don’t have access to that.
Zach: And what’s also interesting about that is that–I don’t know, there’s different levels, right? Because the other piece, you talked about power, and I’ve been–Living Corporate has been a bit more intentional in calling out, like, the ethics of power and how all of these things work, right? Because you just rarely ever see the person who’s really driving diversity, equity and inclusion be somebody that really has authority, and they’re not respected in the space because typically their role is something internal. You know, they’re not necessarily driving any type of revenue, so they’re not gonna really be heard. And on top of that sometimes compounded is the complexity that you have organizations that will get somebody who is black or brown, but again make them junior, so not only do they not have the formal hierarchal power, they don’t even have the social capital that comes with being white to really navigate and do their jobs well because they’re, you know, often times tokenized.
Pamela: Right. It really comes down to leadership, because in any organization people know what matters and what doesn’t matter, right? You know if a person really has power or if they just have a title. Like, it’s not hard to figure out, you know, who you have to respect and who you can ignore and, you know, what they stand for, so it really does come down to leadership and if leaders are gonna continue to farm this issue out to marginalized people, be they consultants or, you know, a diversity person who really has no power, you know? We’re not gonna see any progress in that space. And, I mean, looking at all of these fields that have not changed in all of this time, that has to be willful, and so it’s gonna take will to change that, and I hope that we’re living in a time now where people realize that, you know, this is not a sustainable situation.
Zach: It’s not, and that actually leads me to my next question. I want to quote an excerpt from your book. “The quest for racial diversity has long been an uphill crusade, but now it’s waged in a far more polarized climate in which many whites now claim they are being disenfranchised as others are afforded undue advantage. An NPR poll conducted in 2017 found that 55% of white Americans believe that they are discriminated against while, tellingly, a lower percentage said that they actually have experienced discrimination. A Reuters survey in 2017 found that 39% of whites polled agreed with the statement that quote, “White people are currently under attack in this country,” end quote.” So I’m quoting this because the reality of this, I believe, is still showing up in 2020 in that a significant percentage of white D&I experts, quote-unquote, they have the opinion that white folks, particularly white men, need to be included, because if you don’t include them, then you’re essentially violating your own principles by excluding them. [both laugh] And so I’m curious, like, especially as we see an uptick in focus on black lives and really working–you know, there’s a lot of folks downloading and buying books on anti-racism and, like, you know, there’s really a push for that right now. Do you see this trend increasing?
Pamela: Oh, definitely, but we’re just weeks into it. [laughs] So I can’t tell you where it’s headed, you know? But I see that as a good thing, you know, because for years, for decades, you know, African-Americans and other scholars of color and journalists have been doing this work, and often times we’re preaching to the choir, you know? And now to see so many whites leaning in to this scholarship and to the idea of anti-racism, not only, you know, relating to members of, you know, skinheads or the Ku Klux Klan, but could implicate the average white person, you know? Reading Robin DiAngelo’s work, White Fragility, she talks about the ways in which whites perpetuate white supremacy, but they do it in a way that they feel they’re just neutral in it. They don’t see how they are helping by either their silence or by just holding these deeply embedded ideas about race and merit and who actually deserves the kind of privilege that many whites enjoy. Like, are they African-Americans? Maybe there are a few who they see as deserving the kind of privilege that they enjoy, but that’s the exception, not the rule. So these ideas are so deeply embedded in the white American psyche that it will take, you know, some time to kind of dismantle an idealogy that has been rooted in the history of this country, right, from the very beginning, and these ideas did not bubble up from the ground up. They were taught in places like Harvard and Princeton and Yale and Columbia University, you know? So this whole idea of science, you know, was rooted in this notion of African inferiority and European superiority.
Zach: Yeah, measuring skull size and all that kind of stuff.
Pamela: Yeah, so we’re not that far removed from that. That idealogy is still very much a part of the American ethos, and until that is exposed and examined by the people who hold those ideas, we’re gonna continue to see it play out in so many ways.
Zach: And to your point, when we talk about racism–there are folks who I have, colleagues, associates, whatever, right, and we’ll talk about racism, and a lot of times we’ll talk about it, like, in forms–like, “It’s out there.” Like, it’s “out there.” Like, that’s why George Floyd–because of systemic racism, that’s why George Floyd was murdered in the street on camera with no accountability until we had riots, but the challenge and I think the next step as we look at this work, to your point around, like, really addressing and interrogating it, is analyzing what the same systems that allow those types of things to happen, the Amy Coopers of the world, those systems persist here too in work.
Pamela: Exactly, and it’s being able to kind of position yourself within the space. Like, where are you? Like, how do you benefit from this system, and what do you do with your privilege? And it’s not enough just not to be actively racist. Like, in what ways are you anti-racist? In what ways are you working to dismantle injustice? And that’s the next step for the so-called decent whites who I don’t think are, you know, actively racist, but they’re complicit in a racially injustice system through their silence, through their inaction. They work in these spaces, and they’re not using their forums and their positions to tackle something that is so persistent and perverse.
