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NEAL CONAN, host:

There are very broadly two approaches that managers and supervisors use to address the question of race in the workplace. Some try to be colorblind, treat everybody the same. Others prefer a multicultural approach, which recognizes, even celebrates, differences. It's a discussion Dawn Turner Trice took up on her Exploring Race column in the Chicago Tribune. She's also among our regular contributors.

And we want to hear from you on this. What approach is used where you work and how well does it succeed? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. E-mail, talk@npr.org. And there's a conversation at our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Dawn Turner Trice joins us from the studios at Chicago Public Radio. And nice to have you back on the program.

Ms. DAWN TURNER TRICE (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Thank you, Neal. Nice to be back.

CONAN: And you write in your column that this is complicated stuff, that minorities will often say, look, see me as an individual, which…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TRICE: Right.

CONAN: …suggest the colorblind approach. At the same time, they'll also say it's ridiculous, even insulting, to not recognize the differences that clearly exist.

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely. And let's start a few paces back for a second. What happened with this study, researchers at the University of Georgia looked at 17 departments in a large healthcare company. They compared departments in which white managers used a colorblind approach with minority workers, to those departments in which white managers used a more multicultural approach. And by multicultural, we mean, as you said, that racial and ethnic differences were noticed and celebrated. And colorblind - I'm sorry - we mean the differences were downplayed.

And the study found that in a colorblind environment, minority workers were less engaged. They felt less a part of the team. They felt invisible. Yet, when white workers champion multiculturalism, minorities felt more connected to their jobs, more engaged.

CONAN: And that's an interesting result. Colorblindedness, it seems, would be impartial.

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely. And so, it's one of the - I mean, to some people, this study may seem a bit counterintuitive because we often hear that, I mean, if we were to create this utopia, it would kind of stem from this colorblindness.

And we think of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech in which he was talking about his children being judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. But he wasn't suggesting that somehow, we don't recognize color. What he was saying was, don't hold that against them, you know? Don't make a snap judgment based on the amount of melanin in their skin. Don't ascribe all of the negatives that we tend to ascribe - sometimes overtly, sometimes not so - based on skin color.

CONAN: Yet, at the same time - it almost sounds, looking at your column and the results from the survey, well, not from your column…

Ms. TRICE: Mm-hmm. Right.

CONAN: …that colorblindness has almost become a code word for racism.

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely. Researcher - the lead researcher on this was Vicki Plaut. And she told me that a lot of white people are told that it's preferable to be colorblind. But I think that we have to make the distinction between people who honestly try to be colorblind in the most noble sense or definition of the word and those who have a very specific agenda. And colorblindness gives them a way to forward that agenda.

Some might say that it's okay, that, okay, you're equal now. Let's disregard history, let's disregard the ways in which racism is institutionalized, and let's do this not just in the workplace, but in the classroom and the courtroom.

And the reverse of that is true as well. I mean, some - there are those who push multiculturalism not because it may be the desired approach, but also to forward an agenda. They might blame things on race that's not, you know, legitimate.

CONAN: By the way, if you'd like to look at Dawn's story, there's a link to it at our Web site. That's at npr.org/talk.

And I have to say also, there's a question of class here. I mean, were these mostly middle-class workers? You'd think if you were talking about lawyers or doctors that maybe the more colorblind approach might be successful?

Ms. TRICE: Well, I don't know that they really looked at - in terms of class because I think that there are - some of these things are just so hardwired in our brains that we kind of, you know, it transcends class levels. And it may - you may find the same dynamic happening in a law office or in a newsroom or in any other workplace and - or in the factory, on a factory floor, as well.

So, it's something that I think that we've kind of grown up with in this country. But there are some generational differences that we see - that younger people tend to be not, this isn't the case all the time, but tend to be a little more accepting and they don't - and they kind of - they don't think in terms of colorblindness. I mean they're a little more open to the multicultural approach.

CONAN: And this was a survey that studied minorities under the supervision of white bosses, which I guess is a…

Ms. TURNER TRICE: Absolutely.

CONAN: …norm in most places but nevertheless, was there any research at all on places where minorities are the bosses?

Ms. TURNER TRICE: That's an excellent question. And I did ask that of the lead researcher, Victoria Plaut. And they didn't look at places in which you may have had a black person or an Asian person or Hispanic person who was a supervisor in an office that was maybe equally racially diverse. And because - and I think that that's really interesting because you can have, sometimes if there is a philosophy that's being carried out, it may not matter - and I'm saying it may not because this wasn't studied, but it may not matter the color of the person who's carrying out the philosophy. So, that person, you know, a black person could just as easily, kind of, push a colorblind environment as a white person.

