Much of the educational work I do tends to involve groups made up of predominantly white individuals – students, parents, professionals, educators, etc. And, as many diversity facilitators would agree, I tend not to take the “guilt” route, but rather I work to point out ways in which we must actively make decisions now that we are adults.
One of the exercises I begin with in group facilitation is a variation of a popular exercise called “The Bead Exercise.” There are a few variations of the exercise that are designed to visually point out ways in which our circle of trusted individuals is often not diverse, or tends to reflect our own ethnicity or racial identity.
In my version of The Bead Exercise, I have various circles on a piece of white paper that have between 15-20 different professions or interests written within the circle: doctor, neighbor, roommate, best friend, hairstylist, favorite movie actor, favorite singer, mechanic, etc. The participants write down the name of the individual who they trust or admire. Then, I give them a “key” - - a list of colors that correspond to the major racial categories, with a few more thrown in. The participants must them color in each “bead” as it corresponds to the racial key. As the participants are doing this, I duly note that this exercise is very focused on “race” – and that we are well aware that individuals may have other areas of identity (ability, sexual identity, religion, etc) that are not mentioned here.
In the many times I’ve run this exercise, I usually hear the same thing in predominantly white groups: “Oh my gosh. I had no idea there were no people of color included in my circle.” or “Woah. I guess I’m not as inclusive as I thought I was.” Now, because I don’t operate from a philosophy of guilt, I process this exercise in a very different way than others. I encourage people to look at the entities that were chosen for us prior to having independence as adults (or that are still being chosen for us, if I’m working with a group of young people) . We typically don’t get a chance to choose our doctors when we are younger. We don’t get to choose our neighbors, our religious leaders, and we sometimes don’t get to choose our roommates.
But, the question is … now that we may be of age to make our own decisions, how are we actively diversifying our close network of professionals? What are the early messages we received about certain races, ethnicities, religions, colors, identities and their abilities to perform or not perform certain jobs?
I always challenge people to envision the “old boys network” – if we only see one type of professional, then we only refer one type of professional, then we are building our “old boys network.” One of the criticisms I’ve received (mostly online) about this practice of actively seeking to diversify is the comment that “I’m not going to just go out and pick a Black doctor if the Black doctor isn’t the best one” or “I’m going to go to the best professional … not the brownest professional” or my personal favorite is “That’s a racist thing to say – that I should actively seek to exclude Whites from my professional network” (no, that's not the message of the exercise…)
Seeing the point, yet?
Here are a few stories that individuals have told me who have stepped up to the challenge of actively seeking to diversify their professionals. Their names have been changed, although, they should be very proud of themselves for rising to the challenge!:
Jennifer, mother of twins, said that she wasn’t happy with the care her pediatrician was giving her toddlers. She was in the process of looking for a new doctor. After attending a session I held on this topic, Jennifer looked at her list of doctors she had prepared to call and interview. Sure enough, of the 12 doctors she had on her “call” list, all 12 of those doctors were white. She got online, logged into her health insurance network, found a few names of doctors from diverse ethnic backgrounds, and added them to the list. Jennifer went to the first African American doctor on her list, interviewed him about his medical philosophy, his training and experience, and watched him interact with her children. Jennifer absolutely fell in love with him and his care for her toddlers. With due diligence, Jennifer went and interviewed a few of the other doctors on her list, and she felt the African American pediatrician was the best fit for her and her family. Jennifer now has an African American pediatrician who she has been recommending to other parents.
Jennifer’s is such a great story because she never really thought about including a doctor of color into her mix. She didn’t think she was actively excluding one, but she certainly never thought to include one. Probably every doctor on her big list was talented, kind, smart, and well-respected. While she would never consider herself a prejudiced person (and I wouldn’t refer to her as that, either), it’s great to hear that she is now looking at the other types of lists she makes and thinks “Is this inclusive or am I just going with the type of professional that meets my comfort needs?”
Likely feedback from readers is, “Well, if the African American doctor wasn’t a good fit, should Jennifer have stuck with that doctor?” No. Of course not. In the same way that she shouldn’t stay with a White doctor if she didn’t feel comfortable. But, I hopefully Jennifer has a new awareness to then ask herself, “Well, what is it that I’m not comfortable with? Am I not comfortable with something associated with the doctor’s race? With the doctor’s gender? Am I uncomfortable if the doctor has an accent? Or, did I simply not like the his medical philosophy about pediatric medicine?”
