Category Archives: Latism

When I Said “NO” to Multicultural Awareness Training

Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg have a piece in the New York Times this morning pointing out that:

New research suggests that if we’re not careful, making people aware of bias can backfire, leading them to discriminate more rather than less.

When people were told that women in the workplace suffer from stereotypes, these individuals continued to rate women as “significantly less career-oriented.”

Cue Time Machine!

My mind immediately went back to thirty years ago when I was seven or eight years into my career. In the 1980s, organizations were coming to grips with the “issues” of the multicultural workplace. Mandatory courses on cultural awareness were the order of the day.

These courses only really seemed to have an impact if among the attendees were representatives of minority populations who could speak truth. Through the stories of their personal experiences, they made more concrete the lessons of diversity training. The problem, however, was that many organizations in the 1980s lacked sufficient numbers of women and minorities in their workforce to attend all the courses. So I ended up taking the same course a second time just to ensure that the class had the right “diversity balance.”

And then they asked me to take the same course a third time.

“We need you in the course because you’ll speak up about your own experiences.”

Yup. That’s what I would do. I would tell my classmates about subtle and not so subtle indicators that my coworkers viewed me differently, apparently because of my ethnicity and gender. And when I did that, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. Drawing attention to myself as a Puerto Rican woman just seemed counterproductive. “Yup, there she is complaining rather than concerning herself with the mission”

And so I said no! I wasn’t going to keep making repeat appearances at these courses. Of course organizations desperately needed to foster a workplace that was fair to all, but not by creating circumstances that were unfair to me and many other women and minorities. In a weird way we were being asked to self-incriminate ourselves.

Based on the research that Grant and Sandberg document, I have a hunch that those diversity awareness courses 20 to 30 years ago may have done more harm than good. “If everyone else is biased, we don’t need to worry as much about censoring ourselves.”

Grant and Sandberg suggest one possible solution: leaders need to be explicit about their intolerance of direct and indirect discrimination.

When we communicate that a vast majority of people hold some biases, we need to make sure that we’re not legitimating prejudice. By reinforcing the idea that people want to conquer their biases and that there are benefits to doing so, we send a more effective message: Most people don’t want to discriminate, and you shouldn’t either.

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Compassion is a Special Kind of Intelligence

I posted this tweet just about an hour ago. Like many of my tweets, it has a back story, and I thought I might share this one.

I’m in Puerto Rico with my mom for Thanksgiving, and that’s because we are Puerto RIMAG1055icans–my mother born and bred and me born and sort of half-bred. We don’t have much immediate family left on the island, but one of our favorites who is still there and with us is my great aunt Laura. She’s my grandmother’s youngest sister–25 years younger than Abuela. Laura is 83 now–the only one of her siblings still alive. This is a picture of her from earlier today–she’s eating so that’s why her mouth looks a little funny.

The genetic material on that side of the family is choice. My grandmother lived to be 96 and her mother topped 100 by several years–no one really knows for sure because she never was clear in her own mind. She was born, she said, a few years before some horrible hurricane hit Puerto Rico and was a young woman when the Americans landed.

Almost all of my family in Puerto Rico were poor and not well-educated, at least through World War II. My grandmother only finished the first grade and could barely read and sign her name–although her command of financial matters was astute. She never learned to speak English except for counting from 1 to 75–the Bingo numbers.

And Laura wasn’t well educated either. She is not book smart. The modern world escapes her. She only ever worked as a laborer. She never learned to drive.

And yet as we drove back to the hotel from our last visit, I reflected on my great aunt Laura’s personal kind of smarts. She has no idea how the internet works or the economic fundamentals behind her electricity bill. Instead, she feels deeply the injustice in the world. “Ave Maria” is her most common phrase which she uses to register her sympathy with your plight–or anyone else’s. Her last story was about her neighbor’s dog, who is chained in the backyard and shown no love. “I cannot tell you how much I suffer because of him.” she said.

Compassion. That’s her form of intelligence. And it has grown through a lifetime of empathy for everyone she’s ever met.

