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Study Pinpoints Best Ways to Discuss Racism at Work

October 31, 2016, 2:24 PM UTC

A new study may offer diversity experts a new framework for designing anti-discrimination remedies in the workplace and beyond. (Paywalled, but worth it.) The bottom line: What matters most is whether or not people believe that bias or discrimination is intentional or unintentional. And that makes it a leadership issue.

The study was conducted by Nir Halevy, associate professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business with three coauthors, Evan Apfelbaum and Rebecca Grunberg of MIT and Sonia Kang of the University of Toronto. It’s part of a growing body of research that’s designed to dig more deeply into the human perceptions of race and difference, in the hopes that we can all just get along.

They believe a framework called, “perceived intentionality of racial discrimination” (PIRD), can help predict whether people will be open to one of two primary ways of addressing racial issues.

If the discrimination is believed to come from ignorance, then multicultural solutions which encourage people to explore the unique aspects of different cultures through exposure and education – like conferences or anti-bias training – will be better received. From the study: “Multicultural messages implicitly presume that individuals and institutions want to be egalitarian—that they are not intentionally discriminating, and that they would act to rectify their biases if made aware of them.”

But, if the discrimination is believed to be intentional, then colorblindness, which encourages people to ignore racial differences and focus on “a common purpose,” will be a preferred approach. “From this view, the perceived source of discrimination is racial antipathy and conflict in which individuals and institutions, when left to their own devices, will consciously use racial differences as a basis for unequal judgment, treatment, and access to resources.” Requiring some sort of uniform, or masking identities in hiring scenarios are two possible examples.

The authors believe that leaders need to become open to an a la carte approach to inclusion. “Many people have a strong belief that one size fits all when it comes to improving race relations in the U.S.,” Nir Halevy told the Stanford University Business School. “Understanding people’s perceptions allows us to help people by recommending an approach that is more likely to be effective for improving race relations.”

The study explores other research that explores the ease with which people were able to talk about difficult topics, like Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, or a damage award in a discrimination case. Just the possibility of intentional discrimination – true racism – makes people very uncomfortable. In the cases where discrimination was perceived to be intentional, focusing on differences would be “pouring gasoline on the fire,” said participants.

I’m not sure what that says about the level of courage adults need to muster to collectively think through complex issues like race, work, and society. But what strikes me about this research is that it requires a leader, at a very basic level, to understand the hearts of the people they serve. “The more that leaders understand what people see as the root of the problem — malice or ignorance — the more likely they are to come up with effective solutions,” say the authors.

Whether they choose colorblindness, multiculturalism or a third way, having employees feel engaged – and truly heard – on the subject of race, is the most important framework of all.

On Point

Airbnb’s new anti-discrimination pledge goes into effect tomorrowIt will prompt users who log into the platform to agree to a simple pledge: “You commit to treat everyone—regardless of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age—with respect, and without judgment or bias.” If you don’t commit, you can’t use the platform. Should work just fine, as long as everybody thinks the discrimination is intentional, right?Airbnb Blog

Dutch politician goes on trial for inciting racial hatred
Geer Wilders, leader of the far-right Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands has gone on trial, facing charges of inciting hate against the Moroccan population. The charges stem from comments made in 2014 when Wilders told a crowd that if they wanted fewer Moroccans in the country, “Well, we’ll take care of that.” He’s been in court for similar statements against Muslims. Wilders has been the frontrunner for parliamentary elections off and on for about a year. He plans to boycott the trial.
The Guardian

An ugly video from a Trump rally raises concerns of anti-semitism
Long-standing concerns about white supremacist support of the Trump campaign resurfaced over the weekend when a video of a Trump fan at an Arizona rally shouting, “You’re going down! You’re the enemy!” and “Jew-S-A” (rhymes with U.S.A.) while wearing a Hillary for Prison t-shirt. Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway responded,“That man’s conduct was deplorable. And had I been there, I would have asked security to remove him immediately.”
Washington Post

College student expelled for racist costume, immediately makes it worse
Here’s a grotesque twist: He was dressed as Bill Cosby. A white University of Central Arkansas sophomore named Brock Denton has been expelled after he posted a picture of himself on his Instagram account wearing blackface and a Cosby-style sweater at a frat party on Friday night. His fraternity chapter of Sigma Tau Gamma is now suspended. Denton took to Instagram with a rambling apology that also blamed social media for creating a “corrupted society in regard to heated controversial topics such as this.”
NY Daily News

Hilary Duff and her boyfriend had a better apology than Brock Denton
Duff and boyfriend, Jason Walsh, was a sexy pilgrim and a racist depiction of a Native American for Halloween, respectively, and received strong critique after photos of their outfits hit Instagram. They apologized immediately and coherently. But if you're looking for the best apology of all, then Thor star Chris Hemsworth wins the holiday; he issued a detailed apology for a costume he wore a year ago, as part of an Instagram post in support of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest.
E Online

Facebook is continuing to have bias problems
The social network has failed to get a handle on the flood of fake news, propaganda and conspiracy-themed stories that are flooding the site, thanks to the algorithm behind the “Trending News” feature which is about to be rolled out to even more of its 1.7 billion users. Three researchers who build systems to identify rumors and misinformation on social networks believe that human editors must be part of the solution. “[Facebook is] making an assumption that we’re more comfortable with a machine being biased than with a human being biased, because people don’t understand machines as well,” said one.

The Woke Leader

Where zombies come from
Pop culture is not to blame.The zombie myth first appeared in Haiti in the 17th and 18th centuries, during the brutal occupation of France with its own disgraceful version of slavery. The myth became “a projection of the African slaves’ relentless misery and subjugation. Haitian slaves believed that dying would release them back to lan guinée, literally Guinea, or Africa in general, a kind of afterlife where they could be free.”
The Atlantic

How management can help employees with disabilities thrive
JPMorgan Chase’s head of disability and inclusion has written a poignant post detailing his own spinal cord injury after a surfing accident. It was being fully included at work, then at IBM, that helped him build the confidence to overcome the fear and embarrassment he initially felt at learning to navigate life in a changed body and become fully productive both personally and professionally. “We can also teach managers and executives to recognize leadership potential in a person with a disability. Here’s a secret – it’s the same methodology used with an able-bodied person.”
JPMorgan Chase on LinkedIn

The 20 most influential young curators in art
A list like this 20 years ago would be almost entirely white men; it is a delight to see how many perspectives are being embraced as the “traditional” art world begins to acknowledge the importance and quality of non-European modes of expression. In a nice addition to the list, each person was asked for their favorite show they’ve seen lately, creating a second list of must-see exhibits, while sharing their love of other people’s work.


What we’ve done here today in Oakland, we want to do all over the country, in cities all over this country, by bringing together local leaders, local activists, and local youth, and not only giving them the skills and lessons they need, but we want to show them how much we love and value them.
—Colin Kaepernick