Solidarity Comes After Justice: The “Affirming” BLM Statement Tech Leaders Need to Make
It troubles you and weighs on your conscience — the police killing of George Floyd and ensuing eruption of outrage gathered in the streets across the world. Also, perhaps there is some commingled discomfort. In the remote work of the Covid-19 era, you realize how easy it was to forget how few were the Black faces in the office.
You want to issue an affirming statement showing your solidarity for racial equity and support against police brutality. Maybe, too, mention plans to improve diversity within your organization. The last Black candidate was deemed “not a good culture fit” but now that you gave it more thought, it’s unclear what that actually means.
If you are in a position to issue any statement then you must be in leadership. You are then most likely, although not exclusively, white and male. In varied roles, most notably as an agile coach, I’ve collaborated with you and mobilized teams to meet your organization’s goals.
Even though potential defensiveness does put me at risk, I’m tasked to fostering a climate of trust, so I’ve occasionally identified biases as impediments within comms strategy and organizational structure, etc. For whatever reasoning, I understand several remain in place. I’ve also — at your request or as an intervention — provided coaching and mentoring to expand your cultural competency.
I’ve also coached and mentored your Black tech workers — as well as non-Black PoC — on navigating biases and unique challenges of being “one of few” or an Only One within your organization. This includes workers in my local community as well as in other cities. Issues have ranged from unwanted hair attention to Amy Cooper performances to EEOC illegal.
As a Black Biracial female millennial in tech/IT, of course, I’ve had my own experiences.
Some of your Black tech workers say they can’t sleep. Some are dismayed to the point of distraction. Some work at organizations that have remained silent and feel unsafe or even more hyper-visible.
Others did receive an “affirming” statement of “solidarity” issued in a “correct” legal-approved email that did not sit right with their spirit. Another person found it “egregious” to see their organization use the #Blacklivesmatter tag in a tweet, knowing full well the last Black coworker to quit was not even offered the standard exit interview.
So hear me out when I say that the path forward does exist and it does not begin with an “affirming” statement about “being in solidarity”, a donation, or clamoring for DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) consultants.
Transformation requires a common narrative. A common narrative requires getting comfortable with uncomfortable truths:
Acknowledgment of the systemic oppression of Black lives while simultaneously centering Black well-being and taking ownership of your leadership and organization’s complicity — in and out of the workplace.
It begins with an apology.
But before you go further, I want to share my intention with you: I don’t represent Black tech workers but I do want tospeak to some of the sentiments expressed, as well as my own. I also hope to influence tech leaders who genuinely want to do the work to create ethically-minded organizations that have a greater depth of safety, integrity, and resilience. With an increasingly diverse and socially conscious consumer base, supporting Black talent and communities is social responsibility is business agility.
Begin Here: Black Lives & Why They Matter
Some of you will be uncomfortable with the candid language and descriptions in this guide. Society is structured to abstract and obfuscate harsh realities that allow your comfort to be centered. But Black comfort is centered here.
Moreover, abstraction and obfuscation of facts and lived realities is a power-hoarding tool of any status quo. What cannot be explicitly named, cannot be held accountable. (That’s why as an Agile Coach and Team Facilitator, it’s paramount to bring transparency to any situation).
Abstraction and obfuscation are also how society — and an organization is a microcosm, to varying degrees— tends to gaslight individuals and Black communities into minimizing oppressive experiences.
These experiences are often viewed as isolated personal incidents as opposed to forces within a larger system that supports, enables, and sometimes colludes, in various forms of violence and marginalization.
Therefore, it is imperative to recognize more than George Floyd in your statement but also other interconnected events involving Black lives.
- Acknowledge George Floyd in a manner aligned with the facts. A police officer strangled George Floyd with his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost 9 minutes while he and three nearby officers ignored Floyd’s cries for air. In the official police statement, the police officers involved reported that Floyd resisted arrest as a reason for the level of force used to subdue him. If video evidence did not exist to contradict their assertion, Floyd’s death would have most likely been ruled as justifiable.
- Acknowledge Ahmaud Aubrey, whose alleged assailants — a former police officer and his son — weren’t apprehended for months until a video with audio of the gunshots that killed Aubrey went viral and created a public outcry.
