An Honest Discussion of Race

In February, 2009 Eric Holder made his famous statement that the U.S. is a nation of cowards on race discussions.  In an effort to make this country better for our Grandchildren, here are some honest thoughts from a middle aged white guy.  First, every white American who comments on an observed action or tendency among black Americans is not a racist, but white Americans risk being labeled racist any time they do.  This does not create an atmosphere of trust for open and honest dialogue.  Secondly, why do black entertainers get a free pass on what they say about their fellow black Americans?

I was reading an opinion piece by Tina Brown, Black Mood America, beset by race, Newsweek, April 16, 2012.  She quoted the following statistics from a Newsweek/Daily Beast poll, “…53 percent of whites and 88 percent of blacks saying that American society discriminates on the basis of race or ethnicity.”  She continued, “Indeed, blacks and whites have fundamentally different perspectives when it comes to the depth of discrimination black people face.”  Her theme was: black Americans are right in their belief – racial discrimination is still rampant; white Americans are wrong in their belief – we elected a black American president therefore we live in “post-racial America.”

Digression – Ms. Brown, Editor in Chief, Newsweek/Daily Beast, demonstrates the media mantra: controversy sells papers.

Back to the topic, several eminent people have stated that our perception of the world is more subjective than objective, “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.”   Here is my honest observation (perception) of black Americans – they often perceive racial discrimination and prejudice where none exits.  Let me share two examples.

The first is a car ad in my local paper.  A used car dealer was featuring a black, full-sized SUV (Suburban®, Navigator® or similar).  The headline read, “Not Your Average Black People Mover,” which generated an outcry of “Racism,” from many black (I assume) readers.  They obviously read, “Not Your Average Black-People Mover.”  White people read the ad, “Not Your Average Black People-Mover.”  I believe the dealer issued an apology, but damage done. However, insensitivity is not racism.  We’ve all said and done insensitive things, then afterwards thought, “S___, how do I apologize without digging a deeper hole?”  If the insensitive thing is racial, it doesn’t make the person racist.

The second example is more personal, and more important because it was job related.  For the record I’ve hired, worked with, and worked for, black professionals.  Situation: I was the temporary manager of a group composed primarily of senior professionals with one admin specialist.  All people reported directly to me per the org chart. The admin specialist (white male) who supported the whole group, received the majority of his tasks / requests from a black lady in the group.  I’ll call them John and Jane.  Their work wasn’t getting done due to frequent personal conflicts. His complaint, “She’s bossy.  I’m not her employee; I’m an equal.”  Her complaint, “He’s uncooperative and lazy.” So per the management textbook, I convened a meeting with them to generate some understanding and a resolution.  Five minutes into the meeting Jane stormed out, “This is getting nowhere,” end of meeting.  She had expected me to lay down the law to John, period.  A little later I went to Jane’s office to hear her out, behind closed doors.  Her basic lament was, “He won’t respect me because I’m a black female. I have to try twice as hard to get any respect.  You should support me and make him do what I tell him.”

Disclosure, I was prejudiced going into this meeting – in Jane’s favor.  I had worked with her previously and considered her a hard-working professional.  In a different assignment, I’d been a cubicle neighbor of John’s and wasn’t impressed. (There are no secrets in “cubie land” and I had overheard his comments about “bossy witches” more than once.)  Jane erroneously perceived the problem as racial. I’m convinced it was John’s hard spot with strong personality women.  Jane’s perception that the problem was racial kept her from looking for a solution; there was nothing she could do.  “John needed to change his attitude.”  In reality it was a personality problem, and there was much she could have done to be part of the solution.

Race now became an issue for me though.  If Jane had been white or male, I would have simply drawn a line in the sand, “You and John need to find a way to get along and get the work done, or the three of us are going to HR and they can help us solve this problem.”  However as she was a black woman, I had to be much more delicate.  It would have limited my career to let this emotional issue get worse. My (Eric Holder)  honest racial complaint: “Why should I have to treat one adult by a different set of (unwritten) rules than another?”  Shouldn’t I simply be able to treat each person fairly, honestly, and professionally? Oh, and if you are wondering: the temporary solution was for all assignments and completions to go through me, and a reorganization sent the three of us in different directions before a permanent solution was developed.

In summary, white Americans need to be more sensitive (the car dealer damaged relations and lost customers) and black Americans need to recognize not all problems are racial (Jane may have been able to reduce a personality clash). If we are to give our Grandchildren (white and black) a better America, we need to find honest, open, ways to reduce racial issues.

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