Sunday, August 5, 2018

White Goose; Black Gander: Who Gets the Sauce When We All Sit at the Same Table?

Jackass seh the worl no level.

Or, as George Orwell might have said it, "all people are equal, but some people are more equal than others." But the Jamaican proverb above captures the sentiment well. It literally means that, from the donkey's perspective, the ground it treads on, as it carries its daily burden, is not level; it is uneven. Simply, life is unfair and human beings are prone to double standards which put unprivileged persons, typically minorities, at a disadvantage. 
Inequalities and double standards are prevalent even in diverse and inclusive environments, and, often, it is necessary to police the treatment of the unprivileged to identify the subtle and insidious trickery of tokenism, slithering and secreting itself under the cloak of diversity. Diversity must never be allowed to become a numbers game, where the unenlightened may check boxes, put down their pens and go home, without any genuine intent or attempt to create an all-inclusive culture where all rank equally; where each person's voice carries equal weight and gets equal sympathy.

Yet, the experiences of many 'diverse hires' in the corporate space, America and beyond, show that tokenism is widespread; not only, or merely, in terms of who is in the room by comparative numbers, (one Black male, five East Indian females and seven White Europeans of any gender - check, check, check), but also in terms of who gets what privilege while sitting at the table. What? With the preponderance of eLearning courses and corporate retreats that teach us not to call each other fat? Or not to make pejorative references to each other's background, nationality or culture? Like not to call Kyrgyzstan a 'shithole' country on the job, where a Kyrgyzstani may be present? Or not to complain about the exponential increase of Chicken Thika Marsala dinners in the office refrigerator since 2010? Or not to refer to Jamaicans as 'weedheads' who listen to Bob Marley all day, because, you know, Jamaicans are everywhere and always 'mellow'?  No way.

Actually, yes way. Way way. eLearning courses are mainly a compliance tool; and a nuisance to the impatient. They do play an important role in sensitizing staff to the requirements for appropriate behavior on the job, but who cares? Who doesn't flip through them and guess the answers to the assessments? Or cheat? And, perhaps because of how we treat these courses, they rarely ever change mindset in fundamental ways. (You may not call me fat for fear of losing your job, but you still think it and act it, and I am your default dumping ground for leftover cupcakes).

The real problem with hidden biases that create double standards is however more invidious. It is how unprivileged persons are subconsciously viewed in a negative way and, ultimately, prejudiced by that view: prejudiced in career mobility; prejudiced in their scope for easy integration and assimilation into the job environment; prejudiced in their opportunities for participation in social events; prejudiced in their opportunities to share in available but scarce perks and novelties; prejudiced in their ability to claim normalcy, take ownership and exercise agency on the job - to be considered as much the default as everyone else. That is, everyone with privilege. (The default for persons with privilege is a White person. However, non-White persons may also benefit from privilege of one sort or another, including privilege occasioned by historical social class structures). The truth is simply that in diverse environments, what is sauce for the goose is not always sauce for the gander; and sometimes the gander gets no sauce at all; equally egregious, in either case.

Sauce discrimination is best illustrated by actual personal experiences of 'diverse hires' in corporate environments dominated by the privileged. These illustrations show how prevalent these double standards are, and, what is more, how subtle and deeply entrenched they are as mindsets or heartsets. All the illustrations are set in environments where eLearning courses on ethical conduct and diversity trainings abound; hence the wisdom that eLearning courses per se cannot change mindsets and heartsets, and the imperative that organizations be deliberately mindful and focused about inclusionary policy, and jealously watchful of the consistent implementation and follow-through of action steps to protect the vulnerable. Cause, let's drop the BS for a second, we may never really be able to do anything to change a heartset - and we really do not care; that is why we have rules and insist on maintaining them, and employing watchdogs (sometimes called HR) to do so. All the following anecdotes are true, though the names used are fictitious.

1. Canada, c. 2013. The precious moment when you’re literally called ‘token’

Basil was working for a consulting firm where he was the only minority in his service group. Everyone else was privileged. Basil made friends and got along famously with his colleagues. He was invited to dinner, house parties and social clubs. He socialized and integrated, even dated among the privileged, and in every respect felt like the default - like everybody else. 

Then the bubble burst. Reggie, a privileged friend, confessed that other privileged colleagues from another group had referred to Basil as ‘the token Black guy in tax.’ Gasp. Further, they had expressed surprise that Reggie and Basil were friends.  

