October 31, 2005

Cornel West and Sylvia Hewlett: Working Hard to Hold Non-Whites and Women Back in Business

Filed under: Biz Weak,Business Moves,Scams — Tom @ 9:55 am

When an African-American child is excelling at school, his jealous friends will often accuse him or her of “acting white.” This poisonous attitude holds kids back and keeps them from achieving their full potential, or worse.

Cornel West (scroll to bottom of page) and Sylvia Hewlett want to take “acting white” from the classroom to the boardroom, and expand the number of ethnic groups poisoned, as this piece from Biz Weak (link requires subscription) illustrates.

When You Can’t Be Who You Are

A new study of minorities in corporations finds that African Americans, Asians, and others are held back by subtle discrimination. Princeton University professor of religion Cornel West and economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett discussed their findings with Senior Writer Nanette Byrnes:

Q: The people you spoke with seem to feel they have to act like white men to get ahead.
Hewlett: There’s this great phrase “bleached-out professionalism.” That describes this shrinkage of authenticity, which in the end is very debilitating and by definition not successful. You just can’t turn yourself into a white guy.

See what I mean?

It’s not about “acting white,” it’s about being professional. Or are only whites “professional”? How racist is that?

Q: What does it mean to act like a white guy?
Hewlett: A lot of Asian executives we interviewed thought that they were way too quiet. African American executives, on the other hand, often felt they came over as too loud, too brash. They felt this loudness labeled them as potential troublemakers.

Earth to Hewlett: When American executives go to Japan, they have to get used to the idea that they don’t even have an imperative verb form in their language. When the boss notices and comments on a desk that’s dirty, it’s just understood that the employee needs to clean it up. Once the American exec figures that out, he or she adapts. If an Asian exec needs to be more assertive to be more effective in a company’s culture, that’s just the way it is, or…. find another company.

Q: Isn’t the superficial sometimes important — the trust inspired by a banker’s suit, etc.?
Hewlett: But a lot of the things they’re talking about you basically can’t change. They feel they’re not allowed to bring their whole self to work. A woman who was in one of our focus groups was 32. She had been promoted three times since business school — a highflier. In her spare time she founded a Girl Scout troop in a homeless shelter. Do you think her colleagues knew about it, or her boss? No. It was kind of her choice, but she said the culture of this company is that if you are on the board of the symphony, it’s O.K. United Way is O.K. But the community involvement of minority professionals is often not on the list.

Am I really supposed to believe that people would look down on another person because of the charities they support? And by the way, how many minority charities are supported by the United Way? (Answer: plenty)

Q: Is it possible white men are getting ahead faster because they’re working harder?
West: There’s no getting around sacrifice, excellence, and quality. We’re talking about style: how one talks, relates, and balances their life. We’re talking about a deepening and refining of values.

I’d like to see the evidence that white men are getting ahead faster in 2005. I’m not convinced, at all. It seems like a convenient assumption that’s 30 years out of date.

Q: What shocked you?
West: The most frightening fact is that 52% of the minority folk don’t have deep trust in their company and the people who run it. We’re already dealing with distrust of the government. We don’t need more isolation.

News flash: At least 52% of ALL employees don’t have deep trust in their company. The social contract version of Corporate America has mostly disappeared. Many bosses themselves, and many of their employees. are having a tough time dealing with it.

To ascribe any of the above to race is absurd. To the extent that non-whites believe it, they hold themselves back. I hope for their sake that they ignore it.


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