Jopwell’s Devon Lee: Answering “Uncomfortable” Questions About Race at Work
DEVON LEE: Racism is a historically driven practice that reflects a system of interlocking institutions that individuals exist within. So people exist within a racist system and those people have the authority to practice racism because it’s validated by the system.
PORTER BRASWELL: From HBR Presents this is Race at Work. The show that explores how race impacts our careers and lives. I’m Porter Braswell. I left a wall street career to start a company called Jopwell because I wanted to help corporate America build a more diverse workforce. Each week we talked to a different leader about their experience with race and how it impacts our daily lives.
In season one at Race at Work, we explore the question: should race be discussed at work? The answer was a resounding yes. In season two, we’ll explore how to talk about race and the nuances that are associated with this conversation. Our goal is to humanize the topics within the diversity equity and inclusion space, what’s also known as the DEI space, to make this work more approachable.
We want to start the new season by helping you get ready to talk about race at work. We want to help you get the information you need to have those conversations. And that can mean, getting uncomfortable.
This episode is a deep dive into the uncomfortable aspects of race, and I chose to do this with my good friend and colleague Dr. Devon Lee. Devon directs our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Programs at Jopwell. We started our conversation talking about the difference between race and ethnicity.
DEVON LEE: So the difference between race and ethnicity is somewhat of a nuanced difference. You know, the reality is, is that I’m Black. That’s my race.
But if I was Black and Catholic, or Caribbean or Afro Latino, then I would have a race and ethnicity. But I think they’re typically used interchangeably because race is such a politically charged word that ethnicity provides a safe alternative that is relatively universal in a sense that because we look at whiteness as a norm, that other races are compared to, we can see ethnicity as something that everyone has.
Like someone can be Greek and white. Someone can be Italian and white. Ethnicity reflects national identity, cultural practices, et cetera, where race is historically driven by the racial categories of any particular nation or geopolitical space. So in that sense, how we recognize race in America, may be unique to America or any other place that was colonized by great Britain.
And that is inherently different from, let’s say, race in Brazil or in any other place where race has quite frankly a different history.
PORTER BRASWELL: So another question that we’ve received is will we ever live in a post racial society? But I think a more interesting question is: should we ever live in a post-racial society?
Should that be something that we strive for?
DEVON LEE: I think the thing that we should really strive for is a post racist society. Like, like you know, again, I want to hone in to this point that it’s not about race. It’s about racism. That’s where the problem is. Right. But to be in a post racial society, like let’s run that back.
Right. Because the reality, I think is that. I was born Black. I live Black and I’m going to die Black. And that is the part of my identity. Right? So to take that away from me is to take a piece of me that really defines who I am. And even it defines the work that I do. So like, do I really want to live in a society where a part of my identity has literally no significance? Absolutely not. But do I want to live in a society where that part of my identity, that is debatable in terms of its significance, doesn’t create conflict? And the way in which I am treated and the way in which police respond to me in the way in which authority structures impact people like me?
Absolutely. I’d love to live in that place, but don’t take my Blackness away from me. Like you take my Blackness away from me. He’s like you taking hip hop away from America. Jazz away from America. These things that inherently impact our cultural lexicon and are uniquely American and that are important, that really define us.
So, no, we shouldn’t seek to be a post racial society. Let’s go ahead and deal with this whole racism thing. And then we can run that conversation back. Like
PORTER BRASWELL: that’s such a, and that’s why I asked the question, should we live in a post-racial society? Because it doesn’t hit on the racism component, which is exactly what you’re describing.
The goal that we’re all trying to achieve – most of us are trying to achieve – is that we can be safe in this country, that we have equal rights and equal opportunities. And that has nothing to do with your race. That has to do with racism. And I think that that word racism sparks a barrier. “I’m not racist.”
And so you can’t then engage on: “but this society is rooted in racism,” which leads to all of the things that we’re seeing play out on television. And so I think incorporation it’s, there’s such a reluctancy to talk about racism, but that is what is creating all the things that we’re seeing play out and that need to be addressed and it needs to be called out of what it is.
