Recently a man whose intelligence I highly respect, who happens to be African-American and one who chose to change his name to reflect his African ancestry, was for a moment, highly offended when I noted in a public forum that in all likelihood he was, well, “part white.” It was particularly noteworthy given that he had just completed a rant on how racist “most white people” were, in his life experience. He didn’t like my comment very much, but my guess is that it made this highly intelligent man, well, “...think.” This encounter happened in Southern California.
Even more recently, I encountered a fairly irate man, who happened to be Caucasian, who seemed to have awaken angry and upset with the world on the day our paths crossed curbside at the airport near my home. He didn’t like, well something about me. His almost immediate response was to “direct me” to move my "Black rear-end on down the road" (those were not his exact words, but I am not really able to repeat what he actually said to me). This encounter happened in Southern Georgia.
These incidents happened not only in the historic south, but in the supposedly progressive west, and both represented examples of what I see as variants of racism.
Both both incidents, oddly enough, also stem more from base ignorance than any real animus for either white or black people, or me for that matter. The man who “put me in my place,” so to speak, did not know me. Just the opposite actually, as he didn’t even know himself. It was as if he woke up mad at the world, and then he ran across me, and I became the unfortunate recipient of his inner rage. I did not and do not hate this man, I really just felt sorry for him, and I told him as much. I really feel sorry for his children.
The reality is that we are more interrelated than any of us care to really know or acknowledge. If you want to scare yourself silly, do a DNA test and explore your root racial composition. I did, and found out that I was 71% Cameroon (African), 25% European, and the rest Asian and Indian. What sort of fool would I look like then, hating whites, or Asians or anyone else? That would mean I also hated myself. It is a repudiation of self.
While visiting the Human Genome Project in Boston, tied to the Harvard University program sponsored by the Forum of Young Global Leaders, the World Economic Forum and underwritten by my friend Bill George (who wrote the Forward to my new book, LOVE LEADERSHIP) along with his Bill & Penny George Foundation, a social scientist pointed to me and said that I was more likely related to the Crown Prince of Norway, seated in front of me, than my fellow African YGL sitting next to me in the room. Wow, I thought, as I was presented with this transformative thought about who we "really" are.
DNA had almost nothing to do with looks or appearances, and in fact more than 99% of all DNA is precisely the same, and less than 1/4th of 1% if I recall correctly, tied to our appearance. Think about that for a moment. Hair, complexion, eyes, color – all almost irrelevant, having more to do with the place and space where we evolved “in,” than who we are as people or a human society.
It made me think back to the time my spiritual mentor, Reverend Dr. Cecil “Chip” Murray, asked a member of the Klu Klux Klan why he was a member of the group. His response, “because my pappy was,” and his father’s father was, and so on, and so on. Ultimately, when Dr. Murray asked why exactly he hated him, the young man said in frustration, “I am just doing what I always have done. It's who I am.” In other words, he did not really have a clue. Ignorance more than any intelligent intent.
Often we also confuse a bad business model with racism. The KKK comes out of the tradition of white business people in the southern states, who were fearful of the rise of black voting and economic powers during the civil rights movement. These business people (note I did not say business leaders), operating from a place of ignorance and fear, whispered into the ears of mostly uneducated, sometimes out of work, and almost always angry whites, saying a version of “they want your stuff, and they want to marry your daughter –-- go get’em.” The result is we have been mixing it up, poor mostly uneducated and angry whites, and poor frustrated and resentful blacks, for 40 plus years about something that is not really something. We have been fighting over the crumbs rather than the crust of the issue, so to speak.
Or take discrimination of women in say the Middle East, or parts of Africa, Latin America and other parts of the world. What sense does it make to exclude nearly a third to half of your market potential from the market you are trying to grow and directly benefit from? Zero is the answer. Diversity is not a goody-too-shoes issue, but a hard-nosed business issue. Diversity at bottom is simply a business strength. Just look at America – the largest economy in the world, and the only place on the planet where every race of people exists within its borders. And the most economically prosperous states in the U.S., New York and California, also happen to be the most racially diverse. Go figure.
Ending as I began, it seems that my otherwise intelligent African-American brother, lighter in complexion than some of my tan friends, was unfortunately operating from a place of deep ignorance, as chances are (as a descendent of slaves in America) Caucasian blood cascades through his veins right along with his African-American ancestry. Likewise my ignorant and angry Caucasian brother outside of the airport, same. He was operating from an ignorant place, and would probably literally go insane should he discover, in addition to his other life frustrations, that he has black blood somewhere in his DNA.
Message: ignorance kills, and racism does not make any sense at all. It’s not even good business.
Let’s move on.
John Hope Bryant is the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE, bestselling CEO READ business author of LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), member of the US President's Advisory Council on Financial Capability and advisor to the past three US Presidents.