In one university research experiment, students were asked to smell a rancid t-shirt and rate their level of disgust. Half were told that that the t-shirt belonged to a student from their own university, and the other half that the shirt came from a rival university.
The shirt was exactly the same in both cases—but students were significantly less disgusted when they thought the t-shirt belonged to one of their schoolmates, and even were more lax about washing their hands afterward.
This imaginative experiment, which illustrates the concept of “in-group favoritism”—the tendency to form tribes that we’re all wired with—is among the research that Robert Livingston reviews in his book, The Conversation, released this month.
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Livingston, a Harvard social psychologist who advises companies such as Airbnb and Microsoft on diversity, equity, and inclusion, aims to show people “how to turn difficult conversations about race into productive instances of real change.” With Livingston’s approach, a big part of that is unpacking the phenomena like in-group favoritism that contribute to and reinforce racism.
“Nothing will improve until we begin to have honest and informed conversations about race and decide, as a community, to do something about it,” Livingston writes. He recounts his experience running an anti-bias workshop in Appalachia for a group of largely white, male employees of a company he was consulting for—Livingston’s tactic was to interrogate them on their assumptions and respond with facts. The participants guessed, for example, that there were 100 Black Fortune 500 CEOs, and Livingston informed them that there were just five.
The Conversation is largely devoted to the facts and science that disprove false ideas that surface in such workshops and conversations, such as that race-based discrimination no longer exists, or that race-based differences do. This simple definition is at the core of how he analyzes it: “Racism occurs when individuals or institutions show more favorable evaluation or treatment of an individual or group based on race or ethnicity.” (p. 30) He compares racism to the current of a stream that carries salmon along, and notes that it requires not just neutral inaction but active swimming upstream, or antiracism, to not be pushed downstream, and be complicit.
Livingston also explores some of the challenging and nuanced aspects of these issues. Among them is the possibility that the heightened focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion since the killing of George Floyd is more about appeasement than about any real desire for change. He cites research that shows that many white people “experience substantial levels of discomfort when Blacks feel angry at whites,” which can drive short-term diversity and equity measures.
Other research also indicates that white people who support one Black person can become more biased against other Black people, because they feel they already have “moral credentials.” Similarly, employees of organizations with diversity policies can be emboldened to be less sensitive to complaints about discrimination, feeling the policies already established the moral credentials. And racial diversity has been shown to improve the performance of groups. But research indicates that people feel less motivated when it is discussed in terms of the business advantages as opposed to just being a moral imperative.
So what can organizations do, beyond having candid conversations about race?
- Acknowledge the problem to solve. “The first step in producing profound and sustainable change is raising awareness of the existence of a real problem,” writes Livingston. “Otherwise, the solution will seem like the problem—and resistance will follow.” (p. 7)
- Have visible leadership. “I cannot think of a single case of radical change that has taken place at a large organization without the support of top leaders—whether it was a CEO, a board member, or both,” Livingston writes. “In every case the change occurred because a leader stepped up and said, ‘This is what we should be doing,’ or carefully listened to and strongly supported employees’ grassroots efforts to promote diversity.” (p. 247)
- Make the case for how to move forward. “You need to address the ‘frozen middle,’ who often resist or oppose diversity initiatives because they do not understand them or because they see them as a threat to their own professional ascent,” writes Livingston. “This starts with the leader building a compelling case for whatever change he or she is looking to make. Don’t assume the logic is obvious.” (p. 247)
Some other tips:
- Research shows that people build trust when they confront challenges or adversity together. Holding retreats where diverse teams do something difficult like rock climbing can reduce prejudice.
- When you meet someone of a different race, think of four other categories they belong to besides that race—such as parent, New Yorker, accountant, “Lupin” fan. “Undergoing this process of multiple recategorization eventually leads to decategorization (ie seeing the person as an individual), which leads to lower bias and less dehumanization of out-groups,” writes Livingston. (p. 223)
- Be positive and affirming with yourself and others. “A more secure and happy person is a more tolerant person,” Livingston writes. (p. 231)
- Set leaders up for “speed-dating” interactions, where they meet one-on-one to get to know employees of diverse backgrounds who are candidates for promotion. They’ll likely find commonalities, and increase the probability of sponsorship.
