On Being an Antiracist Business: A Conversation

You declared that Black Lives Matter. Now what?

Photo: Markus Winkler on Unsplash

When protests erupted across the country, Megan Stanczak, owner of Staczak Retail Consulting in suburban Philadelphia, experienced anger and a deep desire to make things better. She threw herself into books and podcasts and started making notes about next steps. She knew that her business, which relies heavily on Amazon, would make changes to turn its antiracism commitments into reality, and she wanted to think through that process. So, she came to me, the writer who originally developed her content and who also has a doctorate in critical race studies, with some thoughtful questions about our current moment.

In 2017, I left academia and founded a communications company. Since then, I've helped individuals and organizations articulate their ideas effectively, often addressing questions about race and gender in messaging. In recent weeks, small business owners and nonprofit leaders have approached me wondering what's next. When Megan and I started talking, I asked her if we could put our conversation into writing. This is what we talked about.

Megan: Lesley, you have a background in critical race studies. How do you think your educational experience has pushed you to encourage effective communication about race in this moment?

Lesley: Thanks for your question. I think it’s best to answer this by first acknowledging the magnitude of this cultural moment. No one is not talking about the Black Lives Matter movement. And that’s huge.

Black people have unduly suffered injustice and inequality due to racism for centuries. And while there is, tragically, nothing new about the dehumanizing racism that led to George Floyd’s murder, what is new is that this injustice is being acknowledged far and wide. Talking about widespread racism against Black people in the U.S. has become common, even inevitable.

I’m a communications professional who studied the and the rhetoric of abolitionist movements in Europe and the U.S. I started having conversations about effective responses to this cultural shift pretty naturally. It’s crucial work. The most hopeful thing I’ve witnessed is that people are actually listening. It’s remarkable.

Megan: You also have a personal investment in the Black Lives Matter movement. How does that influence your work?

Lesley: I’m a white woman married to a Black man. Having Black family members certainly does not make me antiracist, but it does mean that I think about race and racism a lot. Where we live, where we decide to send our kid to school, how we travel, where we go and when — all of are influenced by how safe we feel and what kinds of communities we want to be a part of.

Antiracism requires unlearning what you thought you knew. It means having uncomfortable conversations, acknowledging your own complicity, striving for humility, and, for a lot of white people, even re-evaluating close relationships in your life.

I know that this work is a difficult and lifelong process. But I also know that it is absolutely the right thing to do. I think that this personal experience helps me understand what a lot of people are thinking and feeling right now.

Megan: In past conversations, you’ve expressed to me that you and your husband feel like you’ve been “running a marathon for years, and now there are a bunch of energetic sprinters showing up.” If you could only offer one piece of advice for white people who are now showing up to this race, what would it be?

Lesley: I’m glad you brought that up. I think it’s a really great metaphor. I guess if I had to say one thing, it’s simply that this is not a sprint.

That doesn’t mean, though, that this part of the path can’t benefit from the fresh energy of new runners. There are few organizations, businesses, or even individuals out there who have not spoken out. This is a huge cultural shift — it’s an opportunity we may never see again in our lifetimes. Let’s not waste it.

People are angry. They are shocked. They want to be on the right side of history. Anger can be a catalyst, but you can only run so far fueled by anger. The path to better will take a long time, so we can’t lose hope. We have to find a way to plan for the long haul and maintain the determination to do so.

Megan: In your you start off by suggesting “consider the longer story.” Why is it important to understand (and convey) the long history of inequalities facing Black Americans when talking about racial justice?

Lesley: It’s important to understand the reasons behind the problem that we are now facing. Otherwise, our solutions may only be cosmetic. For example, we aren’t just supporting Black businesses. We are working to dismantle centuries of inequality that have created an uneven playing field for Black people in the U.S.

The longer story matters a great deal. Telling it is vital because it has so often been hidden or gone untold. Policies that deny access to education, voting rights, property ownership, and just treatment have created the inequality that we see today. When this story of injustice goes untold, racists can more easily dismiss their own thoughts and actions. It looks like things just are the way they are. In reality, things are the way they are because we made them that way. Now that we recognize that, what are we going to do about it? That’s the first step.

