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Megyn Kelly's 'blackface' comment shows workplace diversity isn't enough

NBC host Megyn Kelly's o...

Posted: Oct 29, 2018 2:17 PM
Updated: Oct 29, 2018 2:18 PM

NBC host Megyn Kelly's on-air comments defending blackface Halloween costumes continue to spark widespread and well-earned outrage across the country, both on social media and even within the NBC organization. Backlash from NBC colleagues, including Today co-host Al Roker, who called for Kelly to issue a "bigger apology" to people of color, demonstrates the network has a diverse team that is comfortable speaking up publicly about diversity-related issues without fear of retaliation or reprisal.

But having a diverse team isn't enough.

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As the Kelly incident shows, even with organizations that have diverse teams, ignorance can still run rampant. The solution is to bring together teams that are not only diverse — in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, culture, ability, socioeconomics, region and more — but also inclusive. When teams are diverse and inclusive, everyone's differences are not simply tolerated, but appreciated, understood and leveraged appropriately.

One way that Nichole Barnes Marshall, chief diversity and inclusion officer at fashion retailer L Brands, encourages people to think about the distinction is that diversity is about counting heads, while inclusion is about making the heads count. Diversity, she says, is about representation, while inclusion is about full engagement.

These are important distinctions. Many leaders aspire to build inclusive organizations, but attempt to do so by unwittingly de-emphasizing diversity and promoting homogeneity. Glossing over the value of people's diverse backgrounds and differences can create a culture of superficial harmony in which diverse talent feels pressure to assimilate and cover up their differences in order to fit in and get along. In truly inclusive environments, every person's background is respected and the unique contributions that each person brings to the table are valued.

While in the case of Kelly, it is unfair to assume she was speaking out of malicious intent, exclusion is exclusion — whether it's the result of willful malice or pure ignorance. Kelly apologized after the fact, saying she has "never been a PC kind of person, but [she does] understand the value in being sensitive to our history, particularly on race and ethnicity." Such words are frankly too little too late.

She could have approached her diverse colleagues to understand their perspectives and try to see the world through their eyes before the segment even aired. Instead of making comments that suggest that the centuries-old white misrepresentation and exploitation of black culture is excusable in 2018, Kelly might have taken the time to talk to her diverse colleagues, such as Roker and others, to find out why blackface costumes are so offensive. Her comments then could have had a far more meaningful impact about healing the deep wounds caused by racism and cultural insensitivity and combating the negative racist portrayals, perceptions and stereotypes that blackface has perpetuated since the minstrel shows of the 1800s.

Kelly's missed opportunity can be a lesson learned, not only within NBC, but across all organizations. Greater understanding and real inclusion require courageous, often difficult conversations among diverse people who can candidly ask each other their views on sensitive issues, particularly related to race and culture. Such discussions can only occur where there is a foundation of trust and also humility, as demonstrated by a sincere admission that one's cultural worldview has limitations.

Leaders are the ones who set the tone at the top. Leaders must take every opportunity to demonstrate through their words and actions that both diversity and inclusion matter. Beyond what leaders do, colleagues and peers, too, have important roles to play in diverse and inclusive organizations. Just as Roker and others spoke out publicly against Kelly's comments, people in every organization have the opportunity to contribute to inclusive environments by refusing to tolerate prejudice or discrimination, in both words and actions. They must speak up whether or not they might be directly impacted. Otherwise, their silence can become consent.

The Kelly situation offers one final lesson for organizations: It is not enough to deal with incidents in isolation. In the case of Kelly, NBC has now canceled the one-hour Megyn Kelly Today show. Instead, NBC should seize this opportunity to make a larger, bolder impact to champion greater diversity, inclusion and equity in the media at-large. Following NBC's lead, other organizations can then determine what they, too, can do to encourage more diversity and move beyond it to inclusion, equity, and justice.

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