When BIPOC becomes camouflage

Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC). When I first learned this term, it made me happy. I had accepted, but not fully embraced POC, but finally, Indigenous Peoples were being specifically included in language and in conversations about racially oppressed/marginalized groups. For me, the term “POC” had expanded to be linguistically inclusive of a group often forgotten. That was good and, yes, that was my only thought. The positive.

That was then. This is now.

The more I hear the term, the more it bothers me. Here’s why.

You’ll remember at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, death numbers were presented in the aggregate. We saw the disproportionate impact on distinct communities, particularly Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and Indigenous populations, only after examining race and ethnicity. Once the COVID numbers were disaggregated by race, we knew who was being affected most severely, and specific outreach to those communities began.

Now, I believe aggregated BIPOC data is being used as camouflage. Data must be broken down, by race and ethnicity, to reveal racial reality.

Recently, a vendor (in the investment banking industry) with whom a colleague was doing business was asked about hiring people of color. Proudly, the company shared its BIPOC numbers but, when asked, declined to disaggregate them by race, saying such an action was against company policies. Huh? Why would a vendor refuse such a request?

I checked the stats for that industry. According to the first site in my Google search, 69.6% of investment bankers are white, 11.4% each for the Asian and Hispanic/Latinx communities, 5.3% are Black, 2% unknown, and .3% are American Indian or Alaska Native. I suspect that, for the vendor being considered, the Black community, and the Indigenous community also, would not be well-represented, if at all, in their BIPOC data. I believe the vendor declined knowing the details would show a dearth of Black people in upper-level positions.

Believe me, my intent is not to deny opportunities to any non-white community. I celebrate those inroads and appreciate the solidarity of fostering a BIPOC community. PERIOD. Hard stop. I simply want transparency in who is being hired. And, where disproportionality is revealed, like in investment banking, I want us to acknowledge it, examine why it occurs, and address it. We can’t handle a problem until we know it exists. That is the invisibility, or shielding, of racism.

As was done with COVID, we can gain the same clarity by asking employers to break down the details of their BIPOC (or POC) data. And, then we can do what it takes to grow employment opportunities and hire people not represented, or underrepresented, within those industries.

In the meantime, let’s not be lenient on employers who won’t disaggregate data. Take your business somewhere else.

White people, there is so much to gain.

If you’re reading my blog, you’re probably among those fighting for racial justice, some at the macro-level of societal transformation, others working for enhanced understanding among family. Or maybe you’re just beginning to recognize and reflect on the depth, breadth, and impact of racial injustice.

Regardless, here is my question. What drives you: wanting the oppressed to have a greater opportunity or wanting to free the oppressor?  To my White readers,  today I want to call this out: True racial equity will bring significant benefits … to you.

You’re accustomed to hearing racial justice advocates  speak of the needs of the oppressed: lost opportunities, lost potential, a focus on ‘lesser than’ statistics, such as home ownership or educational outcomes. Tangible data is compared across races.  And by that data, the White population is better off than communities of color, on multiple fronts.  Because of this, the racial equity battle often focuses solely on gains  needed for the oppressed.

But, White people, have you ever reflected on what you will gain?

First, your own psychological well-being. You have to believe, to some degree, that Black and brown people are more criminal or less enterprising, for example, to accept their overrepresentation in prisons and underrepresentation in places of academic and financial success.  Noted author and activist James Baldwin suggested that White America needs to believe in Black pathology to justify what has been, and continues to be, done and to alleviate any obligation to fix the true problem.  Yes? No? Is there cognitive dissonance, a disconnect between what you say you believe (everybody has a fair chance) and what is the allowed reality in America?

Now to history. What has been lost to White people by not fully understanding our country’s history? As more comprehensive explanations of historical ‘facts’ are revealed, are you looking more critically at your heroes, at the foundation of America? Are you considering what/who supported your ancestors’ or immediate forbearers’ ability to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? Did they really do that? “Pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” I mean? No supportive government programs? Think about the GI Bill or preferential housing or unconstrained banking policies. No help from families or social networks better positioned to offer help?  How is your authentic sense of self affected? Is there some internal alignment that needs to happen to make your world view/your familial context more coherent with truth?

Then just one more thing. There has been a lot of attention given to the value of diversity in the workplace. Problem-solving, research has shown, benefits from different viewpoints, people with varying experiences of life. Varied thinking and cultures are enriching, not limiting. If this is true in the workplace, why would it be different in friendship groups or neighborhoods? What is missed by having racial homogeneity in so many parts of your life?

The balance of assets and societal power is unequal. That is true, but adjusting that imbalance doesn’t make anyone a loser. Everyone wins. We all win if fewer resources are used, for example, to imprison, freeing up more to support asset building, the true provision of quality education for all, clean water everywhere, or medical research. Who loses if more Black or brown people can purchase homes, building their wealth and ability to contribute even more to our country’s economic viability?

I know there is an intangible benefit to resolving the internal moral or psychological battle among some in the White community.  There is significant inherent value in embracing the humanity and worth of all people. And there is tangible value to more people contributing to the common good.

As I write this, I realize I am struggling to find the right words. I can’t make the case as eloquently as I would like. Still, I know that the deficit model of fighting for racial equity is neither the full story nor the best strategy. Self interest is a powerful motivator.  You must fight for racial equity as a benefit to the oppressor and to the oppressed. As Ibram Kendi has said if you aren’t fighting against racism, you are a part of the problem, a part of what is causing all of us to lose. Racial equity is a win for everyone.