19 May 2021

Saying “Race” Out Loud: Leading Conversations on Diversity in HBS Classrooms


Dr. Stephanie Creary

By: Shona Simkin

As an organizational behavior scholar, diversity and identity expert, and an assistant professor of management at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Dr. Stephanie Creary has become a recognized thought leader in navigating the complexities of race and diversity in organizations. She also holds some key Harvard Business School specialized knowledge: Nearly 15 years ago, Creary was an HBS research associate, writing cases for Professor David Thomas (now president of Morehouse College) and working with other faculty around the school. Never did she imagine that one day she would return to the HBS campus to guide faculty on discussing race in their cases and classrooms.

Growing faculty members’ comfort and skill in addressing different dimensions of identity—such as socioeconomic, gender, and race—in the classroom has been a priority for Jan Hammond since taking on the role as of senior associate dean for culture and community three years ago. Via teaching faculty retreats focused on real-life classroom scenarios, coordinating cases featuring issues of diversity thoughtfully across the MBA curriculum and school year, focus groups with MBA students and student clubs, and campus-wide conversations about diversity, Hammond is determined to increase the School’s sensitivity and competence around thorny issues.

“We're trying to make people feel included and that their lived experiences matter—we want to make the most out of differences,” said Hammond. “Feedback from students suggested that we needed to make difficult topics discussable, to ensure that we deeply engage in the subjects and that all students have a voice in the discussion.”

As the course head for Leadership and Organizational Behavior (LEAD) in the Required Curriculum (RC), Professor Tsedal Neeley wanted to bring proven frameworks for teaching content about race, gender, and other dimensions of difference effectively. She turned to her good friend and Wharton colleague Creary.

“We spent the last few years ensuring that we had a diverse protagonists and cases that cover contemporary issues that are very much in the forefront of students’ minds—such as anti-racism and LGBTQ+ rights,” said Neeley. “As a faculty team, we wanted to create the conditions for students to feel safe, open, and honest when engaging these important issues. We needed a framework for understanding how to hold these conversations, and to embolden and empower our team.”

“I’ve learned that most people feel anxious when they talk about race,” says Creary. “They tend to have a bit more confidence and comfort in talking about diversity issues, as diversity has come to mean so many different things. But when it comes to race we often see a lot of concern and alarm around saying something that might be offensive or hurtful. And that anxiety doesn’t go away just because you ignore it.”

Creary developed a specific framework for these conversations: RACE. “I purposefully named it RACE because the first thing that I learned is that many people are afraid to say the word—they whisper it. If I call the framework RACE, the word has to be said out loud just like anything else,” she said.

For the first hour of the two-hour plus session, Creary provides context for her own experience and expertise, explains the frameworks and principles that guide her teaching, and unpacks the issues of the case before them. It’s important, she says, to understand that the class, and its case, isn’t designed to eradicate racism—it’s designed to provide students with takeaways that will help them become more inclusive leaders.

“I'm very deliberate in setting, establishing, and reinforcing norms with students,” said Creary. “It’s important to introduce the case as one that might be deeply educational for some and cause anxiety in others, and to remind the class of their community values. Those values come into play when we talk about our differences—those that we usually don’t talk about and that we're a little afraid of talking about.”

With the framework and context established, Creary then dives into class engagement and de-escalation strategies, and introduces scenarios in which faculty practice handling difficult conversations when they arise. “It’s a ‘when,’ not ‘if’ they arise situation,” she notes.

In one recent training for a case on mass incarceration, Creary cold-called two faculty members for a role-playing scenario, assigning them names, identities, and a line of dialogue. "I'm glad this case calls out the riskiness of hiring formerly incarcerated people,” says one faculty member as “Jack,” a white male. “While I think offering a second chance is admirable, I don't entirely agree that this is a workforce that should be prioritized." In response, another faculty member playing the part of his Black classmate “Mike” says, “With all due respect, I think it's important to consider the barriers that formerly incarcerated people need to overcome. They likely have had to work hard to overcome the challenges and I think that those are good characteristics that any employer would want in its workers."

