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May 06, 2019
What to Read
Michael Schubach

Over the years, we’ve had numerous conversations with industry leaders and often one of the topics that we discuss is the latest book read. Here are what our industry leaders are reading.
 
"White Fragility, Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism"
by Robin DiAngelo

Benjamin Franklin is credited with the witty observation that there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. Not that I’m any Ben Franklin, but I would like to add two more entries to his list: controversy and change. Although I’ve probably spent more time enmeshed in the former, my professional calling card is built on the latter. I am a hospitality automation change artist: I go places and change things like procedures, systems and comfort zones. If they’re flummoxed, I help reassert control. If they’re super-sized, dumb and happy, I help them look at impending threats on the horizon – after all, this is 21st-century information technology.  
 
I began honing my buttinsky tendencies during the last quarter of the last century. Come with me and Mr. Peabody, and set the WayBack Machine for the American Bicentennial. We find me as I join the staff of a small management services company that specializes in student housing and on-campus food service operations.  I am, believe it or not, the accountant in charge of the financial statement production for the managed sites. When I join the organization, we produce our clients’ financial statements by messengering weekly batches of paper journal entries to an accounting service bureau. The owner of the company then decided that he wanted to bring financial statement production in house and the project was mine; my improbable history had begun. 
 
The most impressive aspect of that particular system installation was the programmer/project manager, one Ms. Donna Toomey, who was assigned to our account.  Donna and I became personal friends and she sparked my interest in programming and systems. Early on I asked her what appealed most to her about her career in IT and her answer was immediate: “Technology is the great equalizer. The industry is so starved for talent that race and gender don’t matter. If you know what you’re doing, you can be doing whatever you want.”  Change was evident – my changing vocation and the reshaping of American meritocracy as Donna was describing it; I was instantly on board.

Now, many years later, many acts deep into my play, I have made yet another change. I am working with a prominent hotel organization in central Florida, an enterprise with a significant role in one of the most visited communities in the United States. I was amazed at the profound national, ethnic, lingual and cultural diversity within our company as a whole and our IT team in particular. Of course, Florida teems with immigrants from different countries and different states, myself being one of them, so at first I thought that cultural and ethnic diversity just went with the territory. Nonetheless, what I saw very much affirmed my belief that we are indeed living in a post-modern merit-driven society.
 
And then I read one of last year’s New York Times best sellers, White Fragility, Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo. Within those 154 pages – an arguably short read, but not a quick one due to its subject matter – I find myself thrown back into my second field of expertise: controversy. Ms. DiAngelo, an academic, author, lecturer, consultant and trainer on issues of racial and social justice, explores a number of demonstrable truths about ours and similar societies of North America and Western Europe. This is to say that the culture and governmental power structure is constructed to provide tacit approval and active advantage to whites in a way that is so customary and psychologically engrained in our institutions that it passes largely unnoticed by the white population that benefits from it. 
 
The awkwardness about race is so engrained in the white majority that to even raise the subject is to cast aspersions: what are you accusing me of? Do you think that I would deliberately harm or degrade another person of any race or culture? Why are we being picked on when minorities are given every advantage in every way possible? Ms. DiAngelo, herself Caucasian, found in her corporate diversity training practice that those who struggled the most, those with the greatest level of turmoil on the subject, typically self-describe as liberals or progressives, and view themselves as the most open-minded, supportive and least offensive options that American society has to offer.
 
Most of us who lived through the revolutionary '60s would think that things have changed tremendously, especially after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was shepherded through Congress by President Lyndon Johnson. However, as much the intervening years have changed our laws and social perceptions, our American institutional power structures are essentially the same. To say that institutional change comes slowly is an immense understatement. 
 
To say that it comes so slowly so as to have little or no impact is much closer to the practical truth. The individuals and the positions DiAngelo cites may seem random or haphazard, but they represent the institutions that make laws, shape lives, influence social interactions and help maintain the status quo of existing power structures. The expanse of the American experience is represented in those statistics. 
 
