Politically correct people do not say the word racism in public anymore. They speak of equal opportunities. They may even mention positive discrimination. But discrimination in a bad way, where the masses were just not considered good enough, poof, it is a thing of the past. Mistakes, bygones, never again.
And yet, amongst equals, there is that faint whiff of segregation..that little hurdle that still needs to be jumped. As one climbs up the corporate ladder, there is still a glass ceiling to be breached. In the global workplace, there is a door that does not open with mere content delivery. And nobody will ever give you the key, till you have passed through the door at least once. Does that make this about segregation? – yes. Is all segregation about skin colour? Not really.
Often, the real issue is not racism.. and yet it is about apartness. Great endeavours (however you define great) require great teams. People who can work in alignment – where the language and context do not allow for any confusion. It is crucial to be able to seamlessly hand the baton over to successive team mates in the course of a deal or a project without any preparation time. One needs people who speak the same language – verbal, social, emotional. Great teamwork is an elaborate and elegant dance where the slightest mis-step can cause the moment to shatter. Can I trust a bhangra dancer in my carefully constructed ballet?
Tough question to ask, and yet the answer must be a yes. The previous context of an individual does not necessarily limit their ability to deliver on a job now. It would be pragmatic to acknowledge that the burden of proof for this lies squarely with those who seek to erase or go beyond the labels that they have acquired in the past. For which there is no roadmap. And this is not because each situation is unique, but because the ability to create a roadmap is a key to bridging the gap and achieving in the new role once that is crossed. Simply, you gotta be able to figure it out.
In most cases, an individual’s competence not really in question. That has to be at parity for the question of extraneous influences such as racism to be brought into the picture. This is not merely about the much flogged horse ‘soft skills’, but more about being able to adapt to the game, as rules change. And many Indians have done it.. we have Mumbai gals succeeding in Delhi, rubber chappalled IIT/IIM alumni at the highest echelons of power in Fortune 500 companies. We have a myriad of soft skills training courses that helps us on these pathways. These people demonstrate both, a high level of sophistication – and the ability to switch from suave French to rapid Jat!
The journey from a simple schoolboy to a global sophisticate straddling varied mileu is a complex one. It cannot be taught in a few training sessions, nor must it ever be a lonely journey. Both have their pitfalls. The former is never adequate without experiential learning and constant updation. The latter has no guideposts to chart the correct path.
Racism is about boundary lines, and about breaching them. The first step to beating it comes from observing common social mores. The fastest way to understand a new culture is to understand its jokes. Where is the line between funny and familiar? Get this nuance in place, and half the battle is one. Indians abroad did have a tendency to isolate themselves in a unique form of reverse-racism which is equally destructive. A friend, at the height of the recruiting boom, used to go to the idli-dosa restaurant in the City of London and hand out business cards to prospective IT bods, as that was where they congregated at lunchtime. It worked well for her, but not so much for the software professionals.
Creating apartness is a two way street. Jews suffered for their efforts to remain distinct and kosher which they felt was better than the ordinary way of living. Are Indians falling into the same trap? A senior executive on deputation to the USA insisted on home cooked lunches, which set him apart from others who would eat canteen food. This stand-offish behaviour was perceived both as arrogant and insulting. Needless to say, the desired integration in the firm was not successful. Of course, he has wonderful food everyday at back at home now!
Workplace relationships require as much nurturing and sensitivity as a marriage. With a degree of detachment thrown in. Is it important to go to the pub with office mates? How personal can your questions get? Do I have to tolerate the stink of meat? Should one wear coloured shirts to work if nobody else is? Is it necessary to become a clone? To blend in? Well – duh – that’s what u want to do, na, join their corpo game..
So, will that sensitivity allow us to cross boundaries? Will it End racism? If I live in England, and behave exactly like the English or at the least follow their rules, will I and my kind never be subject to racist attacks? Well, yes and no. Trying to mimic another culture may merely create a caricature, an ersatz human being. Naipaul has received much flak for being a brown sahib in Oxford. On the other hand, it would be good to have context appropriate behaviours. If in a culture like England, where privacy is paramount it would be foolish to ask a person where they live – for that is a barometer of wealth and position. Don’t ask somebody the cost of their house. And yes, questions about family are acceptable, but only after you get to know a person – which means at least three or four lunches together.
Indians have been known to be racist people too. We have no shortage of jokes based on race and culture. We harbour prejudices against the wanton west, though of course not everybody does so. We vote in reality shows on the basis of state affiliations. We often give business to the broker who speaks our ‘native’ tongue and is from my state rather than the other one who tries so hard but really just isn’t somebody that comfortable. The broker I am more comfortable with is most likely to be the one who responds to my verbal and non verbal cues, and gets the job done well. Did the shared context of, say ‘native place’ matter? Probably yes, but only because my cues were picked up faster. That is not racism – or is it?