There's a Lesson in the Raw Emotions That Emerge in Diversity Group Sessions

As the WEF makes a priority of diversity, equity and inclusion, it’s worthwhile to reflect deeply on matters of race at work and in the community.

“Why are they so angry?”

That was my first thought while taking part in a two-day corporate diversity workshop at the electric utility where I worked in the early 1990s.

When I learned about the small-group workshops, which were mandatory, I signed up right away and became a member of the first group, about evenly split between white people (like me) and people of color, mostly African Americans.

I offer these memories and takeaways from my experience in light of WEF’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative, which celebrates “our unique differences including education, career background, age, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, gender identity” and much more.

Raw emotion

I didn’t know what to expect in the workshop. I had a vague idea that somehow we’d be broken into mixed-race groups and asked to solve problems and break down barriers of ethnicity and skin color and learn to work together.

I encountered something far different. In the various sessions the white people in the group were confronted by questions with a strong accusatory tone, and with a list of grievances. From a Black man: “How do you think I feel when a white woman sees me coming on the sidewalk and clutches her purse, or crosses the street to avoid me?”

From a Black woman: “Have you ever had a salesperson follow you around a store and watch you while you’re shopping?”

From a Black man: “Why do white people always ask me about last night’s basketball game — as if they assume I must have watched it?”

Evolving responses

My first reaction was to feel hurt, and then a little angry, at the vitriol coming my way. I didn’t think of myself as racist; my family life and religious grade school education had taught me about bigotry and racial justice.

But then I had to ask myself: How eager would I be to get out of a car in the middle of a Black neighborhood in a big city? Hadn’t I once worked for a company where my boss would not consider hiring a Black account executive — because our clients would not accept them? Don’t I have a biracial nephew who has been called the N-word by one of his neighbors?

Toward the end of the session came a question to the white people from a Black man, named Jerome, that I can still actually hear in memory: “Will you admit that you have white skin privilege that gives you advantages in life?”

Politics aside

Now, I know that the whole concept of white privilege has taken on political overtones — that some say the concept is designed to make white people feel guilty or hate themselves, that its purpose is to divide the country and subjugate white Americans.

But in looking at the concept carefully, one runs into realities that are incontrovertible. For example, a white person likely will never be denied a mortgage or car loan, have an apartment rental application rejected, or be stopped by a police officer while driving in a “wrong” neighborhood solely because of skin color.

Being aware of this privilege does not make me feel guilty or oppressed. It does make me appreciate the reality that prejudice still exists against people of races different from mine, and it inclines me toward more vigorously supporting policies that promote racial equity and justice — so that in time we all enjoy the same privilege.

About the anger

After the diversity training the hurt feelings faded, and I reflected on the anger directed toward members of my race. What I decided was that it’s not my place to decide whether that anger was justified. It grew out of people’s experiences. This is the way they genuinely feel. As we strive toward racial harmony, this is the point from which we begin.   


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