EP 73: Anti-Racism and Our Human Agency, with Ben Guttmann

Jun 11, 2020

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EP 73: Anti-Racism and Our Human Agency, with Ben Guttmann

On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly and Ben Guttmann, founder of Digital Natives, model a difficult conversation on racism. They talk about the importance of listening, educating ourselves, observing our own biases, and what it means to lead anti-racist creative, technology and media agencies.

Episode 73 Links

Digital Natives Group:
Book: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and Michael Eric Dyson
Apple Podcasts:
YouTube Channel:
Vimeo Channel:


EP 73: Anti-Racism and Our Human Agency

Duration: 33:34


Kelly: Thanks for joining me for this episode of Thrive, your agency resource. Today we’re talking about anti-racism. And my guest is Ben Guttmann. He’s the co-founder of Digital Natives Group. He’s also an adjunct lecturer at Baruch College and an active community member with Long Island City and Queens Economic Empowerment and Development Groups. Ben, I am so grateful to have this conversation with you. Thank you so much for being here.

Ben: Thanks Kelly. Looking forward to it.

Kelly: So before we get started, I want to say a few things. I want to say that this was a very conscious decision to have this conversation between two white people. I feel strongly that inviting a black or brown person into a forum to have a discussion about racism is a little short sighted because racism is a white issue. It’s been a white issue for over 450 years.

And something interesting that happened in finding a guest for the show, my naiveté left me a little bit surprised as to how many other white men declined having this conversation. They declined because they were uncomfortable. They declined because they said that they felt ill prepared, that they didn’t know what to say. They feared saying the wrong thing. I get it. But my hope is that today’s episode can be a small model for change in that regard.

We are certainly going to say the wrong things. We are not going to use the proper terminology every time. But my stance is that silence, not having a conversation about racism, oppression, privilege, inequality, or imbalance of power, that’s a lot worse than making any mistakes that are going to happen in this discussion.

So to everyone who’s listening, I thank you for listening. And I encourage you to start talking more openly, more candidly with your friends, your family members, your colleagues, commit to looking at your own biases, and then take some small action in the right direction, especially as a creative leader. There’s no more important role that you have in this moment. And each day for the rest of your lives than this.

So with that, let’s dive into it. If it’s okay with you, I think it’s a great place to start by level setting, what racism is and what it is not. So yeah, let’s talk about a little bit of that—racism versus bigotry versus discrimination prejudice—it’s defined in a lot of different ways. What do you think about that?

Ben: Yeah, what you said before, just echoing that, talking about people who were not interested because they’ll be ill-prepared or saying the wrong thing or don’t know what to say, I am as imperfect as anybody else, and I am going to say the wrong thing, ill-prepared and don’t know what to say.

It’s an incredible moment we were talking before the podcast about how this doesn’t all happen unless this all happens. We don’t have this rising consciousness and reaction to the events with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, if we didn’t have what happened with Amy Cooper and Chris Cooper, if we didn’t have what happened before that, and if we didn’t have 40 million people unemployed and people who don’t have to go to work the next day, necessarily, so you don’t have this type of consciousness about that. And we were also talking about being able to both participate over the past few days and some of these actions that were happening. And it’s disheartening that it had to happen. But it’s disheartening that it did happen and some of those reactions.

In terms of defining what racism is, I don’t quite know. There’s lot of definitions of it. I’m sure that I have been guilty at some point in my past of implicit racism or implicit bias at some point. And, that’s a struggle.

Kelly: Yeah, I remember sitting in my, it was a sophomore social studies class in high school. And the social studies teacher was pretty progressive. He really pushed us and whatever the curriculum was, we were talking. And I remember he started off this one particular class and he said, raise your hand if you’re racist. And it was a pretty diverse school, but everyone looked around. Nobody’s hand went up, except for Jose, who is sitting right in front of me. Jose’s hand showed up, and I was like, I’m sitting right behind him. And I remember thinking, oh my God, Jose is a racist.

And the teacher illustrated this beautiful point. He was like Jose for the rest of the term, for the rest of the semester, whatever it was, you will get straight A’s or whatever it is because you’re the most honest person in this class. And I remember it changing my perception when we went into the entire curriculum about racism and civil rights and everything. I think, at this point my understanding of racism is that it’s a white issue, because of this self-perceived superiority because of power and because of self-ascribed privilege. Those are the three things that I can sort of have as like an underpinning as my understanding of racism. I don’t know how that resonates with you.

