Zero tolerance on race talk?

By On Leadership
Sunday, January 17, 2010

Katherine Tyler Scott is the managing partner of Ki ThoughtBridge, a company specializing in adaptive leadership development, change management and conflict resolution. The author of numerous books and articles on leadership, she is a board member of the International Leadership Association.

Leaders need to have an open, honest conversation about the fallacy of race and the disabling constructs around it that we've developed to justify feelings of superiority over other human beings.

Reverting to the parental admonition "If you can't say anything nice about someone, then don't say anything at all" is inviting serious regression in the effort to liberate ourselves from the crippling effects of racism. Forcing people to act nice but still retain their illogical thoughts is not progress. How can we counter bigotry if we drive honest, open communication underground?

Harry Reid said publicly what far too many Americans -- black and white -- think or have said. I prefer more enlightened leadership, but we won't get there if we expect leaders to pretend they think and believe what they don't. Attitudes and beliefs have the possibility of changing when they are expressed honestly. When they must be hidden, they cannot be scrutinized, challenged or ultimately transformed.

The indignation being expressed over Reid's comments by politicians and members of the media is hypocrisy at its worst. This is not new or unfamiliar information to them. The existence of colorism is a fact in this country. The "first" of any minority group must be extraordinary to be considered acceptable. Barack Obama is extraordinary, independent of ethnicity or speech. All Reid acknowledged was that for those Americans still blinded by bigotry, his language and skin color made it easier for them to see him as "acceptable." Many African Americans are not just targets -- they are perpetrators of persistent elitist notions of acceptability based on skin color and speech.

We can use Reid's honest apology and the president's acceptance of it as a teaching moment for the whole country. Reid learned these beliefs and attitudes from his sphere of family, friends and colleagues, and unfortunately they continue to be taught to the next generation. We can use this experience as an opportunity to examine our own values and beliefs about differences, about who we are as individuals, and how we can become a country that values the gifts that others bring regardless of the container in which they come.

As part of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs, Lanre Akinsiku is one of 12 Southern California fellows engaged in a full-time, nine-month, graduate-level leadership training program that prepares people for public affairs leadership.

Our sometimes insightful, sometimes naive, sometimes maddening discussions about race are in no danger of being silenced. Many of these conversations, whispered in private, will never have to traverse the gantlet of public scrutiny.

Reid's comments, initially made in private, don't have such a luxury. His clumsy attempt at complimenting then-candidate Obama has larger implications than the rehashed debates about political correctness and racial sensitivity. Reid's comments don't just address how we speak about race; they reveal how we think about it.

During the 2008 campaign, Reid cited Obama's complexion and lack of a stereotypically black speech pattern as political advantages. In doing so, Reid appeared to suggest that only a singular form of "blackness," embodied by Obama, is publicly acceptable. Furthermore, Reid, a career politician, seemed to imply that these measures of Obama's blackness are actually significant to the voting public.

As pundits, politicians and commentators squabble over just how racist Reid's comments were, the discussion must also include reflective questioning by the public: How comfortable are we in acknowledging that these standards may have been used during Obama's campaign? And what are the consequences of applying these types of standards to minority leaders? We, not Reid, should be at the center of the newest discussion on race.

If nothing else, Reid's comments provide a glimpse into the difficulties of black leaders in the public sphere. Even a figure with Obama's weighty credentials is judged using standards that are out of his control and irrelevant to his qualifications. He is certainly not alone in facing this challenge. Post-racial America, an optimistic fantasy created during the euphoria of Obama's campaign, doesn't exist. Not when we're still whispering about race.

Martin Davidson is an associate professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, where he also serves as associate dean and chief diversity officer. He blogs at Leveraging Difference.

In my research, teaching and consulting on leadership and diversity over the past two decades, I have seen leaders make many mistakes when in the midst of race talk.

Harry Reid's comments were probably wrong and his vocabulary outdated (Negros in the 21st century?). His remarks suggest that an African American could be a viable candidate only if he or she has lighter skin tone and possesses the ability to hide or deemphasize an African American dialect in favor of the "standard" American English dialect. Such an assumption underestimates the potential for good, thoughtful people of all races -- but especially white people -- to choose leaders based primarily on the person's record and potential.

But the thrusts of his comments -- light skin is better than dark skin, and most people in the United States don't like people who speak "black English" -- are important insights with research to support their viability. For example, work on implicit associations has produced evidence that in the United States, we have more positive associations with light-skinned people than with dark-skinned people. We don't know for certain whether skin color affects voting behavior, but it seems to me it's worth talking about.

And as for speech, we know that people often alter speech patterns and dialects because their audience relates better to someone with that dialect. Indeed, there is an industry of accent-reduction resources to help people shed speech patterns that would be stigmatized where they work and live. And we also know that African American vernacular English (Reid's "Negro" English, I'm guessing) has carried the stigma of being associated with low levels of education. I don't know for sure the use of African American vernacular English by a candidate would affect voting behavior, but, again, it seems worth talking about.

In the midst of serious and sensitive conversations about race, people are going to make mistakes. Reid sure did. But the problem with zero-tolerance approaches is that they deprive us all -- the outrageous and the outraged -- of the opportunity to learn. Hateful and maliciously ignorant speech is profoundly painful, and I'm all for figuring out how to curtail it. Let's do so with more open dialogue and less stifling punishment. Because when it comes to race and racial differences, we all still have a lot to learn.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company