When leaders take steps to dismantle racial inequity, they quickly find themselves dealing with deep-seated attitudes and perceptions that are not easily changed.

One problem is the difference in the ways that whites experience the world versus the way people of color experience their world. For whites, the world is a place where individuals deal with other individuals or with groups. Whites tend to view the world as being composed of individuals, not in terms of racial groups—perhaps because they seldom see themselves as part of a racial group. When you experience exclusion based on your racial identity, it is very obvious that the exclusion is based on your group membership and that everyone in that racial group is affected. However, our racial group is not excluded from key opportunities. The only pattern we might see in the workplace is that white players are a minority in the national Basketball Association. Even there, though, whites to- tally dominate the ranks of owners, as they do in each major professional sport. As we survey the entire country, we see that individuals from the white group are the ones who actually run the economy, the government, media, academia, and corporations.

Because whites don’t experience our racial group being excluded from opportunity, we experience the workplace as one in which individuals succeed or fail based on their personal skills (including political skills). People of color, however, see patterns of group-level racial exclusion. Like many women in higher levels of corporations, they are more likely to notice how few other people of color are present in a meeting. As we shall see later, these differing ways of perceiving the world contribute to the challenge of establishing a racially equitable workplace.
These group patterns arise from the way we humans deal with dynamics that my colleague, Chip Henderson, calls “the psychology of human differences,” (Chip Henderson, Private communication, 2015)

One element that influences how humans handle differences is the reality of culture. Culture provides a structure through which people understand and organize their lives. Cultures can vary widely on both these dimensions. Examples of cultural structures include:

  •  how close one should stand to another when is speaking;
  • how much intensity of emotion to express;
  • what type of emotion (negative, positive) to express;
  •  the settings (public, private) in which different emotions should be expressed;
  • how respect should be expressed;
  •  to whom one’s primarily allegiance is owed (nuclear family, extended family, clan, tribe, etc.);
  • notions of time (it is over when the clock says it is over, or it is over when we finish whatever business we have to conduct);      and
  • what constitutes social status (achievements on the battlefield, how much property one owns, how much property one gives away).

The way different cultures define each of these things varies greatly. in the U.S., a person is held responsible for their individual behavior. in other parts of the world (e.g., China) one’s entire family can be held responsible for what the individual does or fails to do.

The fact that cultures differ so widely explains some of the reactions that occur when people of different cultures interact. For instance, behaviors that indicate respect in one culture can mean the opposite in another (e.g., degree of eye contact, physical touching, using informal versus formal forms of address).

People also tend to judge those from another culture by the criteria of their own culture. For example, a culture in which people are accustomed to waiting for the speaker to finish fully, no matter how long they speak, will label someone who interrupts as rude or deviant. Yet the person who interrupts may be operating from cultural norms that define interrupting as a normal way of engagement. This friction over contrasting definitions of appropriate behavior underlies one of the biggest challenges posed by cultural differences: whose cultural norms are the standard by which all operate? Are people seen as appropriate if they abide by the norms of either culture, or are they seen as appropriate only if they operate by the norms of one culture?

The history of self-segregation by whites also explains why so many whites are comfortable with only the white cultural way of doing things—they have little or no experience working in other cultural frames. When negotiating with people of color, many feel that any way of doing things, other than the white way, is somehow a step down from what should be. Because they know only the Europeanized version of history, they have the erroneous impression that whites, as a group, have reached the highest levels of civilization (literature, politics, art, science). Given that picture, there is no compelling reason why they should settle for anything else but white cultural norms.