Now, more than four decades after the concept of information technology as the great equalizer was verbalized to me, have we, in fact, equalized? Let’s take a quick look at one piece of anecdotal evidence: on the cover of the Fall 2018 cover of Hospitality Upgrade is a picture of the 2018 CIO Summit, an annual event hosted by this magazine. There is nothing political or racially motivated about the group; it’s simply an industry gathering of hospitality IT professionals, screened exclusively by job title. In the past I have both attended and presented at this conference, and I know a number of the participants in the picture personally. I can vouch for the Summit’s structure, purpose and content, and the professionalism of all involved. 
 
There are 65 people in the picture on the cover, 64 participants and Rich Siegel, HU’s publisher and the event’s host; Rich is  just barely visible in a “Where’s Waldo?” pose at the cockpit’s open window. Using 64 as my base, I visually examined the photo to make categorical assumptions, since the participants didn’t self-identify to me as to their ethnicity. It’s difficult to accurately tally those who may identify as being of non-Caucasian heritages such as Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern or Latinx (a term I first encountered in Ms. DiAngelo’s book, that is used to identify Latinos and Latinas inclusively). 
 
Now, let’s go to the photo and look first to gender, my “Toomey factor.” Of 64 CIOs, four are women; that equates to 6 percent female, versus a US population that is 51 percent female. While there is no correct answer for how many women ought to be in that group of CIOs, there is no mistaking the fact that women are dramatically under-represented. The disparity of women in leadership roles is a persistent problem both in the technology sector and the business community as a whole. 
 
Ditto for those of African heritage; again the visual count number is 4 of 64, less than half the number you would expect so see if a meritocracy evenly treated the wider population. However, the Asian American population, from my best estimate, seems to appropriately represent the US population in the group.
 
Think of this exercise as a straw poll, but a meaningful one. The issues of supremacy and discrimination fit neatly into my pursuit of controversy, and may raise the eyebrows by those who could rightfully ask how I can refer to the incredible diversity in my current work environment at the very same time that I opine that societal racism is ever present. Well, yes I do and here’s how: there are exceptions to every rule, and in a very real way my employer has gone to great effort to make our organization one of those exceptions. Striving for workplace diversity is not instinctive; in fact, it’s downright counter-intuitive. The human species is tribal by nature, and it takes a strongly proactive effort to diversify a workplace and have it remain diversified over time. 
 
Remember that social institutions remain institutions because they toil ceaselessly toward that end. They enshrine values and work in their own self-interest and toward their own self-preservation. Changing them is no small feat. It doesn’t matter what particular values they hold – the point is that they work first to define and then defend themselves. To employ an IT change agent’s term, institutions, as such, are not at all “change friendly.”
 
More than raising eyebrows, these topics can raise hackles of indignation. Some of us simply decry categorization … why, oh why can’t we all just get along as one happy whole? In my opinion, there are two gigantic reasons. The first is technology itself: this is the era of information; we live in a technocracy where big data defines our sense of self and measures our success. There’s not much going on in your life that doesn’t relate to your demographics, your noted preferences, your proclivity to buy or participate, and those who are a part of your network. Data classifications are how we keep score, and, as a society, we are nothing if not data driven. Data is knowledge, and knowledge is power. It’s the new age: get used to it.  
 
Second, we humans segregate ourselves, whether we mean to or not, often without even noticing when we do it. Even within a single homogeneous society we create layers of separation and precedence. Completely free of issues of skin-color or ethnicity, we sort ourselves into the categories of our existence, such as genders and generations. We separate the left from the right, possessors from the dispossessed, the good from the bad, the better from the best, the smart from the not-so, and the beautiful from those not-so. And then, like birds of a feather, we flock together ... like our lives depend on it because once upon a time, they did. We huddle on opposite sides of the tracks in self-defense. We ward off strangers and would-be predators or those who are just not enough like us, and we’ve been doing it as long as we’ve inhabited the planet. It’s the not-so-new age: get used to it.
 
It’s not at all amazing that it has taken us this long to be civilized enough to see benefit and human progress through diversity; it is amazing that it’s only taken us this long. But being the optimist that I am, I believe that we’re gaining on it. However, I know that my mother, a well-meaning liberal Caucasian woman, would be furious with me: religion, politics and most especially, race are simply not discussed in polite magazine articles. See what Ms. DiAngelo means about fragility? You really do need to read this book – I couldn’t recommend it more highly. 

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