Friday, January 25, 2013

Subtle Ways We're Influenced by Race

I read the most amazing quote today. The quote was by social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt who said, “One of the oldest race battles that blacks have fought in this country has been the battle to be recognized as fully human.”

The quote appeared in an article written in 2009 about the unconscious ways that race influences our thinking and our actions. The article opens with a discussion of the infamous New York Post cartoon of a policeman saying, after shooting a monkey who lay on the ground bleeding, “Now they will have to find someone else to write the stimulus bill.”

The Post’s Editor-in-Chief, Col Allan, defended the cartoon, claiming it had nothing to do with race. Of course, plenty of black folks, including the Reverend Al Sharpton, claimed that was bunk (or words to that effect). So in this article, author Jon Hanson asks, “But why couldn’t … both be right? Why, in other words, would Mr. Allan conclude that a parody of a violent chimpanzee cannot also reflect and encourage troubling racial associations?” He goes on to say, “What some people may not be aware of is the disturbingly robust implicit associations of African Americans to monkeys, chimps, and apes.”


Enter the quote by Erberhardt, who apparently was needed to set a few things straight. 
What am I missing? When I  searched my art database for images associated with
the word "President," this picture came up. A few times.
Eberhardt’s quote resonated with me because, as a human resources professional, it really saddens me to see all the ways in which business leaders go out of their way to not acknowledge the humanity of their workforce, and I think this choice on the part of leadership particularly affects workers of color. Just like the white slave owner had to degrade the humanity of his slaves so that he could be okay with enslaving him, whipping him, raping his wife, and so on, I believe that the present day business leader has to somehow overlook the humanity of his worker or risk losing his power advantage, or so he thinks. If I’m wrong, then I simply have no explanation for some of the crap that happens in the workplace. But I don’t think I’m wrong. And while power-disadvantaged workers of all ethnicities are affected by this dynamic, I maintain that workers of color have it bad in a special way, because the history is there, and it’s not going away. Yet, a typical business leader charged with treating workers as though they were somehow not quite human would vociferously deny the charge as mistaken at best and race baiting at worst. To quote Hanson, “If we are not thinking about race when we go about our daily lives and if we are not harboring any racial animus when we interact or socialize inter-racially, then, we assume, race is not influencing us.” But we’d be wrong about that.

A few weeks ago I wrote about white privilege, an aspect of which is generally not having to give a damn about race relations, because the concerns of the minority groups don’t have much effect on your life if you're white. However, if I’m black, and my landlord is white, and my boss is white, and my child’s teacher is white, and our welfare (no freakin’ pun intended, and don’t even go there) is dependent on them, then I’ll most likely spend a lifetime concerned with the ways of white folks. (Now that was a pun. Do yourself a favor and check out the Langston Hughes’ classic.) And this is also why women are always reading stuff to learn about men, and men aren’t reading much of anything to learn about us, but that’s a rant for another day.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any solutions to this vexing state of affairs, only a raised awareness and a determination to be seen as human whatever the cost. And for now, that’s good enough.

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