Ask the White Guy: Black Troublemaker or Honest Broker?

A reader asks: "Does it make me a troublemaker if I point out that promotions are going to lesser-qualified white people?"

Ask the White Guy, Luke Visconti, DiversityInc CEOQuestion: Why does leadership get upset when African Americans question the hiring of individuals less qualified than themselves in promotion positions? And why are the individuals labeled “trouble makers?”

Answer: In my observation, there are few words more loaded than “qualification.” I think many qualifications are designed to protect those who are “in the club” from those who are not.

One example of bias that masquerades as a “qualification” is standardized tests, specifically the SAT and ACTs, which act as gatekeepers for the better colleges and universities—and therefore to membership in the middle class. The College Board (the billion-dollar-plus not-for-profit that produces the SATs) issued a report that states “the primary purpose of the SAT is to measure a student’s potential for academic success in college.” The report goes on to say that there IS a correlation between SAT score and first-year success in college (which makes sense if you use the SAT test as a gatekeeper, which most colleges and universities do).

A correlation that the College Board doesn’t promote is that SAT scores also correlate to family wealth. In other words, lower-income families have children who score lower on their SATs; wealthier families have children who score higher. Family wealth has nothing to do with being intelligent or talented but has everything to do with the kind of public school you have access to. Most of our country’s poorer school districts are nothing better than systemized institutions of talent squandering, despite the heroic efforts of some dedicated administrators and teachers, because they are not funded—and held accountable—to properly do the job.

Yet another correlation is that race and wealth are connected in this country. According to a recent Pew Research report, Black and Latino families have one-twentieth and one-eighteenth the household wealth of white households, respectively. This is a figure that has doubled since the subprime crisis, which was primarily caused by criminal predation by mortgage lenders, spurred by demand from Wall Street banks.

So, there is a vicious cycle for poor families, who are disproportionately Black and Latino: First we’ll keep you ignorant. Then we’ll deny you access to better yourself, and then we’ll punish and/or bamboozle you for being poor and ignorant. The pernicious nature of this cycle spills over to all members of a group when the stereotype is reinforced. Dr. Claude Steele describes this as stereotype threat. Watch the video below.

Different Perceptions

Now to answer your question. Before I became better informed, like most white people, I probably would have brushed off your assertion as being paranoid. But if you understand what’s going on (and I have a better grip on this now), the fact is that it’s not paranoia, it’s a real concern that arises from the knowledge that some groups in this country are persistently, perniciously and consistently discriminated against for reasons of race, gender, orientation, religion, age and disability. (There are other factors, but these are the major ones.)

Your situation is difficult; it is almost impossible to discuss an opinion on a subject where there are two very different perceptions of reality. What might be a topic of normal conversation if we are all on similar levels of perception (“Is that color pale green or chartreuse?”) becomes loaded with implications, implied wrongdoing, guilt and emotion. I do not assume your management is racist (they may be, but let’s assume they aren’t for the sake of this point). Therefore, by talking about what is plainly racial bias to you and invisible to your management, you are coming up against their reality, which is based on white privilege. Having grown up never worrying about race, white people have the privilege of never thinking about it from a personal perspective. Therefore, we cannot possibly truly understand what it means to have to think about it all the time. I have dedicated my life’s work to understanding diversity, but, in America, I cannot possibly understand what it means to be aware that every situation I’m in is fraught with potential discrimination based on the color of my skin.

Are You a ‘Troublemaker’?

When you challenge or question decisions where race (or privilege) is a factor, you are shaking the very foundations of what most white people believe to be true: that our country is a meritocracy, that we all compete equally and that the outcome is fair. But it’s not, and, although you wanted to discuss inequity in promotions, what you ended up doing was challenging the core of your leadership’s grounding in reality, which made you a “troublemaker” in their eyes. You wouldn’t be a “troublemaker” in an organization that is run to optimize performance because part of that optimization is diversity education, the tools to make opportunity equitably distributed (like employee-resource groups and mentoring)—and accountability for equitable talent management.