Megan: When learning about the history of systemic racism in the United States and about the current racial injustices that plague our society, it’s easy for all sorts of emotions to come up. Why do you think a calm and strategic POV is important to addressing racial injustice? Any advice on staying calm?

Lesley: Perhaps the greatest benefit of being white in the U.S. is that you do not have to think about race. You are defined as the norm. For you, race and racism are a problem other people face. That’s white privilege. Now, due to a variety of reasons — videos, social media, the pressures of a global pandemic — white people have been forced to confront a harsh reality and their own role in it. Of course, they are going to be feeling lots of emotions about this. Reactions might include shock, anger, guilt, or defensiveness. My advice to people experiencing these emotions would be to recognize them as part of a personal moral, ethical, and educational journey that might be lifelong.

While on that journey, you can still strive to be humble, to learn from mistakes, and to figure out ways to make changes that are in your power to control. Humility is key to a calm and strategic approach to change. It allows you to act without centering your own feelings and to truly be with people without acting for them.

Megan: Speaking of anger and emotions, terms such as white fragility and white privilege are being discussed with frequency. I’ve noticed that the term “white privilege” alone can spark an array of emotions within some white people. Why do you think understanding the concept of white fragility and coming to terms with our white privilege important in the process of becoming an ally?

Lesley: When white people hear the word “privilege” and “fragility,” they often feel defensive, which can be a reaction to the emotions that come up when addressing certain questions. White people might be wondering: Why did I not know this? How could this have been going on for so long? What role have I, wittingly or unwittingly, played in this injustice? What do I do about my uncle who keeps proclaiming “All Lives Matter” on my Facebook posts? How can I, as just one person, change things for the better?

These questions (and the quest for answers) are part of that personal journey I mention above. It is a privilege not to have to take that journey, to continue to live without confronting the deep racism of our society. The decision not to embark on that journey, to step back from awareness, or to react by saying “it’s not my problem,” is characteristic of white fragility.

My advice to folks struggling with these terms is to actively practice humility. There is a tremendous cultural shift happening. There is a growing awareness and a desire to make a better world. Instead of denying the past and its influence on the present, let’s ask ourselves how we can build a better future. What is in your power to change? Let’s run this marathon together.

Megan: In a 2017 inspired by “,” you pointed out that “there are particular ways that, as a white person in an interracial couple, one gets an inside peek at the subtle and overt ways non-white people live with racism all the time.” This got me to thinking about subtle ways racism shows up in business. As a business owner, what are some common subtle ways you notice racism showing up in business?

Lesley: This is a good question. Some things are subtle because we’ve normalized racial disparities so much that they don’t stand out to us. Some things are also not obvious to white people because they don’t directly influence or impact their experience.

If we want to change things, we can start by asking why more often. Let’s acknowledge that the reason why things are the way they are is because we, as a society, made them that way. When you start to understand things as created and not inevitable, then you can start to imagine how they can be different. There are small changes that you can make that will start to chip away at the idea that white people are the norm and that racial disparities are inherent instead of actively fostered.

You can ask yourself: how diverse is your client base? How many Black leaders are there in your organization? How often do you feature only white people in product images? If you live in a city like Philadelphia, where half the residents are Black and you mostly or entirely have contact with white clients, customers, or colleagues, you should take some steps to examine why that is. Systemic racism can seem subtle to white folks because if they do not act, nothing changes and they don’t suffer. To change things, we have to face the truth of the unjust disparities and then take active steps to create a different normal.

Megan: I want to point out that the conversation you and I are having here is a conversation between two white women, and could be viewed as white-centering. The Season 1 Finale of in-part discusses how it’s important for white women to hear from other white women (and, how it’s important for most people to hear from someone they can identify with) in order to understand how we, as white people, contribute to systemic racism. Could you talk a little bit about white-centering and your thoughts on our conversation?

