July 14, 2015 — At a memorial service for a victim of the recent racially motivated massacre at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, President Obama spoke movingly of how racial bias can infect us “even when we don't realize it,” cautioning his listeners to guard against “not just racial slurs” but “the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal.”
Like many who heard him speak, I was struck by the power and significance of his words.
It was an important and timely speech, and the events that inspired it—compounded by the even more recent burning of black churches throughout the southern United States—are horrific beyond imagining. What stood out to me as particularly crucial to our work here at Catalyst was the President’s assertion that today’s racism is more than hateful slurs and appalling acts of brutality; it is a set of biases and stereotypes that holds people back in a variety of settings.
This is the type of subtle, everyday discrimination too many women and people of color still encounter at work, as the stories and research shared at our recent Women of Color Summit so amply demonstrated.
To fight the discrimination we’ve uncovered in our nearly twenty years of research on women of color at work, Catalyst has also launched the 2015 Women of Color Research Agenda: New Approaches and New Solutions, which will allow us to expand our groundbreaking research in this area and make progress not just on identifying problems but offering solutions.
It’s time to follow President Obama’s example and call out all forms of discrimination. The President reminded us that Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church is a sacred place “Not just for blacks, not just for Christians, but for every American who cares about the steady expansion of human rights and human dignity in this country.” His words echoed those of Martin Luther King, Jr., who praised white allies in his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech for realizing that “their destiny is tied up with our destiny.”
In the wake of Charleston, it is critical for non-blacks to take this lesson to heart, just as it is crucial for men to partner with women in the fight for gender equity. Injustice for one group means injustice for all, and it’s up to all of us to demand—and help build—a better world.
It’s also urgent for leaders to model the courage required to initiate tough conversations about bias at work and in other areas of life. We can’t begin to change something we’re afraid to discuss openly. We must be willing to call out discrimination when we see it—and to listen to those whose backgrounds and work experiences differ from our own.
By working to overturn all barriers to equality, we can help create a society where what happened in Charleston is not only intolerable, but unthinkable—and where each of us is judged by the content of our character, not our skin color or gender.