Frederick Douglass said, “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.” However, it is an ironic fact of life that the oppressed must lead the oppressor out of oppression. You would think that feeling the chain around our collective necks—the failure to thrive of the very Black and Latino youth that will soon be more than half the children in our country—would lead us to action, but it takes a precipitating factor (for example, photographs of Bloody Sunday to move Lyndon Johnson to meet with Dr. King to try and solve the problem of civil injustice).

This doesn’t mean, however, that you have an obligation to do this in your current job. I can tell you that the environment is better in DiversityInc Top 50 companies. You’re a professional in the medical industry—look at our list of top 5 hospitals. Check out our career center. No place is perfect, but you can put yourself on a more equitable path by picking a more progressive place to build your career. In a well-run company, equity in hiring, talent development and retention is measured and leaders are held accountable.

People are given the tools to manage a diverse workforce and develop business relationships with people who are “different.” Not because they sing “Kumbaya” in the board room, but because talent is equitably distributed—and therefore, proper leadership makes sure its human assets are treated equally and are managed to optimum performance. It’s about profitability and sustainability, and better-run companies have more opportunities for all people, not just underrepresented people.

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

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  • Carolynn Johnson

    Luke, this is great and captures a lot of what people are always afraid to say and have to walk around with every day. I hope that this article will encourage people who don’t want to be labeled “trouble makers” to do one of two things:
    1. Bring up concerns in a way that doesn’t come off as an attack on management’s engrained core beliefs (improving their communication skills – both verbal and non-verbal).
    2. Get the courage to get up and begin looking for a place where the need for these types of conversations are far and few between.

    Carolynn Johnson, COO of DiversityInc

    • From my experience, as an immigrant working for a fortune company that preaches diversity and inclusiveness within high performance teams. I have seen white employees with no relative education and experience have been awarded with the job positions they have no clue about. It is hard to prove the discrimination; they can always say that the job was rewarded to better qualified person.
      With over 15 years of experience, a master’s degree in engineering and multi-language skills, It is already difficult to get an interview with the name that is foreign.
      I did speak out spoke with the diversity counsel and with HR; it was just swept under the rug by moving me to a different position without any incentives.
      Communication is a must have skill and not having English as mother tongue can be disadvantage.

  • John F. Merchant

    Mr. Visconti explores and explains a difficult issue very well and reading it is like receiving a breath of fresh air. Clearly it gets to the heart of a very difficult problem confronting America and offers some ideas regarding solving the problem. The solution will not arrive tomorrow but will not arrive at all unless those of us who can do so make a commitment to understand the issues and work at solutions. Leadership must be made aware, helped to understand, care and lead.

  • Tamar Williams

    I believe the trouble lies in the term, “less qualified.” The Director of HR, if doing that job well, has weighed the facts of the person’s qualifications against all others. Challenging the director’s assessment of qualification challenges the job performance, if not intellect, of that director. Who, in that position thinks, “Yeah, I probably don’t know what I’m doing.” If a competing candidate’s skill set is unknown to the HR department, then that’s a problem.

    Upon returning to work after a physically disabling stroke, I had to remind HR and co-workers of my abilities and qualifications. Pre-judging on any kind of appearance is not OK.

  • It’s sad that so many people need you, Luke, to broker their understanding of fairness and equity. People need to see past skin color and other fetters that our identities and egos love to cling to.

    To the person labelled as a trouble-maker: You’re not a trouble-maker. You are constructively rocking the boat and standing up for what you believe in. Good for you. Keep it up. Speak your mind and your heart and do not let others tell you who you are. Who are they to do so? Your boss, your parents, your friends – none of them have this authority.

    We will evolve when we learn to uncouch our beliefs from race and see that the other people in the world are whole and complete human beings.

