Jesse Williams, an actor on television’s Grey’s Anatomy, gave a powerful acceptance speech on race and justice at the 2016 BET awards. His speech has been viewed more than 3 million times, and has received much praise. Many people who know I write about race, bias, and prejudice have sent me a copy of the video with the suggestion that I write an article about it. Many of these people are white and felt moved and motivated by his anger.
But since its release, the video has prompted a petition calling for him to be fired from Grey’s Anatomy. Why the dissonance? It isn’t simply a matter of race.
The more people become aware of bias, the less likely they are to do anything about it.
If everyone else is biased, we don’t worry as much about censoring ourselves. These findings were revealed in a 2014 article in the New York Times, “When Talking About Bias Backfires.” The article reveals the findings of several studies that show that talking about and identifying bias isn’t enough to actually prevent bias.
The article states, “The solution isn’t to stop pointing out stereotypes. Instead, we need to communicate that these biases are undesirable and unacceptable.”
That seems to be straightforward advice. But how do you manage the bias and racism that affects you in a corporate environment? An environment, where more often that not, women and people of color don’t hold positions of power.
Often in corporate environments the emphasis is placed on what women and people of color can do as individual contributors to better position themselves for advancement. But it is remiss to ignore the need for a greater strategy that, not only articulates our value, but helps us to navigate the subtle flow of bias and racism in many corporate environments.
A singular focus on self-improvement means that you miss the greater strategy involved in advancing your career, which is why it’s important to understand what I mean by strategy. Building a strategy is really the art and science of developing a plan to bring about the desired future. A strategy isn’t always hard and fast; it may evolve over time, especially as you gain information and perspective.
Success isn’t just about your hard work. It’s about your judgment, your intuition, and your ability to create relationships. A successful career requires that you understand the landscape in which you work. It takes the involvement, and often the advocacy, of other people for our careers to thrive.
We often think we can and should handle our problems on our own. But the fact is that mindset rarely holds true with most problems, particularly when you’re working with bias.
A recent article in the Harvard Business Review titled, Why Diversity Programs Fail, outlines three factors that engage managers in diversity efforts: Engagement, Contact, and Social Accountability. This multi-faceted approach to managing bias and discrimination demonstrates that it takes a collective effort to build diversity.
Our part—as the individuals who are affected by bias—is to be ourselves on the job. It’s only through contact with you, your culture, and your unique point of view that bias abates. Stop trying to subtly fit in. Selectively invite people to learn more about you. Find a mentor or senior manager and learn about their work and let them learn about you. You should strive to share your skills and value, as well as how your culture influences the way you think and solve problems.
White, male executives rarely feel comfortable reaching out to young women and people of color, therefore, you must make an effort to reach out to them. After you’ve built a relationship and they know what you bring to the table, they are much more likely to promote you. Your success becomes part of their self-interest.
We also need to identify companies that build consciousness, not quotas. These companies actively engage managers and bolster corporate culture around issues of gender equality and equal opportunity. As the studies outlined in the HBR article reveal, trying to push diversity from the top down rarely works.
You must take it upon yourself to determine whether a company actively encourages and invites managers to engage in work that supports diversity, or whether it has a Director of Diversity who is expected to do all the heavy lifting alone.
Do your homework on the organization and you’ll see how high the hurdle of bias and discrimination stands. Then you can decide if it is the right organization for you.
Now, on to social accountability.
The article suggests that transparency activates social accountability. In other words, when you see others accept and promote diversity, you are less likely to be a public outlier. That’s why it matters that tech companies publish their abysmal diversity numbers. It gives them public accountability and a desire to improve. No company wants to look bad in the eyes of consumers.
This brings me back to Mr. Williams’s acceptance speech. It moved so many people— many of whom have their own blogs and platforms— to send it to me and ask me to write about it. My recommendation to all of them is to write their own articles about the video and how it affected them.
The onus is on all of us to build social accountability in all aspects of our culture. All of us must work toward this common goal as equals. Managing bias and racism doesn’t lie only at the feet of women and people of color.
Ideally, as a culture we will work toward the extinction of biased-based hiring and promotions. To do so, we all must recognize and identify bias when we see it, and help each other move around it.
It is important to confront bias when you recognize it, regardless of whether it directly affects you. When you recognize bias, you must build a strategy that incorporates the skills, influence, and knowledge of everyone. That’s the only way to ensure equal opportunity for us all.
What have you done to impact change when you've seen bias or prejudice? Share you story below and know that everything counts. If you aren't sure what to do, share this article and let's build some accountability.