In this episode, we speak to Kecia M. Thomas, Dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham College of Arts and Sciences. To know more about the work of Dr. Thomas visit the official website UAB here. Below is the excerpt from the conversation, edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the podcast, either via the player above or on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcast.
Agnes Uhereczky: I have read with great interest your research and some of your articles and guides. One of the things I wanted to discuss with you today is that I think by now we more or less have a good understanding of what makes a workplace not inclusive or what is discrimination, how does it manifest, what creates hostile climates. So, even if we may not necessarily abide by all of them we have a good inkling of what that is. But I have read with great interest some of your points around: when good intentions go bad, when we believe that we are having all these good intentions and we are creating inclusive workplaces when in fact we are maybe even perpetuating victimization, or perpetuating some of the practices that are going to hold back women of colour. Can you take me through this? How did you conceptualize it?
Kecia M. Thomas: Sure. I think a lot of that from me was this developmental experience of being surrounded by very nice people, colleagues and friends in my community but also growing in my sophistication around diversity resistance and the sometimes-benevolent ways in which prejudice and discrimination can present themselves. So, Agnes, what I began to understand - in spaces where I didn't necessarily feel 100% welcomed but maybe simply tolerated - that those very nice people who surrounded me sometimes would say things that if you listen very closely could almost seem like a veiled insult or threat. I think about ways or times in which people would comment and say “Oh, you are so articulate” or when they spoke to my Asian students, some would say “Where are you from?” to which they would reply “Georgia” followed by “Yeah, where are you really from?” as they want to hear something more. But even the typically colour blind response of “I don't see differences” or “I don't see race, I don't see gender” - we know, would not be the case. What is wrong with seeing race and gender when we kind of push these identities aside? It sends a message that is something almost to be shameful. And even our early language around diversity, I am thinking late 80s or 90s, was around tolerated diversity which again sends a message that there is something bad about it or something that we should have this collective shame about rather than seeing the value in it and appreciating it. So, again, I think for many of us who may have been socialized or grew up in a certain era that was the mindset that we should be colour blind that we should not admit to noticing differences because if you notice differences, or you at least admit to it, then you risk acting upon these differences in ways that could label you a racist which of course is one of the worst things you can be called.
Agnes Uhereczky: How can we bring these sensitive conversations to the workplace? How can we create opportunities for honest conversations in psychological safety where can make mistakes where we can blunter? But definitely without the fear of negative repercussions on peoples' careers or having that double fear or anxiety if it is in the context of the workplace.
Kecia M. Thomas: That is a difficult task. I had experience with certain organizational cultures that immediately turn off these kinds of conversations when they enter the office. I certainly had former PhD students who were offered internships and there would be something going on in the community. And even if they were to bring it up during lunch on-premises they would get the message back “Oh, we don't talk about those issues, here” or “We focus on other issues”. I think, again, that sends the message to that underrepresented colleague that your experience isn't valid and what your community might be experiencing isn't really significant. And also, that the actor is not seeing themselves as part of the story. Like this is something for those people to deal with rather than something we all need to address. So, one of the strategies I used in a prior organization was to start a book club to have a common book when you focus on the actors and the stories in that book. I think this relieves some of the burden to be self-revealing or to be perceived as racist or oppressive because then you focus on the actors and those stories and they are not real, they are made up. Fiction books or memoirs can occupy that space. But I also loved Beverly Daniel Tatum's book, Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? because she shares real-life stories for her as a teacher but also her children and her research grounds it within the social science and helps us better understand why these things happen the way they do.
Agnes Uhereczky: Would you mind also talking to us and walking us through the 'pet to threat' phenomena that you labelled, researched and also wrote about.
Kecia M. Thomas: I have to share with you that this work - the data collection and subsequent chapter - was published in 2013 and it was done with several colleagues one being Johnson-Bailey and Rosemary Phelps but also two of my formal students who are now doctors Lindsay Johnson and Mia Tran. We were attending a workshop for senior women leaders who were deemed by their institutions as perhaps potential Provost and Presidents. So, imagine being in a community of these really high potential strong academic leaders and I should say that Rosemary and Juanita are also African American women. During these workshops, we often had a break and a woman came up to me from a certain Ivy League institution and said “Juanita! Juanita!” and when I looked at her stopped and said, “Oh, you are not Juanita, sorry”. So, one there is not being able to keep us straight. And then secondly she said, “I just so appreciate, when you contribute to our discussions, I just find everything you say so valuable. And, you know, I was wondering did you attend a workshop or some training on public speaking?”. I stopped and said, “Hm, yes, I attended the 'Condi' Rice School of public speaking” because this was when 'Condi' Rice was Secretary of State. And, she stopped and looked at me and said, “Oh, you are joking”. Then, I come out and walked away. And again, there is a room with women who are PhDs and senior managers managing millions of dollars in their institutions and she is complimenting me on how articulate I am. So, that is just in the side but a piece of the people wanting to give a compliment but then demonstrating perhaps more deeply seated believes around who they believe you are. This is just mind-blowing.