  • Evelyn Miller

    Regretably, in the face of too few jobs for so many people, I think more people of color will suffer in silence for fear of losing what little they have already, particulary in terms of employment. One always risks being labeled as a trouble maker or high maintenance if they challenge the status quo. Let’s face it, some people in leadership roles would be uncomfortable being challenged on any front, let alone something as “charged” as race. Being a person of color, I think about race all the time and filter things through the race prism. However, being wise, I pick my battles carefully and word my challenges so as not to affront put to question reasonably (not always easy to do) to get the conversation started.

  • “Having grown up never worrying about race, white people have the privilege of never thinking about it from a personal perspective. Therefore, we cannot possibly truly understand what it means to have to think about it all the time.”

    Whoa Luke, you make some serious conclusions here. How can YOU speak for all white people? Join the military, then you will get a glimpse of how all folks are judged on their height, figure attributes, voice, personality, race, where they are from, etc. I’ve been treated in different ways at different times in my life based on all of these things, NONE of which have anything to do with my competency.

    As far as the article goes, I’ve seen lots of people make judgements and assumptions about the qualifications of competitors…sometimes they are right, and sometimes they are way off base. They believe because someone is younger, for example, they are less qualified. Not always true. You better have your facts straight before you start accusing of racism.

    • Luke Visconti

      I did join the military; I flew helicopters for the Navy. And guess what: The person who asked the question works for the military. I think the military tries very hard to eliminate bias, but if you think bias doesn’t exist, check out the demographics of flag officers versus all officers commissioned in the same-year groups. Finally, I never claimed I speak for all white people. I speak for myself. Now brush the chip off your shoulder and mill about smartly. Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc

      • Luke: your response regarding the military was spot on! WOW!! I work as a civilian with the military.. The half has not been told!!
        While there appears to be great effort on the part of military to eliminate biases, it still has a loooong way to go….

        • Luke Visconti

          Thank you. I have been working with the Navy for years and as a Navy veteran can say that I’m proud of the progress they’ve made. I think the Navy is a full generation ahead of the other services, but you’re right – there’s a long way to go. The good news is that we’re on the right path and making progress. Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc

  • Excellent comments, This presents a way to respond, if we chose, when confronted with the insulting and dismissive term “pulling the race card.”

  • Truth is that many of these people who make some of these marginally justified hiring decisions are simply socialized to think as they do. Its really kind of sad because many of them who simply favor their own race are beginning to look like they are reaching for straws to get their way. Like a mouse in the maze in the little book “who moved my cheese”. Our society, like everything else, has and is evolving into a more diverse society. Be Prepared!!! Sadly enough, those who dont get it will wake up to report to a workplace that has changed without them having the benefit of the change simply because they slept through the transition. Oh well!

  • michael barrett

    Let me offer a couple of solid suggestions that shouldn’t upset management. (1) Recommend that the HR office provide a minority representative on all selection panels to prevent “inadvertent” discriminatory actions, as an adviser if nothing else. Management should like the idea since they will see it might protect them from EEO complaints. (2) Recommend that management save resources and enhance employee retention and productivity by instituting an “upward mobility” program to help develop talent within the company for career advancement. Such a program could offer education, mentoring, and concrete steps toward promotions. The Federal Government actually has programs like this.

    • Luke Visconti

      No, over-reaction = chip on your shoulder.
      Just saying.
      Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc

  • Excellent article. So many people fail to recognize that it’s the underpinnings of the system that set up the outcome before you ever go into the door to discuss a promotion.

    I often think about how we rely on sending people to an exclusive business school in my company, and how the cost of that university all but excludes it from many minority candidates. Then if you point out that “Applicant X” has a robust business degree from University Y, that the culture was stacked against many applicants before they ever approached the advancement opportunity.

