Black History Month for White people

Growing up, my parents (with good intention) taught my siblings and me to be “color-blind.” This is the common view that all people are important, and differences exist in skin color and other visible traits only.

I’m humbled to say that it took me decades to learn to be “color-brave” and understand that difference exists in skin color, culture, perspective, experience, and myriad other ways.  And that talking about differences, however uncomfortable that can be, is critical to gaining understanding of others, deeply listening and learning how to abandon unconscious bias.

I was well into my 40’s before I began exploring Black History Month, which I always assumed was a reflection and celebration of milestones intended for blacks only.  As I began to read and learn and attend events, I came to see how valuable it would have been for me, and other white people to have been exposed to more black history much earlier on.

Here is a brief excerpt from my forthcoming book, shared with you at the beginning of Black History Month, 2016, that shows some of what I learned, and how my thinking has evolved.  What were you taught growing up?  What do you believe today?

We’ve heard it said that “America is the land of opportunity.” Belief in the American Dream is about can-do individualism, and goes like this: anyone in this country can rise to a level of success based on their talents, abilities and hard work.  But children also inherit different starting points from the parents they were born to or raised by. Children from poor families have to work much harder to benefit from the privileges afforded the middle and upper classes.  Social class, immigration status, and discrimination (conscious and unconscious) are factors that impede a fair and equal system of opportunity for all.  And, of course, inherited wealth says nothing about the talent, ability or hard work of the person inheriting the benefits.

The technology industry and many others want us to believe that they hire and promote the most qualified applicants, regardless of gender, race, age, and other differentials. They claim that the reason for their overwhelmingly young, White, male, dominated workforces is simply the product of there being insufficient numbers of older people, Blacks, Latinos or women available with the skills necessary to do the job. They say, “We’d hire them, but they’re just not there.”  More recently, many industries acknowledge unconscious biases that get in the way of hiring others who are not like us.  Even if the most qualified applicants are women or people from underrepresented minorities, we tend to hire based on who we are most comfortable with – applicants we can relate to, or who we think will be a “fit” in our culture.  For the tech industry that prides itself on daring innovation, this rationale demonstrates stagnant, esigned to minimize diverse hires. Tech seems to want underrepresented minorities who grew up in affluence, attend top tier universities and have myriad connections to leverage – elitists, like them.

Debby Irving, in her book, Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race[1] shares her feelings about discovering that the G.I. Bill, instituted at the end of WWII to help returning service people obtain higher education and secure home loans was, through its implementation, effectively for whites only.  At the time, a quota system limiting the number of black attendees in colleges and universities restricted the number of eligible blacks who could attend.  Yet, a preponderance of returning GIs, about one million, in fact, were black.

At the same time, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) hindered opportunities for non-whites to purchase homes by instituting policies suggesting that skin color of a homeowner could affect the value of a given home in a neighborhood. A common belief was perpetuated that if black people, or other non-whites, moved in to white neighborhoods, housing values would decline. Specifically, the Federal Housing Administration gave builders loans through banks, on the condition that no blacks could be sold homes in subdivisions. Also, no suburban home buyer could resell to a black person, and should this occur, the white neighbor could both evict the black homeowner and be entitled under the law to collect damages.  These were known as housing and neighborhood covenants.

Eventually, these practices were ruled illegal, and the Fair Housing Act contained in Civil Rights legislation during the late 1960s changed the law to remove discriminatory housing practices, but by then the damage was done. As a result of public policy, inner city public housing became all black, while suburbs became all white.  Whites got equity appreciation from their housing and blacks did not; the effects of which continue to this day.[2]  The bottom line is that many whites gained education and housing benefits during this time in history, but fewer than 5% of blacks did.[3]  The “American Dream” was rigged by a system of discrimination.

Many Americans acknowledge historical forms of discrimination, including mass killings of Native Americans and the displacement of the remaining Native Americans to reservations; Africans brought to America and sold at auction as slaves; Jim Crow legislation; and the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Whites, the primary beneficiaries of opportunities during these times, can be labeled the “in-group.” All others were in the “out-groups.” When we act as though the small number of women and minorities in technology and other industries is due to individual failings or lack of availability in the market, we elevate the idea of meritocracy and ignore the effects of hidden bias, subtle prejudice, and systemic discrimination.

Laws have changed since the end of WWII, but to what extent have beliefs and behaviors changed?  Do merit-based employment, and promotional opportunities exist equally today in companies?  Clearly not (unconscious bias, alone, prevents that).  Top jobs go primarily to white men, and role models and opportunities for women and minorities occur at an astoundingly slow pace.  Leave-of-absence policies, designed primarily for women with child and elder care responsibilities and performance evaluation systems that say more about the person giving the evaluation than the person receiving it, perpetuate discrimination, under the guise of “helpfulness” and “merit.” We need to ask: “Helpful to whom?”

    Imagine a black person and a white person are in a race together. The white person has a jetpack, and the black person has not.  They run like that for a little while; then someone says that this isn’t fair. So, the white person has the jetpack taken away.  But the race doesn’t start over, it just continues from where the runners were. A few minutes later someone says that this still isn’t fair: the white runner might not have a jetpack now, but they are still benefitting from the earlier use.  Since the race can’t be started over, this person suggests giving the black person the jetpack for a little while.  Into this, someone asks, “Isn’t it racist to give the jetpack to a runner based on race?” [4]

The above story illustrates the structural institution we are all born into and suggests that we are all complicit in perpetuating a system of bias. “Restarting the race” for Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, women, persons with disabilities, or non-heterosexual orientation, and other differences are not options.

Interventions, however, widely implemented can serve to advance diversity in organizations. When some equally qualified candidates are competing for a job, and the role is given to the underrepresented minority, this may be selection bias, but it is justified selection bias. The company wants and needs a diverse workforce, and the candidate deserves to wear the jetpack for a time.  Individuals, groups, organizations, and society benefit from this selection.

The myth of meritocracy is used inside and outside of the technology sector to justify the lack of diversity. It’s akin to telling women and underrepresented minorities that they have only themselves to blame if they didn’t get the job or the promotion. And when women and people of color exit the workforce with much greater frequency than White, Asian, and Indian men, the self-serving belief in meritocracy, alleviates the need to address the issue and examine why this happens. Dismantling the myth of meritocracy makes us all accountable for racism, sexism, classism, elitism and all the other “ism’s” we’ve perpetuated on one another.  Those companies who ground themselves in truth, introspection and reality – Pinterest and Slack, for example, and most of the companies scoring high in the global DiversityInc Top 50 annual survey – are excellent examples of how to do the work of diversity and inclusion and succeed.  Other organizations would do well to learn from them.


[1] Irving, D. (2014). Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race. Cambridge,

MA: Elephant Room Press.


[2] Rothstein, R., Santow, M. A Different Kind of Choice: Educational inequity and the continuing significance of racial segregation.  Economic Policy Institute, working paper. August 21, 2012.

[3] Irving, D. (2014). Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race. Cambridge, MA: Elephant Room Press.

[4] Tolson, Joel (Jul 30, 2015)

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