By Wanda Deschamps August 13, 2021
The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations, Robert Livingston, PenguinRandomHouse, February 2, 2021, 368 pp., $33.74
In the wake of the most significant anti-racism protests since the 1960s arrives Dr. Robert W. Livingston’s The Conversation. Masterfully written and expertly researched, the book explores racism and bias from a “science-based approach” and provides a map for individuals and organizations to combat it through answering three questions: What is racism? Why should everyone be more concerned about it? What can we do to eradicate it?
It begins with dialogue. How can something seemingly so simple be purported to be so effective? Livingston quickly gets to the centre:
“It is because conversation is one of the most powerful ways to build knowledge, awareness, and empathy, and ultimately effect change. Conversation is also a primal way for people to form bonds, build trust and create community.”
Before you start to think that Livingston – a Black Harvard lecturer – is naively asserting oral intercourse will end hundreds of years of deeply entrenched thinking and practices, however, he counters:
“To be clear, I am not claiming that conversation in general (or The Conversation more specifically) alone is a panacea, or that incentives are not important. What I have discovered through my work and life experience, however, is that rewards and punishments can induce immediate and temporary movement but rarely generate profound and sustainable change. By contrast, conversation, if done the right way, can be a powerful tool for bringing people together and developing support for enduring solutions.”
The “right way” according to, Livingston is through honesty and truthfulness. And he makes his unilaterally bold claim on the front cover: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations.
What leads Livingston to do this? He has special insight into the inner workings of the human psyche. A social psychologist, Livingston has organized the twelve-chapter book into three sections: Part I: Condition; Part II: Concern; Part III: Correction – the fundamental approach for understanding and changing behavior. Chapter 1 entitled Do We All Believe That Racism Exists? spotlights Livingston’s core message and illustrates through storytelling what can begin to be made possible during “a candid exchange of perspectives on race but grounded in facts.”
Therein lies the juggernaut of Livingston’s thesis: Scientific evidence. Taking an interdisciplinary approach as a social psychologist, he has selected “theory, data, and research from a range of scientific disciplines, beyond his own, including…behavioral economics, sociology, organizational behavior, political science, history, and evolutionary and molecular biology” to explain why and how racism is real and provide solutions for what we can do about it.
For example, he cites illusory correlation – a strong influence of psychologists Drs. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tverskyknown for their ground-breaking work in associative thinking (linked to the theory of confirmation bias). This was underscored during Livingston’s walk one day with a White colleague in Madison Wisconsin. The friend observed:
“It’s a shame there are so many homeless Black people asking for money. The city should do something to help them.”
“In reality, we had passed over a dozen people asking for money and only two or three of them were Black. All of the others were White. So why did my colleague think that she saw ‘so many’ Black people asking for money?”
This is an example of an illusory correlation phenomenon…meaning…if two things stand out because they are different from everything else around them, people will assume that the two things are more strongly correlated than they really are.
What does this have to do with racism? It can lead to and cause persistence of negative stereotypes about Black people.
Another highlighted probe into biased thinking is research conducted by Dr. Sonia Kang, Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour and Human Resource Management in the Department of Management at the University of Toronto Mississauga and her team’s look into Whitening Resumes.
They investigated whether an applicant changing their name to a non-ethnically revealing one led to higher (or lower) callback rates for job applications.
“Whitening the resumes of Black and Asian applicants increased their callback rate by up to 150 percent. What’s particularly unsettling is that the preference for Whitened resumes held true even for companies that explicitly state a desire to seek diversity. The level of discrimination at these prodiversity companies was the same as the discrimination levels of companies without prodiversity statements.”
Disturbing and disappointing, this study hits on the some of the clear outcomes of racism and its damaging effects on those who experience it.
Despite it all, Livingston remains hopeful for the opportunity to bring about marked and lasting change. His optimism is balanced with realism as the story’s arc follows his sequential PRESS model (Problem Awareness, Root Cause Analysis, Empathy, Strategy, Sacrifice). Described as “a big picture overview of the necessary steps to achieve stable and enduring racial progress” it presents as a positive effect of his years as a sought-after organizational diversity consultant, including for Fortune 500 companies.
In reflecting on his experiences, he emphasizes leadership as a key ingredient for the success of any diversity, equity and inclusion effort: “I cannot think of a single case of radical change that has taken place at a large organization without the support of top leaders – whether it was a CEO, a board member, or both.”
He also urges individuals to know that they are the vehicles to this much needed societal change. “Every individual citizen can affect, and be affected by, institutions. This makes individual participation even more critical and impactful.”
The prediction is stark and would indeed be transformational.
“If we focused on these five interconnected foundations of oppression in a thoughtful and effective way, we could eliminate the lion’s share – perhaps 90 percent or more – of systemic racism that exists in our country:
- Voting rights
- Economic inequality
- Public education
- Criminal justice
- Healthcare disparities
How do we reach it? Start by giving one day. 24 hours is Livingston’s estimate of the time to thoughtfully process the book’s contents, quizzes, questions and individual stories for the benefit of yourself and engaging others. As you muse, consider that his practical, engaging, at times personal, at times humorous style well nuanced throughout its approximately 250 pages engrosses the reader.
A book written for scores of diversities across all aspects of identity concludes with the pressing and provoking question: “How will you begin your journey upstream?”
(Wanda Deschamps is founder and principal of Liberty Co, a consultancy working to increase the participation level of the neurodiverse population in the workforce.)
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