We cannot fix a problem if we refuse to see it.
As a white woman born and raised in the Midwest in the 1980’s and 1990’s, I was taught to be colorblind. Racism, sexism, and discrimination were of the past. My Mother, a well-intentioned, single, and white, told me that the world was equal for everyone now. The Feminists, the Civil Rights Movement, and gay rights had all been addressed. In essence, if you work hard, you will be rewarded. That was the mantra repeated throughout my childhood.
So, imagine my surprise when I entered the workplace in the early 2000’s, and found out that was untrue. I was surrounded by an all-white, male leadership cohort with very few women, people of color, and other diverse representation to learn from. I spent 12 years in Corporate before starting my own DEI training business. I never felt like I could be my full self at work. I always felt a sense of being the other as a woman. And, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, those with disabilities feel the lack of belonging at much higher levels than the majority group (white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, men).
As I have facilitated DEI training for the last 7+years, I have seen the myth of meritocracy ( that hard work pays off) and encouraging colorblindness (refusal to see color) can hold people back.
We have to be willing to accept that there is still a DEI problem.
What is the problem? There are differences everywhere. As humans, we naturally recognize these differences about one another and are curious about them. That is why children curiously point or ask questions about people with visible differences.
#1 Problem: We All See Differences
According to Erin Winkler, “Research clearly shows that children not only recognize race from a very young age, but also develop racial biases by ages three to five.”
Without education to understand these biases, they can be cemented by, as early as, age 12. Children form biases about gender, race, sexual orientation, and abilities in their childhood years. Often, they come not directly from parents, but from the world around them (media, schools, friends, experiences, etc.).
#2 Problem: The Myth of Meritocracy
There is ample evidence that despite our desire to believe in the myth of meritocracy, that idea is simply not true. Things are not getting better, either.
- Wealth gap is 10x for White Americans than Black Americans
- Incarceration for Black Americans is nearly 5 times the rate of White Americans
- Discipline rates for Black children are 2 times higher than White kids for the same behavior
- Confidence drops for girls by 30% between the ages of 8 and 14
- Suicide rates for LGBTQ+ youth is 4 times more likely to seriously consider suicide versus their peers
- Disability affects 3 million children in the US, and is rising more rapidly for minority kids
As a white person that grew up in the lower middle class with low disposable income, I used to think that if I worked hard to get to where I am, why can’t other people? Sure, I worked hard to get myself through college with good grades and earned a well-paying job. Why can’t everyone else do the same thing? What I couldn’t see, at the time, is that systems keep certain people down and other people up. As a female, I faced challenges, but I had it a lot easier than others because my skin color is white, I’m straight, cisgender, and able-bodied.
#3 Problem: Lack of Education
Growing up, I didn’t have a resources to understand issues like race, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, or any dimension of diversity. The notion of appreciating differences is well-intended, but not helpful when microaggressions and harmful statements about people that are different from us are still commonplace. For example, my Dad once told me that affirmative action was reverse racism, and on another occasion, my Mom said it was okay to date a black man, but not to marry a black man.
I can recall instances growing up when my black friends would regularly get pulled over in our neighborhood. I didn’t understand why because I did not get pulled over, not even one time and so I said nothing. I deeply regret the time I told my light-skinned, black friend, “You’re like us, it’s like you’re white.”
I had friends share with me (very bravely) that they were gay, and I questioned if they absolutely knew for sure. I am truly embarrassed that I was complicit with racism, sexism, and homophobia growing up and, without knowing better, committing microaggressions that harmed my friends. My parents certainly didn’t know how to teach me to be better because they didn’t know any better. In hindsight, there were so many opportunities to use my voice, but I did not know that I needed to, nor did I know how.
Want to do better, and not sure where to start? That is why we developed the Lead Like an Ally virtual self-paced training program, perfect for organizations struggling with accountability for diversity. You can also check out all of our other virtual and live program offerings.