Sunday, July 29, 2018

What You Don't Know Hurts the Vulnerable: Another Case for Diversity and Inclusion in the Room

Recently, I was forced to confront and resolve my hidden biases when I participated as one of the judges in a Business Plan Competition among select students of New York City high schools. The competition was sponsored by the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) and pulled contestants from a fairly diverse group of students; an important fact on which I paused, but only after the competition was concluded and the winner announced, and on which I must pause now.  

Judging the Competition
The pool of student competitors was drawn from diverse circumstances; some trite (Black, Asian, Male…etc.), others not so obvious, but perhaps discernible by speculation and stereotyping (social ‘class’ and economic status). Notably, there were no 'White' students. The remainder of the contestant pool were all 'Black' and 'Brown' - and here I include Asian in the 'Brown' category, purely because that is my guess, and, better yet, to save myself a self-induced writer's block in pausing to figure out the imperialist racial taxonomy that might determine whether or not Indians are indeed Black or Brown, and whether or not Chinese are Yellow or Brown. (In discussions on diversity and inclusion, I struggle with nomenclature. Labels, and historically inaccurate or farcical political or 'racial' groupings are offensive. I don't believe race exists except in the minds of those whose egoistic purposes it serves, namely, for instance, a racialized society and those upon whom entrenched hegemony bestows privilege. But that's another day).

As far as one could divine this, the socio-economic levels varied - data as to family income were not available. So how could one tell? 

One could not tell and should not need to; except by looking at mannerisms, attire, 'race', ' color', culture, discernible sense-of-entitlement and sympathies (
say, whose priority was Air Jordans vis-a-vis healthy tapioca-free alternatives to bubble tea). Rounding out the criteria in this hodgepodge of distinguishing factors was any observation of those whose parents accompanied them to the competition - supposing that poorer parents would be busy heading to that first of two jobs. None of these superficialities made any real sense, nor added real value to a silly attempt to determine who was who. But, they worked as criteria to anyone anxious to check statistical boxes - meaning, if your purpose is artificial and foolish then they are fine as criteria.  And so, after the competition, as I stirred my own thoughts, mostly as I planned this blog, I went on that artificial and foolish journey.   

The pool of judges was also drawn from diverse backgrounds. Importantly, there was an equal spread of White, Black and Brown judges - no Asians among the Brown in this case, and by the same meaningless criteria above, different levels of financial well-being.

Diversity and Inclusion were not on my radar as I went through the rounds in the adjudication process, not even when one White judge made the off-the-cuff, but eventually ominous, remark that this reminded him of jury service. Minutes later, when the sympathies of the same White judge became clear and the deficiencies in his deliberative process in selecting a winner were on the table for all to see, I became terrified, as a Black person, of a jury of my peers with him among them; not because he is evil; not because there is anything unprepossessing about him and his character; but purely because of clear implicit biases which clouded his judgement.  At first I judged him. But, when my own biases became evident to me, I could only see Nathan the profit pointing his staff at me as he must have done to King David, in the latter's self-righteousness: "You are the Man!" 

"You are the Man"

The White judge was me, and I was him. Our symptoms simply presented differently. I have come to accept that we all have biases, and the only difference between us (that is, human beings) is the accident of birth and the circumstances of fate and fortune, which may determine who has the power and majority to be able to use those biases in the oppression, or to the disadvantage, of others, and who will so use them. 

When Melody Hobson (diversity champion of Ariel Investments fame) stresses the importance of having everyone in the room, she understates it. And mind you, she is passionate and emphatic about it. But it is understated. Because it cannot be stated clearly enough, and often enough, how important it is for decision makers to be positively mindful and proactive about getting everyone in the room. It must not happen by accident. When the subconscious operates, unconscious and implicit biases reign supreme. When we move by autopilot, without deliberate mindfulness, hidden biases are in the driver's seat. When choice is available, and perspectives do battle, balance and breadth is essential.  

Here is what I learned (again) this weekend from the actual experience, and I am grateful for the reinforcement of these lessons. 

