By Sharon Simonson
In 1993, at a south London bus stop in England UK, a racist gang stabbed and killed Stephen Lawrence, an 18-year-old black man. A bungled police investigation, marred by institutional racism, followed. Not until 2012 were two white men convicted of the crime. To help re-train 1,800 police officers and civilian workers on institutional racism, the British government hired a team of diversity professionals. Bijay Minhas, a licensed master’s social worker and Cornell University certified diversity professional, formed part of this team.
Sharon: What do the murders in Charleston say to you about race relations in the U.S. today?
Bijay: This is a very tragic event and yet another reminder of where we are as a society. The murders in Charleston reflect the harsh truth that racism continues to exist in the U.S in the year 2015. This event has been instrumental in bringing rapid change because it is bringing people back to the table for deeper discussions. However, these discussions need to start with a universal recognition that race relations in the U.S. are neglected. Race relations need strengthening if we are to prevent such atrocities from occurring again and again.
Sharon: What are your thoughts on the Confederate flag debate?
Bijay: Symbols are used to give meaning and representation to ideas and beliefs. Flags can be symbolic of power and-or oppression. This flag does not create unity but rather division and is an ongoing reminder of a history of oppression, fueling racism. Social media today is vast and fast. Public outcry on these forums has now become a powerful vehicle for change.
Sharon: In recent weeks, Google, LinkedIn and Facebook have released updates on their efforts to widen the diversity of their employees. What is your reaction to what these companies are doing, the programs they describe in their public statements and the approaches they are taking?
Bijay: These organizations are aware that they still have a long way to go, and their transparency and attention to detail is admirable! However, initiatives can look great on paper. In reality, it is often when we start to put things into motion that we face real challenges. In my experience organizations need to be prepared for what can be highly emotive and complex journeys of change. Reflecting diversity in the workforce is one thing; creating and sustaining inclusive work environments is another. Their efforts will be assessed based on results. I look forward to seeing their progress.
Sharon: Is this the responsibility of the Googles of the world?
Bijay: If they want to continue their growth whilst remaining competitive on a national and international platform, absolutely. Leaders in giant organizations such as these need to be at the forefront when it comes to driving change and should be making diversity and inclusion initiatives a priority.
Sharon: ‘Unconscious bias’ comes up consistently in the commentary by Google, Facebook and LinkedIn as a phenomenon they are trying to address. What is unconscious bias?
Bijay: Very simply, unconscious bias is having a prejudice towards something or someone and not knowing you have it. If we look at it in terms of how the brain functions, research shows that unconscious bias acts like a filter system. Unconscious bias with race, or any group, can mean we have distorted, negative views and stereotypes that adversely impact how we treat other races or groups. Of course, if this unconscious bias—or implicit bias, as it is also known—is left unacknowledged, it can result in racism, sexism, homophobia and discrimination.
Sharon: Is the outcome of unconscious bias institutional racism?
Bijay: Institutional racism comes about when an organization is being led by people who have one set of life experiences and way of doing things. Everything in that organization comes solely from their perspective and therefore excludes and disadvantages other races. Consequently, such an organization can knowingly or unknowingly create systems of racial inequality, which allow institutional racism to thrive.
Sharon: How has the dialogue about race and diversity evolved?
Bijay: When I first came into the work arena, ‘equal opportunity’ was discussed a lot. [Organizations] were striving to adhere to at least the basic legal requirements. In the 1990s, the key equality legislation focused predominantly on race, gender and later disability. As time went on, attention came to looking at people from all types of diverse backgrounds, including class, age and sexual orientation. This shift to a broader spectrum of diversity focused on creating equity and fairness for all, emphasizing respect and value for differences. More recently there has been recognition that diversity alone does not lead to more inclusive work cultures and environments. The business case for diversity and inclusion in the workforce is compelling because creating a diverse pool of talent and perspective leads not only to fair and equitable workplaces but allows greater business success.
Sharon: These are awkward, fraught discussions. How do you manage that?
Bijay: As a diversity professional I have experienced firsthand the difficulties people face in sharing their thoughts, particularly in a culture of blame and uncertainty. When organizations try to manage a crisis by introducing diversity training, it can be at the worst time. Often people are afraid to say or do anything. Managing these discussions through open dialogue is essential. For example, language is a powerful reflection of how we see and understand people. In my work I find that just initiating conversations about the way we use language, as both an empowering and disempowering tool, can create an insightful opportunity for learning. Sadly, the burden of ‘political correctness’ can force people into a silence that is detrimental to change. Formal training needs to be offered through learning environments that feel safe, open and honest and where it is O.K. to share our awkwardness in a professional setting. Diversity and inclusion programs go beyond a checkbox exercise and require ongoing engagement at all levels.
Sharon: Are some people going to find dealing with U.S. demographic changes overwhelming?
Bijay: Demographic change is already happening and will continue to happen. So if organizations are current, they will recognize the impact of changing demographics on their business. In order to remain commercially relevant to the changing marketplace, companies have to be flexible and responsive to these changes. If people find demographics overwhelming, I would encourage them to see this as an opportunity for growth and innovation.
Sharon: The idea of getting a powerful person or organization to share its power and control of resources seems a hard thing to do. How do you do it?
Bijay: Historically and even today power struggles have gone on. For example, despite decades of campaigning, women are still struggling to compete on a fair and equal platform in the workforce. Many organizations still do not reflect diversity in their leadership, yet that is where the power base sits and decisions on resource allocation happen. So over time, power has to shift to reflect change. In the interests of a business it makes sound sense to share power and resources.
You cannot stop the global marketplace from evolving. For companies to remain relevant and competitive, they need to both know and reflect their customer base today and tomorrow.(
(Photos courtesy of Bijay Minhas)