The ‘Not Here’ Syndrome

(Illustration by Nyanza D)

One day not long after the 2016 US presidential election, a white senior colleague asked me—the only Black tenure-line faculty in my college at that time—how Black people felt realizing that racism still exists in America. I was annoyed by his question. This colleague never spoke to me; yet he felt at ease asking me to speak on behalf of all Black people in the United States. Why did he expect me to have a pat answer? Did he think I had taken a scientific poll of Black people’s reactions to the election?

I had not. Nevertheless, the imbalance of power between my colleague and myself made it imprudent to show my annoyance, so I answered that Black people never thought racism had ended. Not only do we know it still exists, I told him, but we also continue to experience it, often in our own workplaces.

This Is What Racism Looks Like

This Is What Racism Looks Like

This series aims to explain how racism operates within organizations and create conversation about racial justice, dignity, and belonging.

He was shocked.

He had what I have come to call the “not here” syndrome—denying that racism is a problem in your own organization, even when you are willing to acknowledge it as prevalent in society, outside your own organization or home. The “not here” syndrome is at work when someone bemoans Trump’s election but confidently declares, as this colleague did, “There’s no racism here; at least none that I’ve seen.” Racism was only “out there, not here.” Ironically, while my colleague trusted me to represent Black people’s views on the racism that Trump and his supporters so boldly expressed, he did not trust me to speak about what I have personally experienced as the only Black faculty member at our school. His epiphany that racism persists in the United States left him unconvinced that it is a problem at our own university. And there was nothing I could say to convince him otherwise.

Regardless of Black people’s dignity, expertise, or professional achievements, employers treat Black employees as unfit to interpret our own experiences. Even Black scholars with deep knowledge of the vast and damning literature on racism find that our expertise is unwelcome within our colleges and universities. We can talk about it at conferences but not in our organizations’ conference rooms. White colleagues who have never given serious thought to racism believe themselves more fit to identify it; more capable of being “objective” or “reasonable.” They almost seem to pity us for our sensitivity to signals of racism. They believe that what they cannot see must not exist, overlooking the possibility that they do not see racism because it does not happen to them.

For instance, when I confided in a colleague one day that a student in my class had declared support for white nationalism—a student whose evaluation of my teaching would one day be treated as a data point in deciding whether or not I could keep my job—the colleague simply replied, “I’m sure you’ll figure out how to handle it.” Although I cannot be sure that he was in complete denial, his casual response conveyed that, at best, he saw this student as a “bad apple” rather than as a symptom of a rotten tree—of the culture and systems. In his mind, there might be a few racist students at our university, but there was not enough racism to justify my alarm. Yet, he showed sensitivity and concern in discussions we had about racial inequity outside of our university. He, too, had the “not here” syndrome.

When Racism Is Always Somewhere Else

Many people have hoped that George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers in the spring of 2020 would spark a surge in white people’s awareness of racism, a surge that would carry us, finally, to racial justice in the United States. I have had white friends chastise me for not embracing this optimism. Yet recent surveys by the Pew Research Center have found racial attitudes in the United States have remained largely unchanged since 2019. White and Black Americans’ attitudes about policing have converged on only one issue: The majority of people in both groups believe that the criminal justice system is less fair to Black people. Otherwise, there are large differences between Black and white Americans in their beliefs about the urgency of racial inequality and the need for policies to redress it. Far fewer shares of white people, for instance, believe that the country needs to do more toward the goal of racial equality, that they need to educate themselves on racial inequality, or that racially disparate treatment is alive in mortgage lending, health care, and voting. There has certainly not been a great awakening to systemic racism in the workplace. In fall 2020, only 43 percent of white people agreed that employers discriminate against Black people. Based on my experiences and those of other Black people I know, I suspect that even fewer white people believe that their own employer discriminates.

I have often wondered how white people can be blind to racial inequity in their workplace—the place where they spent most of their time. Research suggests that one reason is a greater tendency among white Americans to overestimate how much the United States has progressed toward racial economic parity. They do so even after reading about the persistence of racism. Rather than attending to facts, white people often base their estimates on examples of high-status Black people, taking the success of a few as evidence of mass progress.

Turning away from evidence of racism also serves as psychological self-protection. Denying or downplaying racism helps white people maintain the view that they, personally, hold no racial prejudice and, more critically, are disconnected from (and therefore not responsible for) the history of racism within the United States that has served to benefit them politically, socially, and economically. Nobody wants to dwell on painful truths that reflect poorly upon them and their friends, family, and beloved institutions.

Research has shown that people often identify strongly with the organization that employs them. Not only are they part of the organization, but the organization is a part of them. Organizational identity is a source of self-esteem and satisfies that most fundamental of human needs to belong to a valued collective. Although identifying with one’s employer can support well-being and performance, it can also reduce employees’ willingness to recognize the organization’s pitfalls. Research by business management scholars Elizabeth E. Umphress, John B. Bingham, and Marie S. Mitchell has found that people who are highly identified with their employer are more likely to engage in unethical actions that benefit the organization. In addition to self-protection, people with strong organizational identity may be motivated to deny racism in their organization if they think acknowledgment is a slippery slope toward discrimination claims that are costly to the organization’s reputation and bottom line.

Despite such paranoia about lawsuits, research suggests that employees are less likely to lodge formal discrimination complaints if they feel that their organization shows true concern about their experiences of racism. Based on my experience, few Black people are interested in the potential monetary costs, mental health, and career costs that can result from claiming discrimination. We simply want our organizations to listen and act.

