The percentage of women on boards in Australia is often used as evidence that we need to do better when it comes to diversity.
For the record, that number is about a third. Directors with a non-Anglo-Celtic background? Just now 10%†
This is clearly too low when you consider that a third of the Australian population identifies as non-Anglo-Celtic.
It starts as children
“Look, I’m Asian,” a small child said to me, pulling back the sides of her eyes with both index fingers.
“Yes, you are, because that’s how you were born,” I said.
“But you really shouldn’t do that in the eyes of yourself or anyone else to refer to something of Asian descent. It’s not fun to do. Please promise me you’ll never do that again.”
“Okay, I understand,” she said.
No Asian parent will ever teach their child to do the “squinty eyes” gesture, so the child in question probably learned it from other kids or from something they watched.
I heard from another little girl at this child’s school from a minority background who kept refusing to play with her “friends” even though she had done so before. When questioned, it was revealed that she was always supposed to be the servant, while the other two, who came from non-minority backgrounds, played the nobility.
No one is born with conditioned prejudice. Nature is not to blame here. The wrong form of parenting starts many on this path, and it is much more common than society likes to admit.
As adults, we have a duty to ensure that we minimize the cultural biases that we consciously, or more likely unconsciously, transmit to the children around us
“I’m not a racist”, we often exclaim defensively. Maybe not. But we all have cultural biases that we’ve picked up over the years, very early in life.
Cultural prejudices leave traces
I’ve lost count of the number of racist, derogatory insults thrown through my life.
My earliest memory of it was as a child when we first moved to Australia. Long after I forgot the names of all the kids who called me names and told me I was less simple because I was Asian, their faces remain branded in my memories as badges of honor and resilience.
While the ugly racist aspects are not that common in my professional life, the prejudices mostly remain because of insensitivity. In one of my previous roles, when a colleague first met me, “you must be the new techie.”
“No. I run the business for this region,” I said calmly.
They didn’t know what to say and shuffled off uncomfortably.
These kinds of experiences, regardless of subtlety or intention, make their lasting mark. You have two choices: let it influence and hold you back, or use it to your advantage as motivation to make things better.
I have many acquaintances, ex-colleagues and friends from minority backgrounds who gave up pursuing advancement in their chosen careers because of the cultural and racial prejudices they continued to encounter. They had, in fact, decided to stop trying to make the world a better place for all of us, having been exhausted from years of trying to break their respective cultural ceilings. The amount of highly intelligent, capable people we lose from the workforce in this way is a travesty.
“Remember, when someone has an accent, it means (they know) another language more than you do.”
“Do you know how smart I am in Spanish?!”
The first quote is from “Windmills of the Gods” by Sidney Sheldon. It is often paraphrased on social media as a reference to never look down on someone who speaks with an accent.
The second comes from the television series “Modern Family”, where Sofía Vergara’s character points out that she is often underestimated because of her appearance and sound.
Perhaps the most tangible way to demonstrate is by using myself as an example. When people first see me, these are some common assumptions:
- I come somewhere in Asia, probably China, and have spent most of my life there.
- I speak with a strong Asian accent.
- I speak fluent Chinese.
- English is my second language.
- I am good at mathematics.
Here’s the reality:
- I have spent most of my life in Sydney, Australia.
- I have an Australian accent, with a slight international touch.
- My Chinese is terrible, and I’m not proud of it.
- English is my first language and I’m pretty good at it.
- Okay, this one is true.
The word of the moment seems to be “diversity”, which is a good starting point. Unfortunately, most people stop there. They never take the first step to understand that inclusivity is more important than proclaiming how much they value diversity.
Most of the examples referred to earlier took place in relatively diverse contexts. Some were even included. But that didn’t stop any of the negative behaviors and outcomes from occurring.
A lot of what people think of as diversity in action is a checkbox to ensure that the visual color and gender wheel of life is displayed around the table for us to see. Much of what HR teams and managers present as inclusiveness in action is nothing more than symbolism. Letting someone talk who doesn’t look like you’re talking isn’t inclusive. Holding multicultural luncheons where everyone brings dishes to represent their culture is not inclusiveness.
Nothing will change if we don’t really understand other perspectives and lived experiences. If we don’t empathize with how others feel, and understand the impact that cultural and racial prejudice has had on the people who endure it.
If you’ve never been a victim of racism, consider yourself extremely lucky. More importantly, we all need to realize that everyone has a role to play in making society more inclusive and harmonious. We need to stop saying that “I’m not a racist, so I’m definitely not part of the problem.”
The truth is, we all are. Racism doesn’t just exist in a subset of cultures. It is a universal problem that every country, race, gender and age experiences.
We are all part of the problem because of prejudices we learned as children and picked up over the years.
So, what can we do about it?
Here are a few simple steps:
- Admit you have prejudices. Know that there may be a few that make you uncomfortable.
- Discover the assumptions you make about certain groups and make an active effort to understand why you are doing it.
- Write them down so they become real so you can associate your behavior with real words.
- Actively look for this behavior in yourself and when you see it happening, force your logical brain to make the evaluation, not your feelings or instincts.
- Call on others when you see it happening. You’ll probably be doing them a favor.
Most importantly, we have to admit that we’ve contributed to the problem so far so that we can actively change things for the better.