“How would you intervene?” Creary asks. After some discussion, she offers up research and data, explains that underlying this conflict is a debate on opportunity, success, and meritocracy, and walks the group through suggested responses. Then they discuss how to support students once the class is over—lists of articles and podcasts, as well as people across campus who are resources for continued conversations. Problem-solving for a worst-case scenario, says Creary, makes other potential scenarios more approachable.

Dispelling fears and growing confidence around discussing race also allows for a centering of the student experience. “After you've given yourself the pep talk that you can do this, you can focus on the fact that these students will be shaping other people’s experiences for the rest of their lives,” says Creary. “As educators, our job is to help people learn. Even about topics that make us uncomfortable.”

That can be especially tricky with the case method, Creary acknowledges, as the role of the professor is to foster and facilitate dialogue rather than to lecture and give answers. It’s helpful, she says, to create an environment in which both faculty and students can openly admit that they do not have all of the answers and are themselves learning about how to talk about issues of diversity and race. That vulnerability, says Creary, opens the door for students to also be vulnerable and share their own experiences.

Professor Letian Zhang, who participated in the LEAD sessions, left the training feeling engaged and more capable of addressing identity issues. “Stephanie created a comfortable environment that allowed us to openly share our thoughts and feelings on the topic of diversity, which is not an easy feat,” he said.

“Teaching is a skill that can be built,” says Hammond. “We all need this hands-on work, because we are often in different places with these concepts—what are some of the issues that might arise, and how do we know what to do? Stephanie brings research expertise around race and organizations as well as teaching skills, and she’s able to think about how to translate theory in the moment.”

For Professor Amy Schulman, Creary’s session for the Leadership and Corporate Accountability (LCA) teaching group reinforced her own efforts in bringing together different voices, experiences, and perspectives in the classroom, and was an important reminder that one can’t fake comfort.

“If you're uncomfortable, students will sense that discomfort—so learn how to work within discomfort and to acknowledge it—learn not to be uncomfortable, even when you are uncertain,” said Schulman. “Our students are ahead of us, and that is a cause of great humility and can be a cause of some consternation. Much of what happens in the classroom is facilitative listening—not being afraid of going where students take you. I never want any of our students to feel that we're not giving them the framework or the tools with which to grapple with challenging issues. It’s an incredible privilege to have students from whom I, and we, can learn so much—and a responsibility to make sure that we're arming them with everything we can to help.”

For Creary, helping faculty find confidence around discussing race and identity is deeply rewarding, and comes from a place of affection and appreciation for the School. As a Simmons MBA student in 2006, Creary got to know former faculty member Laura Morgan Roberts and Professor Robin Ely, who quickly became both mentors and friends. In 2007, she became a research associate for Thomas. This HBS network convinced Creary that a PhD in organizational behavior—despite the three degrees already under her belt—was the right path. Fifteen years later, she is delighted to be back on the HBS campus, and sees her trainings as a natural extension of the research support that is commonly shared among academic scholars.

“Over the last few years I've benefited from peer school faculty sharing their materials and experiences teaching diversity in business schools,” said Creary. “It is starting to feel like developing one another as classroom professors is part of our contribution to this scholarly community. Traditionally, we cut across school and professional boundaries to conduct research, so I think it’s also important that we help one another become better educators.”

Creary has conducted five sessions with different RC teaching groups, and is hopeful that the increased cadence of diverse cases across campus will be validating to students already engaged in this work, and grow a sense across the student body that these issues are central to workplaces and to good leadership.

“Talking about race and diversity needs to be embraced by more than one faculty member and one class,” says Creary. “Even if diversity, equity, and inclusion isn’t on a student’s radar, if they go to several classes that discuss it—in marketing; business, government, and the international economy; leadership and corporate accountability—that will help them to develop a consciousness that these topics are important in all areas of business and society. Workplaces are changing, and they can be part of the conversation and the change that needs to happen in order to create more inclusive organizations.”

Post a Comment

Comments must be on-topic and civil in tone (with no name calling or personal attacks). Any promotional language or urls will be removed immediately. Your comment may be edited for clarity and length.