The use of the word token to describe Basil was classic racial microaggression:  
    • His name was erased and replaced by an offensive description that re-identified him as an abstract entity (token Black guy), belittled his worth as a professional, and ignored the eminence of his qualification for the job he held. It suggested that he was a statistic, and not there to add substantive value. 
    • It would have been easy for those persons to find out what Basil name and background were, if they had that interest. Instead, while it is clear they had an interest in him (they surely knew who he was), they chose to be dismissive and condescending, flippantly stripping him of personhood, rendering him a curiosity and an experiment for enquiry from Reggie.
    • It revealed their sense of entitlement and ownership to the exclusion of those whom they othered. This was their turf and Basil had merely been brought there as a wall accent - to make them feel magnanimous in giving the poor token an opportunity.  
    • It created uncertainty within Basil about his place in the organization and how he should relate to his colleagues. Was he a mockery at their parties, with privileged persons snickering behind his back, chatting about him and calling him names, while, to his face, piteously smiling with 'the token Black guy'? 
In the end, Basil dismissed them as dumb, and moved on. Perhaps there had been some redemption for privileged persons in the fact that Reggie had seen it fit to separate himself from the sentiments expressed by his colleagues and to take the active step of reporting their crudity, not as a joke, which was an option, but as an outrage. Ultimately, it is the organization that would suffer in its mission to cultivate the kind of workplace environment that was a melting-pot of inclusion. 

2. New York, c. 2015. When everyone does not get the same privilege of access.

A New York consulting firm appeared to have a policy of openness and free access.  There was sufficient evidence of that in how some young privileged female associates dealt with partners: they sent the partners emails and instant messages at will, called them on their mobiles at will, pursued them tirelessly over outstanding deadlines without shyness, had coffee or salad all cozied up in a cafe, chatted about the boat trip to or from Boston, or wherever, and, you get the picture. Micah, a person in the minority, was told as an experienced hire that the firm wanted consultants who could get work done and keep things moving, so, with the examples around him as precedent, he felt confident about the aggressive approach that he would employ to achieve success.

And then he was given conduct of a project with a tight deadline, with a mandate to see it through to expeditious completion. So Micah did what he had seen young privileged female colleagues of his do. Micah followed up frequently with all stakeholders in the matter, including persons senior to him. And when things were not moving apace, he ‘hounded’, that is, followed up and monitored non-stop, as politely as he could, according to the precedents set around him. Micah ‘pissed-off’ senior people who did not like being hounded (no physician likes her own medicine), and then he did the unthinkable. He sent an external partner, a person of privilege, an email, with information requested by that external partner. Gasp. All hell broke loose.

One privileged female partner, not on his team, but someone involved in the matter, complained that Micah did not know his place (not her words but that is how it translated to Micah). No one had given him permission to send an email directly to the external partner. Add to that the fact that he had been hounding persons senior to him to get work done on time. He was clearly out of control. Never mind that his polite persistence had paid dividends in that the work was completed within deadlines. Never mind that the data requested by the external partner was Micah’s work, and the request would ultimately have to be handled by him.  Never mind that privileged associates sent emails of the kind to internal and external partners all the time. If Micah did not send the information directly, he would have had to send it to someone else who would simply click the ‘forward’ button to send it onward to the requesting partner.

No one seems to have informed the external partner (she didn’t get the memo) that she should not communicate directly with Micah. Somehow they both did not know the rules. She wrote back to him saying thanks, and a few days later, followed up with him to ask for additional information and clarification. On those subsequent occasions, Micah sent the information to a partner in his service group who simply hit the forward button. So much for the hullabaloo.

The end result was that Micah was asked by his own team to take a backseat for a bit because, obviously, the complaining partner had issues with him. He had never seen that happen to anyone else on the team.  He thought the real message, which his team had seemed to tolerate, was that he should know his place and, metaphorically speaking, not 'look privileged women in the eye,' an unfortunate inference to make which may not have been true, but certainly an excusable inference open to him in the context of the double standards he faced, and against the background of a history of discriminatory treatment in his cultural DNA which resembled his current experience. 

In the long run, Micah did not think it was an environment he would continue to feel comfortable in, so he left the job. At the very least, it would be too confusing – he could never be sure after that incident, with whom he was allowed to speak or interact, and he could not use his privileged colleagues as good precedent. Further, he was not about to know his place. Micah was brilliant and hard-working. The firm lost. Happily, not all privileged partners in the scenario felt the same way, or showed the same double standards.

