By Ellen McGirt
August 15, 2017

So here’s a big question for a Tuesday. Why are people racist?

Two scientists, interviewed by The Washington Post offer an explanation so simple that even Occam would approve. People are racist because everything in their culture points to a racial hierarchy. It is in the air we breathe. It is normal to us.

“In some ways, it’s super simple. People learn to be whatever their society and culture teaches them. We often assume that it takes parents actively teaching their kids, for them to be racist. The truth is that unless parents actively teach kids not to be racists, they will be,” said Jennifer Richeson, a Yale University social psychologist. “This is not the product of some deep-seated, evil heart that is cultivated. It comes from the environment, the air all around us.”

It’s one of the reasons why diverse perspectives in pop culture are so vital. The scientists cite a study at Tufts University, which found that people tested higher for implicit bias after watching a television show starring black and white actors, even if the program was on mute and had no obvious discriminatory content. Dominant culture tends to design things, even subtly, to create an “us vs them” dynamic.

While not everyone who is steeped in these social cues becomes violent, there are some important predictors to consider.

“[W]hen people come into contact with an organized ideology that valorizes or glorifies an intergroup struggle like a race struggle — that scaffolds from people’s everyday prejudices into something altogether more violent,” said Eric Knowles, a psychology professor at New York University. A siege mentality, amplified by propaganda and social messaging, fuels urgency, entitlement, and alt-heroism.

But you knew that.

Culture change, which has become the scourge of the anti-political correctness crowd, is an important way to help re-shape the biases embedded into our personalities. This is where leadership, both big and small, can make an impact.

First, the small. Consider this helpful advice from Lara Hogan, the VP of engineering for Kickstarter, called Managering In Terrible Times. She outlines small behaviors leaders can embrace to help people from marginalized communities feel safe, even as terrifying events unfold on the news. Clarity is key, but so is respect. Give people the freedom to talk about what’s on their minds, but also give them the freedom to remain silent. “Remember: marginalized folks are repeatedly called on to explain These Terrible Times to others, and this is a way in which well-intentioned people exacerbate the burden on already-oppressed people,” she says, in one example.

Next, the big. Intel published its mid-year diversity report today, which finds the company should reach its workforce representation goals by 2018, some two years ahead of schedule. Fortune’s Grace Donnelly has the entire scoop on the diversity report. It’s worth digging into how the company is defining success.

On Monday, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich resigned from the president’s manufacturing council. In a blog post, he strongly denounced white supremacy, urging other leaders to do the same.

But it shouldn’t end there. In his comments on the Intel’s diversity report, Krzanich also called on executives to turn “this tragedy into action.” He continued, “Technology companies have talked about diversity for years, but the data shows that progress has been slow.”

The report is proof that it’s possible.


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