By Tyronne Stoudemire
The evolution of time has afforded us to do things differently in regards to diversity and inclusion in business.
We’ve come so far, yet have so far to go.
In the city of Chicago, a minority majority town, the demographics are shifting. We are very multicultural—and have always been since our inception— but we still lack the competency and skills required to harness and provide a safe place for all.
Believe it or not, one of my first jobs was working in the mailroom, and this experience helped shape my worldview. It helped shape how I make decisions and how I resolve conflict. Of course my roles have evolved over time, but my early experiences in the workforce prepared me for my career.
I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, a very segregated town and not as large as Chicago, but definitely a place where there was a large racial divide. My family moved to a community where we were the first African American family on the block. This experience allowed me to see how, back in the 70’s, whites really didn’t want to integrate with races other than their own. So when the complexities of race relations translated into the business world, I quickly noticed how the “race conversation” created fear and polarization. No one wants to have that dialogue. Bringing up the word “race” is like touching the third rail. People often shun it because no one wants to be labeled as a racist.
When I first started off in my career, diversity and inclusion looked very similar to how it exists today. There were not many people of color at the top of the house. There was diversity within the organization, but it was oftentimes set at the low director level. In most cases, this was due to unconscious biases, stereotypes, labels, and more. When this lack of understanding permeates the sector of business, cultural differences are then misinterpreted into performance issues. People assume that the more we are like each other, the more likely we are to respect, to support, to advocate, and to give benefit of the doubt—and if I don’t know you, I’m not going to give you the benefit of the doubt.
I’ve unfortunately learned that as an African American man in leadership, you’re often second guessed— the benefit of the doubt is not there. You often find that you’re working twice as hard. And when you express that, people misinterpret it as you playing the victim. But, truthfully, it’s not being a victim. People of color are not complaining about the lack of diversity, but rather explaining it. If leaders and organizations focused more on being cross-culturally competent—as in the ability to take into account other worldviews—it leaves opportunities to resolve conflicts in ways that blend us together.
And now, more so than ever, our political climate operates from a place of fear of cultural diversity, as opposed to the understanding that a tolerance for ethnic difference is actually the beginning of societal unification. Our most recent election has created a fear of “the other.” There is a ‘him against us’ mentality. And the worldview of the party in power is very different than that of women and people of color. It’s crucial to understand that one’s worldview plays out quite differently than one’s business perspective. There’s a worldview for government and a worldview for business— and I think that without implementing that balance, we’ve now created a more polarizing nation that has invited the freedom for the majority of people to behave differently.
In my wish to improve diversity, I’ve found that it’s tricky to go from building awareness and understanding, to trying to get to the process of integration. The integration piece is very difficult because people frequently don’t want to understand difference. They’d prefer to manage and preserve the status quo because there is no real reason to change, even though that is one thing that will come out of these conversations. Change—people are fearful of change. The only person who likes change is a wet baby. Everyone else resists it because they think, “I don’t know what this is going to do for me” or they ask “what is the impact?” Or, even worse, “I’m not comfortable with being uncomfortable.” But, when you look at Black and brown people, we’ve been uncomfortable our entire lives.
A good example of the seemingly mundane occurrence of oppression that we face in our daily lives is the video footage capturing the incident on the United Airlines flight a couple of weeks ago. When the victim reflected back on his time as an immigrant in this country, the violence reminded him of when he fled his own country.
I don’t think that people are wired to be racist, or to be a certain way. But, there are definitely certain triggers that are operating from different stereotypes which are a facet of, in most cases, unconscious biases.
So when we think of diversity in business, people of color oftentimes can’t just occupy a job. We have to understand what our purpose is, what our call is, and what our legacy is.
To be honest, I didn’t understand the plight of an African American in business until I was about 45 years-old. But I do know that, in this point in my career, diversity and inclusion is a calling for me. It is a part of me shifting into my own legacy.