The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias is one in a stack of books I’m reading as part of my overdue reeducation on racism. I’ve reviewed more than 500 business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations for 27 years.
I made the mistake of going into a North Hamilton neighbourhood with good intentions.
I persuaded my employer to get involved in events, projects and partnerships. When I talked about the neighbourhood, I called it one of the city’s poorest, with above average unemployment, below average high school graduation rates and third-world health outcomes. I ignored the neighbourhood’s strengths and assets and instead zeroed in on shortcomings and gaps. If that wasn’t insulting enough, I also pitched a path out of poverty that must’ve seemed impossible and impractical to a whole lot of people.
I pretty much did everything that social psychologist Dolly Chugh warns against in her book The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias.
“There are four modes of behavior that prevent believers from humanizing others and prevent them from becoming a builder,” says Dolly, who’s an expert in unconscious biases at the NYU Stern School of Business.
“In these four modes – savior, sympathy, tolerance and typecasting – good intentions are counterproductive. By trying to be a hero, by feeling bad, by treating differences as something to be tolerated or ignored or by typecasting someone to be someone they may not be, we operate in modes that do more harm than good.”
I also overlooked the lifetime of headwinds that were battering generations of kids, teens and grown-ups in the neighbourhood. As a white, straight, able-bodied man, I’ve sailed through life with the benefit of a constant tailwind. When you’ve faced few, if any headwinds, it’s easy to believe that everyone can find the will and the way to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make something of their lives.
“Headwinds are the challenges – some big, some small, small visible, some invisible – that make life harder for some people, but not fall all people. When you have a tailwind pushing you, it is a force that propels you forward. It is consequential but easily unnoticed or forgotten. The invisibility of headwinds and tailwinds leads us to vilify people facing headwinds. It is no coincidence that the groups facing great headwinds in our society are also the most negatively stereotyped. Our failure to see systemic headwinds and tailwinds in the world around us leads u to blame the people facing headwinds.”
Dolly offers practical steps we can take to move from being believers in diversity, equity and inclusion to becoming builders of diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces and communities.
She recommends we educate and occasionally confront others by following the 20/60/20 rule.
The easy 20 are believers in diversity, equity and inclusion and ready to become builders.
The stuck 20 are non-believers. They lack the internal and external motivation to control prejudice. “They may be loud and opinionated or quiet or resilient. Either way, they will suck the life and sustainability out of you if you try to educate or confront them.”
Your goal with the stuck 20 isn’t to educate, persuade and change them. Your goal is to neutralize their ability to hurt others. Tell the stuck 20 that you and many others see things differently. Don’t try to convince them that they’re wrong.
The middle 60 is passive, silent and the most susceptible to influence from the stuck 20 or easy 20. They’ll notice what you say to a racist or if you choose to say nothing. Persuade the undecided majority by telling stories. “The middle 60 tends to be less invested. Stories generate quick bursts of emotion and humanity. Facts are obviously important and are useful for rebutting falsehoods, so know and remember as many as you can. When in doubt, however, stories are more likely to persuade the middle 60.
It can also be tricky to know if speaking up means you’re speaking over someone who’s more than capable of standing up to the stuck 20 and defending themselves. Dolly recommends we not be a bystander whenever someone’s being targeted by racists.
“A big part of allyship is speaking up and not leaving people on their own when they are targeted. One approach is to turn to the target and simply ask for their guidance on whether they would like you to intervene. We can say ‘Would it be okay if I jumped in here?’ or ‘I know you can handle this, but I’m here as backup’ or ‘I’m happy to take this one’ or ‘Say the word if I can help.’ When in doubt, say more, not less.”
There’s no right way to become a builder, says Dolly. It’s hard work being a better human being and it’s always a work in progress.
“If there’s no right way, then each of us can find our own way to be builders and support builders,” says Dolly. “The only wrong way is to settle for only being believers. The work of being a builder is exhausting. If you are not exhausted, at least some of the time, chances are you are still a believer only.”