By now you’ve likely seen statements of solidarity from some of our beloved brands, and hopefully your own employer. Statements have run the gambit, from the much-heralded Ben & Jerry’s response that is unequivocal in its indictment and call to action to dismantle white supremacy, to the milquetoast variety that ambiguously acknowledge George Floyd’s death as a mere flashpoint, unrelated to the 400-year systematic abuse and exploitation of Black people in this country.
For companies who know words are not enough, there have been a variety of remedial actions planned: donations to groups committed to advancing racial justice, hosting dialogues on race within organizations, and a promise to review internal policies and practices. The intentions of these actions are undoubtedly noble and solutions-oriented; and yet, on issues of inequity, analyzing the impact, and not the intention, is the measure we should be using to evaluate success.
The impact of a number of actions companies are taking, unfortunately, will not move the needle much in terms of racial equity. As such, we have compiled a list of five common responses to racial trauma that organizations take that they think are advancing racial justice, but may be compounding racial trauma.
1. Put Black people and their experiences on display — For organizations where Black people are underrepresented among leadership, there is a propensity to appear more diverse and bring Black voices — and their more desirable Black faces — forward that are otherwise on the margins. Additionally, open forums are planned with the goal of raising visibility of the adversities Black employees face and processing the stress and trauma Black people are experiencing. Both choices can be pitfalls.
Rolling out one of your only Black leaders can have the impact of tokenization and invite critiques of employees as to why Black voices and representation are only centered during moments of Black trauma, and not otherwise. Moreover, when you invite your Black colleagues to share their experiences being Black at follow-up forums, you run the risk of retraumatization. Trauma-informed practices discourage situations where people impacted by trauma run the risk of retraumatization. When a Black person courageously and vulnerably shares their experience with racial stress or trauma, only to face business as usual after the period of heightened visibility of Black trauma, can be retraumatized by inaction on their grievances. The experience can compound the feelings of vulnerability and voicelessness they feel and can lead to an increase in feelings of hopelessness.
2. Only donate — Many organizations that engage in racial justice work face a funding landscape wherein finding long-term, large money donors is a challenge. Accordingly, the influx of cash they receive in the wake of racial trauma is essential in their ability to be well-resourced and carry out their urgent work. Large donations to racial justice organizations are offered as a “quick fix” and virtue signaling among corporations who seek to take quick and visible action.
However, large donations alone are a distraction from the myriad steps an organization can and should take to internally live out their commitment to racial justice. Anti-Black racism in America is endemic and systemic. It manifests in organizations as anti-Black dress codes, tone policing of Black employees in offices, corporate PAC donations to politicians that are hostile toward racially equitable policy, race-based pay disparities, disparities in sponsorship for mainstream (read: white) events and Black-focused events, among other ways. Donations are quick and easy, whereas internal reform means discomfort and hard work. Eye-popping donations alone are indicative of a desire to avoid the growth anti-racist action necessitates.
3. Plan a one-time diversity event — Following the discriminatory and violent act of a Starbucks manager calling the police on Black patrons of a Philadelphia Starbucks, the company closed all stores for mandatory implicit racial bias training. Starbucks was bold in its public, categorical decision to prioritize racial justice over profits for an afternoon.
The concern with one-time “diversity” events is they’re a solution that pales in comparison to the gravity of this country’s racism problem. One four-hour training is insufficient in identifying and uprooting the teachings of white supremacy we’ve all absorbed living in a white supremacist world. From factually inaccurate teachings of the precipitating factors of the Civil War, to addressing euro-centric beauty stands, to understanding why timeliness and perfectionism are white supremacist thinking, undoing racism can’t all be done in an afternoon. Organizations often point to one-time diversity trainings as a demonstration of sufficient action to address racially toxic organizations to employees who may want more institutional change. As such, insufficient, though flashy, one-time trainings are often used to silence Black and other employees voicing their needs for racial justice.
