Inequality In Tech: Why It’s No Longer Enough Just Thinking Racism Is Bad

Written by Jared Karol

Talking about race makes people so uncomfortable, that the conversation gets postponed and ultimately, doesn’t happen.

It will require action to change that, said Karen Fleshman, a blogger, attorney and professional anti-racism trainer and speaker.

“Thinking racism is bad is not enough,” Fleshman said. “You have to actively become anti-racist.”

Through her business, Racy Conversations, Fleshman offers talks, workshops, and virtual town halls designed to help people understand how racism operates and how to overcome racism.

Fleshman spoke to Juliette Roy of Change Catalyst on the Tech Inclusion podcast, recorded in October 2016 at the San Francisco Tech Inclusion Conference.

From Tech Inclusion. Story by Jared Karol.

Fleshman’s work focuses exclusively on race because she feels that the typical diversity discussion doesn’t go deep enough.

“We’ll have a conversation around diversity but will only talk about the subjects that we feel safe and comfortable talking about — gender diversity, veterans, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities,” she said. “But if we don’t prioritize the conversation about race it does not happen because it makes people so uncomfortable.”

Why is there such resistance to this conversation? What is the barrier?

It’s the important difference between thought and action, Fleshman said. “A lot of people say, ‘I think Martin Luther King is awesome and racism is really bad and I’m not racist,’ so they don’t think that they have to do anything to change.

“A big part of what I help people understand is that thinking racism is bad is not enough. You have to actively become anti-racist.”

Fleshman has these hard conversations with all kinds of clients, from large tech companies like Yahoo to civic entities like the SF Public Library and the public defender of the City of San Francisco to a variety of nonprofit organizations.

What does it look like to actively become anti-racist?

It starts with working on yourself and understanding who you’re biased against, Fleshman said.

“I coach all my clients to initiate and strengthen as many relationships as possible with the folks against whom you are biased. Because I think that when we get to know each other as people, we stop thinking of each other as some category and start thinking of each other as someone who I really care about.”

What she’s talking about is sharing social capital. Some of us have more of it than others, and it’s up to the people who have more social capital to initiate and strengthen relationships with those who have less. “(These relationships) are not going to happen naturally because we live in a very segregated society,” Fleshman said.

The good news is that things are changing. “The tech industry is finally coming to the conversation about racial diversity,” Fleshman said. “Finally people are starting to have a conversation about race.”

These conversations are hard, and even though we’re getting more comfortable talking about diversity in general, talking about race is a whole different level.

The reason it’s harder and therefore taking so long, according to Fleshman, is around our ability (or lack of) to develop a sense of empathy. “Most white people,” she said, “have a family member who’s a woman, or a family member who is LGBTQ, is a veteran, or has disabilities, or whatever the case may be, so you develop empathy through that person.”

But when it comes to race, it’s a different story. “We live in a very segregated society and a lot of times people don’t really have friendships and close personal relationships with people of other races. But finally the conversation is starting.”

The San Francisco Bay Area is an ideal place to start having these conversations because it’s a region that supports people reinventing themselves, Fleshman said.

Listen to the full podcast here.

Read more at Tech Inclusion.