The Truth about Our Differences: Two Diversity Experts' Feedback about Challenges of Race and Gender in the Workplace

Article excerpt

CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGISTS THOMAS Kochman and Jean Mavrelis have worked as diversity consultants since the inception of the field with Kochman's first book in 1981, Black and White Styles in Conflict.

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Their research is rooted in the social sciences, specifically anthropology and sociolinguistics, studying people's patterns of behavior, values, and principles. The husband-and-wife team develop cultural modules identifying gender and racial differences in an approach they've called Corporate Tribalism--also the title of their most recent book. Kochman's expertise is in cultural differences and the impact on inter personal communication and organizational culture. Mavrelis's area of study is on gender and culture. The pairs' diversity consulting company, Kochman Mavrelis Associates Inc., works with nonprofits, government agencies, and top 500 companies including AT&T, Boeing, McDonald's, and Motorola, to address social and cultural diversity in ways that value and respect differences.

"We are socialized into cultural systems that tell us how to get ahead at work, how to behave in a meeting, what bosses value, etc.," asserts Mavrelis. "Ultimately, culture trumps personality at work."

BLACK ENTERPRISE spoke to Kochman and Mavrelis about a few common workplace differences that exist between whites and blacks.

You say in the book that communication styles are very different between corporate white males (CWM) and women (CWW) versus African American men and women.

Kochman: There are two really key differences that we pick up that are cultural and probably true of both genders. That is what we characterize for African Americans as truth before peace and for mainstream U.S. as peace before truth. It comes out in the workplace in who's likely to be the person who brings up the topic that no one else wants to talk about. It's likely to be a black woman, and this is where gender differences for African Americans do matter, not because black men and black women don't share the same value of truth before peace but it's that black men feel they need to be more cautious in the workplace when dealing with these issues. Black men are much more at risk in our society. There's a risk factor in speaking out because invariably, you end up being the target.

Another cultural difference between African Americans and mainstream America is over what qualifies something as racist. For mainstream U.S. awareness, motive and intent have to be present. For African Americans, inconsistent treatment along racial lines is sufficient to characterize something as racist. For example, in one workplace, black workers asked their CWM supervisor, "[Why did] the white workers get all the good vacation times?" The CWM said that vacation times were given on a "first come, first served basis." Blacks then asked, "[Why did] the white workers know to come in first?" It turned out that the posting of vacation times was done on the first shift, which had mostly white workers.

What's culturally relevant here is that, while the CWM considered the outcome "unfortunate," he did not accept the charge of racism because it was not his intent to skew the outcome to favor one group or the other. For the black workers his intent was immaterial. Either way, he lost whatever credibility he had with the black workers. The CWM, in turn, saw the black worker's characterization of what happened as "racist" not only as unwarranted, but as an unjust attack on his moral character.

Intent is a matter of trust, which you say is also perceived differently by the groups.

Kochman: Well it has to do with whether you perceive trust as something that's earned or something that's a given. This has to do with one's cultural or social group. Typically for white men trust is not an issue until it becomes an issue. They start out with the premise that unless you've done something to make me think I don't or can't trust you, I trust you. …