3.    New York c. 2014. When you are subject to greater suspicion and scrutiny because of your origin.

Dwight came from Jamaica. Whether it is related or not, he appeared laid-back. He would walk through the office, not run or scurry like the rest of his colleagues. He took his one-hour lunch rather than ‘grab a salad at Choppt’ and quickly return to his computer to eat and un-digest. He never appeared stressed, never ripped his hair out and always wore a smile, even laughed loudly at times. He was extremely smart and well educated and had made it far up the ranks because he had proven himself. That is how he got his job in a New York consulting firm. But it appeared he could never prove himself enough – to some.

'Some', in this case, turned out to be a Taiwanese project manager he had to work with on a big project. Right out of the blocks, their interaction was interesting. She was fascinated with the fact that he was Jamaican, and constantly told him that he reminded her of the Jamaicans that work on her car in Yonkers. 😦 In fact, so satisfied was she that she knew Jamaicans, by virtue of employing Jamaican mechanics, that her interaction with mechanics became a standard for all her assumptions about him – including her perception that Jamaicans always 'know everything' even when they do not know what they are talking about. (Pretty sure the eLearning course counsels against making assumptions – but she does have a point about Jamaican mechanics. Shh!).

Dwight worked hard but found that she would dismiss his ideas and work-products summarily without giving him a chance to make the sale. One week or so later she would suddenly come up with (some of) his ideas in a different template, by which time the ideas had become brilliant, and more importantly, hers. She would also brush his ideas off in discussions, but when the (White) partner on Dwight’s team mentioned the same ideas, Taiwanese would immediately call them brilliant.  

Dwight could not do anything right. If he was proactive and tried to push the project along, he would be told to wait for her directive because she was in charge, and she thinks in a linear manner, not one that is haphazard and all over the place. She meant she could only deal with one thing at a time. But if she saw him looking out of a window, she would immediately accuse him of gazing and not working. If he left early one day, he was not invested enough and showed signs of laziness. (She was clearly unaware of the troubled historical relationship between Black persons and that adjective. Or, maybe not). She saw him hard at work, but would still question his diligence if he was wearing head phones and looked ‘too happy.’ She, in fact, told him he was ‘too happy.’

Luckily, the story has a sort of good ending, maybe thanks to Dwight’s personality, but more his competence.  Eventually they encountered an aspect of the project that Taiwanese had no experience in nor talent for, and she was forced to rely solely on Dwight to handle that aspect. And handle it he did – so brilliantly that the clients commended the team for the work. She came to respect him , told him she was impressed, that he had far exceeded his level, and that he was ready for promotion. Slight twist to the end: when she had to put that recommendation on paper, she toned it down to say he was ‘partially ready’ for promotion, because she feared going out on a limb for this Jamaican (well that seems to be the best inference for her lack of conviction).  

Dwight eventually left the firm. The firm lost.

4.    Jamaica, c. 2010. That priceless moment when you are literally called ‘the hired help.’

Maurice, a Black Jamaican, was partner of a firm of attorneys contracted to a group of Canadian tech engineers pursuing profit in Jamaica. Maurice was famous for the quality of his work and was much in demand. So in demand was he that he often had conflicting commitments on his calendar – not just an oversight in booking, but also because he was overbooked and had to ‘juggle’.

So he was inevitably running late for a meeting with his Canadian employers one morning and as a result they were forced to reschedule the meeting. They were not happy. Eventually, a manager reached out to Maurice to transmit their displeasure. She mistakenly messaged him by forwarding an email trail which contained a rant from the engineers expressing their displeasure to her. (It is in fact uncertain whether she was being careless, or deliberate). In the rant, Maurice saw the following statement from his White counterparts: “It is not our custom to wait for the hired help.” Gasp.

It is quite possible that those privileged persons who wrote that statement still do not appreciate how it is read and received by a Black professional. Notwithstanding purported apologies, ('sorry, it was not meant for you to see that'), Dennis terminated the relationship. The engineers lost.
5.    New York, c. 2017. When speaking truth becomes aggression.

Kent, a minority, was smart and knew it. And he was not shy about it. He set a high standard for himself and, as a manager, held everybody to that standard. He worked in a very diverse environment, with various diverse groups well represented; except at senior leadership level. He was definitely no 'token Black guy.'

Shortly after Kent joined the organization, he started receiving complaints about what was perceived as his aggressive tone in emails and calls. Aggressive? Kent had a habit of telling the truth. He pointed out incompetence or lack of leadership particularly where persons were in the habit of making excuses for not doing their jobs. Senior leadership and others appeared to take offense especially when Kent’s criticisms related to their team.  No one accused Kent of being inaccurate or mistaken, however.