CONAN: And one final question before we get to phone calls. And by the way, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, e-mail is talk@npr.org. And that final question is, well, it has to do with - how…

Ms. TURNER TRICE: I think I know where you're going.

CONAN: Well, how do they measure results? How do they define what's a good outcome?

Ms. TURNER TRICE: Well, what they found is that, you know, one of the things that they said that they could not - that a person felt bias did not necessarily mean that there was bias. But because those feelings may have been so strong, that did have an impact on how engaged that person was with a job. It had - it could have an impact on retention rates and how productive the person is. And if you think about it, it kind of makes sense. If the person does not feel that he or she is a part of a team, then that person may not be as engaged or may not feel as invested. So, that's kind of - I mean, the measurements there were based on how people were - the results of the actual work that was done or the outcome of the department.

CONAN: Let's get callers in on the conversation. Again, 800-989-8255. And we'll start with Dorothy(ph). Dorothy is calling us from South Georgia.

DOROTHY (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Dorothy.

DOROTHY: Hi. I work in a hospital setting, a very large hospital here in South Georgia. We seem to get patients from all hospitals. In my department, I work in admissions and I have a white supervisor, I have black team leaders. And the whole point of this is teamwork. If we don't have teamwork, nothing works.

Ms. TURNER TRICE: That's right.

DOROTHY: It hasn't got a single thing to do, I feel, in this hospital, for multiracial proposals or - it's just everyone has to do their job. We have, in a daily - in one day, you will come in contact with all different departments, all nursing floors, housekeepers, transporters -and these are all different levels. And if we don't work as a team, if our supervisor can't deal with us as a team, it just doesn't work.

CONAN: It sounds, Dorothy as if…

DOROTHY: So, to have a multiracial set of rules and another set of rules just wouldn't work for us.

CONAN: So it sounds like you're describing something that is a colorblind approach.

DOROTHY: Yes. And I tell you, I'm a Northerner, and this has been very educational for me.

CONAN: So, it works where you are.

DOROTHY: It works. If you do not do your job, you're no longer here. So, because it's a hospital, we are very busy all the time, and we need everyone to do their job. It's as simple as that, that's how I see it.

CONAN: All right.

DOROTHY: Like I said I have black and white supervisors…

CONAN: Yup, we heard you. Just want get Dawn back in the conversation.

MS. TURNER TRICE: Well, I want to know if Dorothy - are you white?

DOROTHY: Yes.

MS. TURNER TRICE: Yeah. I think that a lot of times, what we're talking about in this study is how people of color felt. And you've mentioned something that is very important and that is the whole teamwork - the team aspect of this. If the boss is white, there's a lot of race stuff ascribed to that person as well, right? So, there has to be a process to get beyond preconceived notions. A lot of that deals with communication and getting to know one another. And you do that in fostering a team environment, so that if the black person is not assigned to something, then there's a relationship there that's already in place and that person doesn't immediately go to the race file for the reason for not being assigned.

So, and then some of the stuff as well is subjective. So there may not be placards or posters in the hospital, in the lobby saying we must have a colorblind environment or multicultural environment. Whether this approach is how they come - how they show themselves, it may be in some very subjective or subtle - more subtle ways. So there are may be some things playing out that maybe not everybody is picking up on.

CONAN: Hmm.

DOROTHY: Well, I know what you're talking about. But whatever, you know, preconceived notions people come into, this is a pretty much I would -60-50 or 70-30, and that include patients as well. We have to treat the patients. And we are taught to treat every employee the same as we would treat a patient. We have to say hello to each other. We have to be pleasant. And that's really what our environment is all about.

CONAN: (unintelligible)

DOROTHY: If you want to have, you know, other things in your lifestyle outside the hospital, well, that's fine. You know, that's everyone's life. But like I - yet there are lot of things posted around the hospital to help one another, to be pleasant as you would have your family be pleasant. I think that's really all we need. As far as some people who may take it a little further, I suppose in a large community that we have in this hospital, there would be. But that's really not - doesn't play a role in why you're here every day.

CONAN: Dorothy, thanks very much for the call.

DOROTHY: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Bye-bye. We're talking with Dawn Turner Trice of the Chicago Tribune on TALK OF THE NATION about multicultural workplaces or colorblind workplaces.

You're listening to the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can now go to Robin(ph). Robin, with us from Philadelphia.

