Changing Family, Changing Workforce: Who’s Really Standing in Front of You?

If you are concerned about your organization remaining competitive as we move into the new year, you may want to ponder the Changing American Family. Dynamic changes continue to redefine who we are, raising the bar regarding awareness of workforce diversity and challenging our understanding of what actually defines the home from which people come.

But before you do dive into the article, stop for a minute and say it out loud – what is your perception of the American family? What are the first images that come to mind? Do these images match your family? Did you imagine families with moms and dads that were mixed race, or led by gay couples, or families with incarcerated parents?

When you do read the article, I’m guessing there will be some surprises – there were for me – there were even surprises for the experts! Quoting the article, “Researchers who study the structure and evolution of the American family express unsullied astonishment at how rapidly the family has changed in recent years, the transformations often exceeding or capsizing those same experts’ predictions of just a few journal articles ago.”

I’ve had lots of these kinds of “surprises” lately. Just this past weekend I attended a wedding. It was a beautiful event! But as I reflected on the story of the people’s lives that I celebrated with that day, it was the story behind the story that challenged my perception of who the folks were standing in front of me.

The groom is a male of color from mixed race parents, born in the Northeast, who moved to California and then came back to the Northeast to go to college. The bride is a female of color born and raised in Mumbai, India, who now works in finance in the States. As part of the event, I also had a chance to reconnect with a number of former colleagues with whom I did diversity work in higher education.

There’s a lot more about who all these people are, but what matters here is what I learned about my own perceptions and paradigms of the “American family” that day. Once again I was reminded that when it comes to functioning effectively regarding issues of diversity it’s not just WHO people are, but the starkly different realities of their life experiences that significantly affect their quality of life – experiences that are not only different than mine, but remain largely out of sight of my daily experience and my mind’s eye.

I could write volumes about what I realized that day. Like meeting the groom’s mom for the first time, and seeing her life as a white woman raising a boy of color flash before me. I had completely forgotten that the groom was mixed race, even though as one of the groom’s mentors, I had been around and supported him coming to terms with his racial heritage.

I also enjoyed talking that day with one of my former colleagues about her two children, now grown adults. She is a black, African American woman. As we have through the years, we talked about the uniqueness and accomplishments of her son as a black hockey player. Mom also reflected on some of the horrible racism her son had to endure right there on the ice. I never thought of that reality – I was always focused on the “uniqueness and accomplishments” part of the story. And now my colleague’s son is married to a white woman, who mom adores. She had great hopes for their “American family.” But our mutual smiles were tainted by the thought of the Cheerios ad featuring a mixed race family and the barrage of racist responses to the ad.

I’m still reading and studying Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. I continue to recommend it as a resource for the work of deconstructing our perception and paradigms of who the folks are standing in front of us. More than revealing the “why” behind the many and sometimes embarrassing surprises, the book offers strategies to counter this reality and build an ability to function more effectively regarding issues of diversity in our everyday lives and work environments.

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