So I appreciate you sharing your perspective on that.
On that topic. Another question that I’ve had asked to me by my friends and I have my answer to it, but I want to hear your answer. Can Black people be racist?
DEVON LEE: Um, yeah, I love that. I really love that question because it really sparks a lot of interpersonal and structural conversations. And what I mean by that is like the way in which people typically understand racism is, you know, this cross burning Klansman or this inherently mean person that doesn’t like people who look like you and I.
But reality is is that a lot of times it’s not that. Racism is a historically driven practice that reflects a system of interlocking institutions that individuals exist within. So people exist within a racist system and those people have the authority to practice racism because it’s validated by the system.
So to that end, can Black people be racist? No, but yes. Black people can’t be racist to white people. Black people can be racist to other Black people and other minoritized groups, because there is a historically valid system that oppresses those groups that Black people with power can tap into to oppress other groups within this racialized system.
So to that end, absolutely Blacks can be racist against other vulnerable populations, but they cannot be racist to whites because whites benefit from a historical situation that has valued and protected whiteness from the types of oppression that Black people Latinx folks, Native Americans have historically experienced as a group.
And I think that the issue is, is that people only understand, and it’s really an American issue where we think in terms of a hyper individualized interaction that, you know, I think of me and you and the power that we had to interact with one another. In reality, we have to think about the way in which systems and groups impact the individual and not the other way around.
When we see, like, a corporate apartheid that struggles to hire Black people in upper management, then we can recognize that as a historically driven situation, that reproduces itself within our contemporary time, right? Where we struggle with representation in executive suites. That is an effect of racism. But when it comes to a Black hiring manager saying, I don’t think that this Black person is qualified, that also is rooted within a historical situation.
But if that same Black hiring manager says, I don’t want to hire this white person because they’re white, then that in effect is not the same thing. And I think that’s important to understand is that we’re not comparing apples and apples. There’s no equal distribution of power when it comes to the ability to discriminate.
But when people think of it from an individual perspective, they’re like, well, anybody can discriminate against anybody. And that may be true, but that may be an effective bias. But if then, yeah, but we haven’t seen the day where whites have been impacted in education, within the political system, within the justice system in ways that Black people have that has not happened.
Um, so Black people can’t be racist in the same way that whites can be racist.
PORTER BRASWELL: Thank you for that. I agree with that. And there’s a lot of… you need to listen to that answer many times to understand all of the nuances that go into that. If I were to, um, understand how you’re presenting it, you’re essentially saying that you can be racist to those that you hold power over and Black folks don’t hold power over white America. There are systems, and the structures that are in place such that Black people cannot be racist to those institutions that are the foundation of this country, but we can be racist to other marginalized communities because in certain instances we hold power.
DEVON LEE: Perfect. Yep. That’s completely fair. And I’ll add this one particular cultural nuance. And the way in which you described that. Your usage of the word you. Because it didn’t reflect an individual that “you” that you were describing reflected a group.
And that’s also a cultural reality that people of color usually hinge on is that we think in terms of the collective, in terms of a “we “perspective. Whereas, because we haven’t had the opportunity to be validated as individuals in the same way that white America has been validated as individuals. So while we’re attacked as a group, we fought oppression as a group.
PORTER BRASWELL: Talk to me about privilege. We get a lot of questions about, we hear this thing called privilege. What is privilege and how do we recognize privilege at play?
DEVON LEE: Yeah. So privileges is typically described by certain benefits that someone is born with in society. You know, it’s just like if someone is born white, they’re born into a family that right now – we’ll just say right now in a contemporary event – if you’re born white, you are born into a world where you have 10 times more wealth than your Black counterpart. When we think about the wealth disparity between Black and white folks, we see a 10-fold disparity.
