I took Harvard’s IAT test, and the results surprised me. I was designated as Moderately preferring people of African origin to those of European origin. This is between a Slight and Strong preference. I couldn’t understand that result because, although I have a small number of African American friends, the people I spend time with are almost all Anglos—of European origin.
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As in most cases where I don’t trust the results, I first looked to the instrument: did I misunderstand the instructions? Does it measure hand-eye coordination rather than attitude? My mind wandered briefly during the test as I speculated about how it worked; did loss of concentration skew my responses?
After graduate school, I moved to Washington, DC, and found Washington to be a very Black and White city. I had never seen so many Black people in one place.
Then I thought about Black people I’ve known. The first Black person I recall was a high school student in Oakland. My church’s high school youth group spent a spring break in inner-city Oakland living at a church and working on a project. I spent a lot of time talking to one of the boys. He was curious and thoughtful. I was in graduate school when the American Studies canon was expanded to include Black Studies. Although I don’t recall Black students in our program, I read many Black literary and historical classics. After graduate school, I moved to Washington, DC, and found Washington to be a very Black and White city. I had never seen so many Black people in one place. Walking the streets and riding buses among large numbers of Black people, the place felt exotic and vibrant. In GM, I was close to several Black colleagues with whom I had many long talks, including a Black peer in College Relations, my first supervisor, and one of my key direct reports in GMAC. Another Black peer recruited me to his department when it was time for me to repatriate from Europe to Detroit. I served under two Black senior executives. More recently I worked with several Black executives in connection with my position on the Inroads national board of directors and a few Black instructors at SMU. I grew close to several Black Kenyan leaders at Nairobi’s Daystar University as I’ve served on Daystar’s US board.
Recalling Black friends, it occurred to me that those I’ve been close to were like me, only Black: a sensitive high school boy, federal office employees (judging by appearances), GM professionals and managers, corporate executives, and African university leaders. It was easy to get close to them. If that explains my results, I must ask how well I really knew my Black friends. I must reach out and see.
Transformation starts in a neutral zone, a place where you let go of the old before building something new. Entering a neutral zone allows you to pause, let go, reflect, determine a course of action, and begin to move into something new. Questioning the results of my survey put me in the neutral zone where I could reflect. The survey’s accuracy is no longer the point. Reflection generated a new insight that I can act on to course-correct.
In his Autobiography, Ben Franklin describes a time when he paused, reflected, and changed course. He related his young man’s “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” He identified thirteen virtues and listed them down an ivory tablet. Across the top of the tablet, he arrayed the days of the week. Each day he would put a mark in the cells where he found he had committed a fault against a virtue. Each week he emphasized one virtue and endeavored to keep its cells unmarked. In a year he would cycle through each virtue four times. His intention was to “acquire the habitude of all these virtues.” But he became discouraged and concluded, “such extreme nicety as I exacted of myself might be a kind of foppery in morals . . . a benevolent man should allow a few faults in himself to keep his friends in countenance.” Thus reflecting, he realized he had changed his behavior for the better, accepted remaining faults that he could mitigate, and abandoned the discipline.