Recently a fellow contributor, David Whitfield, wrote a column regarding the racism evidenced by a comment from Howard Schultz, former CEO of Starbuck’s, that he was “colorblind.” I understood Mr. Whitfield to be making the point that in our society, we need to see color to be able to better understand the relative positions, experiences, biases and challenges of individuals. If we don’t see color, we can’t fully understand. His point is well taken.
But to the extent that some might think that Mr. Schultz’s comment makes him a racist, I wish to provide a counter thought. Mr. Schultz, like me, is an older white male. When Mr. Schultz made the comment, I recalled some early training I received at the state. This training was made in the employment context and its focus was indeed on being “colorblind.” The thrust of the training was to guide managers and others to hire, promote, reward and discipline based upon the experiences, training, efforts and results of individuals, regardless of color. That, of course, is what the law requires. Perhaps Mr. Schultz was only a testament to the effectiveness of such training.
Over the years, while working for the state of Washington, I received numerous trainings related to discrimination, bias and healthy working environments. Each of these trainings attempted to address basic unfairness in the workplace. Some were more effective than others. At one point, the training told us to “tolerate” the differences. That morphed into “celebrating the differences,” a concept that was a far cry better than “toleration,” but still lacking a road map to success.
Workplace issues continued to occur, so the training became more direct. One of the last trainings I received focused on the concept of “institutional discrimination.” The thesis was that white males had created the institutions that exist in our country and the institutions inherently discriminate against all those that are not white and male.
Our country’s history, unfortunately, provides significant support for this. The problem with the training, as I saw it, was that the powerful presentation effectively made every white male in the room a co-conspirator for every historical racist act. Once a participant is called a racist, their ears no longer hear, their brain stops processing, and the conversation ends.
Instead of progress, we regress.
Recently, I was called for jury duty. However, because I was a trial attorney, I knew the chances of being picked were almost zero. When I went to the courthouse, I was pretty sure it was going to be unproductive time. While I didn’t get picked for the jury panel, the time was far from unproductive.
The reason: another training. Thurston County Superior Court presented a professionally produced video that focused on the inherent biases that all of us have. The point of the training was that our education, experiences and cultures are the basis for biases that both help and hinder our attitudes, stereotypes and decision-making. There was significantly more to this training, but my point is that the training did not begin by calling me some form of an “-ist.” We could have a further conversation and, maybe, we can find understanding and achieve solutions.
Earlier this year, the Board of Contributors met. We went around the table to tell the group a little about our past experiences and the areas we might focus on in our articles. I was impressed with the many experiences Mr. Whitfield had lived through and, more importantly, how he survived and overcame many obstacles and challenges. Without knowing him well, I respect from where he comes.
There were many obstacles I didn’t have because I am a white male. I can’t apologize for that. What I can do is participate in the conversation. I can listen and work to understand those who have had different experiences. I can support those who are trying to overcome obstacles and barriers. I can work to understand my own implicit biases, how they might affect others and how I can appropriately adjust them.
When I was mediating tort cases for the state, I used the acronym “UCB” which stood for “Unconditional Constructive Behavior.” The participants in these cases were highly emotional and angry. By remaining positive and constructive, the animosities abated, and the interests of the parties became the focus. Most cases resolved soon thereafter.
These are hard conversations. Patience is strained, progress is slow, and emotions are high. But starting the conversation with blame and names is sure to make the conversation short.