And what that means is that you have access to better educations, you have access to better relationships with law enforcement, you have access to better legal representation. Uh, you have access to the many things that we assume are good within society. Whereas if you are Black, you may have access to all those things, but people respond to your Blackness in ways that they historically and contemporarily have not responded to whiteness. So even if you have all those things, you live in a white neighborhood, you go to a good school. Your family is well off. We still see situations where that well-off Black family who makes over six figures is paying more in their interest rate for their home.
And the 2008 collapse in the housing market demonstrated that Blacks and LatinX people were more likely to have subprime loans.
And that collapse cut out about half of Black wealth in one single stroke. That didn’t happen with white America. When we unpack what that means, we were born in a world where our intersecting identities are going to be more likely to be validated within society because they’re seen as norms. And that in and of itself is a privilege.
You know, it’s funny because I was watching something with my son and he asked how come there aren’t that many Black people on movies and in TV. And I’m like, wow. So he recognizes that people who looked like him aren’t in the movies and TV shows that he likes to watch. And that is a privilege because white folks don’t have to answer, white parents don’t have to answer that question.
They don’t have to answer the question of why is it that people like Brianna Taylor and George Floyd have to die. That is a privilege. They don’t have to answer the questions of why is it that my teacher treats me and people like me differently. They don’t have to answer questions like why is it that you and mom use that voice when you talk to people on the phone. It’s talking about the white voice, you know, that’s a privilege to not have to go those leaps and bounds within a society. It’s a privilege to not have to tell your kids or have the race, talk with your kids.
Right. And I think. You know, we all can relate to the time when, when our parents sat us down and said, you know, you’re going to be treated differently. You’re and sometimes you’re going to have to run twice as fast and jump twice as high than your white counterpart to be seen as their equal. And I want you to prepare for the world that you’re in – that not having to have that conversation with your kids is a privilege.
And privilege reflects this, this reality, that you’re validated. Your identities are validated and the opportunities that those identities have, have created historically for people like you, are open and accessible to you in a historically driven process that allows you to have that. Privilege is also a set of ideologies and behaviors that reproduce privilege as well: simply the validation of discrimination. Um, you know, it is well that – that person wouldn’t have died if they wouldn’t have resisted arrest.
Or, you know, your teacher would treat you and your friends better if you didn’t talk back or you didn’t challenge them because they’re an authority figure and you should just listen and pay attention. And it doesn’t matter what they say because grades are grades. Or, you know, the Laquisha, she changed her name and, and maybe she would get more callbacks because we know that people with names like that don’t get callbacks because they’re looking for your Susan Moores and things like that. When in reality, like that’s, that’s, that’s not the case and to, I guess, privileges to be a part of a set identities that are less likely to face discrimination within society.
PORTER BRASWELL: So when I think about privilege, oftentimes. There is a reluctance to accept that a person you’re connecting with has privilege. Because they want to come off as they earned everything. And the reality of it is that the system works in a way where based on the color of your skin, they’re going to be certain things that you get access to, or you’re going to get the benefit of the doubt in certain scenarios.
So one real example of how privilege can play out in the most innocent of ways: one of my best friends is a white guy. He is the most progressive, for the cause person that I know. And we were having a late night conversation one night, where he was talking about making introductions, tapping into his network for one of his buddies.
And, and, and requesting money for a venture he’s trying to build. And I went on to have a conversation with him about privilege in that that’s a privilege place to be, because if that entity does not work out, it’s all good. Like you didn’t, you didn’t really necessarily like lose something. But from my perspective, I feel the burden of, if I am trying to raise capital for an entity and it doesn’t work out, I have to like really guess I really have to think, am I going to make these introductions? And to me, that’s a conversation about privilege because I’m calculating 30 other things that my best friend does not have to calculate.
And what would be the feedback from my network, if I recommend something and it doesn’t work out, what does that mean? How do they think about me? Will they give me the benefit of a doubt the next time? What does that say about me in terms of like having a reluctance or not a reluctance to introduce amazing opportunities to my network?
