In order to manage something, we need to be aware of how it is operating or playing out. In the control room of power plants and oil refineries, there is a flow chart displayed on a large board. The board displays rates or statistics at each key point in the process. This allows the managers to instantly be aware of any variances that occur from the desired process. A similar level of awareness is required in order to assure racial equity. Leaders must monitor what is occurring if they are to detect any variances from the intended or desired outcome.
Throughout the 1990’s, Elise Y. Cross Associates regularly conducted 3-day diversity training events with our client companies. The staffing consisted of a woman of color, a man of color, a white woman and a white man. We always debriefed each day’s session over dinner. On a “good night” we ended by 8:30, but some nights these sessions did not end until well after 10pm. The purpose was to analyze where the trainees were in terms of levels of awareness about diversity dynamics and then plan any changes we wanted to make in how we would conduct the class the following day.
I very quickly noticed a pattern whenever we entered a restaurant. It did not matter whether the host or hostess was a man or woman, white or of color. If I made eye contact with them, they would address me and say: “How many sir?” They would not do this with my colleagues. They always did it with me. I learned that I needed to avoid eye contact, in order to break this pattern. There would be an awkward silence while the host or hostess waited for me to look at them. Eventually, they would have to address one of my colleagues. This example of unconscious bias played out consistently in restaurants across the country. Obviously, either the restaurants trained their staff to address the white man, or they just assumed that the white man was the person in charge of the group. They seldom addressed either the woman of color or the man of color.
A similar pattern occurred when we conducted training in hotels – something that we did frequently with certain client organizations. In our firm, EYCA, the person in charge of the training team was called the dean. That role rotated, depending on who was the senior person. For the first ten years of my work there, I was usually not the senior person. Whenever we needed something for our training room, the dean would either call the front desk or go down to the desk personally. All of us staff knew the pattern. Front desk staff, regardless of their race or gender, tended to respond much better if the white man on staff went to the front desk. Often, the dean would go personally to the front deck, only to get no service. When that happened, the dean would send me down to the desk, and we got the service we requested.
The pattern of unconscious bias also played out when I was paired with a black woman in certain client systems where we conducted trainings in pairs. Again, I was seldom the dean in those cases. While we were preparing the room on the first day of the training, a convention services person from the hotel would check in with us to make sure the AV was working correctly or our supplies had been delivered. Inevitably, they would choose me as the person in charge. I was so accustomed to this pattern, that I would simply say: “Oh, you need to speak with her. She is the person in charge.” The hotel person would look surprised and then go speak with my colleague.
This was so pronounced that one day the hotel person literally changed the name on their paper that listed the dean. Carol was the black woman who was my colleague and the senior person. Her name was listed as such as the contact person on the paper that the hotel person had. Yet, the woman came right over to me and said, “Good morning Carl!” Her assumptions about white men (being in charge) were so strong that her mind disregarded what was printed on the contact sheet, and she changed the name to conform to her expectation.
In these two examples, the pattern played out time after time. This is what is important – the pattern. One example, one time, is not a pattern. I remember when a newspaper photo journalist asked me if a photo from the paper was racist. He noticed that the people in the photo were only white or Asian. I told him that one photo was not a pattern. I suggested that he and his fellow photo journalists examine the paper’s photos over a three month or six months period. I told him that he need not be worried if the pattern indicated that the races of people in the region they served showed up in the photos at a rate roughly equivalent to their percentage in the local region. For example, if the pattern over time indicated that people of indigenous heritage showed up in proportion to their numbers in the local area, there would be equity in the way the paper covered them in comparison to the way it covered whites.
Like power plant engineers, we will not know what is occurring in terms of racial equity unless we “see race” and watch for patterns. We need to notice if and when a pattern departs from how whites are treated. This is the first criteria from examination. If that is not the case, then we watch carefully. In some cases, being treated differently than whites can be a good thing. One racial group may have special needs that dictate that they receive a different treatment. We cannot even entertain that possibility unless we notice racial patterns.
I know looking for racial patterns is not something that most of us whites were raised to do. Often in workshops, we would instruct the trainees to come back from lunch with a report on what they noticed in terms of race. When some groups came back with no sightings of BIPOC people (on the street, in restaurants, in the corporate cafeteria, etc.) they expected that they had “failed” somehow. We had to tell them, “no” seeing patterns of whites is also seeing race play out. In those cases, the locales were such that what they saw was the predominant racial pattern in that area. There was certainly significance in terms of equity, in what they observed, but they did “see race” if they only race they saw was whites.
I tell people that they can observe racial dynamics even when they only see whites. In these cases, the issue is how the whites behave. Do whites only talk about race if a BIPOC person is present? Do whites speak in “code” about racial issues, using terms like “crime,” “good schools,” or “urban?” Does the discussion reveal that the whites live in a very segregated world away from work (their neighborhoods, social gatherings, houses of worship)? After observing the conversation of a group of whites, you can then consult the internet to determine the racial composition of that locale.
If race is not discussed in particular settings, that fact may be “diagnostic” in itself. Further observations may confirm that whites do not discuss race unless a BIPOC person brings up the topic. A finer level of investigation consists of finding out whether the places in which these whites live have BIPOC people in any positions of authority (court judges, school superintendents, elected officials, police chief, owners of local businesses). Structural racism exists in my state, Massachusetts, when it comes to choosing the jury pool. In cities where BIPOC people outnumber whites, the jury pool can still be 90% white because the pool of jurors is drawn from the county in which the city exists. The suburbs are very white.
Seeing race, and observing racial dynamics, is an essential component of working for racial equity. In order to calibrate how much equity is present or absent, we need to develop the habit of watching for racial patterns. This does not mean we only see bad news. In some cases, those patterns indicate that racial equity is present. However, if we are not looking for racial patterns, it is unlikely that we will be sufficiently aware of how race is playing out in that setting. When you do observe racial patterns, you can share those with colleagues or friends. If your stomach just got a little tight when you read the last sentence, you probably exist in a setting where avoiding the topic of race is a norm that whites have imposed or maintained. This too, is valuable data. In summary, racial patterns are all around us, once we look for them. Doing so is the first step in building settings where racial equity can exist.