Ben: Yeah, I like what you just said in terms of it’s a structure. It’s not somebody going out there and saying this word, that word, or the other word. It’s about being a system that is so fundamentally built upon economically, government wise, socially, upon a foundation of that inequality. I’m a straight white guy and I’m Jewish. So that’s a whole other can of worms. That’s not quite the same thing in any stretch of the imagination. But I walk down the street and my life is so much easier. And then everybody that doesn’t check all those same boxes doesn’t have to face the same biases when I’m talking with a client.

People don’t run away from me or look over their shoulder when I’m behind them on the street at night. All these things that I did, it’s just easier for me. And part of the challenge is for people to acknowledge that, to say, I have had as many benefits as somebody can have. That’s a challenge a lot of times for a lot of people.

Kelly: Right. And similar to you saying you’re straight and white, and Jewish. I mean, I’m white and gay and a woman. So I have a couple of boxes “checked” against me, but I still have the exact same experience that you have. I have that privilege. I don’t have to worry about driving across the country, worrying about what towns I can and cannot stop in, for the most part.

Yeah, there are so many things that we just take as the normal because you nor I will ever have any idea what it’s like to be brown or black in America. We will not ever have those experiences. So I feel like this past week was a really great entrance into like listening, like really hearing but then really listening, listening to black voices, listening and giving platform and just the credit where credit’s due.

I mean, listening, educating ourselves, reading whatever we needed to do because it’s not the job of black or brown people to educate white people on racism. I feel pretty strongly about that, which is why you’re here and it’s not someone who’s black or brown. I don’t know. I think it sort of dovetails into the conversation or the question of why is it so uncomfortable. Why did I have to go through five or six or seven people to find someone who is willing to have this conversation? Why do you think racism is such a difficult conversation for white people?

Ben: So I grew up in a town in Long Island that was 98% white. It was literally one of the most segregated places within the entire country. And then I moved to the city and I go to CUNY. I go to Baruch College where I now teach. I’ll talk about that stuff later, which at different points was named the most diverse school in the entire country. And so there’s an incredible culture shock going from such a cocooned environment like where I grew up in Smithtown to being at Baruch and meeting people from places I’ve never even heard of in my 17 years or 18 years from that point.

And one thing that’s been kind of stewing a little bit in my mind is that a lot of people especially when they are in a segregated environment, a lot of white people who don’t have any sort of real interaction with any sort of diverse communities, I noticed we’re color blind, you’re colorblind, I don’t see color, and it doesn’t matter. I didn’t see that person’s black or brown or whatever. That’s just silly.

Kelly: That’s policy. Yeah.

Ben: It’s policy. And the other thing that comes to mind is the idea of a melting pot which is great in some ways, but one of the best classes I took while at school was taught by Mario Cuomo, the former governor of state and he gave a little talk about, it’s the mosaic of New York, it’s the mosaic of America, it’s not the melting pot.

It’s not about blending everything together and getting rid of the differences and getting rid of the individuality, but it’s about how each together produces a beautiful whole. And, instead of saying I don’t see color, acknowledging that there is color, acknowledging that there is institutional racism, that there’s benefits you get, with everything we’ve been talking about that is not only going to be anti-racist in this regard, but it’s ultimately going to lead to a better end outcome in terms of the celebration of the diversity of who we are.

Kelly: Yeah, I think the conversation is difficult or uncomfortable for people we said at the top of the show because there’s this idea that I don’t know what to say. I fear from a reputation standpoint if someone’s going to look at me differently. I don’t feel prepared for it. But I think that there’s conscious and unconscious privilege, guilt and shame for a lot of white people. Our ancestors had slaves, and now we’re in this 450 years later of a situation where maybe I didn’t directly participate in that, but the world that I live in, certainly feels very imbalanced.

So I think it’s that. And then I think there’s confusion between learned biases and the desire that most of us have. I assume or believe that most people are good at the core. So there’s confusion between these learned biases and the desire to love and treat all people equally. And like you said, there’s that interesting conversation about not being a melting pot, really leaning into that mosaic. We’re not trying to blend together. I had this conversation.

I started a project called spiritual shadowboxing, which is just like a little video series that we’ve been doing. And I recently had an episode recorded with a reverend. And here’s somebody who said, “How do you reconcile the difference between oneness, we’re all one, and the reality of the fact that we’re not all one.” And he said, “Well, I do believe that we are a one, but I do not believe that we are the same. And that’s okay. The issue comes in where there’s the imbalance of that power.”

