Yesterday, Serena Williams, perhaps the greatest athlete in American history, was attacked in print by an Australian cartoonist who published a disgusting depiction of her. I won't give the cartoonist the validation of reposting the image or his name, but if you are tempted to dismiss the incident as just one racist dude, in less than a day it has has been retweeted on Twitter over 6,000 times and, more appalling, has been "liked" SIXTEEN THOUSAND times. So yeah, people are still happy to consume and perpetuate racist, sexist vitriol.
The problem: Plenty of people don't think bias still exists in the workplace, but is seriously, egregiously does. Judging by the existence of terms like "post-racism" and people like Lou Dobbs who believe in it (okay, that's a straw man argument - instead, how about these statistics from my previous blog that show that young men and managers don't think inequity is an issue anymore?), cartoons like the one tweeted on September 9th, are not flagging many folks' racist/sexist radars, even when they heavily reference those stereotypes (like Jim Crow-era imagery and cultural generalizations about women as unable to control emotions). We also know from research on combating bias that consuming images and stories of marginalized group members in successful roles helps us fight our unconscious biases, but this likely works the other way too - when we consume media portraying stereotypes it reinforces them.
I won't use this platform to promote racists or their content like what I saw. Instead, I will use it to amplify the heroes working triple time like Serena Williams. Not only is she killing it in her day job, she is, like many women of color, fighting the hard fights (see this video she made about how racism works) for equity that serve us all. In the face of the abhorrent institutional racism and sexism in the workplace - double standards for her speech, clothing, work benefits, achievements, and opportunities - she has persisted with grace, and a great deal more of it than I would be able to muster, that's for sure. Although I am unbelievably grateful for Williams' activism which undoubtedly pushes our society toward equity, it's not her job. She should be able to simply be an amazing tennis player, but if she fails to fight the injustice in her workplace she will not succeed at her job, even though she has all the strategy, skill, experience, and qualifications to succeed.
But there are solutions: employers can acknowledge the long history of racism, sexism, and other injustices that built our present day work environments and commit themselves and their resources to correcting them. It's hard work, but it's work worth doing. It's worth doing because it brings integrity to the work you do and helps you achieve the goals of your organization (is it really contest that determines the best player if someone is disadvantaged because of their skin color?). It's worth doing because it enables employers to tap into all of the human potential in the people around them, not only the potential in people that look a certain way, and plenty of research shows that this pays financial dividends. It's worth doing because creating a just work environment means that if the tides turn against a characteristic you hold, you might be able to trust the structure to support you for your merit.