I’m thinking through all of those things, but for my white friend with his network, it was just as simple as well, of course, when it’s going to pass this opportunity forward. And when we think about investing in businesses and startups and other things that can create significant wealth. That right there is an example of me missing out on potential opportunities for myself and for my network, because I’m so cautious of protecting my network because I’m thinking through all the things that can happen as a result of this thing not working out.
And to me, that is privilege where I have to think through those things. And he may not necessarily have to think through those things. And that’s just an innocent thing. That’s not the fault of anybody. But when there’s a lack of capital that goes to diverse founders, or there’s a lack of diverse investors, you think about those things.
DEVON LEE: Yeah. And you have to, because it’s a part of your survival. It’s a part of the way in which you have had to create a space that didn’t previously exist for people like you. When we think about privilege, it’s important to think about it in terms of the way in which the world around us associates good things versus bad things along the racial hierarchy.
So if Porter makes a mistake, they’re not going to say, Oh, a Porter made a mistake because you know, he’s some Black dude. They’re going to rationalize it by saying Porter simply was not prepared. He didn’t do his homework. And that is stereotypical language because Black people are believed to be impulsive.
And that scrutiny means that if I have an opportunity to give this person, they have to prove it to me in ways that with other white people, I’ll have empathy with them. So they’re not going to have to jump through the same type of hoops because there’s, there’s some type of a resonance with that. But when it comes to Black folks, it is really just questioning whether or not this person fits the stereotypical image that I typically see when I see people like them. And you have to prove to me that you’re not that. And you have to prove to me with standards that I wouldn’t apply to people who I relate with. And I think that’s the reality that you’re experiencing.
PORTER BRASWELL: And I think it’s similar. To the conversation about can a Black person be a racist? I think Black people and people, communities of color, folks of color can also have privilege in certain scenarios.
DEVON LEE: Right. And Kimberly Crenshaw coined this term intersectionality. And the idea behind is that we all exist on a spectrum of penalty and privilege that shifts based on the context that our identities are engaged within. So in that sense, we’ll say someone who is from the LGBT community and a woman of color and teaching in a woman in gender studies program, her identity basis will inform her academic study and the types of data that she’s analyzing, producing, and teaching.
And those identity sets are validated within that space. However, when her and her partner are walking on the street, then they may be subjected to types of discrimination in terms of what people say to them and how people interact with them in ways that those identities outside of that academic space are not validated.
To the same man within a corporate space because you have a thriving company, your identity as a Black CEO is ultimately validated. However, if you’re just walking on the street and no one knows who Porter Braswell is, then it really doesn’t matter because the context shifts, because the privilege that you have as a CEO really doesn’t matter when no one knows who you are.
And if something happens, that is undesirable, your privilege might help you to get out of that situation. But if the situation happens, your privilege, didn’t have the ability to protect you in that initial phase. So, you know, I think intersectionality is an important concept to really think about how privilege and penalty are ultimately contextual and shift based on the landscapes that our identities interact with.
PORTER BRASWELL: Okay. So one of the questions we get asked all the time is around individuals that are mixed race and identity and how they’re perceived. So talk to me about, in your experiences when somebody is mixed race, why they are commonly perceived and they associate with being from the underrepresented portion of themselves.
DEVON LEE: Okay. So I think it’s important to think about just how race is a social construction. And to that end, it is something that we, as a society place value on in the same way, money is a social construction, right? Um, in some sense, money can be volatile and in the same sense, race can be volatile as well in terms of being politically charged.
And when we have people who are from multiple racial groups in terms of their parentage and they choose to identify with more vulnerable populations, it’s important to think about well, why? And the reason behind that is when it comes to a historical experience of discrimination, you also experience a culture and a community that, despite all circumstances, has survived.
And in some sense has thrived. Like for the most part, it’s important to acknowledge that no matter how much discrimination, Blacks, LatinX, and Native people have experienced, they have created cultures and communities. They have created content, they have created beautiful things that have ultimately defined the landscape of what it means to be America.
