What Amy Cooper Really Tells us About Microaggression in our Corporate Environment
Many clients and students have asked me what I think of the Amy Cooper ‘incident’ in Central Park. What do I think? My thoughts go way beyond the incident itself.
Amy Cooper is the woman who called 911 for a black man - Christian Cooper - in Central Park because he asked her to put her dog on a leash. She’s heard saying, "There's an African American man threatening my life!"
The first thing I asked myself was “Where does she work?” Because of what I do I’m always curious about these situations as it pertains to Corporate America. I also thought about Christian Cooper; where does he work? What would have happened to him had he not recorded the encounter? How would it have impacted his life? His career? His job? Christian Cooper is a Harvard graduate, a pioneering comic book writer and biomedical editor for Health Science Communications.
Said Miss Cooper, "I'm not a racist. I did not mean to harm that man in any way," So what exactly did you intend Miss Cooper? Anytime you have to declare yourself NOT to be racist you need to look in the mirror.
Although news worthy, this is not the main takeaway. For me, the salient issue is that Amy Cooper – who was Vice President and Head of Investment Solutions at Franklin Templeton Investments in NYC – probably had a staff reporting to her, some of whom were black…or Hispanic, or female, or immigrant, or gay, or had accents. If only I could have been a fly on the wall in her office to know what was going on there. Is there any way she did not have implicit biases towards black members of her team? Is there any way minority members of her staff did not experience microaggression – specifically microinsults – from her?
Miss Cooper, who is 41, previously worked at AIG, Citi, Lehman Brothers and Willis Towers Watson. What microaggression and implicit bias has her staff and co-workers experienced at her hands when she worked at those companies? There is no way that such a conscious, willful and deliberate act of calling the police on a black man she KNEW did nothing wrong does not translate to her everyday unconscious (or conscious) functioning at work.
But this is not an attack on Amy Cooper; this is about the many Amy Coopers out there who supervise and work with Black and minority employees and team members. In Corporate America, there are Amy Coopers who are skilled microaggessors. Microaggression defined is “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).” The key word there is ‘often.’ Yes, it is ‘often’ times unconscious and unintentional, but sometimes it’s willful and deliberate. Some individuals practice racial microaggression deliberately, knowing the victim will be unable to prove the intent behind the aggression. The skilled microaggressor knows they would not or could not be held accountable for work related bias because it was ‘unintentional.’ And as a result, once complaints are made, minorities are challenged by HR Managers to provide concrete evidence of bias. The minority would then frequently question themselves when their gut feeling tells them “something is off here, but I can’t put my finger on it!”
Microinsults can be unbelievably infuriating because they lead to “death by a thousand cuts.” They genuinely do appear to be trivial, but they happen so often that it wears you down, until there are significant impacts on your mental and physical health.
So the systemic problems continue.
The aggressed minority is now conditioned to say nothing, continue to absorb the abuses…yet continue to perform at a high level.
As an Executive coach and Corporate Trainer I have seen this time and again. Most black and minority people who rise up the corporate ladder do not inject ethnicity, nationality, race, identity, culture, heritage or gender in the self-assessment of their corporate demise…even when there is an abundance of evidence that says otherwise.
And so the problem continues.
So how can microaggession and implicit bias be corrected if the victims don’t own and/or address it? Of Course someone like Amy Cooper rose to the level of Vice President and Head of Investment Solutions at Franklin Templeton Investments; because no one she supervised could/would articulate who she really was.
Many of my black executive clients are so grateful to get to the level success they’ve gotten they are unwilling to rock the boat. “At least I am compensated well, I just go in, do my job and ignore everything else.” And I really can’t fault them.
This is a problem that can only be addressed and fixed by introspective and self-aware organizational leaders, most of whom happen to be white.