Recently, while watching The Terracotta Warriors on our local PBS station, I was reminded of my visit to China 10 years ago. As the leader of the Women in Engineering Tour of China, an event sponsored by People to People International (PTPI), I have many fond memories of this country and its people. Of all the things that I saw and did in mainland China, I am often reminded of a question that was directed to me over breakfast in Beijing: Does racism still exists in the United States?
The start of this historic trip began with an email. I remember scanning the document long enough to identify that there was an interest in my STEM credentials, and a desire to work with me on planning an international trip for women in engineering. My thoughts at the time: “Some travel company is hawking a trip to China!”
About three weeks later, a second email with the same subject heading arrived in my In-box. The sender asked if I had received the previous email or possibly missed it due to my busy schedule? This time, before hitting the Delete key, I made a web search for PTPI. Not only did I discover that they are a legitimate organization, the origin of the People to People Ambassador Program dates back to 1956 during the Eisenhower administration. Their website also revealed that the women in engineering tour was one of several future trips that was being planned. I was invited to participate in the trip and to be the delegation leader.
After two conversations with PTPI staff in Kansas City, MO to address my questions and concerns, I accepted their invitation as delegation leader. The first decision we needed to make is whether or not our tour or visit would be to Russia or China? China was selected and a year of planning began with program staff. Finally, departure day arrived! I flew from Phoenix to San Francisco and met up with the rest of the members of our group in the International Terminal.
About 16 hours later, we landed in Hong Kong, a gateway to mainland China, switched planes and headed for Shanghai. Our visit to China’s largest populated city included meetings with the equivalent of the Chinese Mechanical Engineering Society, two women organizations and a community group, some site-seeing, partaking of a few cultural programs, and some presentations from our members. During our discussion with representatives of the Chinese Mechanical Engineering Society, I discovered that the country had no standard or uniform building codes. This was 2005 and I can only hope that this issue has been remedied. Our group also visited one of three Intel facilities located within Shanghai.
Before leaving Shanghai, I indulged in a traditional Chinese foot massage that was also accompanied by a foot reading. A traditional Chinese foot massage consists of a foot bath followed by an intense massage on various pressure points to the feet, ankles and legs. It has been practiced for centuries and is a popular pastime of the Chinese. It was part massage and part torture. After two days of feeling worked over, I could say the experience was invigorating for both mind and body.
We also visited Beijing. Our itinerary for the capital city was similar to Shanghai with a list of programs and exchanges, however, one addition to the agenda was a visit to a technical university to meet with the dean, his assistant, and about 20 female engineering students. We toured two of their research labs. I was especially interested in the deep-sea welding research that was being conducted by one of the professors.
In addition to the women engineers from the U.S., those traveling with us in China included a travel representative for each city, and one country representative who met us at our entry point into the country and stayed with us until we departed for our return home.
On the third day of our time in Beijing, the trip took an interesting turn at breakfast. I and another delegation member were joined at the table by the city and country representatives. As polite and hospitable as they could be, the conversation began with this statement: We have a personal question that we would like to ask you, and we hope that we won’t offend either of you by asking it.
I looked over at my fellow delegation member who just happened to also be a woman of color, and then back at the two of them and said, “No problem, what is your question?” The country guide asked, “Does racism still exists in the United States?”
“Well, that is certainly an interesting question”, I said to myself. “And one I didn’t expect to be asked on the other side of the world.”
My response: I am happy to answer your question, but may I first ask why this topic is of interest to you?
Their response: This question has come up before in groups from the U.S. and other countries. Some of the people in these groups say there is no longer a problem, others say there are still problems, and there have been some variations of the two answers, so we wanted to know how each of you would respond.
My response: The simple answer to your question is yes, racism still exists in the United States. Prior to instituting civil rights legislation in the 1960s, there were few if any laws that addressed race or gender discrimination. Today, the law of the land prohibits racism and discrimination. However, should either occur, the offended person or group can file a lawsuit against the offending party(ies). Laws that prohibit discrimination certainly have reduced many incidents of racism and other types of hate crimes in the U.S., but not all of them. Regrettably, hate crimes are not a thing of the past and even today, can and still occur in the U.S. and just about any other place in the world.
At this point, I am thinking their question has been answered and we can talk about our agenda for the day. “Can we ask another question?”, “Why certainly,” I say aloud, while thinking “Oh no!” to myself. Their follow up question: “Why do you think that some people say yes, racism exists? and others say no, it does not?”
