I have been thinking about this post for more than a year. It all began when I opened Adam Grant’s book, Originals. When I bought it, it was a hardcover; now it’s out in paperback. That’s how long I’ve been thinking about writing this.
Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist, a highly-acclaimed Wharton professor, and a New York Times bestselling author of Give And Take, Originals, and Option B with Sheryl Sandberg. He and Sheryl Sandberg also wrote a series of articles that were published in the NY Times.
I subscribe to his newsletter. I find the articles he shares, writes, and discusses are helpful in my work. I read Give and Take and enjoyed it; I recommend it. I share this because I think highly of Adam Grant, and I am using an example from one of his books as the basis for this post.
I did not write this article to infer that I understand his intent or motivations when he wrote his book. I wrote it to illustrate the impact it had on me as I read it.
When I started reading Originals, I found myself unable to get past page 13, not because I have a hard time focusing or am too busy to read. When I reached page six I was stymied. I experienced a dissonance so disturbing, I literally could not keep reading. I read the following paragraph multiple times before I could clearly identify why I found it so disturbing:
"We live in an Internet Explorer world. Just as almost two thirds of the customer service reps used the default browser on their computers, many of us accept the defaults in our own lives. In a series of provocative studies, a team led by political psychologist John Jost explored how people respond to undesirable default conditions. Compared to European Americans, African Americans were less satisfied with their economic circumstances but perceived inequality as more legitimate and just. Compared to people in the highest income bracket, people in the lowest income bracket were 17 percent more likely to view economic inequality as necessary. And when asked whether they would support laws that limit the rights of citizens and the press to criticize our government if enacting such legislation was necessary to solve our problems, twice as many people in the lowest tax bracket were willing to give up the right to free speech as those in the higher income bracket. After finding that disadvantaged groups consistently support the status quo more than advantaged groups, Jost and his colleagues concluded: “People who suffer the most from a given state of affairs are paradoxically the least likely to question, challenge, reject, or change it."
I have not read, nor am I familiar with, the work of John Jost so I am not disputing his findings. But I am dismayed with the way his findings are relayed in this context, and how this paragraph is organized.
Is it simply a matter of choice?
Grant starts the paragraph by insinuating that determining our life circumstances, our defaults, is a easy as choosing which internet software you use at work. This assumes that all things are equal and that there are not systemic influences that impact our opportunity and our options.
The first three sentences deny the lived experiences of people of color, yet attempts to put beliefs that African Americans may have into context. It ignores the basic fact that the rights of black people have been legally limited for centuries.
What if your great-grandparents were slaves, your grandparents raised your parents through Jim Crow, and your parents endured the struggles of The Civil Rights movement? This lineage is my family’s story. My grandfather was born in 1880, 15 years after slavery ended. His father and mother were slaves. The reality of oppression that so many African American families lived under isn’t so far removed from the present day. While it’s disturbing to acknowledge, the truth is that people raised by parents and grandparents who lived inside the legacy of oppression are likely to have conscious and subconscious beliefs that some people are systematically designed to be oppressed so that others may prosper. They might also accept that the government can take away their rights because the government has been taking away the rights of their families for generations.
What is even more disturbing is that Grant doesn’t represent the findings as a sample of African Americans that were studied/interviewed, but infers by omission of context that all African Americans feel this way. I don’t know the parameters of the study, how it was conducted, or what is was really studying. I didn’t write the book; it isn’t my job to study the study. It is Grant’s job and responsibility to support and contextualize the study, and how he uses and presents the results.
Does African American equal low Income?
Grant’s next two sentences compare the beliefs of high income people to low income people. Is this also part of Jost’s study? The way the paragraph is written leads me to believe that it is. Grant doesn’t share additional demographic information of the low income people he references. Is he referring to all low income people? If so, it isn’t just African-American people. And what is the threshold of low income he is using?
Grant also doesn’t say, “African Americans who are also in the lowest income bracket believe …” When all three sentences are taken as a whole, from my perspective it infers that as a group, African Americans are low income.
This lack of clarity and definition could very possibly lead the reader to equate African Americans to low income people who feel economic inequality is necessary. This could lead some readers to believe that African Americans choose as a whole to be poor, that they believe that it is fair that they are poor, and would support legislation to restrict others’ freedom of speech. Clearly, there are a number of black football players who contradict all of those findings, which is why it is important for Grant to contextualize the findings as he relays them.
This biggest challenge with these inferences is that they happen in an instant and on an unconscious level. We all bring our biases with us when we read the paragraph, and as a result, a stereotype about African Americans that has been perpetuated for centuries is reinforced.
As I read that paragraph, I assume he is trying to demonstrate the irony that those who are most oppressed support oppression. But that isn’t what Grant really says in the last sentence. He quotes Jost, stating, “People who suffer the most from a given state of affairs are paradoxically the least likely to question, challenge, reject, or change it.”
