OpinionOpinion

Op-ed: Racism ‘whack-a-mole’ won’t work in Berkeley

On Friday, March 13, I attended a panel on race and racism held at Willard School that included Kamau Bell, and Michael Pearce, owner of the Elmwood Café. The discussion was a result of an incident at the Elmwood Café where an employee told Bell to leave because she assumed he was a homeless person harassing a group of women sitting at an outside table. Bell, who is African American, was in fact showing his wife, who is white, and her friends, a book he had just purchased.

While Michael Pearce talked about how bad he felt, he didn’t take any responsibility for the incident. He seemed to place all blame on this employee who he fired. When asked by Pearce if we agreed with his decision, about half, including Kamau Bell (and I) said no.

It’s generally accepted in theory that using racist language, or behavior is not OK. However, does firing or ostracizing people every time they make a comment change or enlighten anyone? It becomes like the game of “Whack-a-Mole” where you hold a mallet and keep whacking plastic moles as their heads pop out of holes in a cabinet. As soon as you hit one, it goes back in the hole, and another one pops up.

Pearce also placed blame on implicit or unconscious bias and the fact that people in restaurants and retail stores were not trained. Implicit or unconscious biases have almost become buzzwords of late and have been used to excuse different types of behavior. Understanding our own personal biases is very important, but it’s not THE answer. Ultimately, the solution is in the culture, which is determined by the leaders in any organization.

Owners and business leaders are responsible for who they hire, how they hire and for building an inclusive welcoming culture for everyone — and not just for the people who look like them.

The good news is that everyone can take actions to create great places to live and work, and everyone can learn, even when we make mistakes.

Here are three of the many ways we can help create and be part of sustainable change.

1: Be conscious of your personal biases and learn to filter them out.

Most people are not conscious of their biases and stereotypes, and are willing to listen, learn and change. Those people can be educated, gain a different perspective and then educate others. At the same time, intentional or not, the impact of these comments and behaviors is the same. They also won’t go away without intervention.

Do we want to live in a city or country where people aren’t treated based on stereotypes, where people can live their best and not worry about being singled out because of who they are?

2: Define, change or adapt your business, school or city culture to welcome and benefit from diversity and be inclusive and allow people to be their best.

Leaders and owners of businesses no matter what size need to look at their culture, norms and behaviors, and evaluate whether they are welcoming to everyone who wants to shop, eat or pay for services. Business owners create the culture, and it’s up to them to drive inclusivity to every area of business, particularly to people who are in front of customers.

In a city like Berkeley, where there is diversity, people who want to see change and not just spout outrage or theory need to have meaningful interactions with people who are different. Being “liberal” and “tolerant” are not enough. If everyone in your life looks like you, everyone in your business looks like you, and most of your customers look like you, chances are your biases will lead your customer service.

3: Have meaningful interactions with people who are different so you can learn from them, and see the world from their vantage points, experiences and hearts. Face your fear of difference and discomfort.

I’ve facilitated real “dialogues,” or “discussions,” for over 20 years on race, racism and types of privilege, working in the field of diversity and inclusion with corporations, government agencies and community groups. I’ve seen connections made, fear dissipate, and people who have never had a real meaningful conversation with someone different than them develop relationships that led them to collaborate on projects at work, in the community, and in the world. People collaborating, sharing resources and ideas is good for business, people talking together, acknowledging differences and finding new commonalities is good for the community, and people spreading the conversation and stopping fear and hate will change the world. And that’s good for every single one of us. Just firing a person so we can feel better about ourselves is not.

Get educated, and educate your employees. It’s good for morale, good for business and good for Berkeley.

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Simma Lieberman creates inclusive workplaces where employees love to do their best work. She lives in Berkeley, and is a Diversity and Inclusion/Culture Change consultant.