Meanwhile, throughout the organization, Kent saw privileged persons doing the same thing he was called aggressive for doing. Some members of the senior leadership team were very rude. They yelled and demeaned staff when they felt like it. Even junior members of staff were curt when they got the chance. In other words, nothing that Kent did was out of the ordinary for the organization. Why, then, was he the only one being referred to as aggressive, and being maligned for speaking the truth? Perhaps it did come across as aggressive, but if so, why were other 'aggressive' privileged persons not subject to the same reaction? Kent also noticed that some of his privileged counterparts appeared to resent his authoritative exercise of leadership and complained that he was 'full of himself' and inflexible. Again, no one complained that he was inaccurate or misguided. And again, many privileged persons were authoritative with these same complainers but were not subject to resentment for doing so. Altogether, it was a strange experience that only a minority professional seemed to have.

Kent still works for the organization. He appreciates the general diversity and did not let that incident color his overall view of the organization. But he is still speaking the truth, and still being called aggressive.

6.    Canada, c. 2014. When natural hair becomes activism.

When Courtney started his client-facing job, he was clean-shaven with a bald head. About two years later, he decided to grow an 'afro' and a prominent beard, a la James Harden. This was just before the long beard became a fad for everyone. 

Stock Photo
Courtney’s neat, perfectly-round afro grew to the extent that his hair stood out among his colleagues, for sheer beauty and uniqueness. But it was certainly not the longest. Many of his client-facing privileged colleagues had long hair, some in a periodic pony tail, some shoulder length, long enough to simply rest on the shoulder, some thick, some thin, but all noticeable in one way or the other.   

And the questions or comments came. Was he growing an afro for a cause – as against simply grooming his hair in his preferred style? Was he part of a Black Power movement - as against simply grooming his hair in his preferred style? Why was he growing an afro – because he could not be simply grooming his hair in his preferred style?  Did he find it appropriate for the office – because grooming his hair in the way it grows naturally like any privileged person could possibly be inappropriate for the office? And so on. He did not hear similar questions being asked of his privileged colleagues.

James Harden
Then one day he cut his hair. His manager looked at his new low cut and remarked that she thought that the low cut was a better way to keep his hair. He got the hint, though he did not take it fully. He kept his beard growing even though the afro was gone. One day, a new privileged colleague, seeing his beard for the first time, described it as a dirty beard. Undeterred, he kept growing it longer and longer and kept it looking neat and managed. That is, until a client came to the office to meet with him and his privileged manager, saw his beard and said aloud in everyone’s presence, ‘You’re going to scare them.’ They all laughed it off. 

Courtney kept his beard growing until a few years later when the trend for long beards picked up. Then he cut it. He has never been an activist a day in his life. Well, not the kind his colleagues think. The client had captured the real underlying issue. Aspects of Black bodies and expression (as a cultural phenomenon) 'scare' some privileged persons and that fear manifests itself in policies enforced by corporate organizations dominated by persons of privilege.  

7.    United Kingdom, c. 2017. Sauce for the privileged Goose not sauce for the minority Gander.

Sharif had worked for over 15 years in the banking sector, in various service groups and at increasing levels of management. He was well known for his competence on the job – he was in fact the go-to person in his current role. He sought a promotion to a role for which he had already had significant exposure. He was confident he could handle the role given his breadth of specifically relevant, as well as general, experience. But, the bank turned him down for that position, citing various excuses and insisting that he needed more years of experience at that level. They did not refer to his fifteen years of experience working in the bank in various groups, his thorough knowledge of the bank’s systems and processes, nor his qualifications, which, on paper, were extremely impressive.

Then Nataly, a Russian expat, was appointed to role, similar to that which was sought by Sharif, but for which she had no knowledge or experience. None. She was a total novice. She had served a similar level of seniority but in role which had nothing to do with the new role in which she was appointed. 
For up to two years, she brought nothing to the table and had to be assisted by her subordinates to manage her group, because the subordinates knew more about the job than she did. Her role was not a role that Sharif has applied for, but he was eminently more qualified for that role than Nataly was. Senior leadership encouraged others to execute Nataly’s role while she took her time to come up to speed.

About one year after Nataly was brought on board, Sharif left the job for a promotion in another financial institution. The double standard he perceived at his former employer was too much. But he had learnt his lesson. He believed he sat at the same table as Nataly. But she had been served sweet sauce. He was told he needed to wait for any sauce at all.

Indeed, if Jackass came to the 'diverse' corporate world and saw much of the race-nationality dynamic, it would tell you that ‘the worl still no level.’

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