And I think that’s what we need to look at. That’s what we need to talk about, recognizing that there is that imbalance of power, and that there needs to be some type of re-distribution. That’s what inherently what racism is all about.

Ben: Yeah. I think that’s a really interesting way of putting it. And you mentioned the idea of redistribution. One thing that comes up in different kind of policy circles and talk about racial equity in the past has been the idea of preparations. What do you do in terms of that? And that’s obviously, you talk about thorny subjects that may be the thorny subject of all of them, but I mean, there’s been a lot of interesting discussion about is it justified. Maybe it is something that makes sense. Maybe it’s worth studying. It’s worth looking at.

Other policy things that ends up being, I know we’re going to talk about this a little bit later but in terms of how we individually go about acting on these things. I mentioned before, I’m involved with several different economic development or r civic organizations. Here in Queens, the community board of the Queens Economic Development Corporation. That’s the way personally which I begin to activate on a lot of those things. And there’s been talks now about the defunding the NYPD and how do we do something like that. How do you repeal 50-A here in New York State?

Things that weren’t discussed a month ago. I’m on the community boards. We put budget priorities for our community every year and then they get commented on by the mayor’s office. And we got a letter back with the commentary on the most recent one and it said…I didn’t remember this. But six months ago or eight months ago, we all voted on saying new precinct for the local police precinct, the local NYPD precinct, here in Long Island City.

So, we had our most recent meeting about a week ago. We said, it was brought up without necessarily any objection, which I’m surprised from a group like that. We maybe deemphasized this. This shouldn’t be what we’re doing. So it’s amazing to kind of see change. We passed a referendum in favor of Black Lives Matter and all the movements associated. We passed that unanimously. Again, when I joined that organization five years ago, I couldn’t have imagined something like that being supported. And so these policy ideas are getting more traction, kind of by the hour almost, which is really incredible.

Kelly: Yeah, absolutely. So then shifting, we started off talking about racism. What do we mean by anti-racism? Because I think that there’s a lot of confusion about that term. I came across a definition of it. I’d love to hear from you, if you want to talk about that first, and then I can share the definition that I came across that resonated more so with me, but I can let you talk about that.

Ben: I agree with the thing that you’re going to read. We talked about that before, but what we’ve been talking about largely, I think has been about anti-racism. It’s not enough to just say, well, I’m not a racist. I don’t say these things. I don’t support that organization X or Y. But it’s about how do I proactively deconstruct or who can work to make a more equitable society.

So you can’t be passive in it. You have to be active in it. How can you do it with your words, your thoughts and your actions?

Kelly: And your wallet, if you have the capacity in your wallet. So yeah, so this definition that I came across. Anti-racism is the active process of identifying and eliminating racism by changing systems, organizational structures, policies, practices, and attitudes. So that power is redistributed, and shared equitably.

I really love that definition. I think it’s the strongest one. I think it covers the gamut of what it actually means. And I think for me, the pivotal and most poignant word in there is active process, because it’s not something that you do for a week. It’s not something that you do passively. So I think, there’s definitely alignment there. And getting definition out there and having people understand more about what it actually means because people think, well, I’m not racist. I’m anti-racist. And then they take a passive stance. So you can’t have both.

Ben: Yeah, hundred percent. That’s a great way though.

Kelly: So talk a little bit more about the civic volunteer experience, because I think that that can actually help people in understanding as we sort of transition the conversation from not being passive to taking action. We talked a little bit about, maybe donating to anti-racist causes, community causes in your local community that would have the greatest impact, educating yourself. Listening. We can do all of these things, but from the civic standpoint, what are some of the ways in which you think that we can be supportive allies from a servant leadership perspectives.

Ben: So, as you just outlined, everybody has their own preferences and their own comfort level of doing different things. And if that just means I’m going to support a black-owned business versus somebody else, that’s one way of doing it. If it’s volunteerism, if it’s donations or fundraising, if it’s hosting talks with your friends and family and doing that. I know people that do all of those things, and to varying degrees, I participated in all of those things.

For me, personally, and for anybody that’s interested, I have been a big advocate for this issue and for other issues of being involved in the local political process and local government process. People pay a lot of attention to who’s president. They pay a lot of attention to maybe who rather controls the Senate or the House, and those are all very important. But when you look at what actually matters in your day to day lives, your local and state government is actually probably about 10 times more influential on what happens when you walk out the door today.

