Looking at Leadership: When diversity cognizance allows the ‘lions to have their own historians’
By Dr. Jalin B. Johnson
Over the last several decades, through my own work and research, I have shared one of my favorite African proverbs in a number of different contexts. This saying, “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter,” reminds us that the narrative of the unseen and underrepresented is often skewed or untold.
This January, during the weekend where we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the U.S., I, along with my esteemed colleague Dr. David Gonzalez, had the honor of presenting a keynote address titled “Diversity Cognizance,” to Brandman University EDOL Doctoral students, Faculty and alumni. We note that diversity cognizance “offers a pathway for transformational leaders to make room for diverse backgrounds and perspectives at the decision-making table.”
Each year during the 28 days that make up Black History Month (formerly ‘Negro History Week, circa 1926), many in the U.S. increase their diversity cognizance by revisiting many of the achievements and milestones attributed to men and women of African heritage in this part of the diaspora.
In 2019, awareness of the 400-year mark of the beginning of the U.S.-bound slave trade (1619 to 2019) will continue to add to the larger discussion of diversity, equity and inclusion. As February 2019 began, and remembrance of the first Dutch ship carrying enslaved African natives being brought to Jamestown, Virginia, took place, the current governor of Virginia found his ability to lead being questioned.
A picture posted in the Eastern Virginia Medical School 1984 yearbook of two people, appearing on the page designated for (then medical student) Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Virginia), made headlines. The image is of two people wearing “blackface” and dressed as a member of the KKK, respectively.
While the history of blackface in the U.S. is not new, and discussions around its effect on those of African descent from across the diaspora are not relegated to Black History Month, understanding its stain on western culture today, requires diversity cognizance and cultural competence. Each of these are often achieved when representatives of varied populations (this goes beyond ethnic diversity), the unseen and underrepresented, have a seat at the decision-making table and hold positions of influence, allowing for their narratives to be recognized.
Throughout the last three decades, while facilitating discussions surrounding multiculturalism, diversity cognizance, cultural competence, equity and inclusion, I have found that transformational leadership, like awareness, requires seeking guidance and having critical conversations in spaces dedicated to knowledge seeking. The decision makers and those who hold positions of influence must represent varying narratives, backgrounds and ideas.
Scenarios like what Gov. Northam and the Democratic caucuses in Virginia are currently navigating, and those much like what former NBC host Megyn Kelly experienced when she led a panel discussion where “painting one’s face to look like Diana Ross,” was mentioned (“Are These Halloween Costumes Too Controversial To Wear?” – October, 2018), can benefit from having diversity of thought and lived experiences, accessible to you.
Gov. Northam held a press conference on Feb. 2 to apologize to those who “may have been hurt” by the previously mentioned photo, which he first said included him but later said did not. He said that he was “not surprised” by the photo’s appearance, comparing it to other things that were “commonplace” at the time. He went on to share that he did however, “darken his face” when wearing a costume, in order to look like Michael Jackson, while at a 1984 dance party.
It is within these same facilitated discussions of cultural competency and diversity cognizance that those in leadership positions are afforded an opportunity to understand why the logic offered for similar actions, are historically received as offensive. In retrospect, we are left to wonder what influence these same discussions, or representation from those with varying narratives, could have had on the leadership of Eastern Virginia Medical School.
While the outcome of what surrounds Governor Northam is yet to be determined, in a state that will soon face the two-year anniversary of events related to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA (August 2017), what is evident is that this discussion surrounding awareness, will continue beyond the month of February. These discussions need targeted leadership in political, professional, familial and academic settings alike. Creating a space for those with experience and knowledge to both lead, and participate in, critical conversations is only part of the process.
Achieving equity is not possible when representation does not exist.
As you’re Looking at Leadership, remember that the narrative of the unseen and underrepresented can only be told when there is opportunity and a dedicated space to speak, to be acknowledged and to be heard.
Jalin B. Johnson, Ed.D., is an associate professor in the School of Business and Professional Studies at Brandman University, focusing on business and organizational leadership. She is a regular contributor on issues of leadership and current events.