It's not your color, it's your accent!

It's not what you say, it's how you say it!

The concepts of discrimination and prejudice are frequently associated with race and skin color. So, does that mean colorblind people are by nature the most fair? My observation in American corporate culture is that discrimination is not based on skin color. If anything, colored skin may have an advantage due to the diversity policy within a company.

However, discrimination functions on other dimensions - the talk, the walk, the style, the habit… and these dimensions happen to correlate with the culture one grew up from. In other words, a colored person is not discriminated against because of his skin color. He could be treated differently because he communicates differently and behaves in a different style. A person growing up in a colored neighborhood can hardly talk like a white person. Going through college may help, but one tends to keep his accent as part of his identity. Intelligent minority group people who grew up in a white neighborhood (or assimilated with the white culture in college) may have a higher potential in corporate politics; but such opportunities are rare for foreign-born immigrants. Therefore, foreign professionals have the most difficulty.

Similarity and Proximity

There are two basic principles in social psychology – similarity and proximity. People tend to like others who are similar to themselves, and trust those with which they are more familiar. Look at people who are friends. Look at the wars in the world, and the battles between husbands and wives. It is usually my religion vs. your religion, my ideals vs. your ideals, and my way vs. your way.

Here are the stories of several talented minority engineers in one of the largest computer companies. Let's call them A, B, C, D, and E. 

Case Studies

A is a young African American female. She disagreed with her team leader on a design issue (and I was called in to settle the disagreement). The team leader was a senior white male who seemed to have difficulty understanding new technologies. Result: A's manager moved her off the project. Management conclusion: A could have used a different communication style to persuade her senior; instead, she created a teamwork issue.

B is a Chinese female who graduated from a top-rank university in China and then acquired her PhD in another top-rank university in the US. She once emailed a senior white female to remind her of a work item the senior had ‘slacked off'. The senior's reaction was "who the hell are you to tell me what to do". A year later, a buddy of the senior was promoted to manager, and the new manager laid B off. Management conclusion: B had communication and teamwork issues.

C's background is very similar to B except she worked as an intern. C was the smartest and most capable intern the department ever had. Surprisingly, the department didn't hire her as a regular. Management conclusion: The manager (white male) had difficulty communicating with C, "We are not on the same frequency".

D's background is also very similar to B except she has not been laid off yet. D survived because she tends to bend and give in. E.g. D disclosed an invention idea to the company. The idea was so good that the reviewer (senior while male) decided he should be a coauthor. So they ended up filing the invention as a patent together, even though D had not previously known the senior reviewer. D had to do extra work because her white team-mates were taking vacations and traveling around offices to chit-chat. Instead of thanking her, her peers complained to D's manager that D "stepped on other people's toes". Management conclusion: D is a powerful workhorse, but needs to improve her communication and teamwork skills: non-promotable.

E is a Chinese male, graduated from top-rank universities in China and the US, a very talented visual artist. E is very wise about the company culture so he basically takes advantage of it – he works less than 50% of the time because nobody would notice how hard, or not so hard, he works. He is so talented that he can finish his work with the minimum effort and use the rest of the time to work on his hobbies and get extra income. He is becoming a little famous in the art world. Management conclusion: Manager gave him an award for his timely work. Because the company was under budget control, the award was to allow him extra time off.