Editor’s Letter: Willful Blindness

I know why diversity work is so hard, why it seems to take more effort to accomplish anything, and why if the diversity executive takes a foot off the gas just a little bit, things tend to go back to the way they were.

It’s willful blindness. Essentially, people seek to avoid responsibility via contrived ignorance.

The phenomenon is not specific to diversity and inclusion. It can affect any situation that is different, novel or tough. For instance, having decided on a course of action, a leader faced with a potentially huge business opportunity deliberately ignores information that could influence or delay the decision.

In legal terms, the phrase “willful blindness” is often used to describe people looking to avoid liability by intentionally putting themselves in a position where they will be unaware of facts that would render them liable.

Take the situation with Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. He and his girlfriend were all over the news, and everyone was appalled. Shocked. Distancing themselves from his racist stink as fast as a corporate sponsor can pull its funding.

But were they really that surprised? How could they be? I wasn’t.

Yes, my perspective is perhaps a little more nuanced. I tend to notice matters of race or gender more than some. But that wasn’t the first time Sterling had been in that kind of jam. He already had a reputation for not renting property to minorities, for saying inappropriate things and making off-color jokes to or about black players.

For all ostensible purposes, there was nothing new in his behavior. He just got caught, which means his behavior was new to us. It could be I’m too cynical, but was it really such a stretch to imagine a powerful man secretly harboring feelings that proved hurtful to others? He wouldn’t be the first — not in sports, not in any industry.

I’m not excusing Sterling. What I’m calling out is this underlying, almost willful blindness among many suggesting that people like Sterling don’t exist, have power and abuse it.

Some celebrities were prominent with their eye rolling and appropriately dismissive, but the public feeling was one of shock, an upset that seems almost feigned. For those who were only acting disgusted, I’m calling you out — don’t feed into the distractions. Whatever good work might have been underway in diversity functions everywhere stopped as diversity executives had to address the silliness that is Sterling.

People say those kinds of things all the time, and bigotry, discrimination and racism aren’t new. However much we want things to be different, right now to not be aware of the Sterlings of the world is an exercise in willful blindness and a waste of time, energy and resources.

Diversity is a fact of life. We know this because of shifting global demographics and consumer buying patterns, talent recruiting needs and the Sterlings of the world who wreak havoc on company reputations, brands and bottom lines even as they are photographed with diverse people who can enhance their marketability. We know this because diversity on boards increases earning potential, gender diversity promotes engagement and effective communication, and diversity has been directly linked to increased innovation and creativity.

There are outliers. Those who don’t believe, deep down where it counts, that diversity is the natural order of things. These figures pay lip service to diversity while subtly undermining it with inappropriate acts, a lack of sustainable support and microinequities. They are willfully blind in their own way too. But again, that’s just a distraction.

Nearly all the diversity executives I’ve interviewed over the years have referenced the one step forward, two steps back phenomenon common in organizational diversity efforts. This inclusion seesaw can be partly attributed to the time we waste entertaining people like Sterling, being appalled and stating for the record how horrible it all is.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver levied a $2.5 million fine on Sterling and banned him from all NBA activities for life. That kind of punishment tells its own story. Let’s open our eyes, let out one big “Really?” and forget about it.

Diversity executives already have big jobs. To voluntarily close our eyes to truths is the same as ignoring a problem that needs solving.