Public policy is so important. It’s the way that we create the rules of the road that make it easier or harder for some people and some communities to succeed. It’s how we create safeguards and standards to protect us and to unleash innovation.
Data shows that diverse teams and organizations are more innovative and profitable than those that are not. What is your perspective on diversity at work?
Put simply, I think that diversity is our superpower and we have to tap into it. And there’s reams of evidence about, from the cognitive science to applied science and social sciences, to the business school literature, about the fact that there’s a strong business case for diversity, and not just diversity, but meaningful diversity and that has to include equity and inclusion, so that, you have all of your best players on the field scoring points for your team.
You had a caller that admitted he was racist and wanted to know how he could be better. You showed him compassion and gave him practical advice. Today, you are still friends. Tell us about that.
I was on a show called Washington Journal and they take callers from all over the country who call and ask questions about whatever the topic that the guest is an expert on. About halfway through, I got a phone call from someone and his first words were, “I’m a white man and I am prejudiced, but I want to change and I want to become a better American, and I want to know what you can tell me to do that.”
I told him he should actually get to know Black people and Black families who are not what he reads in the news and those stereotypes that he recounted. I told him that he should read about the contributions of African-Americans to the United States and how anti-Black bias has been shaped and why? What kinds of justifications do these stereotypes promote? He has since then been on a journey and a path to educating himself, to experiencing the world through different people’s eyes, and having the kinds of conversations with people that he was once afraid of.
We all have unconscious biases. They do not have to be about typical “isms,” racism, sexism, and so on. How do we uncover them, talk about them, and then grow and overcome them?
Your brain is taking in loads of information every second and in order to make sense of it, you have to categorize. What ends up happening is that the brain then learns to make shortcuts. When we’re talking about people and the kinds of stories and associations that are embedded through repetition in our brains about people, that’s where the biases and the often negative stereotypes and images that we have been fed in society over generations begin to creep in at an unconscious level.
So what do we do about it? We learn to identify it, to slow down the process from taking in the information to reacting emotionally and to acting in terms of decisions and behaviors. Don’t blame yourself, don’t stumble, don’t get defensive, don’t get angry at yourself. Look at it with a little bit of wonder and say, “Well, where did that story come from? Why did I have that association? Why did I make those assumptions?” And recognize that, ultimately, everything we believe comes from a story we’ve been told.
You’ve written about the Lewiston, Maine community coming together, seeing past differences, to build up their city and turn it around. There is a lesson for us as individuals and communities in corporate America. Can you tell us what we, as employees, can take back to our roles and back to society?
The final concept in my book is this idea that when we do come together across lines of race to recognize that there are common solutions to our common problems and build multiracial coalitions and reject the zero-sum, the sky’s the limit. There are all these gains that we can unlock through cross racial solidarity, a concept that I call the solidarity dividend.
The Sum of Us is set to be adapted into a young adult readers’ version by Random House Children’s next year.