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?

Back to our ghettos: Why leaders should change first.


Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi once told me: “At the end of the day, we all get back to our ghettos…the white ghettos, the brown ghettos, the black ghettos…” Gandhi was talking about how our rugged individualistic culture takes us back to our own isolated spaces, the ghettos we’ve built for ourselves.

Meanwhile, corporate America is investing billions in promoting Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) without understanding that a 400-year-old problem cannot be solved overnight.

The historical trauma of racism and systemic inequality cannot be wiped off with a magic eraser.

“The only way leaders are going to combat racism in their organizations is if they literally make combatting racism a lifestyle —as habitual as a morning cup of coffee,” says Andre’s Tapia, Senior Client Partner, Global DE&I Strategist at Korn Ferry.

Tapia makes a valid point. Few corporate leaders know where the inner city is, and very few have taken the time to understand people from different cultures. However, their companies have invested in anything from backpacks to painting walls to show feel-good corporate social responsibility initiatives.

The old saying: “People, Planet and Profits” could now add DE&I in the mix as it has outpaced sustainability as a key goal for corporations.

Yet, knowing about nan & curry doesn’t let you understand the underpinnings of the world’s largest democracy, India, and neither does eating falafel make you feel the richness of Middle Eastern culture.

“When leaders make combatting racism part of their lifestyle, they’ll never lose focus on creating an inclusive organization. It will define their philosophy on how to approach revenues, innovation, marketing, finance, developing talent, and everything else. It will shape the way they lead,” Tapias says.

How many leaders are doing that? How many are making concerted efforts to spend time and understand the experiences of their employees from people of color to LGBTQ employees?

The lingo of DE&I is alien to many corporate leaders in America but the DE&I checkbox has been in existence for several decades. After all, don’t we invest in political correctness every day?

Leaders must invest time in learning, understanding and building relationships with people of color and marginalized groups. Otherwise, companies will be investing in more DE&I consultants showing more PowerPoints about unconscious bias.

It’s time leaders understand their cultural identity first and start leading with empathy and humility. And, the time is now.

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.