Lesley: Sure. That’s a really important point. First, let’s acknowledge that because white people have always been considered the norm, we haven’t had to talk about race or racism. We don’t experience it and therefore benefit from the comfort of just not even thinking about it. That’s a really easy way to live. And, let’s face it, it’s also unethical.

There’s been a huge sea change in recent weeks. White people are acknowledging that this lack of action is a problem. Guess what: we are going to have to start talking about race and racism. In order to do this, white people will need to learn about something they’ve ignored for far too long. And a lot of white people are going to need to get past a feeling of discomfort and awkwardness to do this.

In this process, most importantly, white people will have to balance a fine line between action and self-centering. We cannot not act. We know where that leads. But we also can’t jump out in front of the line and declare we have all the answers. This is where active humility must come into play. Let’s learn. Let’s listen. Let’s talk about racism. Let’s get uncomfortable. Let’s admit we’ve made mistakes. And then let’s figure out how to be part of the solution.

Megan: Can you talk a bit about being antiracist vs. being “not” racist.

Lesley: Sure. This is a term that Ibram X. Kendi made popular with his 2019 book, . His book was incredibly timely because the term really invites action. Our country has been built on racist policies that affect almost every aspect of our lives: education, housing, healthcare, career opportunities, etc. The inequality and disparities that are a result of these policies must be confronted actively. Sitting at home and saying, “but I’m not racist” is ineffectual and, on a whole, not true. It’s also a practice of white-centering. This isn’t about your personal thoughts and feelings. This is about actively opposing the system we’ve created. It’s about confronting the assumptions we all have about racial disparities. Now that we see the bigger picture, what are we going to do about it? Antiracism work is a process that requires continual action. Let’s remain active and engaged.

Megan: I want to turn our conversation a bit by looking at some data from the SBA (Small Business Association) to identify how racism exists in the small business world. According to an SBA report highlighted by , “ of the SBA’s Small Business Investment Company program.” Furthermore, “ of total U.S. sales compared with white-owned businesses, which represent 88% of U.S. sales.” Statistics like this highlight that Black business owners do not have the same access to business resources that white business owners do. What would you say to a white business owner about this inequality? How can they give back?

Lesley: This is great information and important research. These statistics and their history are some of the details that white people need to be learning right now. It’s not just that 1% of people who decided to have a business were Black. It’s that a lack of access, resources, and outright hostile policies made the difference in ownership disproportionate.

Understanding how you benefit from the system might be difficult for a lot of white people. You can come from a poor family, lack intergenerational wealth, and still benefit from a system that privileges white people over others. If you don’t know about all the discriminatory policies that created and foster racial disparities, then you don’t even see your own advantage. And that’s how these disparities continue to afflict our society. A cursory look at numbers might make it seem like somehow Black people didn’t deserve, qualify for, or even try for equal access. That’s not true. The truth is: they’ve never had a fair shot. Let’s first admit that with honesty and humility.

Now that we are starting to awaken to see the bigger picture, let’s start thinking about ways to push back against this system. White business owners can contribute financially to other businesses and organizations; they can share what they’ve learned from their own experience in business with people who might not have broad business networks; and they can also work to hold others accountable.

Money talks. Support businesses that are actively trying to implement antiracist practices. Demand that others do the same. This is the beginning of a powerful cultural shift. We should be asking ourselves how we can encourage this transformation.

Megan: To follow up on the last question, what would you say to a white business owner who feels as though they have not benefitted from the system, and feels that they have overcome a mountain of struggles to get to a point of success?

Lesley: I know a lot of people feel this. It’s part of the defensiveness that we talked about before. This is something to work through personally because it’s an emotional reaction.

First, I would ask people who feel this to take a deep breath and allow themselves to focus outwardly. It’s crucial to remember that this is not about you. Life is not easy. Very few of us have gotten to where we are in life without work. Very few of us lack stories of struggle and hardship.

Now, here’s what you need to know if you’re white — your hardship has not been caused by racism. In fact, the simple fact that you lived your life without thinking about racism very much was a huge benefit.

