Feel Good or Do Good

Feel Good or Do Good August 26, 2020

I know I have been blogging a lot on race lately. I promise you that while I do plan on blogging more on racial issues than I have in the past not every blog I do will be on racial issues. In fact, after this one, I have promised myself that my next two blogs will not focus on racial issues.

Last week I discussed the presence of institutional racism. Dealing with that racism is the challenge that faces many activists for people of color. Unfortunately, I fear that many of the actions they take do not lead to a dismantling of institutional racism. In fact, many of their actions can make it harder for us to achieve those goals. My belief is that ultimately developing a situation of collaborative conversation is the best way to find widely accepted and sustainable solutions that address institutional racism.

But rather than working towards sustainable solutions based on collaborative conversations, I find that activists tend to focus on developing cultural pressure towards compliance for what they see are the solutions. I completely understand why such activists have taken such an approach. Those of us of color have suffered from centuries of racial abuse. We have been silenced in a racialized society that disregards us. We have been held back and not allowed to live out our full potential. With such conditions the desire for mandatory lessons for whites and rules that allow us to get ahead is completely understandable. Emotionally there is a satisfaction in finally getting our turn to have cultural power.

But the emotional satisfaction that comes with this approach can be counterproductive. Allow me to provide a couple of examples. The first example concerns the efforts that have emerged to address the underrepresentation of people of color in organizational leadership positions. Clearly, the lack of people of color in leadership positions means that our opinions will not be valued and our talents will not be used to the best of our abilities. Historically both formal and informal sanctions have been utilized to keep us from those positions. It is natural that we can believe that measures such as mandatory training or altering job requirements will allow us to have the occupational positions we deserve.

Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev conducted research on the efforts of companies to hire managers of color. They explored the use of mandatory diversity training, use of job tests to warrant hires, or grievance systems to make sure people of color are treated right. They documented which companies used these tools and then checked back five years later to see if the number of managers of color increased. The opposite had taken place. Five years later companies that implemented these techniques actually had fewer managers of color.

However, they also examined companies that used voluntary training, and employed the mostly white managers to do college recruitment, to mentor and to head up diversity task forces. They found that five years later the managers of color significantly increased at these companies. What is the difference between these tools and the ones in the preceding paragraph? The measures discussed in the preceding paragraph tend to be geared at forcing whites to “do the right thing.” The measures discussed in this paragraph tend to be more focused on bringing whites into the conversation on how we can best increase the number of managers of color.

It is very understandable why people of color want to see mandatory measures used to help the management of business to become more racially diversified. But mandatory measures often lead to less racial diversity. After centuries of racial abuse people of color are hesitant to trust whites to work with them in a collaborative manner to help bring more managers of color into their organizations. But finding ways to bring whites into a conversation on how to produce that diversity is connected to more success in achieving that goal. This is what I mean about whether we want to feel good or whether we want to do good. It may feel good to use mandatory programs, but those programs are less likely to do good if you want diversity among a company’s leaders.

Another goal activists of color desire is creating allies. There is a lot of talk about being allies for marginalized racial groups. It makes sense that finding such allies would be important to achieve the goals of confronting institutional racism. So, if this is a goal, then what is the best way to achieve it? To consider this question we should think about what it takes to persuade others of a different point of view.

If we want to persuade individuals, there are a variety of actions that are important. We should seek to identify where we agree with the person, to admit when the other person has made a good point, to build rapport with that person and to truly understand the arguments of the other person. If we can accomplish these goals, then we have a chance to convince them of our point of view.

Does this sound like the way antiracism has attempted to gain allies? Are such proponents seeking attempts to understand the perspectives of those who disagree with antiracists? Do we see an attempt to find areas of agreement? Have we seen antiracists admit when those they disagree with make a good point? I think it is pretty clear that these are not the ways antiracists approach those they may hope to convince to become allies.

