Do you ever get pressure to choose between two ways of thinking? Yeah, I don’t like it either. Personally, I have always been intrigued by the lives of those who straddle categories. Unless it’s on a chessboard, there’s nothing pleasant about dividing things into black versus white. The state of our discourse has been reduced to binary arguments that strip away our ability to have nuanced conversation. That is not who I am and not what society is meant to be.
Research shows that opportunities and opinions go in circles within cliques, and that people within those cliques are usually very similar. If you were organizing a workplace or a community towards mutual understanding and opportunity for all, you would want to open up those cliques. And if you personally wanted to break free you would need to make inroads into new crowds.
So how do you break down cliques? Nobody does it better than people with a foot in two worlds. I personally find this interesting because I have a background in the labour movement, but I have since moved into human resources. I have had some wild conversations about what people think the union ought to do, and what I assert the union is certain to do based on their history and their purpose. But that’s lightweight compared to what some people have experienced. Some people straddle worlds by changing nationality, by seeking education beyond what their parents had achieved, or by switching religious or political affiliation. Others are born into two categories, including those who are biracial.
The Loving Generation and Emerging Career Equality
Anna Holmes wrote an interesting editorial in the New York Times in February 2018. Holmes is a member of the “Loving Generation,” children born to mixed-race couples shortly after the Loving vs. Virginia supreme court ruling. The 1967 case struck down laws prohibiting black and white couples from marrying. More mixed-race kids were born soon afterward, heralding the arrival of a new and more prominent hybrid identity.
When Holmes was in her early thirties she began to compile a list of people who, like herself, were part of this cohort. The list included public figures in sports, entertainment, and politics such as Derek Jeter, Halle Berry, and even Barack Obama. When she looked to leaders, she found black communities where the leadership was disproportionately mixed-race.
Holmes perceives that mixed-race people can call upon their whiteness to open doors. Members of the Loving Generation have a comfort with white people because of their upbringing, and often presume that they can do just as well as the white side of their family.
Holmes spoke with Mat Johnson, author of the 2015 novel Loving Day. Johnson notes,
“If we are a segment of the African-American population that has access to power and privilege, what does it mean ethically to live that life?” For his part, Mr. Johnson said, it means making a sustained effort not just to acknowledge his privileges but to use them to help those not similarly situated. He paused, then added, “I think it’s valid to point this out even if it’s uncomfortable.”
If you have an advantage, you can still take care of yourself. But you still have a responsibility to others who do not have that advantage. It’s a good leadership principle for people of all backgrounds.
But wait, what about white people who have an abundance of privilege? Do they perceive that they should help others?
Anxiety About White Decline is Sensitive to Data Definitions
Over at the Washington Post, Dowell Myers and Morris Levy cite some interesting research about anxiety amongst American whites over the multi-decade decline of the white majority. While some people want to hold onto the advantages of their “category,” the definition of this category is not so robust.
What they uncovered is that there are six different forecasts for the prevalence of whiteness in America based on different definitions. In all data analysis your data definitions have an outsized impact on what raw data comes out, how it is analyzed, and how it will be interpreted – even by an unbiased researcher. The forecast showing a white majority disappearing in America by 2042 relies on people identifying as white and no other ethnicity. It’s equivalent to the one-drop rule from the 19th and 20th centuries in the US. Under the one-drop rule both parents must be white for someone to be categorized as white, with that rule carrying back into all prior generations. It’s an archaic definition that lends itself to conservative assumptions. But there are other ways of looking at things.
Myers and Levy draw attention to their own research on this topic. They ran a controlled experiment sharing two simulated news stories using similar race projection data based on different definitions of whiteness.
The first mimicked the conventional [one-drop rule] narrative about the decline of non-Hispanic whites. The second …mentioned the rise of intermarriage and reported the Census Bureau’s alternative projection of a more diverse white majority persisting the rest of the century. …Forty-six percent of white Democrats and a whopping 74 percent of Republicans expressed anger or anxiety when reading [the first story] about the impending white-minority status. But these negative emotions were far less frequent when participants read the second story about a more inclusive white majority. Only 35 percent of white Democrats and 29 percent of white Republicans expressed anger or anxiousness about this scenario. [Emphasis added, paragraph breaks removed]
In brief, one quarter of Democrats and two-thirds of Republicans who would normally be anxious about the decline of the white majority have more positive feelings about the emerging population of hip mixed-race semi-white people, whom they readily regard as kin.
Change Our Definitions, Change Racism
These findings imply that when we measure ethno-cultural background for Employment Equity purposes, we need to allow people to choose multiple ethnicities. Also – and this may be controversial – we need to start reporting on the representation of the white population in a manner that empowers the new hybrid definition. Sympathetic white people are a target audience for equity reporting.
I have a self-image that I’m one of those non-racist people who is unbothered by white decline. But if I happened to be one of those coastal urbanites who was deluded about their own implicit racism (you know, hypothetically) then this new mindset would affect me. I look to mixed-race couples and biracial kids and think, yeah, they could totally grow up in my neighbourhood, work with me, and become family, no problem. It’s a gateway into general tolerance.
By blowing-out binary categories we can think expansively about being human and embrace complexity in an era of rapid change. We cannot let demagogues simplify us; we need to become contradictory and cosmopolitan people in order to be true to ourselves and be comfortable in our own skin. Only then can we freely consider all of our options and seek every opportunity that we choose.
[Hat-tip to Guy Kawasaki for sharing the Washington Post article on LinkedIn]