By Andres Tapia – Chief Diversity Officer, Hewitt Associates
What is it about seeing diversity at the top that leads to changed behaviors and expectations for marginalized groups? Tiger Woods’ troubled situation and recent return to golf gives us a chance to explore the question.
Having grown up with a obsession for soccer as a player and fan, golf — an alter ego to soccer — has held zero interest for me. Not only in its vastly different cadence and energy but also because of the exceptionally homogeneous nature of who played it.
Then came Tiger Woods, a mixed-race golf phenomenon, whose winning ways and the very nature of how he looked changed the game. So I joined the millions of people of color who started to tune into golf to see how the brother was doing.
But why should his skin color and racial ethnic background matter? It’s still the same sport played at the same speed, with the same rules, with the same polite crowds. But as we have seen in politics, not-for-profits, and corporations, it makes a huge difference to see people like us succeed. Social psychology has shown that this produces a great emotional lift that translates into believing that if one works hard and smart enough, one can also be a winner. The converse is true too that when all the leaderships positions are filled by people who don’t look like us, a pervasive mood descends that no matter what one does, the system will be stacked against us and why bother.
The Perils of Success
But seeing someone like us on the pedestal is not only about seeing ourselves as only winners. When the pioneer missteps — and god knows Tiger did so devastatingly — there is the huge letdown that no matter our skin color or gender or national background, we are all equally susceptible to character flaws and bad judgment. It reminds us that virtue is not granted but earned and that we are all individually responsible for living right.
But in watching Tiger’s fall from grace and, in his comeback attempt, the gauntlet he endured, one can’t help but feel a double standard is at play. (See recent blog post, “Three Words Tiger Should Say.” ) It’s a difficult argument to make not only because it’s difficult to prove (but we sure feel it) but also because in pointing this out, it could be seen as minimizing his transgression of objectifying women.
There are other common dynamics of seeing someone like us assume power. We often expect them to pick up on all our causes, to speak up on behalf of injustice wherever it is found and this again can lead to disappointment. Why didn’t Michael Jordan show up at racial disparity forums? Why doesn’t President Obama speak up more forcefully on black issues? Why did Tiger choose to stage his comeback at Augusta, a club that even now does not admit women? (For an even more pointed critique on Tiger’s choice, see women’s enews’ “Tiger Re-masters Sexist Sponsorship at Augusta.”)
Ultimately, seeing people who look like us in leadership means that while it signals greater opportunities, it also means greater complexity and responsibility in sorting through the complex dilemmas. And it is this drama of a multicultural son that has me riveted to golf.