A Tale of the Bomb
By: Winston Mattis, April 15, 2015
I recently read a series of comments on Linkedin about the future of Diversity. Does anyone care about diversity?, the thought Leader queried. The question generated a fair amount of responses with opinions spanning the gamut. More recently, there has been a plethora of commentary about diversity in technology-based corporations, and women in the corporate leadership space just to name a few areas of interest. Of course, Fortune Magazine’s recently published article on the abysmal scorecard of tech giants on achieving diversity. As I read through the plethora of information, studies and commentary on the question of workplace diversity, it is difficult not to keep going back to what may be a central question recently posted on Linkedin. Does anyone in corporate America and Corporate Canada really care about diversity beyond simply paying it a whole lot of lip service?
While I am not in a position to offer a definitive answer to the question posed, I am in a position to present at least one reason that seems to work against speedy change from the status quo. What I do know is that until business leaders learn how to check, and counteract their own biases the dream of an inclusive, diverse organization may well be many moons away, if not an illusion. I am not so naive to think that simply learning to check one’s bias without doing more is going to have a magical impact on diversity in corporate work spaces. However, learning vigilantly to recognize, check and at the very least neutralize one’s own biases may have noticeably and positive impact on the diversity initiative. Here is a story that highlights the essence of what I am talking about.
It is the first really warm day of spring 2015. I decide to sit in a somewhat quiet space and complete WINN’s first ever book review. Off I go to the local McDonald’s at which I can sit, enjoy a coffee and people watch while I work to assemble my thoughts in some organized fashion.
As I get out my vehicle, I snatch my lap top, slug it under my arms for safe keeping, and slam shut the doors of the vehicle I am driving. In that moment, a red Chrysler Sebring pulls up. The driver is a middle-aged, white female. She seems entranced her entire body being consumed by blaring echoes of a tune I seem to recognize. Totally engulfed with Amy Whinehouse’s music she does not initially notice that I have delayed walking proceeding out of politeness. She continues. Pounding hard on her steering wheel as she bops her head incessantly to the beat of the music seems to increase the pleasure of the music as every cell in her body experiences it. She continues to be oblivious to my presence as I tried to negotiate my way past her vehicle. Up. Down. Up. Down. Her head bops seemingly uncontrollably at a rapid pace. Maddening is the sound of the thumping bass which renders her in a dissociative state. After a few moments, she abruptly turns off the vehicle, yanking the keys out of the ignition. A young boy and a young girl emerge from the vehicle with her. Neither one could be any more than fourteen years of age. They stretch their legs, waiting for directions from the adult female.
Emerging from this vehicle is a woman, small in stature sporting a dirty blonde. The woman looks me straight I the eye and says rather emphatically, “I just love her music”. I just love Amy Whinehouse”. I can’t get enough of her music, especially on a day like today”, as she shuts the driver’s side door of her red hot Sebring.
Why, is that?, my curiosity is now peaked.
“Her music relaxes me. And I am stressed! Her music relaxes me”, she carries on as the two children drift further away giving distance between her and I.
“What is stressing you out?”, I inquired further?
“I run a business”, she says?
Looking for the perfect pivot to plug WINN, I ask: “oh, what kind of business?”
“I am a corporate event planner.”
Oh. I see. “So, you do not plan weddings or any of that stuff. You just work on the corporate side”, I sheepishly muttered?
“Yes”, the woman confirmed.
“That is great”. What is your name?, I probed.
“M”, she answered half heartedly, as the music continued to pump, only now exclusively in her head.. “She died so tragically”, ‘M’ shifted the subject.
“A drug over doze took her early”, I remarked in an effort to empathize and demonstrate subject-matter knowledge. “They (her niece and nephew) do not even know who she is”, the woman complained.
“Well, she only died a few years ago, but oh well they do not know”, I grunted.
“She was from London, my home town”, M said, almost as if she was paralyzed by a personal loss.
“Oh. Are you from London, England?”, I asked with a slight degree of eagerness.
“Oh yes. I am”, ‘M’ confirmed with pride and an obvious glow in both her eyes
“I lived in London for about a year. I was in Brixton. You know, the Stockwell area”, were my next utterances.
“Ahhhh. That is a bad area. There were riots in Brixton. “It is a bad area”.
“It was not a bad area when I was there. In fact, when I was there yuppies had started buying up houses in the area and converting them into incredible living spaces”, I retaliated.
“Well, it is a bad area now”, she insisted. There are all these Arabs living there now. It is just a bad area now. And I can’t stand those Arabs. They bombed my underground, man”.
“Well, the British are not exactly saints you know?” “I mean, throughout history, the British did wage war on lots of folk”. Abruptly she cut me off.