Indeed, the best selling antiracist book, White Fragility, basically argues that whites who disagree with people of color do so out of a sense of defensiveness, rather than honest disagreement. The number two book on the list is Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist. Kendi divides up the world into racist and antiracist. If you agree with Kendi you are an antiracist. If not well then, I think we know who you are in Kendi’s system of thought. I am not dismissing the possibility of there are antiracist books that welcome us into a conversation by which we can have rapport, admit when the other has a good point and find commonality. But these two books certainly are not it and neither are any of the other antiracist works I have read. Nor have any of the speeches I have heard given by antiracists invite us into that conversation. So despite the diversity of thought that can be found within antiracism philosophy, it is fair to say that for the most part proponents of this ideology are not engaging with others in the best ways to obtain allies.

This is not to say that they are not gaining allies. We live in a time where activists of color have unprecedented access to cultural power. Within the last year Peter Hunziker, Adam Rapoport, Hartley Sawyer, Stan Wischonowski, Aleksandar Katai, Craig Gore, Grant Napear and Amy Cooper have all lost their jobs due to racism. The power to have someone fired because of racism is not something people of color could do fifty years ago, or even ten years ago with the same degree of success they can employ their cultural power today. As I pointed out a few weeks ago, many companies turn to antiracism as it is the safest route for them in a society there they can be branded as racist. So yes antiracism can pick up allies but much, although by no means all, of this support comes from fear and not conviction. It is the type of support that is paper thin and can be blown away with the next political wind.

To gain the support of real conviction we need the type of conversations where we listen to others as much as discuss our point of view with them. We connect with others and get at the core of why they disagree with us. We understand their arguments and consider how to deal with the issues they bring up. We admit the validity of those issues even if we disagree with them. Does this sound like anything that is happening with antiracism? But if you do not do this kind of work and just obtain a shallow compliance, then can we say we have allies? Or do we merely have those who will turn on people of color the moment the larger culture decides that we are no longer are worthy of having power.

It is hard to have the sort of collaborative communication that I am talking about. It feels much better to merely assume that others are wrong, and they need to accept our perspective without any real questions. When people do that, either due to fear or conviction, it feels good. We get to surround ourselves with others who already agree with us, which of course makes us more convinced that we are right and do not need any correction. So I get why the antiracism approach feels so good to people of color. But is it doing good?

If having more allies is important to accomplish the political and social goals laid out by antiracism activists, then I can tell you that they are leaving behind certain whites who can become allies. People who have come to me wanting to do something, but also wanting to have a say in the process of what is done. Not the final say but a say. They do not want to be told they are fragile when they disagree with others. They do not want to be told “my way or the highway” or be called a racist. They want a discussion to find a solution that is best for all considered. And those people can become allies. But they will not given the current state of activism and the demands for capitulation.

I know that some will state that if these whites are not willing to get with the program, then we can just leave them behind. They will argue that we must have justice before we have unity. Actually it is the other way around. We need unity before we can get justice. People of color should demand that they have their voice heard but, we do not have to demand that others shut up. We can learn from the perspectives of others as we build a unified coalition for justice that includes all of us. Indeed if we want justice we have to do the hard work of building unity in a respectful manner. Only then can we, as a society, implement solutions that will not be sabotaged by the large percentage of the country who feel that they had no say in how those solutions were constructed.

Ultimately attempts to silence disagreeing voices, instead of using discussion to work out our disagreements can feel good, but it does not do good. If we really want to do good, then we must seek out the approach of collaborative conversations. Those conversations can be painful. But I believe that they can bring about the committed allies we should desire.
There may be some who argue that the antiracism approach is correct even if it is not always very effective. I believe the lack of effectiveness is tied to the reality of human depravity. Because of that depravity it is problematic to shut out a group as we seek to solve our racial problems. The temptation of that group to misuse their power is too great and we need to be able to check each other. We need to welcome more, not fewer, voices into the conversation of how we can move forward.

So whether it is developing more managers of color or finding more allies, often doing what feels good will not maximize the results of our efforts. Of course there are other goals that activists for people of color may have. I suspect that in those goals, it is also likely to be true that long term success is more likely to occur by doing the hard work of making collaborative connections with those who are not yet fully on broad, and learning from those individuals as well. Doing so will not always feel good. But in the long run it will be the best way we can do good instead of just feeling good.


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