The Elephant in the room By Paul V. Montesino, Ph.D., MBA. ICCP

A Point of View © 1996

By Paul V. Montesino, Ph.D., MBA. ICCP.

I’ve never met a racist. Well, at least I’ve never met a self-described and acknowledged racist. And not being a priest or an indiscreet listener near a church confessionary, I cannot swear I’ve heard the famous words: “Forgive me Father, for I’ve sinned. I am a racist.” It takes a lot of courage to say that.

OK, you probably think I am misguided. How can I describe as courageous a person who accepts being a racist? What is worse, one who brings it to the attention of a priest looking for absolution? Of, course; I don’t blame you. You see, almost anyone who distracts him/herself or those around him/her with racist comments, jokes, interpretations, accusations or any kind of race baiting comments no matter how innocent they might sound, is unable to consider them as racist beliefs and not as different versions of the facts. It would sound like a public confession of a shameful sin typically attributed to others but not to ourselves.

You and I, all of us, have arrived at this point in the history of Homo sapiens, because our ancestors and we have been able to survive many challenges.  That survival leaves little room to interpretation. When we suddenly face a creature in the jungle, there’s no time to wonder if it is friend or foe. We run away instead of extending the hand to say hello. In other words, survival depends on fear and avoidance, not on social graces. Whether we call it cautiousness, carefulness or prejudice it makes no semantic difference.

When what we encounter is not a beast, but another biped, we look for similarities to us and not for differences to feel comfortable. It is part of the tools those ancestors gave us to protect our lineage in the tribe. Avoid the different, fight it if necessary. Look for someone who looks like you. Don’t rock the biological boat. Mate with a white, a colored, a-whatever is required to continue being white, colored, whatever you are. Keep the group homogeneous. Of course, a society that is willing and able to accept that practice will reward or punish you for following or not those rules and will try to enforce them. Practicing them, following those “prejudices,” will be rewarding. Avoiding them may cost lives.

Civilization, of course, has provided the social ornaments needed to comply and exceptions to the rules of the game are plentiful. When those different colors have access to different socio-economic resources to entice the behavior wanted, the colors maybe irrelevant and there may be a different outcome. Money, degrees, power, prestige, positions on the totem pole are qualities that will allow us to skip the normal requirements and make exceptions to the basic rules. In other words, all bets are off. That we feel some divine power responsible for creating or approving those qualities makes them impossible to refuse.

Several years ago I was greeted by the supervisor at my first job in a Boston bank with a question that was intended to be funny, one that these days would not only land the employer in trouble but the radioactive employee on the unemployment lines as well: “Do you smoke marijuana?” she asked laughing. She knew I was from Cuba and smoking pot was probably the prejudicial characteristic she thought I and my compatriots had in common. I didn’t expect the question or knew how to respond, perhaps that joking was “the American thing”; I simply took it as a joke, smiled and moved on. Three years later she wasn’t too happy to see me promoted to a supervisory position that included having her as one of my subordinates. She never recovered for that disappointment, so much for proving her wrong about her prejudice. And it didn’t get any better when I was named an officer of the company a few years later increasing the organizational distance between us.

We are wrong if we feel that proving a prejudice wrong with other well-deserved recognitions will change the minds of the prejudiced. The last thing such person will do is accept being wrong. That would be a defeat of major emotional and intellectual proportions. The redeeming event of the discriminated then becomes part of the reason for an unjust discriminatory effort on the part of those responsible for the recognition decision, no matter how fair it is for the recipient and or the employer.

It also brings up another issue. Being acknowledged and rewarded as a member of a group doesn’t mean one is or deserves better than the rest of humanity. And it doesn’t open the doors to revenge for prior offenses or present abuses of power of any kind to those still on the field. Being on top of the pyramid doesn’t mean that those below owe us adoration or servitude. Authority connotes responsibility, not irresponsibility. Thinking the opposite is as prejudicial, actually criminal, for the participants who were victims of prejudice before.  We have to be able to identify prejudice as the elephant in the room when we see its big ears and trunks, one as ferocious when we jump to conclusions as when we are posited by others. The elephant belongs to the circus, not to the room where we live. It is a big task to clean after what they leave behind.

And that is my point of view today.