Why Whites Don't Understand the 'Struggle'

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. 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.


Question:

Why do you think white people in general still do not get the “struggle” that many African Americans still face today, especially in the corporate world

Answer:

This is a subject near to my heart because realizing the gap between my perceptions and the reality of what African Americans go through on a daily basis is what drove me to devote my life’s work to this subject.

I concur with you. In my observation from personal experience, almost 100 percent of white people have almost no concept of the “struggle” that African Americans face today. They may think they do, but it’s not so.

I’m not ignoring bigots, but with rare exception, this lack of awareness is caused by benign ignorance. Most people view themselves as fair people; therefore, from the majority standpoint, society is fair, and they are fair, so “what’s the problem”

This ignorance is expressed as exacerbation by white people when confronted with evidence that disrupts this rosy worldview.

For example, I watched Carson Daly and Wanda Sykes co-host a New Year’s special in 2005. After showing a Johnny Carson clip, Daly was musing over how much simpler things were back in 1963. Sykes commented on how they weren’t simpler for blacks and mentioned that she certainly wouldn’t have been a co-host in 1963. Daly wrinkled up his nose and said, “Oh, come on, it wasn’t so bad; we had Sammy Davis Jr.”

Sykes’s desire to “discuss” this with Daly was written on her face, but with 15 seconds left until midnight, she swallowed it and went on.

There’s nothing in Daly’s background or work that would tell me he’s a bigot. I’d say he typifies the average white guy: blissfully ignorant of racial issues–and decisively so!

Unfortunately, blissful ignorance is not without a cost. The majority culture blames the victim in just about every case when it comes to outcome (although the alternative is more accurate, it is understandably less comfortable for the majority and therefore avoided like the plague). However, blaming the victim costs money and decreases performance.

I recently spoke at a large technology-based firm. One of their executives asked me about a recent study, which showed that fewer black and Latino students are graduating with engineering and math degrees. I said that Department of Education statistics show graduation rates of black and Latino students are outpacing their respective growth in representation in our country.

This company was looking at an outcome and blaming the students. If they took a larger view, they would see the problem: Talented students of color are there, but they’re choosing other careers. The simple explanation is that there is far more demand for students of color from progressive companies, like those in The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity, than there is supply. Without a proper invitation, the (highly desired) students go into careers where they perceive they are wanted.

From a white perspective, this makes no sense. They’re good people; they run a “fair” company and they’ve never needed to issue an invitation to anyone. Why should they need to now

So, bringing this back to your question, we can see that being ignorant of the “struggle” is costing this company in recruitment and retention because they’re not managing reality (and for those readers who are going to tell me it’s a government problem, please save your keystrokes: The government has pretty much proved itself to be incapable of managing the situation at hand).

My hunch is that this company will be OK, because unlike most companies, they understand the problem, want to control their future and are beginning to implement diversity management.

The consequence of not managing diversity (in this case) is that this company will continue to recruit from an ever decreasing pool of people as our country moves toward less than 50 percent white. In addition, what generational studies tell me is that the very management traits that define superior diversity management will also be required to recruit and retain the audience that most companies think they have a lock on: white men. To put an ironic twist on Dr. Johnnetta Cole’s favorite Zora Neale Hurston saying, older white men need to understand that many younger whites may feel that “All that are my skin folk ain’t my kin folk.”

By the way, for my white readers: There’s no better expression of ignorance than a white person describing themselves as “colorblind.”

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