The Paradox of Diversity Efforts and Racism Denial

Many companies now claim to be listening and acting. Estee Lauder, Facebook, and PepsiCo are among the dozens of firms that have announced pledges over the past year to pour resources into advancing racial justice. Many of the pledges include goals to increase representation of Black employees in these companies. However, a closer look at these goals gives room for pause. For instance, the investment firm Blackrock plans a 30-percent increase in the proportion of Black employees and a doubling of Black senior leaders in its workforce of 7,500 over the next three years. The targets seem impressive until a look at the numbers reveals that success will result in only 113 more Black employees. The doubling of Black people in senior leadership will result in an increase from one Black person to two on the board of directors and the executive committee.

Black people hired under these initiatives could encounter a culture that is as dismissive of their experiences and insights as ever. Indeed, anemic as Blackrock’s hiring goals may seem to be, organizations that signal commitment to racial diversity often encounter a countervailing wave of heightened racism denial among white employees. The very programs we count on to remedy racism in employment can actually strengthen the tendency to deny that racism is, in fact, “here, not there.” Numerous studies, for example, have found that people are less likely to see a company as discriminatory if it has a diversity program, even in the face of objective evidence of discrimination. A 2018 study by Columbia Business School’s Seval Gündemir & Adam Galinsky found that when a company either claims a commitment to multiculturalism or wins a diversity award, observers are more likely to see Black employees’ claims of racial discrimination as illegitimate. Furthermore, there is evidence that when organizations prioritize the hiring of Black employees and strive to remove discriminatory barriers to employment, white employees may not only deny anti-Black racism but also allege that white people are the real victims of discrimination.

Although diversity training might seem to be the obvious tool for managing such reactions, it also heightens denial. Implicit bias training, the approach that has become standard for companies ranging from Google to McDonald’s, has shown little evidence of effecting lasting change in individual racial attitudes. The main message of such training is that all of us carry unconscious biases against other social groups. However, simply making people aware that they have unconscious biases does not necessarily motivate them to address or remedy those biases. In fact, diversity training participants with the lowest initial cultural competence and knowledge are the least likely to show interest in further training. One large study published at the Harvard Business Review in 2019 showed that employees who took part in a diversity training intervention were more likely to recognize their bias, but the training only increased inclusive behaviors among female and racial minority employees. Another study by Cornell University’s associate professor of management and organizations at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management Michelle M. Duguid and Airbnb’s Global Head of Diversity Melissa C. Thomas-Hunt found that white people expressed more racially biased attitudes and behaviors after learning in diversity training that racial stereotyping is highly prevalent.

Given the ineffectiveness of implicit bias training at the individual level, it is not surprising that there is no evidence that it catalyzes organizational change. By locating racism in the individual rather than the system, it obviates the need to consider bias in the organization’s policies. It fails to communicate that the survival of systemic racism does not depend only on individual attitudes. People with the best of intentions may perpetuate systemic racism simply by implementing policies conceived of during a time when the exclusion of racial minorities was not only considered normal, but also necessary. For example, the use of student evaluations to judge faculty performance came into being before most institutions were hiring Black faculty. Yet there is substantial evidence that gender and racial bias influence these measures. Though a department chair may sincerely wish to see a Black faculty member succeed, they perpetuate institutional racism with their failure to accept evidence of the harm caused by student evaluations.

The consequences of racism denial in workplaces reach well beyond those in my admittedly privileged position as a highly educated and well-compensated college professor. Gaps in pay, benefits, and access to jobs perpetuate less wealth and poorer health among Black people. Low-wage Black workers have played an outsized role in keeping the United States operating through the COVID-19 pandemic, delivering groceries, washing bedpans, and even cleaning up after white supremacist rioters. But companies have not been generous in return. Business groups continue to lobby against minimum wage increases, benefits for gig workers, and safe working conditions—the very changes Black workers need to recover from the significant toll the pandemic has taken on their communities.

Even the Business Roundtable’s announcement of support for federal paid leave legislation defies optimism. This league of companies that collectively employs 19 million people is advocating limiting federal paid leave only to employees currently covered by the Family Medical Leave Act, excluding 62 percent of low-wage workers (who are disproportionately people of color and women). The Roundtable’s position does not inspire confidence that US corporations have realized racial inequity is both “out there” and “in here.” No amount of diversity training or pledges can compensate for this denial.

Sorry, I Can’t Talk Right Now

Whose burden is it to speak up? When leaders announce that it is time for a reckoning with racism in their organizations, initiatives often include requests to Black employees to participate in “candid conversations” and “listening circles.” In Zoom meetings, white colleagues look on earnestly as Black employees pour out their pain and plead for change. In these discussions, I see at play the uneven power dynamic that, as journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge has pointed out, often accompanies white people’s invitations to Black people to talk about race. Now, white people are giving me the okay to say that racism is here, not just out there. Only now that millions of white people have been shocked into grief and outrage by the video of George Floyd’s death. It was not okay when I was grieving the massacre of nine Black people at Bible study in Charleston or the shooting of 12-year old Tamir Rice while he played with a toy gun. It was not okay when I talked about the white nationalist student in my class or the times I called on administrators to take a serious look at the data on bias in teaching evaluations.

I can speak now. But I do not want to. Like so many other Black people, I am tired. I am also angry. I am angry that people did not have enough respect to listen to me before. I am angry that it took George Floyd for people to want to listen. I am angry that none of this newfound sympathy will undo the emotional strain and career damage I have sustained over years of fighting alone. A few years ago, in 2017, the weight of the anxiety and rage that I felt from that fight led me to decide to let it go. My health was suffering. I chose to save myself by accepting that the institution is what it is and that I have no power to change it. I stopped risking further alienation from my colleagues by talking about race at work. As a Black woman, I made the same choice then about which the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote in 1895—to don “the mask that grins and lies.” As with all masks, mine is silent. I still carry the knowledge and pain of the reality that racism is pervasive, but I, to borrow again from Dunbar, “let the world dream otherwise.”


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