Submitted to the AFRO by Dr. Tiffany Jana
At the heart of the recent Harvard University admissions federal lawsuit is the question of just how much a school can consider race in admissions. With both sides planning to appeal, the affirmative action question could go to the Supreme Court. But what is at stake? Are race-blind admissions an act of erasure to students of color? Or are the same principles that apply to businesses and diversity true of higher education; that the collective intelligence of a community is exponentially greater when it has diverse members. Furthermore, mail-in ballots are at the center of controversy in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional district. Those potentially disenfranchised were mostly minorities who were likely to vote Democratic. It is bad enough when ordinary citizens choose to discriminate against their fellow humans. But when the government steps in to codify bias, as with HB2 and the attempts to narrowly define gender in ways that deny the existence and right of many––that is how systemic, institutional bias is leveraged to cause maximum, long-term harm.
As an adult, I have made my bread and butter the belief that each of us has the power to affect systemic bias through a deliberate, coordinated effort. But this belief started early for me. As a multilingual child, I was introduced to the cultures of the world at a young age. Growing up in El Paso, Texas, I spoke Spanish before I spoke English. I also attended German elementary school in Bavaria and was negotiating my place in a multilingual world by age 8. As bewildering as this was, it made me a person with a heart for the world, hopefully acting in service to humanity. Yet this access to differences and the biases that it thwarted in me at a young age, are not the typical American story. Still, many of us thought we had turned a corner in this centuries-old saga but the rise in hatred and violence epitomized by events like the Charlottesville neo-Nazi tragedy indicated otherwise.
It’s important to remember that all humans have bias, and as a result, so do the institutions we build. But it doesn’t have to end there. The bias that permeates institutions, systems and economies are carefully crafted over long periods of time but there are constructive ways to combat such bias. To begin, you can ask questions such as, “Are we attempting to create systems in which all people can thrive? What kind of world and what kind of workplaces are we cultivating?” These questions must first be answered by ourselves, recognizing our own role in perpetuating harmful biases that come to define institutions.
In a world divided, this process is designed to raise awareness about imbalances and help us hold ourselves accountable for creating a world that works for everyone. Each of us can evaluate our own current role in perpetuating systemic bias and define our new role in breaking it down. We can each accomplish this through two frameworks to erasing institutional bias. The first includes the work you must do before examining institutional bias challenges, like identifying what type of systemic bias is present and evaluating your role in perpetuating institutional bias -all work on bias should begin with introspection. Also important in this framework is cultivating allies. The second framework is the actual work of addressing bias within larger systems. This is the work that must be done. This is the hard work.
Looking back, W.E.B. Dubois wrote that the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the color- line. That is the problem of racism. We are a century later still battling with issues of race and equity in America. The question of how to right the wrongs of racial prejudice, a perpetual penance, still hung about our national neck like an albatross. Yet our struggle with prejudice goes far beyond race to include gender and many other types of discrimination. Still, I believe that we can be inspired and equipped to do the work of making our relationships and institutions more equitable and that we can all affect organizational change, together, by focusing on the values we share. The things we can agree on, like the noble principles upon which our nation was founded and has yet to live into fully and equitably. Not only can we be part of the solution––we are the only solution. We simply must choose love and inclusion over enmity.
Dr. Tiffany Jana is the founder and President of TMI Portfolio, Richmond-based Diversity and Inclusion management consulting companies. She is the author of Erasing Institutional Bias: How to Create Systemic Change for Organizational Inclusion, along with Ashley Diaz Mejias.
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