  • I’m wrapping up my Bachelor’s degree (taking my last two classes now) and just finished taking an ethical diversities class in the fall. It was surprising to me how many white students in the class had never heard about or considered their “white privilege”. Being a Latina who grew up in Texas and now lives in Kentucky, I can tell you that white privilege is something all non-whites have to live and deal with daily, in varying forms and degrees, oftentimes coming from surprising sources.

    My recommendation is not to take offense whenever white privilege is mentioned…education and awareness are the first steps toward understanding what this is and how it impacts everyone in our society.

    • You are on target in your awareness of the incursion of white privilege in the lives of latinos and people of color. My wish for you is that you strengthen your resolve to surmount the impediments you will be forced to confront as you carve out a place for yourself in this racist society. This is not accomplished by colluding or collaborating with the status quo or abandoning your latino heritage — a personally toxic life decision chosen by many supposedly ‘successful’ Blacks and Latinos.

    • White privilege is the ‘default’ position in our USA society. It apparently is working well for those who incur no social, economic, or mental contradictions in embracing it — they prosper. That is why white privilege continues mostly unchecked in the institutions through which it flourishes. . . (read as ALL). My dismay — turned to saddness– after several decades of carrying the burden of minority status is seeing the alacrity with which ‘minority’ high-potential individuals embrace or collude in supporting racist paradigms in order to advance their career outcomes, as opposed to infusing collective enegry in combating institutional racism in all facets of American society.

    • My perspective comes from enduring a childhood of poverty as a white female. My parents did not have a college education. My dad did not even have a high school diploma. They were both excluded from employment due to their education level. I worked very hard as a returning adult student without scholarships to complete college. I choose to work at a company that offered tuition reimbursement. Then, the economy turned down and the reimbursement was no longer available. However, I continued with school. The employment (F/T working adult) I have gained has been due to my persistence. I do not wait for employers or recruiters to call me. I call them. I have not earned a job through networking. It has been through my diligence.

      However, I have seen preference given to colleagues that were raised in a better socioeconomic background regardless of race. After some observation, I found that it was due to their more aggressive strategy. They were more willing to negotiate better compensation packages, simple perks like items that the company must have on the desk waiting for them, and additional benefits. Meanwhile, I realized my compensation and benefits were lower. Why? Several reasons; I am new to the professional level, I do not have role models, i.e. parents that are knowledgeable and can provide advice or show by example how to negotiate and ask for what I want, I came in with a behavior pattern that I am grateful to have employment at this level, and I am self-taught where children/young adults at the next level up are taught by others.

      However, there are individuals who discriminate (overheard in cubicles) and based on personal experience. For example, one time my husband (foreign born Latino with a slight accent) called a company to ask about a job position, they told him the position was no longer available. Curious, as the ad was just placed in the paper that day, I called the company to ask about the position, they told me it was available and asked when I could come in to complete an application. Another example, but in reverse happened to me when I applied for a bilingual position. They liked my resume and application that had gone to the HR department. They liked my telephone etiquette (in Spanish) and asked me to come in for a meet and greet. My Spanish sounds like a native speaker as I learned it from my mother in law. When I arrived for the meeting, I could see the shock and disappointment on the interviewer’s face (Latina) when I introduced myself. I did not receive a call back. So, I called them. The receptionist stated that the position was filled; however, the position remained open on a job board. I was a bit disappointed; however, a better bilingual opportunity became available and I moved on. A third example really bothered me. It involved an African-American woman colleague and a white male colleague. She had a Master’s degree with twenty years experience in the field. He had a Bachelor’s degree with ten years experience in the field. The managers (most of whom were white males) would go to him to ask about the financial reports. Only one manager (white female) would go to her to ask about the financial reports. At first I thought it was a racial issue; however, it could have been a double discrimination of race and gender. In this case, she had the job, but I could see there would be a challenge for promotions. She has since moved on and opened her own (successful) business. He still works there.

