One night while I was in college, eating dinner at my fraternity house, somebody in the crowd told the following joke:
Q: What are the three shortest books ever written?
A: “Italian War Heroes,” “Jewish Business Ethics” and “Negroes I’ve Met While Yachting.”
On my honor, I still don’t know who told the joke. I just remember the entire room laughed at it, and then, as things died down, one of the brothers gleefully repeated the final line, “Negroes I’ve met while yachting!” It was right then that Willard Dumas, the student body president at the time, running for re-election, announced his presence to the room. Willard is black.
“Gentlemen,” he said, and he began his pitch for votes. Everybody went silent and listened to him, and then he left. I don’t know how long he had been there. I don’t know if he heard the joke. All I do know is that I had a lot of respect for Willard. He was smart, eloquent, with real charisma. He carried himself like he came from a family with means (which many of my fellow students did), but he didn’t flaunt it. He was good-looking. He was an academic standout. And he was the butt of this stupid joke. If he heard it, he did not let on.
My school had a serious racism problem. It probably still does, in truth. But as Willard left, and the entire room had that awkward silence that follows being busted at something, I thought about how well Willard took it. I thought about how well he probably took it every single day. I thought of how many people in that room who didn’t have the courage to own their racism and accept the consequences for it. I thought of how many people in that room, like myself, didn’t have the courage to call anybody out for it. And I thought about how all of that was just the tip of the iceberg.
There are some life insurance companies doing great work with multicultural outreach, from firms that are aggressively recruiting a diverse workforce to those that are selling to otherwise under-served ethnic markets. And while I applaud these efforts, I can’t help but think that this industry still is a whole lot of white people selling to a whole lot of white people. It’s certainly what I see whenever I attend an industry event, or speak with industry figures outside of the office.