So that tweet was for my great aunt Laura. She will never see it. She does not know Twitter exists. But now Twitter will know she exists.

Ship, Sheep, Shit, Sheet

On Mother’s Day about a month ago I posted 5 facts about my mother, except they were seven.  So many people commented that I’ve been thinking they deserved a blog post. And since I’m just leaving San Antonio from visiting her, now seems the right time to write it.

Her mother, my grandmother, never married which made her life very difficult in 1930s/1940s Puerto Rico. I consider this a type of IQ test for my friends. I’ve actually had friends exclaim, upon hearing for the first time that mi Abuela never married. “How can that be???” (I know that’s unkind but it happens to be true.) Abuela, who died in 2003, was in my view a spectacular person. She never went beyond first grade in Spanish, so could barely read or write, but had a copy of the Catholic missal and would ask me to find the Sunday reading for her every week. (We were Catholic but really only liked to go to church on Palm Sundays, when you got the lucky fronds.) My mother’s father, my grandfather, whom I knew quite well, was an accountant (!) and much to my mother’s embarrassment, I guess, Abuela and he maintained a relationship for quite a long time. He was married twice and with his first wife had a daughter, Juana, my mother’s half-sister who was born 1 day earlier than my mom. (He was a man of considerable achievement.) I got to meet her once about ten years ago and they might as well have been twins. Juana noticed my reaction and said, “It’s frightening, isn’t it.”

Despite her limited English, Abuela had an unfailing grasp of the Bingo numbers, 1-75.

She never learned to ride a bycicle and regrets it to this day. So Abuela and my mother’s family hailed from Santo Domingo, a poor neighborhood of Caguas, Puerto Rico. Caguas supported two high schools, one was better than the other, and on my mother’s first day in high school, the teachers discovered that she and Juana, who were of course classmates, were half-siblings but worse, my mother was, gasp, illegitimate. So to avoid the embarrassment, the school administration forced my mom to go to the other, lesser high school, an affront she has not forgotten to this day. I think this is why when we travel we always book the very best hotels. I actually heard my mother tell a travel agent once that the hotel she was suggesting was not expensive enough.

In her 40s she went back to school while working full time and got her bachelor’s degree in accounting in five years. Mom has worked almost all her life. Abuela lived with us and took care of the kids. I understand there are studies now suggesting this is one of the healthiest ways for children to be brought up. Once she realized that she could not get the more senior positions as an accountant in the Department of the Army without a college degree, my mother resolved to fix that. My father, who had just retired from the Army, told her she’d never make it!! (My father had many talents but I don’t think he was cut out to be a student.) My mother even passed calculus, which never ceases to amaze me, whose math education NEVER went beyond high school geometry.

She got very upset during college history class when she discovered the British had burned Washington DC in War of 1812. My mother takes things very emotionally. (She’s a Cancer with a Pisces moon, so if you know anything about Astrology that’s like living in your own personal hurricane ALL THE TIME.) She’s lately taken to watching Fox News, which for her functions much like the warm Gulf waters.

She moved out on my father seven times but always went back to him. Three times in one year. I remember that well. My junior year in high school. It would hijack this post to get into too much detail about their relationship. When we visited our relatives in Puerto Rico, the women tended to sit together and try to one-up each other with stories about the sufferings they endured as the result of the actions of their men. I could tell going into these sessions that my mother always felt she was quite competitive, but truth be told she never could crack the Champion’s League.

As native Spanish speaker and accountant, caused her no end of problems that her pronounciation of shit and sheet are identical. Whenever some particular embarrassment occurred at work as a result of this issue, we invariably would sit around the dining room table practicing the difference between the two, which she just could never hear.  One “shit” was said in less than a second; the other “shit” lasted five seconds or longer, sometimes until she became short of breath. My mother really is a native Spanish speaker; I just pretend to be one. American idioms always were fun too. We spent another evening explaining to her what “screw you” meant.

Also her pronounciation of Ship and Sheep, but these are less likely to come up in tax conversations.