“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” ― William Faulkner <Requiem for a Nun>
I have wanted to write my thoughts on affirmative action and equal opportunity for a while. I hesitated because I wondered what an old white guy (me) could credibly contribute to this topic. In fact … I began this writing on Martin Luther King Day, examining my own intentions and actions … attitudes matched to behavior <in a harsh spotlight> thinking it could be a viable exercise, and then I shelved this in my draft folder.
And then Paula Deen’s issue of ‘racial character’ came a knockin’ on my brain’s door.
If you ever want to think equal opportunity and racism and the past this is the time to do so <my brain said to my brain>.
I am not a Paula Deen fan … never have been … neither her food or her sugary sweet <on the surface> attitude. But this isn’t about whether I like her or not … this is about racial sensitivity, racism and … well … now & then <past & present>.
What got me started on this whole issue was that I found it interesting on MLK Day that President Obama <a minority by the way> was getting shit about equal opportunity <and the fact he isn’t staffing minorities in key positions>.
This proof how difficult this topic is … if a minority president cannot satisfy people that certainly have to give us common everyday hiring people a sense of how difficult it is.
In addition … my mother, regifting a gift my sister gave her, encouraged me to read Condelezza Rice’s book <where she expresses her thoughts on affirmative action>.
I am not going to review the book.
Nor am I going to invest a lot of energy pointing out that the President did hire a woman as secretary of state and want to nominate an African American woman as her replacement <in maybe the toughest position for a woman to serve globally … so he obviously hires off of merit & qualifications and not gender/race>.
But I am going to begin by discussing something I have mixed feelings about … equal opportunity laws. In addition I will share some of my thoughts on affirmative action and racism amongst us older folk.
Before I do here are some business thoughts to provide a foundation for my thoughts:
- We are foolish <we old white guys in management> if we do not believe, or understand, how the past affects how we behave. Years of misconceptions and prejudices deeply believed in a general society has certainly resulted in a misshaping <or shaping> of certain things in our own minds. I say that not to excuse our actions but rather to suggest there is a reason for our behavior.
- There is a difference between interviewing, hiring and managing with regard to this topic.
- We are a work in progress. Peoplewise & countrywise. I often chuckle when someone refers to us as ‘civilized’ because in some ways we are … and in some ways we are not. The truth is that what we are is always a work in progress. Not just on equal opportunity but in particular on equal opportunity. We have come miles from where we were … and yet we have miles to go.
- Despite being an admitted work in progress … there is a constant struggle with punishing past behavior and rewarding current ‘changed positively’ behavior
I want to discuss this topic as a business topic … from two angles – intentions and actions.
And within each of these look at interviewing, hiring & managing.
But this is truly about attitudes <recognized and subconscious> and behavior.
And us old white folk should take the time to think it through in this kind of excruciating detail to better understand what is going on … what we are currently doing … and where we are going.
I will start with me, my beliefs, attitudes and actual behavior, so no one can suggest I am casting stones at ‘unenlightened others.’
Equal opportunity, or affirmative action, does not mean unqualified people are forced into positions but rather provides the opportunity for qualified minority people to gain those opportunities.
It gets them in the game … through the law.
And I probably get killed in the nuance <of which I am quite familiar with and have the scars to prove it>.
Here is my issue.
The laws are created because most people don’t do it unless forced to … and <using what I know about behavior> forced behavior doesn’t modify long term behavior.
Particularly in established old white people establishment/management <and I am an old established white guy>.
What am I saying?
Laws establish rules people need to follow.
Laws do not create changed attitudes <which lead to changed behavior>.
Now … Condelezza Rice is opposed to them. And so was The West Wing’s Ainsley Hayes who discusses why she opposes an amendment giving women the same rights as men:
(the key scene begins at the 3:50 mark)
But while both of them are smarter than I … I will respectfully disagree.
Desired behavior will only happen when people are motivated to do so … on their own.
I recognize that laws serve as necessary guidelines.
Maybe unwanted by many … but needed for all.
And if the Paula Deen discussion isn’t a good reminder that laws are still useful to guide I don’t know what is.
We are a work in progress we Americans … particularly on this issue.
While it is easy to suggest the past is the past and we should move on … it is not that simple.
“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.” – Maya Angelou
The practical aspects … this whole intentions versus actions thing.
And I will use myself and my record.
My attitudes and beliefs are very open on this topic. Simplistically I could give a shit what your color, sex, attitude toward sex, or whatever prejudice anyone wants to discuss is … all I cared about was could you kick ass in the job I have you and would you work well with the team I had in place.
In a harsh light my record with regard to hiring minorities is spotty at best.
Now that is a different story.
I had the right attitude … but my actions <behavior don’t match … which by the way … as I wrote this was quite enlighteneing … but sorely disappointing to me>.
But here is where I get into the realities of hiring … I had earned a reputation for hiring women … and therefore human resources would feed me reams of qualified female candidates from which I could glean the best of the best.
But frankly … my pool of candidates was skewed by the resumes I received.
My groups were high performers. The best of the best. They were as good as any I have ever seen anywhere <and I wouldn’t trade who and how I hired for anything>.
Other hiring people, not known for hiring women, simply received the female resumes HR gave them <and that’s it … not many at best> among all the resumes they received … and we all know HR <while doing what they believed was best> often doesn’t give you what you need … because they recognize who you are and who you will typically hire <it is a time & energy management technique>.
So I simply had the numbers on my side. I had all the female resumes I could ever desire … and I could sift through them.
Embarrassingly they were most often female <with a few notable exceptions>.
I guess my point is that I didn’t need laws … and I found those who did need laws didn’t obey them anyway.