My response: That is a good question. I am unable to say what is behind many of the answers that were given or why someone answered the question one way or the other, but I do think it depends on a person’s individual and collective experiences. It is possible that some U.S. citizens have so little experience and exposure to racism that it’s rare for them to think that it happens at all. For others, it is the complete opposite. Their experiences are too numerous to count and they live with the issue of race each day.
At this point I see puzzled looks on their faces.
My response: I am just curious, for those folks who said that racism still exists in the U.S., were they mostly women or persons of color? And did most of the persons who said that racism is no longer a problem, were they mostly white males?
They responded with head nods to each question.
My response (continued): Well, that alone should provide some answers. It is not uncommon for one group to have different experiences from another, both positive and negative, when it comes to gender or race issues and challenges in society.
My colleague and delegation member also added her experience shows that some folks are not comfortable discussing race or gender related topics, and are more inclined to say there are no problems to avoid a discussion on either. Don’t I know that one?
Shared earlier, I have often been reminded of their question: Does racism still exists in the United States? since our trip in October 2005. I have also shared the lingering question from China and the accompanying conversation with a number of persons since then.
Perhaps without saying, some of my friends and business associates agree with my comments, others were upset that I didn’t proclaim that racism in the U.S is a thing of the past and we are all living in near perfect harmony in America. Just a few didn’t appear to have an opinion or a reaction to the line of questioning and the responses provided by me and my colleague.
More recently, the following question was posed to me: If you were asked the same question today, would you answer the same or differently?
Mulling through an answer, here are my thoughts: In the last five years I have:
- watched communities stand up in Sanford (FL), Ferguson (MO), New York City, Charleston (SC) and other cites to protests the unarmed shootings of African-Americans.
- listened to racist chants from some fraternity members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) at the University of Oklahoma.
- listened to insulting race and gender comments on the 2016 presidential campaign trails.
About three months ago, some local high school students (all female) in Tempe, AZ used letters on their tee-shirts to spell out a racial slur at a photo shoot. At the time, the six students involved thought it was funny or a joke. The photo quickly went viral and was picked up by national and international news media. Only then did some of the students begin to understand that their thoughts and actions were viewed as anything but funny and harmless by countless others.
Reflecting on everything I have written above, my answer would not be much different today than it was 10 years ago. However, I would also add the following statement: Too many American citizens have avoided having a genuine conversation on race. It is not a conversation that I shy away from, and when appropriate, I take the time to discuss it and the related topics that come with it. That is a part of effort to move the conversation forward.
What does this mean for business and STEM? All too often, inappropriate words and deeds occur in business, academia, government, public agencies, the military, sports, etc., and even on the campaign trail. This is not the crux of the problem.
The problem is that too many of those in managerial and leadership posts look the other way, pretend that they did not hear what was said, say they are going to look into it with no real intention of doing so, or consider the issue an isolated incident and treat it like an anomaly (i.e. pretend that it didn’t happen and has no real meaning). Sadly, others attempt to find issue(s) with the victim or offended party rather than address the problem employee due to established friendships or other ties, or they just lack the courage to say or do anything meaningful.
Wrapping up my summary of the Women in Engineering Tour, I’m standing in line to check my luggage for the return flight from Beijing to Hong Kong, the customs agent appeared to be taking longer to review my documents than others around me. He finally said to me, “Do you live in Phoenix, AZ?” I responded, “Yes!” His next question: “How are the Phoenix Suns doing? They are one of my favorite basketball teams!” My response: “Really, they haven’t played very well the past few years. Maybe they will do better this season.”
I along with several members of our delegation were often asked about NBA teams or specific players by the locals in the cities that we visited. The NBA is one of the most successful sports franchises in history, and has a worldwide following with fans of every ethnicity and hue.
For those who have been given the task of leading public and private firms and institutions, they can take a few notes from the NBA’s play book. When an issue of race surfaced within the league in 2014, Commissioner Adam Silver moved very quickly to address the problem and not allow it to interrupt the business of basketball. [Leaders: Making Things Right]
Healing our nation’s racial divide begins with honest discussions between family, friends, and others. The U.S. population is becoming more ethnically diverse each day. We must do a better job of addressing culture, race, gender, and other conscious and unconscious bias related issues for all Americans, and not just those who look like you or me. Continuing to sail down the River Denial will ensure that we are headed for the waterfalls and decimation.
The conversation on race in America has already begun and is going to continue! And it really doesn’t matter whether you, me, or anyone else likes it or not. I hope you didn’t miss that.
Photo Credits: All photos used in this post are courtesy of China.org. Cover photo by Justin Guariglia.