Race, Work and Donald Sterling

© DigitalGenetics - Fotolia.com
© DigitalGenetics – Fotolia.com

Though I have been blessed to enjoy a wonderfully rich and rewarding career thus far, I must admit that I continue to be confounded by matters of race in the workplace. Indeed, many aspects of my professional journey have been very public and nationally celebrated. I landed my first Vice President of Human Resources (HR) position at the age of thirty-five. At thirty-seven, I was the youngest and first black female to be appointed as a Personnel Cabinet Secretary for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. By the age of forty, I had the pleasure of serving as Vice Chancellor of HR for Maricopa Community Colleges (Arizona), the country’s largest community college system in the nation.

Still, in each of the above capacities, as well as in most others, the matter of my race just sort of kept on “mattering” and manifest itself in myriad, seemingly innocuous ways. Covertly clothed in assumption and stereotype, it sometimes surreptitiously tiptoed (well, frequently “bigfooted”) its way into my workplace environment – – -songs I was expected to know, dance moves I was expected to execute with great precision, food I was expected to like, and language I was expected to butcher.

Fortunately, the matter of my race did not invade my space/workplace on a daily basis, but frequently enough that I am sometimes surprised that my face isn’t permanently configured in an endearing “sideeye”expression. This enduring dilemma is borne of competing perceptions: you’re either too black or not black enough, as though there exists some barometer against which authentic blackness is measured, thus rendering me subject to periodic external evaluation of my racial integrity by whomever I happened upon in the elevator on any given day. What fun.

I hasten to acknowledge that the conundrum of race in the workplace is certainly not mine alone, that to one degree or the other, it is visited upon all minorities, and that ultimately, it is but a microcosm of race in America. Despite all our efforts to address/suppress/ignore/or deny racial hatred and disparity in our country, and for all its strength, beauty, and promise, our nation seems nearly hopelessly mired in the complexity of race, which continues to COLOR (pun intended) too many aspects of our national reality.

Though we revere and maintain an abiding faith in America’s promise, we are all too often jolted out of our reverie by the ugly stains of her past, stains that remain catacombed in the recesses of America’s soul. The recent Donald Sterling fiasco reminds us just how deeply embedded is the stain of racial hatred and bigotry in our nation, and has understandably inspired a level of anger, outrage, shock, hurt, and disappointment of near apocalyptic proportions. In essence, what Donald Sterling said is his girlfriend is forbidden from public exposure of herself cavorting about with black people (in this case, via Instagram), and from sallying into his Clippers’ games with black people in tow. That’s the stuff Donald Sterling said, and in so saying, leaves no doubt that he is absolutely and thoroughly repelled by black people — -hardly a badge of dishonor worn by him alone.

However, let me submit that what matters most is not what Donald Sterling SAID, but rather what Donald Sterling BELIEVES. Permit me to ask this: Had Donald Sterling never spoken those unequivocally prejudicial and polarizing words into that recording device and had not that recording been released for all of the world to hear, would not his “crime” be the same? The undeniable answer is yes.

In both the metaphorical and literal sense, the old “sticks and stones” adage reminds us, that “words alone can neither hurt/thwart/deny/nor destroy us; Belief systems, on the other hand, can and do. This is particularly true when certain belief systems inform the actions of those wielding the greatest power (or the “sticks and stones”, if you will). Make no mistake, Donald Sterling has articulated a point of view about black people based on his belief system about black people, and that makes him and his ilk far more intractable, dangerous and insidious than any words he/ they could ever invoke. Donald Sterling is not just an NBA owner. He is not simply one of few American billionaires. He is far more than a semi-public figure. Donald Sterling is a CEO. He is an employer. He owns a company called “The Los Angeles Clippers”. It has a strong and positive brand. It has a product. It has a strong and loyal customer base, and it has employees who, like most of us, want to believe in the moral compass of their employers. Donald Sterling’s belief system – – -, i.e. his mindset about people – – – their talent, potential, and worthiness as equal human beings and equal Americans – – – shapes him as an employer.

In most workplaces, the office of CEO is regarded as sacred. We all would hope that the person holding that office would be a careful steward over the welfare of each person in his/her employ, with a view toward securing the welfare of the whole person. We would hope that our CEOs would be fair and balanced and ascribe to each employee, regardless of race, creed, or color, the same sense of human worth. We all look to the C-Suite of our workplaces and hope that those who fill those hallowed halls embody strong moral character and unbiased judgment and that they see fairness and equality as deeply personal values that must be lived at work. We want to believe that when our bosses shake our hands and bid us well, they do so authentically, with earnest inborn sincerity. We would like to believe that those who hold these titles look into our eyes and see a human being just like themselves – – -trying to grasp hold of that rainbow that cradles that all too often elusive American Dream.

We are all the sum total of our beliefs. They feed our decisions – – – what we purchase, whom we befriend, whom we believe in, for whom we vote , what we watch on TV, how we parent, and what kind of spouses/partners we are. Our beliefs anchor us. They inform our actions. We do not check our beliefs at any door, and certainly not at the front door of our workplaces. Those of you who have heard any one of my keynote talks have heard me share my firm belief that it is difficult to extrapolate what one believes from who in fact one is. Employers, as well as people generally, cannot be redeemed/cleansed of their personal transgressions nor change their modus operandi until they decide with unyielding, undaunted, unapologetic, and relentless commitment to reevaluating and resetting what they believe. Therefore, my hope is not that Donald Sterling simply stop making racist comments. My hope is that he some day abandon his belief in his God-given superiority, and in the bigotry and arrogance that fuels his apparent belief that one race is “better” than another- — – that one race smells foul and attracts vermin, whereas another race does not (see some of his earlier tirades against blacks), that some people are worthy of attending his Clipper games and others are not, and that some are fit to take pictures with his girlfriend and others are not.

Still, the world is changing. Thankfully, Donald Sterling’s views do not represent the popular, prevailing view. I truly believe that. I am comforted in knowing that there are many examples of magnanimous CEOs who’s truth telling and moral compasses are positive and fair, and that there are more people repulsed by Mr. Sterling’s beliefs than support them.



Nikki Jackson Consulting is a one-of-a-kind boutique HR consulting firm dedicated to helping HR departments do and be better. We focus exclusively on working IN HR departments so what is delivered THROUGH HR is strategically rich, organizationally relevant and structurally restorative. We typically target public sector and higher education workplaces, though we are thrilled to work in any sector, any industry and any organization that has a need. We work across the world….helping organizations reach ridiculous heights by way of their HR departments and not in spite of them.

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