1.      All genders need to be in the room. Men are less likely to be impressed or persuaded by a young girl making the business case for customized female corporate attire services. And, it makes sense. Such a business case is in fact a pitch to women not to men. The business is meant to cater to women who have trouble finding the right business attire with the appropriate mix of textile, height, bust size, hips and waist size, and other things that I am sure I have forgotten, because a female judge had to explain it to me and other male colleagues on the spot, while admonishing us that we are less impressed with such an idea because men wear grab and go - prêt-à-porter, and it all seems to work for men. (That is perhaps an over-simplification of the sartorial experiences of men, well the ones who give a damn about being draped like Louvre windows in an over-sized T-shirt, or about buttoned shirts with long sleeves suffocating the wrist, but we will have to do this with our female counterpart judge on another day).  The moral of the story is that, in all conscience, persons who are most affected by issues under consideration, or who experience it most, should have a major role in any decision-making process concerning those issues.

Making the case

2.     All cultural and socio-economic backgrounds of all ages need to be in the room. A young black male might have a brilliant idea as to how to sell popular, hippy, designer-brand sneakers (Air Jordans), new, and like-new second-hand, online at a cheaper price than the in-store purchase. But with whom does that resonate? To whom can he make the business case that this is a serious winning idea compared to his counterpart pitching a 24-hr tutoring App or his other counterpart pitching healthy bubble tea? The Jewish judge with one daughter, who left school before the Nike partnership with larger-than-life celebrity athletes became a thing, who couldn't give a damn about top designer sneakers, and who last wore a brand no one has ever heard of (Varnier)?  Similarly, who will buy into the idea of healthy bubble tea with or without the tapioca bubbles, with a healthy strain of Black Tea from Hong Kong, and condensed milk, but no sugar, even though it may be a winning idea? The Black judge of Caribbean descent who is immediately suspicious that the idea sounds like the regular Lipton sachet steeped in water and mixed with condensed milk? 

3.     All personality types should be in the room. A perfect complement might run the full gamut of the Myers-Briggs profile: the extrovert who is immediately drawn to a gregarious lively personality; the ‘nerdy’ introvert who is impressed by numbers and technical data in a presentation, even though the presenter would put a Sloth to sleep. And so forth. Chances are, the most persuasive ideas have been thoroughly researched and are well supported - but the presenter has to make the sale, and some personalities could not sell an idea if they were possessed by Steve Jobs. But similarly, it might take someone of a similar personality (what an extrovert might call 'boring') to pay attention to that presenter. 
"Yaaay Introverts"

4.     Independent voices should be in the room. There is a reason why all organizations, of whatever service groups, stress the ethical concerns of conflicts of interest. Conflicts cloud the judgment tremendously - to the extent that one might accept a bad idea as a viable one, simply because of a bias that makes one exaggerate the merits that are in fact present, and compensate for the merits that are not. 

5.     Ultimately, all biases can be cured by a diverse and all-inclusive room. All voices in the room need to fight to be heard. The entitled will always speak first, loudest and most. Those with less confidence may allow themselves to be intimidated and therefore suppress their differing perspectives, albeit equally meritorious.  When those lesser voices speak up, that is when different sides are explored and those with hidden biases are able to see and appreciate new vistas. One should shout one's point of view if one has to do so to be heard. Not doing so could mean allowing a wrong choice to be made based on hidden biases that have not been properly explored or debunked.

As I reflected on the lessons learnt form that wonderful and rewarding exercise, I really could not help drawing analogy with, and feeling despondent about, jury selection in court proceedings (obviously affected -if subconsciously- by the comment of my White colleague), and the empaneling of jurors with the perspective of only one representative group - an all-White, or all-Black, or all-male, or all-female jury, let's say. And, having seen and been a part of the deliberative process, and witnessed first-hand how biases sneak into our choices, I am slightly terrified for the vulnerable whose lives and futures are in the balance when such a jury deliberates. 

All-female, all-White jury 😦

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