Haas MBA Students Create an Open Forum to Discuss Race

Part 2 in a series of articles covering diversity and inclusion at Berkeley-Haas

By Laura Counts

More than 80 MBA students spent a recent lunch break in an unusually candid conversation on a topic that many shy away from: race.

Bolstered by an online platform that allowed all participants to submit questions anonymously and an agreement that all comments and stories would be kept in the room, a panel of students with diverse backgrounds opened themselves up to classmates eager to gain fluency in discussing race and, learn how to be better allies.

“Fear of saying the wrong thing and fear of asking questions often prevent the dialogue necessary to address issues of race,” said Lauren Dugard, MBA 17 and class VP of diversity, who co-organized the event and moderated the panel. “We wanted to create an event where people could overcome this hesitation.”

The event, called “Ask Me Anything: an Open Conversation With the Black Business Students Association (BBSA),” was sparked by a Black Lives Matter demonstration organized last month by BBSA co-presidents Jenelle Harris and Jay Obaze, both MBA 17. After more than 200 Haas students, staff, and faculty showed up at short notice to stand with the BBSA in solidarity, they were inspired to carry the conversation forward, Obaze said.

“I was genuinely moved by the groundswell of support that arose here at Haas,” Obaze wrote in a letter to the community. “I am aware that conversations on race in America are often very difficult for people, but Haas has shown that it’s open to learn and be educated on the issues that are directly impacting people of color in this country.”

The “Ask Me Anything” format allowed participants to ask questions anonymously via the web platform sli.do; others could vote up those they found most compelling.

“Don’t take time to toil over the vocabulary you use in your questions,” said Dugard, as she introduced the panel. “We’ll assume everything is coming from a place of love here today.”

Many of the questions reflected students desire to learn what they could do to support black classmates and future colleagues. What kinds of “micro-aggressions” (actions or comments that feel dismissive or offensive) have you experienced at Haas? What can I say to support black friends after police shootings without adding more stress? Are you tired of talking about police brutality and is there something you’d rather see addressed? Does it feel exhausting to be in a white-dominated environment all day, and what can we do to change that?

Other questions were about how to avoid blunders that might be seen as insensitive—or downright racist. “When I see a group of black students I often won’t approach because I think you’re in a safe space at that moment and don't want to interrupt. Is this good, bad?”, or “Can you talk about how to balance personal safety as a female with not wanting to be perceived as discriminatory?”

Answers reflected the diversity of experiences on the panel, which included two students from Nigerian families, one student with an Ethiopian father and white mother, a student who is half Trinidadian and half Haitian, and a white student who recently married a black partner. All agreed, however, that even though panelists were sharing their experiences that day, people of color shouldn’t bear the responsibility of educating non-minorities on racial issues.

“When I see people who look like me being shot in the streets, it’s hard to go to work and have no one say anything about it,” said another panelist. “I appreciate it when someone other than me can help bring it up as a conversation.”

“It’s important to have these conversations while I’m in the room, but it’s just as important to have these conversations when I’m not in the room,” one panelist said. “Part of this conversation is about making sure that when we are all in positions of power, we can ensure there is no discrimination taking place.”

“Ask yourself, ‘do I want to work with my black colleagues as much as with my white colleagues?’ If not, why?” another added.

Event organizers Jay Obaze, MBA 17, and Lauren Dugard, MBA 17

Participants also watched a video providing context on racially discriminatory legislation dating as recently as the past 60 years, myths about “black crime,” and data on income disparities (e.g., the median white household is now worth 13 times more than the median black household, a gap which has widened during the economic recovery according to the Pew Research Center).

“Part of being an ally isn’t necessarily saying things like ‘I don’t think that’s nice,’ but having the facts to say ‘That’s not true,’” Dugard said.  “It’s not just showing up and being willing to wear a black shirt, it’s being willing to dive deep and know the facts.”

The session also revealed the depth to which some black students feel traumatized by the relentless series of police shootings now under media scrutiny, and how much the issues they’ll face in the workplace weigh on them. In response to a question to panelists on how they experience the color of their skin on daily basis, one student described walking down the street as a tall black man and seeing people hug their purses to their bodies—even when he’s wearing a suit. Another student expressed frustration with managers hesitant to give her the same feedback as white colleagues because “I don’t look like them.”

“This gave insights into what many people in the room might not have known about the black experience, and also that the black experience is not monolithic,” Obaze said after the session.

The BBSA is planning more events to bring discussions of racial issues into the open. Next month, the group plans to organize a screening of the documentary “13th,” which makes the case that when the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution outlawed slavery, it ushered in a new racist system of mass incarceration.