      There is a more complex dynamic at work. Race is only one factor of many. There are socioeconomic background and gender issues as well. Finally, companies and organizations that have a diversity committee along with holding diversity as a core value versus those who do not tend to have fewer issues. When I worked at a local college, diversity was highly valued and colleagues sat down together for meals regardless of race, gender, position title, and education level. What a shock to me, when I choose a private sector employer who did not highlight diversity. While they employed a diverse employee group, there was quite a separation in the lunchroom. Table seating was silently separated by race, gender, education level, and position title. I was the only one who ‘table hopped’ and was given the cold shoulder treatment in the office. I did not stay there very long. Although the monetary compensation and benefits were well above my prior employment, my integrity and value for diversity led me to choose new employment. Some employers do not realize that compensation and benefits alone will not retain an employee. It has to come with a positive and diverse environment as well.

      • Well said, Patty. I like how you address the varying levels of discrimination from a personal perspective. Your background is very similar to mine. But also, what I’ve encountered is regional discrimination. When I tell people I’m from Arkansas, the insults and tasteless jokes pour out immediately as if I’m non existent. We’ve got a long way to go, but I, too, have boundless respect for companies that value diversity.

      • I sincerely appreciate your thoughtful comments, especially those about those from higher socioeconomic groups employing more aggressive strategies. A study just came out finding that top students from low socioeconomic groups tend to not apply to top colleges — even where financial aid would make that possible — but tend to cluster in state schools and community colleges, where they are less likely to succeed and complete their courses of study. My very-smart — but very poor — younger grandson is graduating from High School this year and just told us that he plans to attend community college, where the first year is free. Intellectually, he could succeed at Harvard and has the community service experience, verbal abilities, etc., to do so. Don’t get me wrong; you can get a good education anywhere and can succeed no matter what your background, but I am — nevertheless — saddened at the limits it appears he sees on his possibilities.

  • Well written article! It took this “troublemaker” in a hostile environment a long time (I’m at the end of my career) to fully understand some of the perceptions that you expressed. I questioned my own abilities and competencies because I did not think that leadership in a government agency would consistently resist diversification for promotional opportunities but act as though they are doing nothing wrong…

    • Valerie, please know you were not alone when you questioned your own abilities at one point . . . . No doubt, there are a lot of us that have been caused to feel less than competent to be promoted, but more than competent to work outside of our PD without the compensation of a promotion. Moreover, inequity in promotions is flourishing in government agencies, under the guise of budget cuts.

    • Yes, hostile work environments really demoralize employees. I certainly gained appreciation for the good employers and work environments. One thing I have difficulty with is during interviews for new employers. They ask the dreaded, ‘Why did you leave your prior employer?’. The answer I would like to say is they did not value diversity and by the way what is your company’s policy? Can you show me by numbers how that has been implemented in your company? However, thanks to the diversity newsletters I receive this information. Going forward I will only apply to the companies who make the diversity list.

  • I think sometimes too we mistake degrees of insularity with racism. Back in the old days when immigrants first started coming to America, before it became a melting pot, people for the same countries or similar backgrounds formed communities that stuck together and helped each out because people from their same background/country had similar experiences and a like perspective. The same principle applies to business. There ways certain things that are expected of any employee to fit into the corporate culture of whatever company you are hiring into. If you maybe don’t have the attitude they expect, perfect diction, professional mannerisms, or just a particular air of energy and drive around you that they expect of their employees, you won’t get the job no matter what your background qualifications are. I guarantee and have seen for myself a polite, professional, well dressed minority, get hired over a [deleted] country boy who who may have more qualifications, but is judged by the way he speaks and thus presents himself, and therefore does not fit into an ideal professional corporate culture.

    • Good point. Recently, I attended a dinner party with former colleagues (temporary project group). We were a gender and age diverse group. One of the younger men, in his twenties, openly stated how strange it was that at one point the project only included the ‘good old boys club’. Then, suddenly there was a new wave of hires under a woman in management and there were women and minorities in the project group. He said it was a positive change. However, the older men at the table had a mixed reaction. The older they were the more pronounced the reaction. I agree that there are times when the established group may not realize their lack of diversity. However, others do realize it and choose not to correct it.

