Talking Cultural Diversity

a discussion board for cultural and diversity issues by Thomas Kochman and Jean Mavrelis

Race Awareness

By Thomas Kochman - 06.20.2009

A report by Target Market News last week noted that News Corp is forming a diversity council following protests over a cartoon of President Obama that appeared in a February issue of the New York Post. Protesters picket New York Post over chimp cartoon February 19, 2009. Over the years we have noted many protests occurring as a result of blatant racism (as in the present case), as well as thinly disguised racism, or  simple racial insensitivity, as in the case of Golf Channel anchor Kelly Tilgheman who was suspended for the \’lynch\’ remark about Tiger Woods.

Sometimes, the charge is more one of bad timing or bad taste, as directed toward The New Yorker for example. The New Yorker ‘s cover of Barack and Michele Obama in which they were depicted as terrorists, was presented and seen by many as satire –mocking the mockers, so to speak.  But it was also received as having “all the scare tactics and misinformation that has so far been used to derail Barack Obama\’s campaign — all in one handy illustration.

Jean and I have also looked at court cases where racism has been charged but not found as in Jury: No racial bias against overweight flyer. We see this play out in the workplace too, where charges of racism were directed at policies and practices that resulted in inconsistent treatment along racial lines. We find disputed cases especially interesting because they raise for us the question that we consider in some detail in our book Corporate Tribalism: what’s going on socially and culturally that often leads Whites and Blacks to such different conclusions on whether something is racist or not.

The social reasons are fairly straightforward. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and members of other ethnic groups (e.g., Arab Americans) are profiled and targeted in ways that whites are not. Because of that, race and ethnicity are on the radar screen of these groups especially so in mainstream social contexts where they are the ones that stand out as “different.”

For white women gender is on their radar screen in white male dominated contexts such as the corporate workplace. Sometimes, white men also become aware of their own race, as when having made that proverbial “wrong turn” and ending up in a black neighborhood. We call that “Driving while white!” I often ask white men in our training program how long their awareness of being “white” lasted. They say, “It left when I left the neighborhood.” I then ask, “What if you couldn’t leave the neighborhood?”

The key white/black social difference impacting self race awareness is that whites may have an experience that reminds them that they are white once every seven years. For African Americans, in mainstream contexts, it’s once every seven minutes.  The upshot of this pattern of difference is that blacks will see race as a possible factor in how they are viewed by the media or treated in mainstream contexts whereas whites will not. So if both experience rude service in a restaurant, whites will explain it as the waiter having a bad day. Blacks may wonder whether race also played a role in how they were treated.

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