And a lot of those things become co-opted and integrated into the dominant culture. You know, they have the opportunity within their identity development to say, I’m Black, and this is why, and this is what historically my people have done. And simultaneously recognize that people from a dominant race have negatively impacted the people who have created these wonderful things, and more importantly, these cultural artifacts.
And as you develop into this world, you’re going to cling to those things. You’re going to cling to the music. You’re gonna cling to the food. You’re going to cling to the things that ultimately define you and the people who you ultimately are going to associate with.
That culture that has been produced out of conflict is going to be a lot more attractive than the culture that has historically created the conflict. And I think that’s the reality.
And you know, the secondary reality too, is that we have to also think about the way in which dominant society will see you. It’s created this culture, and this cultural dynamic, that has created a type of community that creates a threshold against the burdens that racial domination creates. It’s really just investing your identity in yourself and something that is meaningful. And if you recognize a relationship of racial interactions and, and how privilege impacts opportunities and outcomes, then, like, you’re going to default to the one that is more meaningful and significant to you.
You’re going to want something that’s worth fighting for. Whereas something that is a privilege is something that you’re already given and it’s something that you are, will be less likely to cling to, when you’re within that dynamic.
PORTER BRASWELL: What brought you into this work? Why? Um, what’s your why?
DEVON LEE: Huh. I, I started school wanting to be a physician. And then I led a March against racial profiling at UC Davis and I was like, you know, I’m passionate about this. I can see that I can make a change. And I think this is probably better for me. I think having the opportunity to organize, to, to advocate. And I also became the director of our student police relations committee.
I did a whole bunch of programming and I’m like: I want to do something that I can be proud of. I want to do something that changed the world around me. My reality too, was that there was a type of inspiration that I had never experienced in my life. And it was because I organized something. Because I was able to do something.
And, you know, that drove me to really want to have an education and activist experience that allowed me to apply what I learned and what I did into practices and meaning, that really impacted those around me and impacted those who had a very similar experience to me. Like, that’s why I love what I do. And that’s what really brought me to this space.
PORTER BRASWELL: So one of the things Devon that I know, because I’ve experienced, gets talked about within communities of color, but I haven’t heard it talked about in dominant communities is: is it okay for white people to try to be the expert on topics pertaining to race? And more specifically on the back of George Floyd’s murder, when corporations were calling in experts to come and have this dialogue about race and racism and what’s going on in this country, is it, or was it in your opinion, acceptable to call in non people of color to have those dialogues?
What’s your, what’s your general perspective on that? Because again, that’s something that’s discussed, but not openly. And I want to hear your perspective.
DEVON LEE: Yeah. So now I think there is a place within race dialogues for whites to talk about how whites perpetuate racism and to draw meaning on the relationship between whiteness as an identity and as a performance, and the way it negatively impacts non-whites. There’s a space for that. However, that space becomes inappropriate when understanding something like George Floyd. And I’ll give an example of why, when it comes to George Floyd, we have a Black man who died while calling for his mama. Calling for help.
And we have people video recording. We have people yelling stop. But we don’t have officers saying this officer. Is breaking the law. And when we see this white officer with the knee on the back of George Floyd’s neck, it reflects this historical significance when white America has had its knee on the back of Black America’s neck and has historically gotten away with it.
So the point where George Floyd’s murderer was charged and was found guilty of three counts was a bit of relief for Black America. But at the same time, there’s still this reality that there’s a whole bunch of George Floyd’s who didn’t see justice. So is it the place of white scholars of, of white activists to really talk about that? No.
Because they can’t tap into what it’s like to be a Black person to watch their father die on TV. To see friends and family – to remember all the times where I, as a Black man was pulled over and had guns in my face. Where I can remember the principal in middle school, who told me that people like me don’t make it and I need to drop out of school. When I had a high school teacher tell me that I shouldn’t apply to HBCU because they’re racist institutions. And thinking about the history and legacy of racism and how it has impacted me personally.
A white person does not have the experiential authority to talk about that.