  • DeWanda Smith Soeder

    While your supporting argument is strong with robust data to support its position, I found the recommendation for the “troublemaker” to seek employment within a DiversityInc Top 50 as a solution troubling. Job hopping to find an inclusive workplace perpertrates yet another stereotype that is detrimental to minority and women career success. Further, depending upon the individual’s age and location on the career ladder this may not be an alternative. It reeks of blaming the victim; company’s won’t change their culture so people have to change their life courses. Catch 22.

    • Luke Visconti

      No, it’s not a Catch 22. An individual or group of people have very little chance of changing a corporate culture – and in 2012, why would you want to take on the task of changing someone else’s company, even if it were possible? In 14 years of publishing DiversityInc, I’ve never seen a grassroots diversity effort be successful or sustainable. The good news is that there are plenty of good companies out there to work for. I understand that some people are hostage to their job for reasons out of their control – but if you have a choice, my recommendation is to control what you can control and go to work for a company that has a track record on diversity. Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc

    • Yes, during college from the 2000’s to current, students are told to expect at least five employers during their lifetime. No more stable long term employment. Everything will become project based with short term teams. Further, to gain better compensation and benefits an employee often must move to another company. However, employers a) do not want to increase compensation for their current employees and b) question applicants who job hop. While career candidates want to work for a good employer who provides wonderful products or services, the bottom line is employees (Millenials in particular) see that there is no long term employment or retirement packages. We have witnessed our parents and colleagues who reach a certain age lose their jobs and have greater difficulty in gaining new employment. Some within ten years of traditional retirement age just do not gain employment and give up. We (Millenials) have to work smart while we are young to make as much as possible within a shorter window of time. Due to this mindset, we are committed to completing short term projects within a team and open to starting new projects perhaps with the same team or a new team.

  • I have worked in conjunction with HR & EEO for over 30 years on Selection Advisory Panels and career enhancing training opportunities recommendation panels. It’s always a struggle to overcome the adverse or ignornant perception and lack of understanding about diversity. Its almost impossible to convince panel members of the value of a minority applicant particularly when there is only one vacancy to fill. This is still an issue when the minority candidate is head over heals above all other applicants. To make matters worse, when the white priviledge mindset doesn’t prevail, then the tactic of tailoring a job to fit the majority candidate over the minority candidate becomes the tool/strategy to employ to maintain the status quo. Is the fear of a fair playing field such a unfathomable thought to contemplate? Diversity really does bring the best of talent and problem solving skills to an organization, its ashame its so misunderstood and underutilized.

  • Dr. Ruben S. Cedeno

    Thank you for the informative article and discussion. After reflecting on the issue of white privilege related to qualifications and promotions. It has been my experience as a Latino in Corporate America, and a former member of the Executive Council of a multi-national corporation (Washington DC area).
    When I was promoted to an executive position, I did learn, this promotion came with two requirements: one, this promotion became part of my performance evaluation and second; I was to take a business writing course. I assumed this was part of entering this position in the organization. I came to find out; others in executive positions were not required to adhere to these stipulations.
    At the time, I held two masters degrees and a Ph. D. in research; I was the most qualified amongst my colleagues (all white with one African American). Nevertheless, I decided to stay on as I leveraged my position to mentor junior staff on ways to maneuver through the company and succeed. I since left the company after fifteen years of service. To date, I have continued to use this experience to help myself and others not only to understand the injustices of society, because we must leverage what we know to make things right. Keep in mind, by the nature of who we are, we are measured by a different scale and must use this knowledge to leverage change from inside. Don’t worry about being caled a “trouble maker” use the data to argue your point/question.

    Muchas gracias

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