In a word, NO! That does not mean however that all the anti-discrimination regulations enforced by the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunities Commission) should be abolished. What this does mean is leaders must not assume that just because their organization is following the law, that their work culture is prejudice or discrimination free.

Let’s first define the terms. There are many variations so the following is a composite: (a full list of terms related to diversity and inclusion can be found in The Diversity Advantage).

Prejudice- An adverse opinion or judgment formed beforehand or without full knowledge or complete examination of the facts.  Irrational hatred, or suspicion of a specific group, or religion.

Discrimination- is the prejudicial and/or distinguishing treatment of an individual based on their actual or perceived membership in a certain group or category, “in a way that is worse than the way people are usually treated.” (source: Wikipedia)

I am sure by now you heard about the store clerk in Switzerland that allegedly told Oprah Winfrey that she would not show her a $38,000 purse because “you can’t afford it.” The reports indicated that Winfrey did not get upset, but she also did not buy the purse. The store owner later said that Winfrey was overly sensitive. This was a case of prejudice that led to discrimination, and the store owner’s comments only made it worse. Think of the commission that was lost!

Ask yourself these questions to learn from these type incidents. What would you have done to coach your employee in this situation? Why is it that offenders often try to downplay the offense and discredit the victim when it comes to prejudice? I believe a diversity-competent leader would coach his staff to never assume a person unable to buy regardless of skin color, accent, ethnicity, etc. Many years ago I taught people how to sell cars, and rule #1 was ‘never assume.’ More times than I can count some sales people would assume the buyer was just a “looker,” and not worth their time. Later when another sales person made the sale, those who judged the customer would learn the customer bought a fleet of trucks for her business, or a fully loaded top of the line car.

Most people do not believe they are prejudiced. It is too painful to think that about oneself. The fact is all of us have prejudice of one sort or another. It is easier to blame the victim than to accept our own biases. Once we decide to address it, by gaining information and experiencing situations with those with whom we hold a bias, most of us become more aware of our prejudiced thoughts and learn NOT to act on them. We learn to become curious instead of critical; become cultural learners instead of cultural critics.

Do not become frozen due to an inability to solve all prejudice. Instead take action on something. I recently saw Lee Daniel’s The Butler. Usually when I go to the movies in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, there are not more than five or six others in the theater. This time it was different. There were easily one hundred people from diverse backgrounds viewing the movie with me.

As people exited the theater afterwards, most of the African Americans moved silently. I heard one White woman say to her friends, “I do not feel good being White right now. My Wisconsin colleague and friend Chris Clarke-Epstein (who grew up in Chicago in the sixties) shared her experience after seeing The Butler. She said to her friends, “That’s the way it was”. One friend of the same age-range said, “I can’t believe it was that way.”

It is often said in one way or the other that we must learn our history in order to shape our future. I challenge you to learn the perspectives of others regarding historically significant events, and then decide to take action to effect positive change. Silence is not golden.