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raceAhead: Dollar General's Big Bet, Diversity in Tech, and Banning the "N-Word"


Last week, the Biloxi School District in Mississippi received complaints about the language in To Kill A Mockingbird, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that deals with racial inequality in a small Southern town.

In response, the novel, which was included in 8th-grade language arts classes, was pulled from the curriculum, according to the Sun Herald. “There were complaints about it. There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable, and we can teach the same lesson with other books,” Kenny Holloway, vice president of the Biloxi School Board told the paper.

Not so fast, says one local parent. “The decision was made ‘mid-lesson plan,’” they wrote to the Sun Herald. “The students will not be allowed to finish the reading of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ …. due to the use of the ‘N’ word.”

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The announcement raises familiar issues of censorship, says Barbara Shoup, the author of the once-banned coming of age novel, Wish You Were Here. She told USA Today she was appalled by the move. “If we are going to solve the racial problems we have in our country now, we must confront the truth of how we got to where we are. Good fiction, like Mockingbird, ‘brings history alive,’” she said. “If it is uncomfortable to read and discuss, so be it. Most things that matter deeply are,” she said via email.

The language in the novel is worth a quick review. In this passage, Scout, the young daughter of Atticus Finch, a lawyer defending a black man unjustly accused of rape, has a question for her father:

“Atticus,” I said one evening, “what exactly is a nigger-lover?”

Atticus’s face was grave. “Has somebody been calling you that?

“No sir, Mrs. Dubose calls you that. She warms up every afternoon calling you that. Francis called me that last Christmas, that’s where I first heard it.”

“Is that the reason you jumped on him?” asked Atticus.

“Yes sir…”

“Then why are you asking me what it means?”

I tried to explain to Atticus that it wasn’t so much what Francis said that had infuriated me as the way he had said it. “It was like he’d said snot-nose or somethin’.”

“Scout,” said Atticus, “nigger-lover is just one of those terms that don’t mean anything—like snot-nose. It’s hard to explain—ignorant trashy people use it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes over and above themselves. It’s slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody.”

“You aren’t really a nigger-lover, then, are you?”

“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody…”

Discomfort is an interesting benchmark. My hunch is that the sudden problem with the book is not about an unwillingness to participate in the awkward exercise of gazing into a cultural looking glass only to see a disturbing past. Sure, Mockingbird is filled with characters who might remind some people of their beloved Uncles and Aunties, now passed and unable to defend themselves against charges of unfettered Jim Crow complicity. What’s more likely is that people became uncomfortable with the dotted lines students would be able to draw to today. Don’t read a book. Don’t take a knee. Don’t express your opinion. Don’t learn the word ‘gerrymandering’.

If Mockingbird is banned, is 13th far behind? How much influence is temporary discomfort allowed to have in a society which has serious problems to solve?

In the nearly two years I’ve been writing about race for Fortune, I’ve asked hundreds of people about bias mitigation, recruiting best practices, hiring quotas, education reform, barriers to advancement and their lived experiences at work. Without fail, every person has ended on some version of the same notion: If we are going to develop the innovative and diverse workforce of the future, leaders at every level must get comfortable with discomfort. It’s not just about surviving the awkward moment. The times when we connect with someone different from ourselves can be the foundation of great personal transformation. And yes, better business outcomes.

If we’re going to develop a nation of engaged and thoughtful citizens, we’re going to have to encourage the same discipline.

This means having meaningful and uncomfortable conversations with each other, designed with intention and care. Where the media, social and traditional, may be falling short, the arts have a vital role to play in giving us the tools and courage to do so.

With all due respect to Biloxi’s Mr. Holloway, these lessons cannot be taught any other way.

April Reign, creator of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, has just posted some important tips on being a better ally. They’re worth your time.