- Abandon the idea of the “best candidate” when hiring. “Instead, focus on hiring well-qualified people who show good promise, and then invest time, effort, and resources into doing everything you can to help those people realize their full potential,” writes Livingston. (p. 261)
- Seeing what happens when people make mistakes is one simple way to tell how inclusive an organizational culture is. How quickly or harshly is a woman or person of color punished or criticized for making a mistake, especially compared to a white male? How minor is the infraction that can trigger that? (p. 253)
To be sure…
- While The Conversation is framed around the importance of candid conversations, some readers might find that it falls short of offering the specific advice for holding those conversations that they’re seeking. Sections between chapters that Livingston calls “Forums” provide lists of questions that people who are reading the book together might discuss, along with some guidelines. But if you’re not reading the book alongside your colleagues, it’s likely less useful and perhaps less obvious how to broach a conversation and how to steer it. “It is up to you to figure out for yourself how best to apply this knowledge and perspective to the unique situations and challenges of your organization and community,” Livingston writes.
Memorable anecdotes and facts:
- Research found that White people helped other people in need at equal rates regardless of race when they believed no one else was around. When other people were present, they were much less likely to help a Black person in need. Researchers attribute that to “plausible deniability,” with the ambiguity of the situation allowing the participants to avoid helping without feeling racist or guilty. (p. 26)
- White employers evaluating job candidates will sometimes rank equivalent Black applicants over white ones, if they’re both superstars. But they’ll choose mediocre white candidates much more frequently than mediocre Black candidates with identical resumes. (p. 27)
- Researchers found that being a White job candidate triggered bias that added the equivalent of eight years of additional work experience in that candidate’s favor, compared to a Black candidate with equivalent qualifications. (p. 43)
- Livingston’s own research found that Black CEOs tend to be more baby-faced than white CEOs, which makes them appear less threatening. (p. 79)
- Non-Black participants in a research study chose a white actor who had uttered a racist comment as their interaction partner for a subsequent experiment 63% of the time over a Black actor who the comment was directed at. (p. 144)
- White athletes who had a high percentage of Black teammates tended to have more positive attitudes toward Black people, and be more supportive of government programs to benefit their Black fellow citizens. But this was only true with team sports such as basketball and baseball, and not for athletes in individual sports such as wrestling or tennis, where researchers posit the competition between athletes on the same team for slots undermined the positive effects of interracial contact. (p. 215)
- “Here’s a little-known truth: Racial equity is an achievable goal. That’s not just my opinion—logic, data, and scientific evidence all speak to the solvability of racism.” (p. xi)
- “Whites believed that far more progress had been made than did people of color. The disparities in perceptions were almost entirely explained by the anchors used by each group. The results suggest that whites tended to anchor their judgment about how far the nation had come more on an oppressive past (calling forth images of slavery or Jim Crow-era segregation), whereas people of color tended to anchor on a more equitable, ideal future (calling forth images of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.)” (p. 13)
- “The mere existence of diversity policies can make whites blind to the racial discrimination that is really occurring.” (p. 28)
- “Meritocracy, as a large-scale explanation for the distribution of outcomes at the broader societal level, is largely unfounded.” (p. 59)
- “We are not wired to be racist. Or homophobic. Or xenophobic. What is wired is tribalism—the propensity to form a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Who ends up ‘us’ and who ends up ‘them’ is completely fluid—often determined by factors such as history, environment, and social structures rather than genes or evolutionary pressure.” (p. 91)
- “If we had to summarize the origins of racism in one word, it would be power—not hatred, not color, not crime, not segregation.” (p. 156)
- “I can boil my advice down to a single maxim that readers can adapt to the unique circumstances of their lives: Be mindful of societal-level power differences (eg systemic racism) without perpetuating them yourself.” (p. 219)
The bottom line is that The Conversation is a valuable survey of the sociology and psychology research around race that can equip White readers especially to understand their biases and privilege, whatever their intentions and values. The book might be less specifically about conversations than some readers would expect, but it’s an excellent guide to the sort of self-examination that Livingston argues is one of the most important ways for overcoming racism.
For additional reading:
- Livingston’s five-step plan for racial equity in the workplace (HBR)
- How to have conversations about race (WBUR)
- How to have difficult conversations virtually (HBR)
- Stanford’s LARA method for tense conversations, from this toolkit
Erin Grau contributed to this edition.
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