The true irony for me is how Jost labels the inaction of people who suffer from “a given state of affairs” as a paradox. By and large, the people he singles out conceivably have little to no expendable time, or the luxury, and/or privilege to question, change, or reject the status quo. Yet, the reality is, African Americans and people labeled “low income” consistently resist, question, and work to change oppressive conditions on a regular basis.
Lest, you think I am picking on Grant based on one paragraph, on Page 12 he uses the example of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “apprehension about leading the civil rights movement” to further his point that some people lack the drive to overcome their defaults. He states:
“He was unanimously elected to lead the boycott. Faced with giving a speech to the community that evening, (Dr. King says), ‘I became possessed by fear”. King would overcome that trepidation soon enough that in 1963 his thundering voice united a country around an electrifying vision of freedom. But that only happened because a colleague proposed that King should be the closing speaker at the March on Washington and gathered a coalition of leaders to advocate for him.”
Here he implies that the most famous African American who fought for civil rights didn’t really want to fight, resist, or stand for change. He was only compelled by his colleagues who were, by the way, African American.
At this point, I had to stop reading. Are African Americans willing to advocate for a change in their circumstances or do they choose to be oppressed?
For me, this conundrum undermined whatever else I may have read in his book and I stopped reading.
What’s the impact?
For me, it boils down to Grant’s impact: Did Adam Grant intend to racially stereotype African Americans? I don’t know his intent, but I doubt it. Racism is woven together in every aspect of our psyche and behavior. A person needs to learn and unlearn their biases and socialization in order to see when racism and white supremacy are at cause.
I share this because the way for us to truly talk about race means that we have to be able to recognize and breakdown unconscious and societal bias. I point out this section of Grant’s book not to take down Adam Grant, and not to create a movement and assail him. I am writing this piece to reveal how we all make these assumptions and draw these conclusions. And most everything we see and read supports our conclusions.
The point isn’t that I want to explain what he meant; I want us to use what he said to talk about how we see race. And how, regardless of a speaker’s intent, the words they use impact us as individuals.
Grant had an editor. It doesn’t appear that his editor saw the paragraph as stereotyping African Americans. The editor understood Grant’s intent and viewed that paragraph through the lens of that intent not the potential impact.
The danger of writing and reading without recognizing our underlying biases is that we by default look to affirm our unconscious, biased beliefs. If we conclude that African Americans as a whole choose to be oppressed and are content living their lives in the context of oppression, then we may believe African Americans deserve what they get. That assumption begins to fuel who gets hired, who gets blamed for crime, and who deserves to go to jail.
It also frames how we discuss police shootings and what is American terrorism.
We have to be purposeful and diligent to remove our unconscious ignorance about bias, racism, and stereotyping.
A note from my editor
When I submitted this article to my editor, she suggested that I do more research and read the book to fully understand the context before writing this article. That I could even contact Adam Grant and discuss his intent. She didn’t see what I saw when she read it. I respect her perspective and it made me think really hard before I published this.
Would I be doing the same thing that Grant is doing? Taking one paragraph out of context.
She also wanted to protect me from the backlash of comments that could come from sharing my perspective.
It was a solid point and I thought long and hard about it.
Here’s the thing: I know how I read it and that on an unconscious level other people read it that way, as well. I don’t need to do the emotional and mental labor of reassuring other people that what I see is what I see. I have had years of experiencing and interpreting prejudice and bias. It is what has kept me safe and sane through many experiences in my life.
There are many times that I pause and say to myself, “Is that really prejudice/racism/bias or is it me?”
There are many times that I don’t share my perspective because others might not agree or call me sensitive.
Honestly, those thoughts are what took me so long to write and publish this post.
If I really want people to talk about race and get to the core of racism, it is important to illustrate how I see things from my perspective as a black woman in America.
After I read page 13 of Grant’s book, I did not feel included as being a possible “original.” I am 100 percent sure that wasn’t his objective, but that was the result. I felt marginalized by the thought of how many people have read that paragraph, and it didn’t even occur to them that it was drawing assumptions and stereotypes about all African Americans and low income people.
I invite you to talk about this with me and challenge my assumptions.
I invite you to talk about this with your friends, family, and colleagues.
What can you say? You can ask them if they see this in their lives. Be curious about your own bias.
I also share this so that you can become more aware of your intent versus your impact. When we start to talk more about race, we are going to step on toes. When you want to add to the dialogue on race, which I am inviting you to do, you have to learn how to align your intention with your impact.
If you want to be part of a dialogue about race you have to learn and unlearn.
If your audience is of a different race, then you have a responsibility to know the impact of what you say. I am asking you to think before you speak.
What do you have to say about this?
Let’s talk this out.