It talks about, your school, your school board and who’s chancellor or superintendent of schools. What is the curriculum that flows from that? The police department, as we’ve been talking about a little bit, when you look at city budgets for police department around the country, there’s been a lot of discussion where a lot of cities are just police departments with some poorly funded social programs on the side. It’s, 70%, 60% of the budget of a lot of cities in this country is the police department.

And there’s almost nothing for housing and education and civil rights and social justice. Everything else that goes along with that on. So, I know people listening to this may be in all across the country of the world. And so there’s going to be varying ways which you can get involved. At the very least you should register to vote, if you’re Eligible through and you should vote in every election, because every four years the president is elected, that’s great. But talking about New York City every two years is a legislative election. On those odd years, wide elections for governor and comptroller, anything else.

The local election in New York City is every four years but on the odd number of years in terms of 2021 its going be the next election for that. If the people that show up to those have a disproportionate voice than the ones that show up just every four years, because a lot less people vote in those elections. And so if you’re sitting those out or whatever, as long as Trump isn’t president, I’m fine or whatever. That’s not going to be enough. You have to make sure the local leadership is somebody that actually represents your values.

And then beyond that, you have to hold them accountable. You have to be able to call and write into them. You have to be able to see them at their town halls. If you’re in a place like New York City, go to your community board meetings. Join your community boards. These low level things that can be very long, but they are those places, those are the rooms where things begin to actually inch forward in terms of policy.

Kelly: Yeah. It could be those things. I think everything that you just said is really important. Again, I share your view that there are like 27 things that you could do every single day, like pick one or two. I think it’s about the fact that this is not a sprint. This is not like how do I do something super impactful in one or two weeks and then like I’m good, like I’m a good person, and I’m anti-racist. No, this whole thing is about the marathon, if this is for the rest of your life.

I might seem utopian, but I hope it’s not. My hope is that if each one of us is committed to do just one or two things whether it was with our wallet or volunteerism, or voting or having conversations, educating ourselves, listening to audio books like white fragility to like educate ourselves, whatever you’re doing, if you could do one or two things every single day consciously, to the point where it then becomes unconscious at some point, it just becomes organic. It just becomes how you exist in the world. That’s when this giant grinding wheel starts to actually move. I feel pretty strongly about that.

Ben: Yeah, exactly. And this system has been built for 400 years, if not longer. It’s not going to be unraveled in 400 days or whatever. It’s not going to. And it’s so foundational to our economy, to our culture, to our government, to the way we even interact with each other, that it’s impossible to say…there’s no one solution. I remember the protests for the march for our lives, not too long ago.

As improbable as it maybe, there is a one solution for some of that. You ban guns. That’s an option. If there is a one solution for global warming in a way again however impractical, stop using fossil fuels. There’s no one solution for this. There’s no one thing where there’s one law that’s going to get passed. There’s one company that’s going to change the policy, one person that’s going to get fired or voted out, that’s going to change this. And it’s about every single day, in every single way, making a little bit of change, a little bit of progress on this. And there’s a million different ways to do that.

Kelly: Yeah. And I think it’s important to say, choosing the ways in which you have the capacity to do it or the ways in which you know that it’ll just be easier for you. So if you are a wealthy person and the way in which you can participate is to donate to anti-racist causes good, fine, that’s fine. That’s the one thing that you did today. That’s fine. And I don’t think that there’s any judgment about that. It’s just whatever you can do that sustained. Because like you said, none of this is a magic bullet. It takes all of us, right?

So, one of the things I wanted to sort of wrap up with in this conversation is that, we’re talking to creative leaders who run marketing and advertising agencies, I feel pretty strongly also, I currently have a lot of strong feelings today, I feel pretty strongly that because of the work that we do, we have a responsibility.

And the work that we do impacts brands, it impacts the communications, and the messaging that is distributed, conveyed to the masses. That’s a lot of weight on the shoulders of creative leaders. So there was something, Forbes just came out with an article a few hours ago called, How Can Leadership Break Down Racism and Make Changes Now? My question is, how can we as creative leaders start to create anti-racist agencies in order to contribute to a more equitable society?

