News & Events

7 Steps to Fight Racism Personally and Professionally

Jul 7, 2020
Professor María Triana shares seven things you can do to combat racial discrimination in the U.S.

By Jong Eun Jung

María Triana

María del Carmen Triana, Professor of Management at Vanderbilt Business, has spent more than 12 years extensively researching diversity and discrimination in organizations. Her research is more relevant than ever, as the United States grapples with racism and protests continue around the nation. To that end, she shared her expertise with the Vanderbilt Business community last week via video conference, covering the history and impact of racial discrimination in the U.S. as well as explaining ways to combat it.

“A lot of the things I presented (about the history and current state of racism) are extremely frustrating because of discrimination and fundamental unfairness,” she said. “But the research does show us that there are things that can in fact help, and it’s important to keep those in mind.”

At the end of her talk, she discussed seven steps to mitigate racial discrimination and create positive change. The first three steps were to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace:

1. Give people instructions to focus on job-related qualifications.

In one of her studies, Triana found that people who desired to maintain social hierarchy tended to exemplify racial bias when picking someone to employ or promote. However, those people discriminated less when given explicit instructions to focus on job-related qualifications. As a result, she recommends that companies give constant reminders to selection committees to focus on job-related qualifications when evaluating people for promotions or recruiting.

2. Be a good role model if you’re a leader.

Triana also cited a study that showed that leaders who exemplified inclusion were associated with more inclusive and diverse workplaces. This is because leadership has a trickle-down effect on the entire company culture, and because employees look to leadership to model the kinds of behaviors that are valued in their workplace. Triana said that leaders must be inclusive role models, because the actions and words of a leader can impact the work environment for all their employees.

3. Establish responsibility for diversity.

The same study showed that leaders must also establish responsibility for diversity in their organization. “The most effective way of doing that was to hold managers accountable for diversity efforts in their daily decision making,” Triana said. Therefore, managers must consider diversity and inclusion when making important decisions concerning their employees — such as performance evaluations — and must be held accountable for those decisions.

The next four steps were tips to combat racial discrimination in your personal life:

4. Employ social pressure to bring about change.

Peaceful protests and voting are powerful methods for change. “When there is a critical mass of people who support something, it works,” Triana said. The example she gave was how peaceful protests led by Martin Luther King Jr. led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting.

5. Seek out meaningful contact.

Triana explained the contact hypothesis, which suggests that if people in a group who don’t usually interact have a chance for meaningful contact — where they can get to know and learn about each other — those people will become less prejudiced. The theory is that meaningful contact can create understanding that emphasizes similarities over differences. “You see a lot of the conflicts and the tensions that come from normal social categorization processes, which we do all the time… start to subside (during meaningful contact),” Triana said.

6. Share counter-stereotypical examples.

An implicit bias study found that over half of the 2.5 million people in the sample associated pictures of white people with good things such as harmless objects and pictures of black people with negative things such as weapons faster. Triana explained that one of the most effective ways to reduce this type of implicit bias is reprogramming the brain by seeing counter-stereotypical examples. The examples she gave were Barack Obama, the former President of the United States, and Ursula Burns, the former CEO of Xerox.

7. Expand mentoring and professional networks.

The PhD Project is an organization that aims to increase the number of underrepresented minority faculty in business schools by providing a network of peer support for African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and Native Americans who want to become business professors. While the number of minority faculty members has increased tenfold since 1994 (the year the organization was formed), there is still a severe underrepresentation in business schools. However, this increase shows that mentoring and professional networks for minorities may be effective.

“These are things from research and experience that do help, given the current situation that we see in organizations,” Triana said. To watch her entire talk, visit this link.

Other Stories

Which program is right for you?