ROBIN (Caller): Hi, yes. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

ROBIN: All right. Well, my comment is - well, first I'll say I'm a white male born in America without any ties - and I'll get to my point - out any ties to any (unintelligible) in Europe. And I'm Muslim, I accepted Islam two years ago. And I find in my - I work office jobs. And I find in my dealings with people, I would much rather have a multicultural workplace because when you have colorblindness, we sort of have, like, the traditional race issues.

I mean, I'm sorry if I'm over generalizing, but, like, I see myself as in a category where I don't really fit into any of the preconceived norms for racial differences. So, with that, I would much rather people ask me questions because I'm (unintelligible) a colorblind policy. I found that people just, sort of, are quietly uncomfortable with some of my practices, and if they would ask me questions I would feel much more comfortable.

CONAN: And so acknowledge the differences?

ROBIN: Well, acknowledge and celebrate the difference. And I think it would make a much better environment for all. And, especially, when you run across statistical outliers like myself.

Ms. TURNER TRICE: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Interesting. Here's an email on that same point from Daniel in Denver: I work in a Spanish language school here in Denver. The director of our company is from Columbia and I'm from Denver. I'm happy to say that it is a multicultural approach used here.

In my experience, colorblind tends to be intellectually dishonest term and that trying to ignore people's races is nearly impossible. I think acknowledging, celebrating and leveraging people's cultural differences is far more honest and respectful way to go than attempting to sweep the 400-pound gorilla of race under the rug.

Ms. TURNER TRICE: And that's exactly right. That's what the researchers found, that if race is not dealt with, then you can create an environment that is in its most benign, kind of, phony or worse fairly hostile because people want to not come off as being invisible or as kind of part of this little conglomerate that is not seen, in which they're...

CONAN: And, Robin, thanks for the call. But then, you get back to that complication, Dawn Turner Trice, which is people say, hey treat me as an individual.

Ms. TURNER TRICE: Yes. Absolutely. It's very difficult. And I don't pretend to know exactly the answer to this, other than - I mean, you're right. You have people saying that we want to be seen as an individual. And then, on the other hand - but you cannot separate from that or tease out of that the history and the other things that complicate - that come with skin color. So, it's difficult to handle but we have to.

CONAN: Let's talk with James(ph) in Vidalia, Georgia.

JAMES (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

JAMES: Yes. Me, myself, personally being African-American, I would like to be judged on my character. I've been in some instances in workplaces, whether it be military or civilian, that automatically I got the black flag already before I even walk through the door.

Ms. TURNER TRICE: Mm-hmm.

There's one job I worked with for a telecommunications company, I'm not going to mention the name. But I was hired on, new kid, you know, learning - I have military experience to come along with that and next thing you know, I'm promoted and about two weeks later, I'm let go because the position is no longer available. And then, about two weeks later, I have to go back to pick my check up - there's two other people, that were white, working at the position that I was let go of.

CONAN: So, you felt obvious discrimination in that respect?

JAMES: Yes, it was.

CONAN: The military prides itself on being colorblind. Did that work for you when you were in the military?

JAMES: Yes, it did. It worked for me very well. Very well. It did.

CONAN: So, it was a true meritocracy?

JAMES: Yes, it was because you was judged not only by your character but by your job performance, knowledge of military history, and as well as the ability to lead and to follow.

CONAN: Go ahead.

Ms. TURNER TRICE: Well, I think it's really important to understand that you can have people judging people via their character even in multicultural environments.

And the research - the other point to this is that the researchers were very clear in that, while the multicultural approach was preferable, it was not perfect because sometimes there may be this tendency to kind of lean on stereotypes, kind of - or use them as a crutch or shortcut to understanding people as opposed to really getting down to the nitty gritty and, you know, doing the work of looking at people as individuals and trying to figure out who they are as a person.

CONAN: And the fact of the matter is that - James, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. The fact of the matter is there's not a lot of places that are pure approaches one or the other.

Ms. TURNER TRICE: Absolutely. That's exactly right. Because, I mean, if you think of - as I said earlier, the whole notion of colorblindness, I mean, it's a - there's a component that is fairly noble. But you cannot tease it out the whole multicultural approach either because, I mean, they both kind of go hand in hand I think in the end.

CONAN: Dawn Turner Trice writes the "Exploring Race" column for the Chicago Tribune, joined us today from Chicago Public Radio and will be with us from time to time.

Dawn, as always, thanks very much.

Ms. TURNER TRICE: Thank you.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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