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Harvard expert helping firms to deal with issues on diversity

Author Robert Livingston who is helping some of the island’s international businesses “deal with issues on diversity”. (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

An award-winning American expert on bias and racism who moved to Bermuda as a one-year “digital nomad” has offered his insight for the island on race and diversity.

Robert Livingston, a management and public policy lecturer at Harvard University, relocated here in December to teach remotely during the pandemic.

But Dr Livingston, whose antiracism book The Conversation was published last month to acclaim from top business figures, will also help some of the island’s international businesses “deal with issues on diversity”.

He added: “I don’t want to name any of them, but large multinational companies have approached me.

“I would also be willing to give public talks and host public forums here.”

Dr Livingston highlighted his five-step plan for promoting racial equity in the workplace in a September 2020 article for the Harvard Business Review that won the publication’s annual Warren Bennis Prize on leadership.

The Conversation, he said, “provides a clear plan for ordinary people and leaders to move the needle on racial equity in profound and sustainable ways”.

Dr Livingston said his book addresses both Black frustration at White stonewalling on the subject of race, and White hesitancy at having the conversation.

“It is not any Black person’s job to educate White people,” he said. “And there is a chapter all about how to talk about race, with tips to have a productive conversation.”

He added: “There is science being brought to bear on any question anyone can ask about racism.

“I use science as the arbiter for the truth – not personal experience.”

Books on race and racism have become bestsellers with the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the past year.

Dr Livingston described his book as “a tool, not a testimonial”.

“I wrote this as a tool helping organisations to move that needle. It was written way before the death of George Floyd. It was based on my work with companies and leaders.

“There was so much science involved, it took years to write. I started about four years ago – and then George Floyd happened.”

Global demonstrations were sparked by the death last year of Mr Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

They included an unprecedented turnout for Bermuda’s Black Lives Matter march last June.

Dr Livingston’s work comes from a lifetime in academia as well as studying unconscious bias and management psychology for institutes such as the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois.

He said: “One of the earliest studies I’m known for from 2009 is what’s called the Teddy Bear Effect.”

It describes a “disarming mechanism” adopted by Black men in positions of leadership, including docile facial features, to appear unthreatening to White holders of corporate power.

Dr Livingston said: “I became interested in how Black men negotiate power in a world where they are not supposed to have power.

“I looked at how Black individuals both attain and maintain power in this system that relegates them to a subordinate role.”

But Dr Livingston said his book, on sale now in local stores, was for anyone with the desire to take on racism.

“It’s not trying to convince people of anything,” he said. “It’s about seeking and speaking the truth.

“I have a sense of optimism about it. I’ve seen it enough to know that it works. It’s almost like being in a casino. Nothing happens, and then you hit the jackpot.

“It doesn’t happen all the time, even most of the time, but it happens enough to give me the hope it’s possible.”

Dr Livingston said he had been in touch with the group Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda and looked forward to participating in CURB events.

He added: “I’m interested in becoming more involved in Bermuda on issues of racial inequality.”

Dr Livingston said he was keen to find a majority Black country to reside outside the United States when a Bermudian friend told him about the island’s one-year residency programme launched last year.

Although he had not visited before, a “reconnaissance” visit last year met his approval.

“Bermuda has already earned a special place in my heart,” he said.

“It’s a unique and beautiful place with the most affluent Black population per capita on earth. It has a Black government that has done great things here with Covid-19. It’s the closest country there is to Boston. It ticks all the boxes.”

⋅ The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organisations is on sale at Brown & Co and the Bermuda Book Store in Hamilton.

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Published March 15, 2021 at 8:05 am (Updated March 15, 2021 at 8:16 am)

Harvard expert helping firms to deal with issues on diversity

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