Conversations about Race

I just finished reading Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum. I highly recommend reading it to better understand how children develop their racial identity and how that impacts their lives growing up. Understanding what someone’s racial identity means to them is key to having effective conversations about race.

Talking to children about race

I really appreciated Tatum’s thoughts on teaching young children about race. Teaching “colorblindness” can be detrimental since children will grow up in a society that is inherently not colorblind. Shushing children when they bring up race-related observations can be harmful because it trains them to avoid talking about race altogether.

At the same time, it’s crucial that we talk about race in a constructive manner. For example, when teaching kids about slavery, it’s important to show Blacks as not just victims, but also as a resilient people. It’s also important to show Whites as both enemies and as allies.

Although some may argue that children shouldn’t be taught about racism, sexism, and classism too early, teaching children to recognize racism, sexism, and classism can help them resist the negative impact of oppressive messages they are bound to come across.

You can take that step even further by teaching kids how to speak out against unfairness. Things like talking about one’s feelings and developing empathy are lessons that will benefit children for the rest of their lives.

Diversity in workplace hiring

Implicit racial bias is more likely to influence our actions in ambiguous situations. A perfect example of this is from Gaertner and Dovidio’s study in 1986. The participants were given a bunch of resumes to review, some with White names and some with Black names. When the choice was obvious (i.e. the candidate was clearly strong or clearly weak), there was no selection bias.

However, “moderately qualified” White candidates were recommended significantly more often than the “moderately qualified” Black candidates, despite having the same credentials.

Instead of trying to change our implicit biases, which is difficult, we should focus on eliminating ambiguous situations so that our implicit biases have less of an impact on our decision making. One simple strategy is to remove candidate names from resumes before we review them so that we’re not influenced by gender, race, etc.

Especially in the tech sector, diversity in companies is pretty dreadful. At the same time, I’ve heard many people complain that they were passed up for job opportunities because companies decided to hire an underrepresented minority candidate instead with the implication that the other candidate was less qualified for the job. I really liked Tatum’s stance on this issue:

When affirmative action programs are functioning appropriately, no one is ever hired who is not qualified for the job. Such an occurrence would undermine the program and would be patently unfair to the newly hired person, who has in effect been set up to fail.

Companies that want to achieve better workplace diversity should ensure that their selection criteria reflect that goal. For instance, we could make it favorable for candidates to have experience working in multicultural settings.

By establishing a list of must-haves for each job position, we can better evaluate candidates since ambiguity should be reduced.

Here’s another passage from the book that resonated with me:

If one candidate meets the criteria but also has some additional education or experience, it may be tempting to say this candidate is the “best,” but this one may not be the one who moves us toward our diversity goal. Because of systemic advantages that members of the dominant group receive, it is often the case that the person with the extra experience or educational attainment is a person from the majority group. If our eyes are on our organization goal, we are not distracted by these unasked-for extras. If we need someone who has toured Europe or had a special internship, it should already be part of our criteria. If it is not part of the criteria, it shouldn’t be considered.

Systemic racism doesn’t just affect law enforcement and criminal justice. It also affects employment opportunities. For those of us who have the power to change hiring practices at our companies, we should speak up about ways to ensure fairness when evaluating candidates. After all, diverse companies are more innovative, so we all benefit.