We’re at a point in our history when we are finally starting to recognize the expansive influence of racist policies and racist thinking. This is a time when we’re imagining a new, more just world. What will that look like? If we remain stuck in a position where we are demanding recognition for our own success, then we’re still making it all about us. Let’s do better. Instead of getting stuck thinking about your own struggles, ask yourself how to use the experience of overcoming to help others. That’s the true definition of success.

Megan: I want to transition a bit here to talk about the elephant in the room, Amazon.com. There is, and has been, an unignorable number of reports that Amazon has racist policies, despite Jeff Bezos’s recent claims of solidarity with the movement. What should businesses that rely on Amazon, like mine, be doing to hold Amazon accountable?

Lesley: Amazon is certainly a huge elephant in the room. From unethical employment practices to a lack of corporate taxes to commercial partnerships with law enforcement agencies, there is a lot that Amazon should change in order to be more ethical. We currently live in a society that is coming to terms with its racist past. It’s also a society that benefits the wealthiest among us, with vast income inequality and incredibly powerful corporations. I, personally, don’t know what Amazon should change precisely, but I do know that collectively, we can start to demand more ethical practices from the companies that we rely on. Boycotting companies, creating public campaigns, and promoting a culture that demands ethical business practices are all steps we can take. This is a marathon, not a sprint. And this is a time when we’re realizing in new ways that our existing structures are not working. Let’s collectively work together for change.

Megan: Amazon’s machine learning face-ID technology, , has been in the news recently as Amazon has implemented a one-year ban on its use by law enforcement. In addition to the recent developments with Amazon’s Rekognition technology, implying a lack of diversity in the technology development division of the company, Amazon has also had occurring in its fulfillment centers. According to the New York Times article “Amazon Workers Urge Bezos to Match His Words on Race With Actions,” Amazon “has a large percentage of Black employees — more than a quarter of its 500,000-person domestic work force, most of them in hourly jobs at its sprawling logistics operations, where they earn far less than their corporate counterparts. That percentage is slightly higher than among Walmart’s employees in the United States, and far higher than at other big tech companies. At Facebook, for example, less than 4 percent of its work force is Black.” What can we do about these racial disparities in major business?

Lesley: This is a vital question that all major companies should be asking themselves right now. The answer is not going to be quick or easy. The first step, as I’ve stated above, is recognizing the inequality and acknowledging that it’s widespread and systemic. Then, start looking honestly at the racial disparities in your own practices. Have conversations. Admit mistakes. And look for ways to make changes.

If we want to demand better from large corporations like Facebook and Amazon, then let’s work collectively to create a culture that refuses to accept these statistics as normal or inevitable. We can all work together to imagine a new, more ethical, and antiracist way of acting in the world, and that has to include business.

We have not traditionally demanded moral behavior from our companies and there are few governing bodies that require it. What might it look like for people to be the ones to hold Amazon and others like it accountable? How can we work together to make that happen? These are the types of conversations we need to be having.

Megan: Do you have any final thoughts on action steps for white allies?

Lesley: I’d just like to end this conversation with a thank you to everyone who is trying to make things better. I’ve studied race and thought about these topics for most of my adult life, but I’ve never seen so many people actually listen and want to do better.

This is not easy work. It’s emotional. The injustices are vast. We, as white people, are complicit and, at the same time, capable of powerful change. This is a cultural shift that has the potential to make a better world. Thanks to all of you who are endeavoring along the path to make it happen. I firmly believe better is possible.

is an Amazon Strategy and Listing Optimization expert, and the owner of . She is dedicated to helping product-based brands achieve steady and sustainable growth.

Lesley Curtis founded the communications company Sagely, which offers multiracial team-led antiracism communications services. Lesley has written articles on , , and . She holds a Ph.D. from Duke University, where she studied abolitionist movements in the 19th-century Caribbean.

Lesley founded Sagely, a Philadelphia communications company that helps build community through effective storytelling. She holds a Ph.D. from Duke University.

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