Zach: You know, I just started really thinking about, again, like, connecting historical racist idealogies and beliefs in America and then, like, how they show up at work. And so, like, an example that I think about, and I’m not a researcher and, like, I’ve talked to some friends and, like, I really want to put some research together on this, but, like, when you think about the history of black women and how they’ve been treated in this country and how essentially–there’s been all kinds of writing on how there was a belief that essentially black women–black people across the board, but black women specifically–they don’t feel pain in the same waysa that white women do, right?
Pamela: Ugh, right. The black superwoman, yeah.
Zach: Right? So in fact a lot of the understandings that we have about the female anatomy comes from the abuse of black female slaves. But this idea that, you know, black women are just tougher and, like, stronger inherently or biologically, you know? And we see that in sports, right? Like, Serena Williams is, like, a classic example of that and also why she wasn’t heard and she almost died when she had her child, but I think that mentality and that attitude, it persists in the workplace as well, and it shows up in the workplace by way of black women being overworked and underappreciated.
Pamela: Right. Well, you know, it’s what history has demanded of us, right? We had to be stronger. Like, what was the alternative to that? Being beaten more? Being raped more? So paradoxically it’s partly true that that’s why we’re still here.
Zach: Right, by means of survival.
Pamela: Right, but, you know, we haven’t been given the opportunity to show weakness and to cry when things happen, things go wrong, you know? That fragility that may be afforded a white woman doesn’t work for us.
Zach: And I think we could find, like, similar… I guess my point is, like, that the meta-narrative doesn’t stop, and so when you talk about systemic racism–so I’m the son of an English teacher, so, like, I’m very sensitive about words, right? So if you’re gonna use a word like “systemic,” then be comfortable with interrogating the concept that whatever you’re talking about reaches as far as you can see and beyond that. And so, you know, when we talk about, like, we just talked about science and a lot of the racist concepts in considering that black folks were inherently inferior.
Pamela: Right. And, I mean, those ideas are still debated, you know, just–like it was, like, 10 years ago, maybe it was a little more than that, when Newsweek and Time had, like, this big debate going about, you know, the bell curve.
Zach: People still talk about the bell curve.
Pamela: People still do, and, I mean, it’s still with us, even if it’s not as polite today to [?], it’s still very much with us. Even if people don’t say it, that idealogy persists.
Zach: Exactly, and so it’s like, “Okay, not only was this–” Like, at one point in time this was rigorous, firmly accepted, widely, globally accepted academic truth, and now it’s waned into being impolite conversation…
Pamela: Precisely, but still true. [laughs]
Zach: Right, but still believed to be true.
Pamela: But it’s PC to now say it.
Zach: Right, so it’s not unreasonable then to believe that majority counterparts presume or have some conscious or unconscious beliefs that black people are inferior, and that comes up in language like, “They’re not as strategic,” or “They don’t think as critically,” or whatever, but it’s subtle, and [?]–
Pamela: Or that they’re natural athletes or natural artists. Like, nothing comes out of a thinking place. [laughs]
Zach: Right. “They’re creative, but they’re not strategic,” right? And it shows up in a lot of genteel language, but you talked about Robin DiAngelo and you talked about white fragility. You know, we had her on the podcast a little while ago, and–you shared it actually on Twitter. Thank you for that.
Pamela: I did, because I think it’s so timely.
Zach: It is. And when we talk about white fragility–and for the sake of just kind of level-setting, right, it’s essentially the low fluency and resilience white folks have with regards to engaging matters of race, especially discussing where they may be the perpetrators of conscious or unconscious racist behaviors.
Pamela: But then think about it. There are no penalties for them not knowing so much about the history of race in this country, you know? I’ve written about this. You could do a doctorate, a post-doc, and never have to meaningfully confront the history of race in this country, you know? You don’t have to know about what happened to the Irish and what happened to, you know, Italians and Greek people at the turn of the century and how, you know, they were demeaned. You don’t have to know how race operates and how it is just, like, so deeply embedded in the whole system of this country, and so because you may know who some of the major contributors to American history were who happen to be African-American, they never have to know. They don’t have to know who Fredrick Douglass is, Booker T. Washington. Like, all of the people who I grew up just knowing because my parents taught me, I would never be penalized on an SAT for not knowing that. So they’ve been able to skate through life without understanding why it is that we have this kind of systemic imbalance around race, and they think it’s because of merit. They think it’s because they worked harder. They think, “Well, slavery was abolished in the 1860s, so what’s the problem? You’ve had all this time.” They don’t look at the ways in which that system is still very much actively working against any kind of racial equality, you know, racial justice. And so when you’re, like, just ignorant and not penalized for that ignorance, like, it’s not totally the fault–you know, I have white students who sometimes are in tears in my class. I teach a class that examines the history of racial portrayals of marginalized groups, and they say “How is it that I’m in college and I never learned any of this history?” Like, it’s not their fault, you know? Because only those who choose to elect–and these are electives that they would take to learn about this–like, it’s not required. These courses are so marginalized, and they’re so important for white people to have a sense of all of the ways in which they have been privileged throughout history without knowing that they’re twicely just ignorant.
