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Washington State University
Dividend - Fall 2023 Features

DEI Course Helps Create Future Corporate Citizens

By Sue McMurray

R. Xach Williams, assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies in WSU’s School of Languages, Cultures, and Race, develops business and other students’ professional comptency in diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Photo by WSU Photos Services

Over the last six years, the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements accelerated gender and racial backlash across the country and also shined a spotlight on gender inequities and power dynamics in the workforce. In the wake of this shift in social awareness, being career-ready has taken on a new meaning for business graduates who will one day lead or work in corporations.

Tom Tripp, Carson College of Business senior associate dean for academic affairs, and Carmen Lugo- Lugo, director of the WSU School of Languages, Cultures, and Race, collaborated to offer business students Race/Ethnic Dynamics and the Corporate World, a sophomore-level course. The training helps students develop professional competency in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and it aligns with WSU’s commitment to DEI as an institution.

“Equity and inclusion is a key competency we want future business professionals to understand,” Tripp says. “It’s one of several career-readiness competencies the National Association of Colleges and Employers recommends for students to be successful in the workplace and lifelong career management.”

The joint collaboration aims to produce future corporate citizens who aren’t likely to force their companies to spend money mitigating for their inappropriate behavior related to race/ethnicity. Students gain skills to help prevent their future employees or coworkers incur such behaviors and help companies mitigate race-related events when they do happen.

R. Xach Williams, assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies in the WSU School of Languages, Cultures, and Race, teaches the three-credit course twice a week on the Pullman campus.

Lessons for success in the corporate world

In class, Williams strives to make conversations of race and inequality tangible. Daily readings examine social, cultural, and historical contexts of racism and racial inequality. Open discussion helps students understand the role racial undercurrents play in the workplace, especially in US-based corporations.

He says in general, his students aren’t comfortable talking about race and equality or don’t know how.

“One of the key things I want students to know is the difference between race and ethnicity,” he says. “This points to a lack of conversation in broader society. We’ve moved a bit past ‘color blindness’ as the dominant racial approach, but we still live in a climate where talking about race is taboo. It prevents students from developing the appropriate language they would need to use in the workplace.”

Students talk about how race and ethnicity have been defined historically, as in the case of certain groups of European immigrants who shifted their ethnic names and languages to fit into an American construct of whiteness. “The point is for students to understand ‘whiteness’ isn’t a natural category that came from a geographic region like Europe; it was a historical process,” Williams says.

Talking about race is a way to practice having hard conversations about things that aren’t necessarily about race but are difficult topics they may face as business leaders, for example downsizing, layoffs, cost-of-living adjustments or the lack thereof, he says.

Williams also provides a mix of statistical data and studies on racism and inequality in the workplace. Acts of microaggression are a topic of discussion. Students examine workplace scenarios they might encounter, for example someone who makes people feel inferior by assuming a person of color is a service worker, or someone who assumes people who speak with an accent are less intelligent.

“I want students to recognize these things when they happen and have the courage to call out bad behavior,” Williams says. “They need to see DEI strategies consistently as the best thing for the company and develop a thick skin and not get defensive if their own behavior needs to change.”

One of the biggest challenges he sees is the disparity between a commitment to DEI and an inability to articulate it or understand the profit margin value. According to a 2022 World Economic Forum article on the future of work, in terms of ethnic and cultural diversity, top-quartile companies are 36 percent more likely to outperform bottom quartiles in return on equity. Additionally, companies in the top quartile of gender diversity on executive teams are 25 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability than peer companies in the bottom quartile.

“Students need to know DEI practices are not only morally right but a path toward improving business profitability,” he says.

Class helps Sarah Marotti prepare to work with minority-owned businesses

Even though she doesn’t need the credits to graduate, Sarah Marotti, a sophomore studying business management with a focus in innovation and change, signed up for Williams’s class. She aspires to become a small-business consultant to minority business owners.

By learning about how cultural influences affect decision-making, she hopes to help companies stay in business far into the future. But as a white, cisgender woman, she knows it won’t be easy.

“I learned how to be conscious of what’s going on around me and the importance of talking about things even if they may be uncomfortable, whether it’s just having discussions about race and racism or confronting someone who makes a racist comment,” says Marotti. “Professor Williams always reiterated this issue is only going to get larger, and that’s something I think will always stick with me. I feel there is nowhere else I could get a better education than at WSU, where people really care about sending you into the real world with the appropriate skills for success in the modern workforce.”