We always challenge people to actively reflect on conscious and subconscious bias … that’s how we start to work towards becoming an anti-racist.
Another story comes from Ben who also participated in the exercise. What made an impact with Ben was the “bead” asking about favorite movie actor. Ben began to reflect, not on his movie taste, but on his movie choices. As we began sharing his favorite movies, he realized that many of the movies that he has watched that had POC’s were slapstick comedies. He came to realize there was an absence of movies that showed POCs as heros/heroines. He didn’t watch any movies that addressed POC issues or history. He felt he owed it to himself to start watching some movies that addressed these issues. As a frequent Netflix user, Ben added some of the “must watch” movies to his list, and soon began committing to 2 movies a month.
See, it’s not that hard. No one is asking Ben to start liking those movies. Rather, the challenge is including those movies into his mental library. Doing so challenges his perception of POC, issues around politics, etc. Soon, Ben even began to rent movies that were subtitled (and, if you knew Ben, his favorite line was always, “If I wanted to read a movie, I would have gotten the book!”).
One of my favorite “A-ha” moments was when I did this exercise with a group of upper-middle class adults, and I happened to include “mortgage broker/banker/financial planner” (which I knew many of them had). After we had processed the exercise, Ryan came up to me with a “lightbulb look” on his face – you know, that look when someone just realized something big! He looked me in the eyes and said, “You know, at first I thought this whole exercise was a little ridiculous, until we got to the one about the person who handles our money. I thought about why Jim was our financial planner, and I know that we are with him because he’s trustworthy, honest, and has our best financial intentions in mind. Well, I began to think about messages I received about people who weren’t white, and came to the realization that I would never have a Black person or Mexican person handle my finances because my dad always told me ‘you could never trust a person like that with your money’…. I’m 35 years old, and I’m just realizing that now.” Ryan was on the verge of tears and definitely on the brink of disgust.
Now, going back to my original point about “choosing the most talented and not necessarily the brownest….”, my advice wasn’t to ditch Jim and find a Black or Mexican financial planner. No, obviously not. But, it was because of the exercise that this man challenged his practice of NOT including people of color in his trusted circle. I never heard from Ryan after that day, but I’m hoping he took that a-ha moment with him and challenged other ways he might have internalized early messages about people of color.
From my own experience, women of color are often shocked when they hear that I bring my daughter – the one with the hair issues at age 5! – to a white woman who does her hair. When we go to visit her grandparents in NYC, we go to an all Dominican hair salon. Here in Boston, my daughter sees a white woman who braids, conditions, thins out, etc. her hair. “Why are you sending her to a white woman!!??! They can’t do her hair!!” Yes. Yes, she can. And, she does it quite well, actually…. She fully understands my daughter’s hair, has worked on hair exactly like my daughter’s hair in her 10 years as a hairdresser, and my daughter loves her. So, yes, the white woman does an excellent job with my daughter’s tight, curly, hair.
Actively seeking to diversify the professionals in your life goes a number of ways. I’ve also run this exercise with predominantly Latino, Black and Asian groups, too. And for many of these groups, they, too, have mono-chromatic “beads”. In some of those groups, they were also given early messages to only trust people within their ethnic neighborhoods, etc. They went to schools where they were the majority, went to the local bodega or corner store to buy their groceries, and/or only listen to music popularized within their community. Imagine the look I get when working with predominantly Latino students from the Bronx when I encourage them that “for 1 week, listen to Country Music and Classical Music or music that is not in English or Spanish!” I ask them to look at the messages they received about different races, ethnicities, religions, identities, etc., and jobs those different identities can and cannot perform, in their minds.
I find it interesting that, out of all the anti-racist “working points” I give, this is the one that gets the most controversy. But, it’s also understandable given that these choices are often the most loaded with our own subconscious messages we received about different identities. It’s also the area where people are interested more in “merit” – when, in fact, merit is very racially loaded in our U.S. society.
So, in what ways are you looking to diversify your life? What will you now include in your toolbox? What messages did you receive about different identities as they pertain to “who can or cannot perform a certain job?”