But what they do have the ability to talk about, is a way in which whiteness has impacted the types of decisions that Derek Chauvin made that day. And so there is a place for that, and it has to explicitly talk about how whiteness has impacted non-whiteness within this country.
But it becomes inappropriate when tapping into the Black lived experience. And honestly, I think these two things can work together. However, when having conversations about racism, it needs to center around those who are most likely impacted by racism. So then why do we allow whiteness to have some type of a control over our conversations about race? It doesn’t make too much sense.
But the reality is that, for a lot of white people who want to have this conversation, they are afraid of approaching the reality that they may be racist ,and are more likely to listen to white people.
And, you know, that’s something that I say all the time. White people are more likely to listen to white people in conversations about racism. And that’s okay, but . That needs to be changed. And if there are white scholars and white activists talking about racism, they need to create platforms for Black scholars and Black activists to bring their perspectives into the conversation so that we can create meaning in the types of interactions that ultimately created the necessity for this conversation.
PORTER BRASWELL: Time and place, and what are you actually going to be talking about? And do you have the authority to comment on the things you want to talk about? I think that’s what it comes down to. And I totally agree. So one question that we like to ask all of our guests in this season is how do you talk about race? How would you advise people to enter into this conversation?
DEVON LEE: Yeah, and that’s a real hard question to answer, but it’s quite, it’s also simple. It’s hard because, you know, there are so many ways to go about answering that question. But it’s simple because race creates a very human experience.
And I’m a father. I’m a father in a blended family, and I have two kids, one in elementary, one in middle school and an infant. And for me, it’s like, I want to be a part of creating a world where I can at least feel more safe than the world that I’m in.
And talking about race from that perspective really helps me to tap into the fact that I am a father of three Black kids. I’m in a world where Brianna Taylor was a first responder and the first responders that impacted her, took her life.
So I’m also in a world where I can talk about these things publicly, and honestly. And people are able to relate that to the fact that if you have a Black sounding name, you’re less likely to get a call back. Or if you are a Black home buyer or business owner, you’re more likely to get a subprime loan.
I think talking about race is talking about racism. Is talking about the many ways in which people experience discrimination, the way in which Black mothers are three times more likely to die when treated by a white doctor. And talking about the importance of representation in healthcare, the importance of representation in the recruitment space. Because there are certain things that Black and brown folks can see in a quality candidate that white folks haven’t built the capacity to recognize at this moment in our history. And having them on a team allows us to see and understand things.
Talking about race, really talks about bringing a world of identity into the conversation that has historically been removed and created situations that have inspired people like me to be in this work.
So like when I talk about race, you know, I, I bring in those stories. I bring, in my experience, I bring in the reality that we’re still dealing with the issue of racism. Like the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King had a dream, he also talked about police brutality. He also talked about racist politicians. He also talked about a number of things that are very much present in today’s reality.
So wherever you decide to talk about race, or start that conversation it’s important simply to bring those very human stories into the conversation, because it is through this experience of mutual humanity, that we can better understand the ways in which race shapes the world around us. And I think starting from there, we can really start to have truly meaningful conversation.
PORTER BRASWELL: Hmm. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you sharing your perspective. I always learn a lot every time we get a chance to, to engage in these dialogues. And I appreciate that you are walking a walk that you’re meant to walk. Most people don’t have that opportunity, or the courage to do so. And so when I recognize that I want to call it out and applaud it.
And so thank you for doing everything that you’re doing and for lending the voice to this type of dialogue in this conversation and for, um, being willing to get into some topics that oftentimes people feel uncomfortable stepping into. Where I believe they need to step into it, to have a better understanding.
And so for you to provide that light, I appreciate it.
DEVON LEE: Thank you. And thank you for giving me this opportunity. I appreciate you for that.
PORTER BRASWELL: That’s Dr. Devon Lee, director of diversity equity and inclusion programs at Jopwell.
This episode was produced by Liz Sanchez. Special thanks to Anne Sani and Nick Hendra. We’ll be back next week with an episode on the relationship between the cannabis industry and communities of color.