“I do not want to talk to you about that stuff, man. Don’t even start. They bombed my underground. Don’t start.” She was now instantly filled with emotion bordering on rage. With tremor in her voice, and visibly annoyed, ‘M’ looked me up and down and then said: “Don’t talk to me about these people, man.”
My back now straight up, I exclaimed: “whooaaa, ‘M’. Hang on. Give me your hand for a second.” Reluctantly she did, as she clutched close to her side the two hand bags she carried .
As I held her hand I said in a soft and gentle tone: “you know, war is a human condition”.
Snap! Her white hand had now gone a bit pinkish as she abruptly yanked them from mine. Frustrated and visibly taken aback ‘M’ said: ‘Don’t talk to me about that stuff. I want to hear nothing about that crap.”
You started it ‘M’”, I reminded her, as her niece and nephew joined in concurring with me in the process.
Not another word came out of ‘M’’s mouth. Though we stood behind each other in the McDonald’s line up, there was not another utterance that came from ‘M’s mouth about the subject. It was as if I did not exist, and the conversation never happened. She just moved on, as incredible as it may sound. I was not on her side. So, the conversation abruptly ended.
What does this little story have to do with the future of workplace diversity. At first blush, the answer seems clear—nothing. Look a little further, though. Let’s deconstruct some of the elements in this story.
‘M’ is a White woman from England. She is a business woman. She is either employed by, or works alongside corporate Canada as an event planner. I am assuming that her responsibilities could span the gamut from planning corporate social events, to conferences, and other educational type activities. Regardless of the scope of ‘M’s functional responsibilities, ‘M’ was quick to tell me that she was a business woman who is in the workforce working in corporate Canada. Whether she occupies a managerial position or not, her biases are likely going to be displayed in the workplace.
The word “Arab” does not denote citizenship. Nor does it solely denote a religious background. It connotes both a religious, cultural and national identities. It cannot be seriously argued that in today’s world, Arabs are being painted broadly as civil society’s enemy. Arab, as an identifier, in North American society is a loaded term that traverses identity politics, among other things.
That being said, one cannot help but wonder out loud how many folks like ‘M’ are employed in North American companies. Perhaps ‘M’ was comfortable enough with me openly to express her bias. Perhaps I was constructed as an exception. Perhaps my ‘blackness’ circumscribed her cognitive ability to construct me possibly as an “Arab”. It is doubtful that ‘M’ would have uttered those words to me had she subjectively come to a place where she believed I was an “Arab”. It is implausible to believe that ‘M’ would have expressed her thoughts and biases about “Arabs” had the interchange occurred in the workplace.
Chances are that the way that ‘M’ feels about Arabs is an attitude shared by many in corporate Canada and America. In fact, Arab women in contemporary discourse are constructed and partially understood as un-Canadian. Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed this orientation, even though it remains unclear whether the Prime Minister’s reference to un-Canadian meant “anti-Canadian”, or simply “not of Canada”.
Whether ‘M’ is, or will make it into the executive levels of corporate Canada remains anybody’s guess. Whether her business dealing will expand is also an open question. It is a scary proposition if she does, given her attitudes. WINN suspects that there may well be many ‘M’-types occupying senior and other positions in Canadian workplaces. Since, it is highly unlikely that ‘M’ is alone in her attitude towards Arabs, it seems clear that achieving diversity in many corporate establishments is riding an uphill battle. Speculation, one might say. How can one extrapolate so generally from a single isolated incident. While the incident may be isolated, a conclusion not conceded, ‘M’ attitude is not. War in the middle East, 911, the Syrian civil war, ISIS and a host of other geo-political events have had the attendant consequence of labeling “Arabs” as a group as the enemy.
‘M’ attitude and behavior highlights many questions upon which organization touting diversity may want to contemplate. For now, WINN reproduces some, though not all of them as follows:
- For the children who witnessed this incident, how might it affect the way they view Arabs and their future relationship with Arabs in the workplace?
- Are women more or less likely to be supportive of the diversity initiatives, regardless of personal experience with one or more persons in an identifiable group marked by ethnicity, religion, culture, etc.?
- What tools are available to predict these attitudes in the hiring process and beyond? Should hiring managers even attempt to predict or uncover ‘M-type’ attitudes?
- Is the position of Chief Diversity Office in organizations simply the hot seat for identity politics?
- Is it reasonable to think that ‘M’ can ever get past her biases were she ever to be put in a position of interviewing a Arab candidate for a job?
- Supposing ‘M’s boss uncovered ‘M-type’ attitude behavior, when, if ever, should she ever be a candidate for promotion?
- Would an Arab boss be justified in refusing to hire, or in the alternative terminate ‘M’ if her attitude was uncovered?
Should anyone, including shareholders, even care about these issues, so long as the corporation meets the bottom-line performance target? This brings us back full circle. Does anyone care about diversity issues in corporate North America?