Ben: Yeah, I’ll tell you what we’ve done, or what we’re going to do, and it won’t be enough and will never be enough. My partners at Digital Natives are also other white guys. And we’re conscious of the fact that there are biases that come with that as we’ve tried to build our team over the years. We try to integrate more diverse perspective for many reasons. One of them is also it’s good for business. It’s as morally right as it is.

Running an anti-racist company is going to be better for business because marketing is about a connection to the culture. And if you’re only representing one small segment of it, you’re only paying attention to one small segment of it, you’re not going to do a good job in your creative pursuits. We’ve been having regular conversations with the team here. We’ve given people time off to do activism. We have a new benefit word matching so we’re doing monthly recurring donations to nonprofits of their choice.

And we’re continuing in every way we can to push the envelope a little bit in that. I think those are all things which somebody can do. There’s plenty more somebody can do, beyond your own work stuff. I want to squeeze in a little bit about where I teach at Baruch College. I’ve been doing that for about six years. A couple years ago, I added a lesson to the syllabus that was marketing ethics. And I go over a whole bunch of things, which is marketing good or bad. Stuff like tobacco and sugary foods and all that stuff is part of it. But also we talked about race.

And I mentioned before Baruch is a very diverse school and every time that I bring this segment of the present of the lecture up, I have a screenshot of that infamous H&M advertisement or photo-shoot with like the 10 year old black boy with the green sweatshirt that says coolest monkey in the jungle. And every time I pull it up, everybody in the class winces and goes, oh, my God. And I bring that up, because I know and you know most of our listeners, there were 100 people involved in that.

There were 100 people either on set, the photographer, the editors, the chaperones, the people who were editing the photos, and the people who were posting them on the website, not to mention the people that ran the campaign and that were up top. And the fact is, all of them either didn’t say anything because they didn’t realize something like this was wrong. Or they were too afraid to say anything, because they didn’t want to rock the boat.

Kelly: Yeah, my bet is on the latter. Maybe a 50-50 split. I don’t know.

Ben: And if you are not in the room, if you don’t have people in the room that can either…or allies that are going to be able to stand up and say something, or the representative cross section of society itself in there. You’re going to make those mistakes. It’s bad for business and it’s bad morally for this. And that’s what we ended up getting to the ultimate lesson of that class is you should do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. That should be enough. But if for some reason that’s not enough, there’s plenty of other reasons to do the right thing. And making sure that you have that in each way and each day, you do a little bit to be able to move the needle and acknowledge your own benefits and failings, which I’m sure I’ve had plenty of failings in this conversation. That is going to be what we can do.

Kelly: Yeah, absolutely. And I think sort of holding yourselves accountable and really putting that commitment out there, you and I both know Michael Ventura and his organization Sub Rosa. They actually just put an email out yesterday, which I want to share a little bit of because I thought it was a great example of commitment on the part of a creative agency to being anti-racist.

And I saw the email come in, I forwarded it. We believe in anti-racism. It’s hard to believe that despite how much we thought our organization stood for anti-racism a few short weeks ago, the events of the past week have shown us it has many companies, how much further we all need to go.

Like many this past week, the people at Sub Rosa had been listening to and learning from black leaders sharing their messages and interrogating the privilege. Many of us have benefited from in our careers and throughout our lives. We are an organization built on the foundation of empathy. And yet, even with the tools, resources and practices designed to elicit true understanding of this topic, we have fallen short of what needs to be done, we will do better.

And then it goes on for another half a page or so to talk about what they’re committed to, what they’re implementing at the organization. I would love to see more emails like this coming from creative agencies, and then more discussions around it. Maybe even having some of this information on their websites and for the long term, updating that, showing the progress they’ve made, showing what action steps they’ve taken each month or each quarter, whatever it is. I think this is it’s just what’s needed.

Ben: And I just want to add one thing too. Don’t work with jerks. Don’t work with Jack. You don’t have to work for everybody that walks in the door. You don’t have to seek out business that is actively making the world worse. Be it with racism, or be it with the environment or be it with gun violence or whatever it is, we have turned down business every single year we’ve been in business because it didn’t align with our ethics. And, it’s a tough not to swallow. Sometimes when you got to meet payroll you only have so much time on this earth. You only have so much creative energy when you’re here and you should not use that to further the pursuits of those who are not trying to make this a better place.

Kelly: Yeah, couldn’t agree more. Ben, thank you so much for having this discussion with me. I really appreciate it and we’ll talk soon.

Ben: Thanks Kelly.

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