On Point

Dollar General plans to open more than 1,000 new stores this year Dollar General, the little big box player, is the only retailer poised to make a profit in the country’s poorest areas —  in places where even a Walmart Express can’t cut it — and this excellent analysis from Bloomberg explains why. The setting is Decatur, Ark., a rural town which once fed itself from its own agricultural bounty. Now, residents are relying on the tater tots, bologna and sweet tea Dollar Stores sell, paid for in part with government assistance. The company is expanding aggressively this year. “Essentially what the dollar stores are betting on in a large way is that we are going to have a permanent underclass in America.” Bloomberg

Black Enterprise: What will it take to solve racial disparities in tech? A pair of discussions at Black Enterprise’s recent TechConneXt Summit tackled the issue head-on. First, Anthony Frasier, an entrepreneur-in-residence at Newark Venture Partners, sat with Salesforce’s Chief Equality Officer Tony Prophet to set the stage. Then, a team of young techies discussed their own experiences in tech. There seemed to be a clear theme: Culture. “It’s all about leadership, and if the leadership doesn’t care, then it’s going to be a lot of struggle, with not a lot of shift,” said Tiffany Price, Community Engagement Manager at Kapor Center for Social Impact. Black Enterprise

Why Jemele Hill really frightens ESPN Kashana Cauley has emerged as one of the smartest and funniest commenters tweeting and writing today. The former Daily Show writer calls ESPN out on the carpet for their decision to suspend a woman who was doing her job. “ESPN’s decision to suspend Hill, whom it pays to express her opinions, suggests that the network might be scared of boycotts and that the Cowboys’ sponsors, as well as the network’s own, are more important than supporting the idea that black people might be people,” she writes. “[F]loating the opinion that maybe we shouldn’t be killed for no reason might offend advertisers.” New York Times

Opinion: The crisis in Puerto Rico needs to be understood through a racial frame Frances Negrón-Muntaner, a Columbia University professor, scholar and filmmaker, has written an essential piece that digs into the mainland’s complicated relationship with its island colony … commonwealth … oh, what should we call Puerto Rico? It’s complicated. The original impulse to acquire colonies in the region were predicated on ideas of white racial superiority. While the island was pillaged over time, Puerto Ricans living on the mainland experienced the same race-based issues — substandard schools, lack of access to credit markets, etc. — as other non-white citizens. “[A]lthough it has become liberal sport to insist on how different Trump is from everything and everyone else that preceded him, the president’s response to the hurricane is consistent with American colonial history,” she writes. The Root

The Woke Leader

The high cost of bullying bosses Here’s a fun idea! If you haven’t met the CEO of your company but would like to, consider forwarding this insightful piece from this fall’s McKinsey Quarterly. Written by Robert Sutton, prolific researcher of abuse and bullying in the workplace and author of the recent The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt, it puts the responsibility for bad culture directly at the feet of the boss. The struggle is real: The pressure of an always on, global business means that empathy often goes out the window. “Meantime, some rising executives believe that treating people badly is a path to personal success — a conclusion bolstered by journalists and a few academics, who celebrate demeaning and disrespectful leaders.” Jerk behavior, along with culture change, starts at the top. McKinsey

A new documentary explores the experience of Africans in China If the trailer is any indication, Africans in Yiwu is a beautiful film which explores the lives of young African immigrants living, working, studying and falling in love in China. Co-directed “by a transnational team of Chinese and African filmmakers and academics,” it offers a real glimpse into life in Yiwu, a coastal city and trading center, home to the world’s largest small commodities market and the country’s second largest population of African people. “In the eyes of many Chinese individuals, there is nothing good about African people,” says one utterly charming young man, of his attempt to win over the family of his beloved Chinese bride. The film is touring Chinese and various African film festivals now and will be available online soon. China File

Letting Havana’s little lights shine Havana’s heyday included a trove of stylized neon signs, colorful and festive, which helped define the city’s architecture in the 1950s and 1960s. But they were too expensive to maintain, shut off and have been largely abandoned for decades. One intrepid man, Kadir López Nieves, working with a small but dedicated team, has taken on the job of restoring and replacing the signs, which has turned out to be a bigger project than he first imagined. The work is painstaking and removing the fallow signs from narrow streets can be a chore. But as this short video shows, worth it. Enjoy. Great Big Story

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