Zach: And to your point though, right, you have this group who–so, like, let’s talk about the workplace. So you have this group that has never had to really critically engage around race, never had to engage around how their own behaviors have been harmful to folks who don’t look like them. Now all of a sudden, no matter [?]–like you said, this just really got started, right? We’re just a couple weeks in, but let’s say this goes on for two years, whatever, you know, suddenly there’s going to be–you go from, like, not moving at all to almost running at a rabbit’s pace, and I’m curious about with the current client focusing on black people, black experiences and really continuing to unpack that, how would you advise, like, a majority-white leadership space mitigate burn-out? Because they just don’t have–again, we talk about white fragility, they don’t have the bandwidth and they don’t have the cardiovascular, right, to keep up.
Pamela: Well, you know, I think they do, you know? I think these institutions have been so afraid to engage these matters and now they’re seeing the consequences of kind of their hands-off policy, you know? We’ve made the progress we have made due to uprisings in the 1960s, because all of that scholarship was out there then, but no one listened until buildings started building and, you know, people started feeling kind of unsafe, and then suddenly everyone leaned in [?], and I think we’re in that same kind of space right now where I think people are honestly leaning in–I mean, I’ve gotten notes over the past week from colleagues who, you know, kind of didn’t really–I guess they saw me as kind of a radical, and now all of a sudden they’re seeing my ideas as mainstream. So they’re writing me like, “Wow, you know, you were prescient.” It’s like, “No, I wasn’t. You just weren’t paying attention.” Everything that we’re seeing has been happening all along. Nothing is new. The only thing that has changed is that white people are suddenly acknowledging the truth that has been with us all of this time. So now that they are, I do believe that we can begin to–first of all, there’s so much out there. There’s so many scholars of color and professionals of color and people who are ready to, like, get in there, right, and contribute to all of these institutions that have ignored them, devalued them, you know? Not hired them. You know, these institutions are about to be enriched, you know, if they truly embrace the diversity that is available, you know? Well-trained, well-educated, just ready, ready to jump in and help these organizations become more just places, and I do believe that if they continue to lean in in the ways they have over the past few weeks, I think a lot of good can come from this moment.
Zach: And do you think–let me ask this then. So do you think that will offset the amount of folks who are uncomfortable and end up, you know, going elsewhere or–
Pamela: What do you mean?
Zach: Yeah, so what I mean is, like, do you think the amount of folks that come in and they deliver learning and folks grow, and they increase black and brown engagement through hiring and of course, like, retaining the talent that they have, do you think that will offset the amount of white folks who just find all of this offensive and disengage?
Pamela: You mean like the 57 police officers in Buffalo that resigned because two of their colleagues were suspended for, like, critically injuring an elderly white man? You know, I don’t think that’s gonna happen, you know? Because first of all people need employment, and yeah, you know, I think that you’re always gonna have that percentage of, you know, just straight up white supremacists who are not going to be in spaces where there are people of color, and, you know, good riddance, but I don’t think that’s gonna be the biggest roadblock to having diverse environments, because I don’t think they’re gonna give up all of these fields, you know? I don’t think they’re just gonna suddenly say, “Oh, here. Take my privileged position at this law firm or in this company,” you know? But I think people can learn to work together. In fact, I think that is the best way to condition people to deal with different kinds of people is just to put them in the same space where they see that, “Oh, this person is not, like, a Martian. This person actually has kind of similar values,” and then they begin to see that there was nothing that frightening to begin with. But I think when you continue–you know, we live in a rigidly segregated society, and most white people don’t have to be in spaces where there are people of color, and particularly people of color who are peers, you know? They may be in the mail room or, you know, delivering their food, but to have people of color who are your peers, many white people don’t have that experience, and they certainly don’t have that experience of having people of color who are neighbors, who go to the same church, who go to the same–we live in such segregated worlds, and that kind of segregation becomes a self-replicating situation in the workplace, right, because people hire who they know, they hire who their friends recommend, they hire from this very closed off world, and until you can break that up, you know, and have a far more diverse workplace, you’re gonna continue to have that kind of self-replication.
Zach: Ms. Newkirk, this has been incredible. Thank you so much for being on the podcast. Before we let you go, any parting words or shout-outs?
Pamela: Well, you know, I guess the thing that I’m most hopeful about is that there are successful models that can be readily replicated, and if institutions truly want to embrace diversity they need to just stop doing what they’ve been doing and lean into models that have proven to be successful.
Zach: Well, there you have it, y’all. This has been Living Corporate. Like, we do this every single week. We’re having real talk in a corporate world, and we center and we amplify marginalized voices at work by having black and brown thought leaders of all types of varieties on the platform. You make sure you check us out. Just Google Living Corporate. I ain’t about to shout out all the places we on ’cause we all over Barack Obama’s internet, so just type in Living Corporate and you’ll catch us. ‘Til next time, this has been Zach Nunn, and you’ve been listening to Pamela Newkirk, award-winning journalist, educator, speaker and author. Peace, y’all.