Unless you see and feel it, you won’t know what enslaved people faced in America


Let’s pray for atonement.

Three years ago, on a hot summer day, I visited Whitney Plantation Museum, the only museum in Louisiana that told the stories of enslaved people. I never knew that such a museum existed until one of my daughter’s friends told her about it.

The Big House. Courtesy: Whitney Plantation.

On arrival, I was greeted by it’s founder, John Cummings. A New Orleans-based trial attorney, he restored the plantation over 15 years before opening it to the public in December 2014. Cummings told me about his journey in owning the property for over two decades and then building a museum that told the story of enslaved people.

As I toured the Museum, I learned about the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery in Louisiana. I also learned how enslaved people were treated brutally as they produced indigo and sugar.

I saw the Big House where domestic slaves performed multiple duties from cleaning, serving food and looking after their masters, always at their beck and call.

I had never seen such a structure in my life and I had never even imagined that such things had happened in America, All I knew about slavery was about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, largely because of his famous “I have a dream” speech that my children learned at school.

After all, why should a non-immigrant Asian on an H1B visa care about the past of this country? You are living in the suburbs in Arizona surrounded by a majority white population and I was in my own ghetto. People never talked about race at any of the places I worked. They still don’t.

Besides conversations about the weather and nice places to eat, Americans seldom talk about race even as they call it the original sin. Not talking about the original sin is in itself a sin.

Fast forward a few years later, I took my citizenship test. I was given a set of pre-ordained bureaucratic questions highlighting the virtues of America’s best export product, democracy, forgetting that the country’s efforts to export democracy to the rest of the world has failed miserably.

The citizenship questions were largely about the constitution, past presidents and their middle names. My Jesuit-school education in India had prepared me well for rote memorization. I aced the citizenship test within minutes, and my interviewer who was already debating where to go for lunch, was so happy. She got me approved in ten minutes flat. The citizenship test was all about rules of democracy that actually changed on January 6, 2021.

The best way to understand your past is to see and feel what had happened and ask the question: why? The lives of enslaved people in America look pale compared to the country’s efforts to promote capitalism, rugged individualism, pseudo-socialism and of course democracy which is being questioned internally.

3 things you can do

1. Immerse yourself in history, take your children with you.

2. Talk openly about race, ask difficult, uncomfortable questions. The original sin will never go away, but we can seek some atonement.

3. Are you a corporate CEO? Instead of hosting another annual holiday party with Covid-19 restrictions, why don’t you take your employees and show them slices of history?

Aren’t we fed up with the optics of diversity?


Over two decades ago, I was cast into the optics of diversity by accident. While working as an intern in a community college, my boss summoned me to participate in a group photo. I was new to the United States and in typical Indian fashion, I nodded my head. In a few minutes, I was part of a group picture and soon I was on the cover of a marketing catalog titled “Diversity Enriches Us All.”

I looked both Hispanic and Asian, a double whammy for the HR department. Yes, I was gullible and I didn’t even know what the purpose of the photograph was at that time!

Fast forward today, I see babies of all hues in advertisements, rich Indian ladies traveling in autorickshaws for American corporate ads and of course the “we should include this race in this advertisement” and the infamous “are we missing a color here?” advertisement.

Shortly after George Floyd’s death, corporate CEOs were scrambling for at least two weeks not knowing what to do as their eyes were always focused on the tickers earlier. The early adopters started issuing standard press releases to be first in line, the daring ones spoke out against the murder, aligned with anti-racist organizations, and the thoughtful ones kept on thinking without doing much.

In weeks we saw bright new advertisements including everyone.

A barrage of high profile diversity officer positions opened up and companies started publicly announcing their new chief diversity officers. In sacrosanct PR spaces reserved for new CEOs, chief diversity officers suddenly came to prominence.

The optics of diversity doesn’t serve any good for us. It’s lame and irrespective of what side you are on, it’s a waste of time, money and effort. Just like how diversity consultant Lily Zheng calls the business case of diversity a sinking ship, the optics of diversity is a temporary eyewash.

Sadly, everyone is following the bandwagon and reminds me of Everett Rogers theory: “Diffusion of innovations.” An old idea, the optics of diversity is being spread, influenced by the idea itself as it has seen a renewed sense of purpose and is being disseminated through communication channels over time in the social system we live in. The early adopters have started moving on fast, trying to make the optics of diversity an innovative idea that needs social recognition.

“Women and underrepresented minority employees drawn to a company by its diversity optics are blindsided by how different the reality inside the company is from the polished exterior they’ve been marketed,” writes Zheng.

In a report titled “Outcomes over optics: Building inclusive organizations,” consulting firm Deloitte reminds us of a simple fact: “Businesses that focus on maximizing the potential of each of their employees win in the market. From superior financial performance to improved talent retention and a greater capacity for innovation, when a firm brings together people with different backgrounds, skillsets, and mindsets, they achieve more.”

So, how can we focus on outcomes and not optics?

  1. Don’t waste resources on the optics of diversity. However small or big you are, focus on building culture.
  2. Leadership needs a Diversity 101 to build learning-centered organizations of lasting value, not organizations that worry about shareholder value.
  3. Every organization will have to pay a price to change its culture and this requires active participation from leadership.
  4. Inclusion takes time, but if every employee feels included and engaged, your business will prosper.
  5. Instead of fragmenting your workforce to meet the current societal climate, think long-term and try to unite people instead of looking at just their differences.

At the end of the day, remember, we are dealing with what acclaimed writer, Isabel Wilkerson says in her book “Caste: The origins of our discontents” “Color is a fact. Race is a social construct.” And, this social construct is over five centuries old.

The optics will not make a difference however hard we try. Instead, we as individuals should take responsibility for living inclusively.

References:

Diffusion of Innovations: https://www.amazon.com/Diffusion-Innovations-5th-Everett-Rogers/dp/0743222091

Lily Zheng: https://lilyzheng.co/the-business-case-for-diversity-is-a-sinking-ship/

Deloitte report: https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/ca/Documents/audit/ca-audit-abm-scotia-inclusion-outcomes-over-optics.pdf

Isabel Wilkerson: https://www.amazon.com/Caste-Origins-Discontents-Isabel-Wilkerson/dp/0593230256/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=caste&qid=1625681534&s=books&sr=1-1

Disclaimer

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not represent the opinions of any entity with which I have been, am now, or will be affiliated. Further, I make no warranty regarding the accuracy or effectiveness of my recommendations, and readers are advised to consult other advisors as well as their own judgments in making decisions.