You can review all the resumes you want but it always comes down to two things:
- the most qualified candidate for the position and you <the hiring person’s style and management/team beliefs>
- what the hiring person wants to hire
Note a couple of things here.
On the first point there is a lot of room with regard to the hiring manager style.
What was right for me could be incredibly wrong for another manager.
On the second point … some male managers just do not like managing women … or don’t feel comfortable with minorities … or whatever … they will skew their hiring to their comfort zone.
Laws may try and dictate behavior but it is counterproductive.
And, at its worst, that counterproductively rears its head as “hiring just to hire” which inevitably leads to that hire obviously not fitting in.
Do I have an answer for this? Certainly not.
My hiring record suggests I needed some help with regard to minorities.
I had good intentions … but my true actions needed help.
When should laws go away?
Whew. What I would suggest is that these types of issues only change when hiring managers are enlightened enough to ignore skin color, gender or anything beyond performance and fit in the group.
When intentions <words spoken> meet actions <those actually hired> then we have shown real progress.
And when maybe a generation has become enlightened <and who the heck can truly measure that?>.
I used me purposefully as an example so no one could get pissed.
I have a great attitude with eagrd to interviewing and hiring minorities … and yet my actions dint match.
It would be very <very> easy for me to flippantly suggest I am an ‘enlightened manager’ and I am socially aware and all that good stuff.
But my hiring record doesn’t fit the bill.
If we are not unfailingly aware of our own attitudes and behavior than who will? <the answer is laws and legal and none of us really want that … I don’t want to be told the right thing to do … I just want to do the right thing>.
Despite being an admitted work in progress … there is a constant struggle with punishing past behavior and rewarding current ‘changed positively’ behavior.
This is where the Paula Deen situation has relevance.
“… anything that happened in the past between black and white, I can’t really speak on it, because I wasn’t there. I don’t feel like me being born the color I am makes me any less of a person.” – Eminem
<note: who ever thought I would use Eminem and Paula Deen together? … I am chuckling>
Deen’s attitudes <and uncomfortable words> reflect many white Southerners of her generation.
Heck. She reflects many white people of her generation of any geography.
Sure. It is now recognized as morally questionable … and it is certainly uncomfortable unenlightened … and I imagine she knows that now … but it isn’t something that can simply be wiped out like an etch-a-sketch.
This oft-stated acute racial sensitivity is a fairly new thing in our culture.
Every younger person today who deals with anyone in the older generation will run into some racial epithet of some kind. I don’t care if it’s a southern older person <where the river runs deep> or a New York City older person <where the river runs but differently>.
That older generation grew up in different times and thought different things.
We also know that for everyone one of those elderly whites with their residual racism we have also seen many of those same ‘racially insensitive’ who have done more good for the black community than … well … many of us who are more ‘racially enlightened’ have done to help the black community among us.
Go ahead. Speak with the elder generation and they will be politically incorrect on race … they will be hopelessly, innocently ignorant … maddeningly so … and yet they will take some absurdly outstandingly generous action to help the black community … not out of guilt but rather because, without much thought, it was the right thing to do.
Where I truly struggle with Deen’s treatment is the righteous simplicity being brought to bear on the complex realities of racism.
Simplistically people are suggesting that anyone currently ‘racially enlightened’ must crucify and crush anyone with Deen’s personal history and antiquated views.
This suggests many in the elder generation <of which I could be construed as part of> are irredeemably tainted.
In the bigger picture this suggests that all of us are irredeemably tainted by our past actions.
We know better.
We are all work in progress.
Who I am today is simply a different version of who I was yesterday … and I will be a different version tomorrow for god’s sake.
Here is a fact.
We struggle assessing past behavior and current behavior.
And I am not suggesting our pasts be ‘swiped clean’ so that past regressions be ignored … but rather while it makes it all complicated … maybe we should measure ourselves and everyone around us by how we have adapted.
Some adapt better than others.
Adapting, frankly, is easier for some than others <therefore we cannot always judge others by our own actions and behavior>.
I believe attitude matters.
Attitude matters a lot.
In the end.
We are a work in progress culture.
And impatient (in a good way) for improvement and doing what is right.
The president of the US <a minority himself> is getting crap for hiring too many old white guys.
I got crap for hiring too many women.
Paula Deen is getting crap for something she did over a decade ago.
I imagine others get crap for hiring too many minorities.
And you know what?
That’s okay. In fact it’s good. The dialogue is more effective than any law we could ever put in place.
The dialogue forces us to examine our own attitudes and behavior.
Our own intentions, attitudes and action.
The past will always haunt us <old white guys & society in general> but we can only hope we take small steps of progress and that the next generation of managers will be better than us.
The struggle I have is when ‘getting crap’ becomes ‘getting skewered’ <and becoming a pariah>.
But attitude is more important.
“Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” – John F. Kennedy
Racism & prejudice, of any type, is steeped in the past … a past which will never simply go away but rather remain present, recognized … and managed.
We should accept responsibility for the future and not blame past behavior just for the sake of blame.
We are a work in progress.
For the business world?
Equal opportunity at its core simply suggests “hire the best option for the need you have.”
Nowhere in there do I see any skin color, gender or any other characteristic rather than ‘fit.’
We can dance on the head of a pin if we want … and screw around with ‘the need you have’ with a bunch of nonsensical reasons why someone ‘fits’ or doesn’t fit.
And you can screw around for good or for bad <depending on your own racial & moral compass> … but ‘best option’ is ‘best option’.
Someone once told me I couldn’t have a woman work on a male driven business and client.
I said ‘fuck you’ and had an entire female group work on that male driven business … and they kicked ass.
As soon as someone hears that it is time to shake the etch a sketch.
But, hey, that’s me.
I am a work in progress <and I am an old white guy>.