As I See It: The ‘M’ Word
March 13, 2006 Victor Rozek
She was a tall, solid woman, with burnt copper skin and tribal features. “Write your name on a piece of paper,” she told us. “Go ahead, do it several times. Notice how simple, effortless, and familiar it is. Now put the pen in your other hand and sign your name again. How does that feel?” It felt awkward, frustrating, unfamiliar, and harder than it should have been. “That,” she said, “is how people from foreign cultures feel when navigating the dominant white culture.”
She had come to teach 10 white people what it was like not being white; an impossible task, but no less important for that. Ready or not, soon white people will be a minority in this country and the workplace increasingly reflects that reality. For the last decade, the majority of workers entering the workforce have been other than white and male. The influx of immigrants (legal and illegal), and guest workers (wanted and unwanted), has created multicultural pressures that didn’t exist in the homogenous office. And everyone–to some degree–is feeling the discomfort.
A multicultural workplace is a laboratory in which complex organisms are in a constant state of adaptation. Those of the dominant culture are expected to broaden their sensibilities to a range of experiences that they may not understand; while those from minority cultures are expected to adjust to values that they may not share.
Regrettably, we haven’t found a language that would allow us to discuss our differences without feeling threatened and defensive. The language of diversity is full of emotionally charged and polarizing words like “white privilege” and “equal opportunity,” “affirmative action,” and “hiring preference;” not to mention the most incendiary word of all, “racism.” After decades of careless and angry usage, such words bear the weight of presumption and accusation and bristle with the explosive potential of thunder clouds.
[Editor’s note: Just mentioning this topic, much less putting it in an essay in a business publication like this one, is enough to set some people off. But IT Jungle offers a broad view of the IT market, including the cultural issues that affect the market and our workplaces. My business card says “Editor in Chief,” and yours doesn’t, and that is why IT Jungle publications have this broad view. When you steer your own publications, you can have all the fun getting the angry emails and the responsibility of getting people to think about things from a different angle. And, as always, my electronic door is open. If you want to give me a piece of your mind, just hit that Contact button at the top of every IT Jungle page and it gets right to me. You’ll get a reply, too. — TPM]
From the elevated vantage point of the dominant culture, multicultural issues sound a lot like declarations of victimhood and complaint. This may be especially true for older workers who have lived through extensive periods of social engineering and the creation of multi-billion-dollar programs designed specifically to address these problems. Accusations, explicit or implied, provoke a numbing weariness in the listener. The underlying message they hear is: “You’ve done something wrong (or belong to a group responsible for historic wrongs), and you must do something to remedy it.” Since most people get tired just managing their own lives, they will not be eager to assume what they consider an unearned responsibility for another’s well being. They may listen politely, but chances are they will be emotionally disconnected and secretly wishing the entire problem would simply vanish.
As Rodney King, the baton-bruised poster boy for over-reactive race relations, said: “Why can’t we all just get along?” Well, workers comfortable navigating the dominant culture privately prefer that everyone just get along by shutting up and doing their jobs.
But, like the immutable advance of age, the changing tide of America’s racial demographics is not likely to recede, and the problems associated with it will not disappear. So although it is impossible to fully inhabit another person’s experience, it is possible, in a moment of unguarded clarity, to glimpse what others’ lives may be like. And those of us in the dominant culture can do that by looking at our own lives, at the many slight advantages that reside just beyond our conscious awareness, and imagining what life would be like without them.
When I walk into an IT department, most of the people will look and dress like me. My skin color and choice of clothing will not raise doubts about my dependability or work ethic. Everyone will speak my language and share a great many of my values. If I attended college, it will be assumed that I was shown no favoritism, that my degree was not remedial, and that I earned my status in life through hard work and personal virtue. I can apply for a job, seek a promotion, look for housing, or enter a convenience store at night, and not look threatening. I will generally not be isolated, outnumbered, misunderstood, held at a distance, or feared. I can take a job with an equal opportunity employer without having co-workers suspect that I got it because of my race. If I fail, my faults will not be attributed to my race; if I succeed, I will not be thought of as a credit to my race. When I speak to my manager, I can be reasonably sure he/she will be someone like me. And so will the rest of the management team. Thus, it will be easier for me to find an ally or a mentor. In meetings, I will not stand out, and my comments will not be dismissed as culturally naive or racially biased. If I am promoted, no one will think my advancement was the product of statistical desirability. If I have an argument with a co-worker, it will not be amplified by racial overtones. I can expect my neighbors to behave decently toward me and, should I go to court, my race will not be a liability. My holidays will be observed, and my food preferences will be readily available. And if I work late into the evening, I can still go jogging without arousing suspicion.
And this, of course, is just a partial list.
Those of us in the dominant culture give these advantages no thought because they are simply a baseline, a what-is, as unremarkable as having clean water flow from the tap. And individually, most are of little consequence. But in aggregate, for people outside the dominant culture, they create an endless up-hill climb with obstacles looming over every horizon.
People who study such things call cultural advantages “systemically conferred privileges,” and Peggy McIntosh, associate director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, is such a person. In an article on the subject, McIntosh lamented that she had “met few men (meaning white men) who are truly distressed about systemic unearned male advantage and conferred dominance.” Well, beyond the fact that McIntosh’s choice of words will do little to invite the assistance of the people she is insulting, it should be obvious that people seldom become distressed about the things they already have. They tend to get testy about the things they lack, which is one reason so many minorities appear to the dominant culture to be perpetually angry. But asking people to give up an advantage is like asking a sprinter to wear ankle weights because he runs too fast.
A better strategy is heightening awareness through constant reexamination of personal beliefs and reactions. At the very least, we can consider the possibility that there are, as McIntosh puts it, “colossal unseen dimensions” to the system under which we all work, and that some of us work under the weight of invisible disadvantage. Robert Jensen, who teaches at the University of Texas, said: “We all are the product both of what we will ourselves to be and what the society in which we live lets us be.” If so, then our job is always to stand on the side of expanded possibilities.
The great irony of racial and cultural discomforts; of animosities and acts of deliberate meanness; of wars and genocides; of the fractious, restive mess that characterizes cultural clashes is that all of the differences we disdain and the distinctions we defend have common origins. It is the true cosmic joke told by geneticists and molecular anthropologists. National Geographic, in its March 2006 cover story, confirms that the human genetic code is 99.9 percent identical throughout the world. And, as DNA and human migration studies have confirmed over and over again, “all the variously shaped and shaded people of Earth trace their ancestry to African hunter-gatherers some 150,000 years ago.”
So there we all were, nicely tanned, dodging smoke from the same camp fire. Perhaps there are no strangers after all, just cousins we haven’t met.