While we were doing this year-long workshop we started to hear pretty consistent stories. So, for the younger women who were attending, again, people who had some significant credentials, almost all of us worked in environments where we were one of the very few women, and if you were a woman of colour you essentially were first of your kinds or the only one of your kind within your department or workgroup. And for the younger women, we would hear again about the isolation but with a start of their stories about “I am feeling underutilized” like they had gone to school all this time, they had all these accomplishments and credentials but they weren't feeling they were able to fully utilize what they were bringing into that department. And instead, they said they felt overutilized for the kind of diversity capital that they brought into those environments. So, being interviewed by the faculty newspaper, being used in the public relations, being placed on the website. I will never forget one woman who was a physicist and she was in a high-profile institution, all of her colleagues were much older men, and how they were very protective of her again representing a sense of benevolent discrimination. A couple of points someone would say to her “Oh, you remind me of my daughter” or they would pet her on the back like a pet. For these women, it created a sense of disorientation and questions like “What is my career path going to be?” or “How long do I have to put up with this?”. I think many of them began to think about opting out, persuading a different path.
And then there were these senior women who had stayed the course, jumped over every hurdle, and they would say: they too still experience the sense of isolation and alienation, not having a lot of other women or women of colour within their departments or in their day-to-day life. But they would say, “I have done this for 12-15 years and I don't feel like I am getting the same rewards and recognition as everyone else. And, in fact, I feel as though I am locked out of some opportunities and even when I get access perhaps I am not treated the same” which is a common experience of access and treatment discrimination. What was even more interesting for these more senior women is that they would also talk about the support systems that they had as junior exciting professionals and that their support system started to erode. So, it was not only marriages and partnerships, it was relationships with colleagues even with family members, who questioned their ambition and ask “Why isn't this good enough? Why aren't you satisfied?” when the men around them able to continue to pursue new levels of leadership and authority. So, again there is this, this is where I am at, I am not happy with it and I am willing to do something about it because I already put 15-20 years. These women I think oftentimes were more mobile and so they had career mobility both in moving institution to institution but also changing industries and that willingness to just immerse yourself in something totally new. I think many of them also considered an entrepreneurial route and doing something additional to the main job that would give them a sense of value and control without having to negotiate the battles of being seen and having a sense of worth. As you mentioned a lot of people have grasped on to this language of experiencing, of being treated like a pet and being overutilized and exploited for the diversity you offer versus women who were more senior as not having that same rewards and recognition and seeing their support system erode. This we found very interesting.
Agnes Uhereczky: What other telltale signs are there to understand whether an organization is resisting diversity? So, I guess for listeners listening they could maybe also audit a little bit their organization and see if these topics we talk about are happening in their workplace. Should we look into this more? Are we tokenistic? Are we using this as pinkwashing or blackwashing or rainbow washing or are we genuinely reckoning with our way of working, and working with our employees and valuing them?
Kecia M. Thomas: Right. Ever I have had the opportunity to engage with a new institution or even when I was on the job market and looking at potential employers, I would look at the issue of whether the diversity rhetoric matches the reality. Organizations can quickly learn to push out messaging and websites and photography that positions them as diversity leaders but if you look more deeply you question whether is there truly diversity throughout the ranks. And if there is diversity I want to make sure that it is not only at one particular level which is too frequently the lowest level or that it is not only within one functional area. So, in a corporate organization, is it only in marketing or HR? These demographic faultlines can occur in your organization but if you look at the broad numbers more closely then it can show you where might be areas of resistance or just that the organization is keeping up with the values that those leaders are trying to put forward. I think it is also important to look at where do women or people of colour get recruited, how long do they stay, what is the rate of turnover. Exit data is really important about why do people leave, also, are you collecting that data in a way that people can truly be honest about why they are leaving because too many organizations just want to say that all those people could not cut it or they weren't committed. When it may truly be that people never felt valued or they felt exploited so that is why they choose to leave. I am also interested, and one of the things I used to do in my previous institution, in collecting data on the people who turn us down, so when we make an offer, we can track where did you go instead and why. What did that organization have or do differently that was more appealing to you that would drive you towards them and away from us? I think that is significant.
We have talked already about ways in which organizations can give diversity rhetoric but not live out those values so again when do we recognize diversity, is it an everyday phenomenon embedded in all of our meetings and conversations versus a one-off event. And, I think, far too many organizations don't pay attention to the broader community in which they exist because many of the workers or staff members are going to come from that local community. In what ways are you engaging with the community in a mutually beneficial way? It is not simply about taking or not having a deficit mindset of we are going to fix them but in what ways can that relationship be mutually informative and build a pipeline of employees or create a greater sense of the value of commitment for those who come into their organizations from their local community.
And then the last thing is leadership. When I had the opportunity to talk to a potential client or boss I am listening carefully to the language that they use, if they say something like “I need a diverse hire” either that person may not be as comfortable in these conversations and they are using an outdated language or language that signals to me that they are uncomfortable with saying 'underrepresented' or uncomfortable saying 'we really don't have many Black and Latino employees in this organization'. To what extent are they on the ground engaging in training or having difficult conversations. Finally, are they creating opportunities for others' development as well as their kind of multicultural development? I think the best thing that leaders can do is to put themselves into uncomfortable situations where they are underrepresented when they are the learners, but also to find ways to mentor people who are different from yourself and create a developmental relationship for both parties, where you are learning about perhaps this young Asian women's experience of being in this organization and how she experiences it, what potential she sees for herself in that organization to get that firsthand knowledge, to listen to it, to validate it rather than challenge it is something that I think is invaluable for leaders.