Donald Sterling is in the news – a name I didn’t know until a few weeks ago, although I’m a Los Angeles native and have seen the Clippers play live. As a diversity & inclusiveness practitioner I’ve been asked what I think about him and his “racist” comments, just like I’m often asked to express my opinion or outrage about the latest “racist” to dominate the media like Paula Deen, the Duck Dynasty guy, or the teacher who criticized an African American student for dressing up as Santa Claus last December here in New Mexico.
People sometimes ask me when my blog about such incidents is going to come out. But I don’t typically write about these topics for two reasons. One, I value contributing something new to a conversation, so if I don’t have anything to add to what’s already being said, I usually don’t chime in. Two, and more importantly, I think it’s a waste of precious time.
People who make bigoted, prejudicial, ignorant, or mean comments aren’t new, nor are they newsworthy. Focusing so much time, attention, energy, and dialogue on them is a harmful waste of time because it diverts critical focus and precious resources from more important work in two ways:
- It demonizes the individual while ignoring the big picture – the context and enduring structures that create and perpetuate such behaviors. When these incidents occur, we lose another opportunity to have meaningful dialogue and ask real questions. Questions like – how common are these beliefs today? Where did they come from? Why do they persist? How does this set of beliefs affect people’s lives today? How and why was Sterling’s behavior tolerated or ignored by those around him? What were his motivations or unmet needs? How could these behaviors be responded to in a way that encourages change and growth? How can such behavior be prevented in the future?
- It tricks us (particularly White people) into thinking if we’re not saying bigoted, prejudicial, ignorant or mean comments, we’re not a part of the problem. We hear the recordings of Donald Sterling, express our righteous outrage, and go back to our lives feeling good about being good people. More interesting questions would be: Who is responsible for this situation? How am I contributing to this problem? What can I do differently to contribute to a solution?
The main problem isn’t individual racists, it’s racism…and all the other isms. The problem isn’t individual acts of bigotry, ignorance, meanness, awkwardness, or frustration – it’s the enduring structures and systems we’ve created in our minds and our institutions that constantly (and often unconsciously) assign inferior worth, access, resources and benefits to large groups of people based on superficial traits over which they have no control.
The problem is also groups of organized racists, specifically the over 900 active groups operating today in the United States. This number has ballooned since Obama first took office. Such groups should be viewed as domestic terrorists, and hate crimes understood and prosecuted as such.
The important work we should be dedicated to in the workplace, instead of just attending to the latest unpleasant “racist” incident in society or our organization, is five-fold: (1) ongoing awareness and self-reflection, (2) meaningful dialogue about race, difference, and power, (3) clear goals, (4) shared responsibility and accountability, and (5) a fierce commitment to inclusiveness — ensuring all types of human diversity are seen, fully heard, included, celebrated and engaged. Only then will we access the brilliance and excellence that are the rewards of a diverse and inclusive environment.
We could also take a cue from Magic Johnson and not pay “racists” more attention than necessary. Last week he tweeted: “ I’d rather be talking about these great NBA Playoffs than Donald Sterling’s interview.”