4. Allow white leadership to develop the response — One of the consequences of having disproportionately white or all white leadership teams is, the decision-makers are not proximate to those directly impacted by the pain. In an attempt to maintain the façade of leadership, leaders may eschew humility and implement response plans on their own that don’t center Black employees and communities. White-led response plans manifest as vaguely worded solidarity statements, and the centering of the needs and perspectives of white employees at the expense of Black employees, both of which ultimately compound the racial stress Black employees and community members may be feeling.
Effective interventions around social justice should center Black employees and the larger Black community. That means working to identify and understand the needs and desires of the Black employees, clients, and community being served, and affording them equal power in decision making and evaluating success. Anything short of a Black-centered response is merely a recreation of a white-dominant power relationship which is the very problem we’re seeking to remedy.
5. Refer to existing diversity, equity, and inclusion plans — From Fortune 100 companies to local government, many entities are bringing on professionals in diversity, equity, and inclusion roles. One product of this move is the proliferation of diversity and inclusion strategies, plans, goals, and commitments. These diversity and inclusion documents are good-faith efforts supported by meaningful budgets to move the needle on diversity and inclusion.
The tension is, diversity and inclusion plans are broad initiatives that often cover a broad spectrum of social groups and inequities. Although we often conflate “diversity” to mean racial diversity, many diversity and inclusion plans side-step addressing racial inequities in substantive ways given many people’s discomfort with the topic. In moments like this, referring to diversity and inclusion plans can be perceived as being defensive. Some organizations think simply having a diversity and inclusion strategic plan should check the “commitment to diversity” box, and that the existence of a diversity and inclusion plan precludes them from having to respond in the moment. Your employees should already be well aware of your work and plans on diversity and inclusion, so be present in the moment and hear the needs of the moment.
The organization where you work, volunteer, financially support, or visit is likely to be taking some of the steps outlined above, and it’s understandable. Our collective lack of will to acknowledge and address the impact of slavery and racism in this country means a lack of preparation in being able to effectively respond to some of the more violent flare-ups of our country’s legacy of racism. To help support the development of effective responses, I encourage the following:
Humility — With the possible exception of Black-led, Black-serving intuitions, most organizations have a long journey ahead of them to stop participating in the perpetuation of racism, and subsequently work to dismantle racism. It’s okay to acknowledge the work that lies ahead. Many of your Black employees and clients can see your organization’s blind spots on anti-Blackness. Be humble and validate how they see your organizations.
Center Black people in your response — Groups that are currently suffering are the ones best positioned to tell you what’s causing their suffering. Listen to the needs of Black communities, and that means not taking action without meaningfully engaging with a diverse cross-section of your Black employees and clients. Your Black employees are not a monolith and are not experiencing this the same. Having different experiences, Black people will have different needs and requests for support and action.
Accept there is no perfect response — You’re going to make mistakes in your response. Black people have to put in the effort to address internalized anti-Blackness, and they are directly impacted by anti-Black racism. To think that you can show up with a data-informed, design-thinking derived perfect solution is unrealistic and patronizing. Instead, have compassion as you continue to learn. You too have been harmed by white-supremacist education and culture that has likely resulted in some miseducation during your life.
Commit to early changes — Not to contradict the advice of gathering input before acting, there are likely small steps your organization’s leadership can take prior to consulting others. If leadership has previously received feedback on ways to improve, commit to rectifying the problem in your response. Equally important, is doing initial research. Read a few articles or books, and review internal data to see if there is low-hanging fruit you can address immediately and foster goodwill.
Play the long-game — Organizations are in a race to get in front on racial justice. There are no statements or short-term fixes to systemic and institutional racism. If you think there are, you’ve already contradicted the commitment to addressing racism you likely espoused in your solidarity statement. So read the books, watch the films, attend the Black events. Get uncomfortable and know that discomfort precedes growth. The organizations that are still talking about organizational racism a year from now will be the ones that lead the racially diverse future ahead.
If we want to stem the tide of racially traumatic events that will warrant future organizational responses, we have to effectively respond to the racial trauma many are currently experiencing.
EQuity Social Venture provides training, consulting, and coaching services to help organizations increase the efficacy of their racial justice work by using social emotional learning.