A white felon is more likely than an African American with a clean record to get hired for a low-wage job. Some Asian-American high school students avoid checking “Asian” on their college applications because there is evidence that schools are less likely to accept Asian applicants. And on playgrounds across the country, preschoolers are picking playmates based on skin color. These are just three examples illustrating the fact that in what is supposed to be a post-racial society, race and skin color still matter.
In an absorbing, eye-opening, and sometimes shocking session during a recent Best Practice Session at Ernst & Young’s New York City headquarters, members learned from keynote speaker Katherine Phillips, a professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia Business School, that race has an impact in the United States when it comes to job seeking, wealth building, advancement, and surviving a rough economy. She noted that the rate of unemployment in today’s challenging economic landscape is nearly 17 percent for African Americans, compared to 12 percent for Latinos and 8 percent for whites.
Racism and colorism are sticky and pervasive. Yet, they are not uniquely American. As Phillips described, skin color plays a role in people’s status, economic circumstances, self-worth, and social interactions in societies all over the world—and has done so for centuries. Skin color is embedded in caste systems across the globe, with higher status ascribed to those with lighter complexions. It is the result of European dominance throughout much of history. And it persists.
White and Asian Brazilians earn, on average, twice as much as Brazilians of African descent, according to Phillips’ research. In India, where those with fairer skin receive preferential treatment, the market for skin whitening creams is a $132 million business that grows 18 percent annually. In various parts of eastern Asia, four in 10 women use creams to lighten their skin tone.
Phillips’ messages were reinforced by a panel that included Ronald Hall, a professor with the School of Social Work at Michigan State University, who illustrated the self-hate among people of color that results from buying in to what he called the “bleached ideal.” Race, he said, is a proxy for skin color, with white being the ideal. He indicated that, ironically, when people of color achieve status or power, they can exhibit the same prejudices as white people do—primarily because skin color is wielded as a tool for achieving power and domination.
The panel also featured Kam Wong, the associate director of workforce diversity and compliance programs at City University of New York, who thoroughly debunked the “model minority” myth, which assumes that Asians are smarter, more affluent, and more successful than the general population. Wong described the vast diversity within the Asian-American population, which has grown rapidly in the United States over the past 10 years. Despite their “model minority” status, many live below the poverty line, do not complete college, and do not even finish high school. According to Wong, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the largest targets for hate crimes and bullying—likely because they are perceived as too mild mannered to speak out against the behavior.
The final panel participant, Louise Covert, principal of Analogies Consulting, described the need to view “whiteness” from a unique cultural standpoint, rather than thinking of it as simply “the norm.” Just as race and skin color shape the lives of people of color, they shape the lives of white people. Covert offered this little-known tidbit: in Pre-Revolutionary America, skin color was less of a barrier and races tended to interact relatively freely. During colonial times, groups in power began to leverage skin color as a way to establish difference and to wield power.
Acknowledging racism and colorism as a critical barrier to inclusiveness makes the diversity practitioner’s job that much harder. As one attendee asked, how do we approach our CEOs and executive leadership and tell them that despite their support of various inclusion activities and diversity strategies, we now need to talk to them about “their whiteness?”
The best practice session offered some next steps and other opportunities for nudging forward, bit by bit, the effort to uproot racism, at least within our organizations. Simply creating awareness—pulling the challenge of race and skin color out of hiding—puts the problem in the open, where it can be tackled. From there, organizations should pursue opportunities for authenticity—reviewing policies, practices, rewards, and workforce behaviors to ensure they don’t inadvertently reinforce a culture that validates “whiteness.” Ensuring every person has an opportunity to bring their full selves to the workplace—and ensuring they don’t have to “act white” to succeed—is the end goal.