Over the past week, organizations across the country have clogged my inbox, and my social media feeds with messages declaring or, in some cases implying that “Black Lives Matter.” Some of the declarations were non-statements like Lily Pulitzer’s initial Facebook message, while others boldly called for an end to white supremacy like Ben & Jerry’s. For some, these declarations align with their organization’s ethos and internal practices; for others, this is new territory. When I onboard clients, one of the first things I share is that embarking in justice, equity, and inclusion work creates expectations. Employees expect, or at least hope that employers will uphold their commitments and starting an initiative or organizational change process when there isn’t a firm commitment, is a grave mistake. Having conducted hundreds of interviews with employees, I can tell you they are almost always skeptical that anything will change. That will also be true of the latest declarations, and with good reason. Many organizations have made public pronouncements before and offered little concrete change.
“Justice, equity & inclusion work creates expectations.”
The uprisings happening across the country while inspired by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others, they are only part of the story. Racism is ubiquitous in every facet of human life in this country, criminal justice, healthcare, employment, housing, media, education, and our economic system. While we have not seen as many global uprisings in the past, this is not the first time that America has come apart at the seams, nor is it the first time protestors have spilled into the streets demanding change. Each time there is a promise to do better, but time and time again, there is little tangible change. Based on some indicators, we have slid backward. If you are serious about making Black Lives Matter in practice:
- Stop giving to causes and campaigns that explicitly or implicitly support structural racism. You can’t say that Black Lives Matter and then continue to contribute to the Trump campaign or other such causes. Your employees, customers, and the broader community are watching and are more interested than ever whether or not you are putting your money where your mouth is. Give money to Black-led organizations without strings attached and start or expand your supplier diversity efforts — actively seek out Black businesses.
- Expand your definition of racism. Racism is more than individual meanness across race. Racism exists on four levels internalized (within us), interpersonal (between us), institutional (within institutions and systems of power), structural (among institutions and across society.) If your barometer for determining whether or not racism exists in your organization is the degree to which people of different races are getting along, you are missing the point.
- Understand that your racial justice work must be internally and externally facing. Too many organizations focus their efforts externally but don’t do enough to address their internal practices. That approach comes off as disingenuous to your employees and limits your ability to have a real impact. Consider Starbucks’ National Conversation on Race, which explored race at an individual level and didn’t permeate their internal practices.
- Recognize that diversity & inclusion is not racial justice. Racial justice is the proactive creation and reinforcement of policies, practices, attitudes, and actions that produce equitable power, access, opportunities, treatment, impacts, and outcomes for all. Organizational efforts that don’t center the power dynamics and history related to race and racism that advantage white people and disadvantage Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are anemic at best. You must view your policies and practices through the lens of racial justice. Consider using an equity analysis tool.
- Acknowledge that assimilation is not inclusion. Organizational expectations around professionalism hold whiteness as the standard in dress, hairstyle, speech, accent, word choice, and weighted scrutiny of Black employees. Real inclusion creates a sense of belonging and honors the uniqueness of your employees. Being forced to cover essential parts of one’s identity to survive at work is psychologically damaging.
- Stop dancing around racism and other forms of discrimination. Problem leaders are protected at the expense of Black employees and others who hold marginalized identities. George Floyd’s killer had 18 complaints against him. While we don’t know the merit of all of the allegations, that number is excessive. Transforming your culture and ensuring that Black Lives Matter in your organization means ensuring the psychological and physical safety of your Black employees. They should not be subjected to racial microaggressions or other, more explicit forms of discrimination. Disciplining or terminating employees that do not uphold your organizational values sends a clear message.
- Black leaders matter. Whether you are a for-profit business or a non-profit entity, there should be Black people (plural) on your board of directors. There should also be Black people in leadership roles across your organization, not just in lowest-paid positions. Diversity does not mean deficiency; your organization needs to have pointed conversations about race as it relates to attracting, recruiting, hiring, developing, and advancing Black employees. Are you having trouble retaining Black employees? See numbers 5 and 6.
- Don’t expect your Black employees to fix racism. Talking about race and racism is never easy, but exploring it amid a global pandemic, uprisings across the country, and the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery make it particularly challenging. While we are not a monolith, many Black people across the country are experiencing collective trauma, and we are not ok. Please don’t ask your Black employees to solve racism for your organization or to explain it to you individually.
- Don’t punish the truthtellers. I often talk about what I call the secret lives of Black people. For our survival, Black people, especially those who have found some semblance of success in corporations or non-profits, are experts at maintaining a facade. In the words of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, “We wear the mask.” To survive, we remain quiet about our experiences of racism, which leads organizational leadership to imagine that everything is fine. You should ask some tough questions in the coming months, and not everyone will tell you the truth because they don’t trust you. Please don’t punish the truthtellers. You may have some employees who will bluntly tell you all the ways that your company upholds institutional racism, thank them for their honesty. Doing so will signal to the others who haven’t spoken up yet that it’s safe. View the truthteller’s feedback as a gift.
- Become anti-racist — do your work. Chances are you have some catching up to do. There is no shortage of reading lists, workshops, and videos for you to learn. Get started and invite others to do the same. Don’t get hung up here. While growing your awareness has merit, don’t let your learning curve suspend action. There are incredible resources available to put anti-racism into practice within your organization. Being anti-racist means actively working against racism and working toward racial justice and equity.
You’ve taken the first step by acknowledging that Black Lives Matter — but words aren’t enough. The question is, will Black lives still matter in your organization when the protestors are no longer in the streets, and the media is on to the next breaking story? We’ll be watching.