Beyond the Rhetoric
By Harry C. Alford III
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?” — David Foster Wallace
People in power at established enterprises, typically White male executives, grow up in segregation without ever pausing to reflect on the harm they might be causing others and the history they are bringing to work culture. One reason is because of a lack of simple awareness. 75% of white people have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. Racial inequity is hidden in plain sight in schools, communities, churches, and social activities. According to David Foster Wallace, seeing water means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and choose how you construct meaning from experience.
To paraphrase “White Fragility” author, Robin Diangelo, the unwillingness for introspection reinforces the message that your experiences and perspectives are the only ones that matter. Few acknowledge a lack of diversity as a problem. Efforts must be invested in changing systems, especially corporate culture; otherwise, homogeneity will be passed down at the expense of diverse employees and your company’s bottom line.
- Lack of understanding of what racism is
- Seeing yourself as exempt from racial socialization
- Lack of racial humility
- Unwillingness to listen
- • Solutioning without identifying and describing the problem
- Diversity theater — intentions over the impact
It’s your responsibility to grapple with how racial socialization manifests itself in your personal life, corporate culture, and how it shapes your responses when it’s challenged.
“We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” — James Baldwin
humble ventures is a venture development firm that drives innovation forward through collaboration and partnerships with startups, investors, and established organizations. We focus on diverse entrepreneurs and those building solutions for diverse audiences. We collaborate to connect and transfer value with leading enterprises through programming, which includes:
- Design thinking workshops to identify problems across key stakeholders, including bias, growth and innovation ambitions, operational gaps, and how we can address them.
- Pop-Up events to convene key audiences and ecosystems.
- Innovation challenges to define key problems and surface experts, collaborators, and solutions, from across a global market.
- Virtual accelerators that help enterprises identify high-potential early-stage companies that could benefit the enterprise’s key business and customers.
We create opportunities for all of us to discuss in a risk-free arena and to learn and grow around the subject of bias, systemic racism, people’s perspectives, “the why,” the underlying societal issues, and how we positively contribute directly to an organization and the larger society. In order to see the water, we must first have a beginner’s mindset.
There’s a deeply embedded resistance in our country to productively discuss racism and implicit bias and it is hindering our growth as a nation.
Athletes are notorious for analyzing their pitch, shot, kick, or swing to improve performance. In this work, it’s important to not take flaws personally but to endure and evaluate the behaviors so that we can grow.
Approach today with a beginner’s mindset and practice racial humility—be humble in learning across lines of racial differences. Only then can we move towards racial equity. Below is how we define diversity and other terms to familiarize yourself with from DEI Extension:
- Diversity is the presence of differences that may include race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic status, language, (dis)ability, age, religious commitment, or political perspective.
- Equity is promoting justice, impartiality, and fairness within the procedures, processes, and distribution of resources by institutions or systems.
- Inclusion is an outcome to ensure those that are diverse actually feel and/or are welcome. Inclusion outcomes are met when you, your institution, and your program are truly inviting to all.
- Prejudice is a prejudgment about social others as defined in a given culture.
- Discrimination is external. When we act on prejudice, we now discriminate.
- Systemic Racism takes place when we back a group’s collective bias by legal authority and institutional control. It gets embedded in every institution and our cultural definitions.
In workshops, we facilitate a design thinking exercise where we define the current state of an organization, surface drivers and blockers, as well as circumstances that may be preventing the organization from reaching its full potential. We analyze the results of our session and create a report highlighting areas for growth, ways that humble ventures can help accomplish its inclusion goals, and create an ideal future state for the organization.
We bring our histories with us. In the introduction to their book, Slaughter and Johnson assert that “all children carry the culture of their communities and families into their schools.” The same is so for employees and those in positions of power at established enterprises. Writer Ijeoma Oluo said, “I don’t want you to understand me better, I want you to understand yourselves. Your survival has never depended on your knowledge of white culture. In fact, it’s required ignorance.” Understanding ourselves — this is water.
About the Author
Whether in venture capital, education, or sports, Harry’s career has always centered around inclusion. Harry Alford is Co-Founder of a venture development firm, humble ventures, where he accelerates the growth of startups in partnership with large enterprises and investors. In addition to being a Techstars mentor and a member of the Board of Advisors for the Dingman Center, Harry is the Interim Director of the University of Maryland’s Southern Management Leadership Program where he supports and develops students who have an interest in entrepreneurship and an enthusiasm for starting a business venture, leading a company, or changing the world. Harry, a 2-time All-American, ACC Tournament MVP, and ACC All-Tournament Team as a goalie on the Maryland Lacrosse team (2003-2007), holds a BA from the University of Maryland, an MA in Sports Industry Management from Georgetown University, and an MBA from Babson College. Harry also has experience playing professionally in Major League Lacrosse. Harry lives in Washington, DC with his family.