The rolodex must also conquer racism

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The rolodex must also conquer racism

Nathan Polk | @snpolk2, Staff Columnist

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Racial divides often show up in subtly powerful places, among those being our private and professional networks.

Older readers might remember the pre-internet days of business cards and the Rolodex. The Rolodex appeared in 1956 as a more efficient way to organize contact information. For years, having the “rolling index” of alphabetized contacts was the key to professional success. Taping the business card in place, handwriting relevant information and manually finding those you needed to contact may not have been technologically superior to modern applications, but it was incredibly personal.

Building a network and forging connections has always been personal. Even though digital contact catalogs are more versatile than the Rolodexes of years past, they still represent a critical link to the most important people in our lives.  

Recently I attended an event where an African-American businesswoman shared a nonprofit idea with me. She intimated that although there were no structural barriers for her to move into the fundraising stages of her plan, she still felt marginalized because of the racial gap in her network. She found it extremely difficult to network with white business people because she had few in-roads or relationships with those leaders.

America’s radical legal adjustments over the last 60 years demonstrate significant progress in rectifying structural inequities. In no previous point in history could all people experience a high degree of upward mobility in their socioeconomic standing. The internet toppled many gatekeeping barriers. Freedom abounds. Yet, there is still a great division.

 This divide is a social divide. Similar to the woman I met in the previous story, traditionally marginalized groups do not seem to feel disconnected from the majority cultural and economic experience because of a law or a policy. It’s because of a lack of relationships and opportunities within those relationships. 

The symbolism of the highly personal Rolodex is timely in this discussion of diversity. Professional success rests on the power of one’s network. When a network is minority-dominant, it experiences an undue prevalence of obstacles. When a network is majority-dominant, it further marginalizes others, intentionally or unintentionally, by denying opportunities to those who need them. Diverse networks help everyone by alleviating relational difficulties and diffusing power. 

This position is not intended to chastise any group. Reaching out to those different from us is difficult. The process of diversifying is an uncomfortable road filled with embarrassing mistakes. However, it is our responsibility as a society to navigate the process with transparency and humility to utilize mutually beneficial creative talent from all sources. 

I am a white man. I do not apologize for that, but I do recognize the comparative ease of access I have to societal power structures. I am responsible for broadening my network to share access to power and even the social playing field. There must be an intentional effort from both majority and minority groups to develop cross-cultural relationships that reward value and share power, regardless of identity. 

Make sure the cards of your Rolodex aren’t all the same color. Aim to reach out to those different than you consistently. Build a network where personal relationships represent many communities. If we all work together to achieve such interconnectivity, I find it hard to believe that we won’t become a stronger society.