- Acknowledge Black women like Breonna Taylor, who are often erased in the national and meta discourses on police brutality and racial equity due to experiencing the “triple oppression” of anti-Black racism, sexism, and anti-Black sexism known as misogynoir.
- Acknowledge Black trans women, who face deep and pervasive discrimination within mainstream society as well as within Black communities that lead to disproportionately high homicide rates. Most suspects elude arrest, let alone face justice.
- Acknowledge Covid-19 as structural anti-Black racism and misogynoir meant essential workers are more likely to be Black. It also created wide health disparities for conditions such as asthma and diabetes, which are both factors strongly correlated to disproportionately dying from the virus. Moreover, Black communities are facing economic destabilization from pandemic lockdown-induced job loss.
- Acknowledge public objections: Protests are public responses to prolonged and evidenced systemic biases in law enforcement that enables evasion of accountability for excessive force and mistreatment of Black lives within custody and more. They have a weight of 400 years of oppression that in many ways only mutated to become more abstracted, allowing it to survive into modern times.
- Share what prompted you to speak up. Why do Black lives matter to you? How has it impacted you as a person? Be vulnerable.
- Using passive voice. George Floyd did not die. Police killed George Floyd. Skip the cloaked language like “challenging times” or “recent events” unless explicitly defined beforehand. Why? Because it’s abstracted language.
- Disregarding how connotation matters. “Protest” conjures up different feelings than say, a “riot.” Black Lives Matter (BLM) organizers call their protests “acts of rebellion” and the movement is an “uprising.” To be clear, multiple groups have engaged in several forms of public objection — varying from peaceful to civil unrest. Choose the description that aligns with being supportive of Black lives.
- Centering your feelings. Absolutely express how you feel and why you wanted to speak out — sincerely and briefly. You might feel really strongly about it — which is great — and be mindful to center Black communities.
- Erasing Black people, especially Black women, from their efforts and impact. Refrain from using “people of color” or “Black and Brown people” to describe Black people. Both descriptions erase inequities and injustices specifically experienced by Black people while ignoring anti-Black racism and misogynoir found in other non-White communities. Furthermore, it erases Black agency, intelligence, labor, and courage that created and drives the movement, specifically Black women’s leadership and strategic brilliance.
- It’s not “African American lives matter.” Follow suit.
- There is no singular “Black community.” There are, however, various Black communities.
Center Black Well-Being
Seeing the physical violence of George Floyd’s killing on multiple platforms, the constant news loop, and discourses surrounding Floyd and racial inequity can be overwhelming to your organization’s Black tech workers. It can also lead to anxiety, depression, grief, anger, insomnia, and can be re-traumatizing.
Black tech workers are showing up to work at this time where not everyone — potentially their own direct managers and/or leaders — will share in the gravity of recent events or how it may impact their psyches. This could mean being met with “just another day” indifference, insensitive comments, or even hostility, all of which impact safety and collaboration.
On top of that, there’s the regular ole emotional tax of working while Black. At 40+ hours a week, it’s the workplace where Black lives are most heavily policed to the level of White comfort, often under the guise of “professionalism” that is hyperscrutinized.
It’s also being more likely to have your accomplishments, expertise, decisions, ideas, authority, and lived experiences contested or minimized. Otherwise innocuous behavior such as working quietly or exerting healthy boundaries can also be punishable offenses when committed by Black people. It’s less likely to be blatant, more likely to abstracted— coded language, tone, side conversations, or backhanded compliments, which can make it hard to decide how to respond and that in itself is another form of stress.
While it varies in degree and impact, all of these are forms of psychic violence that are abstracted from the day-to-day consideration and consciousness of those around them.
- Acknowledge the impact on staff while centering Black well-being. It’s understood that you and other non-Black workers feel troubled/upset/passionate about Floyd or racial equity, recognize where the impact falls on, and center Black well-being.
- Create space for Black workers to feel their feelings without being policed on the appropriateness, validity, duration, and intensity of their emotional response.
- Amplify your organization’s mental health and wellness avenues. Quite self-explanatory.
- Explicitly assigning thoughts and/or emotions. “Impact on well-being” will suffice.
- “Checking-in” on Black workers & colleagues: This is a conversation that you would best let come to you, although it’s highly unlikely to occur. Be helpful by allowing restorative justice: apologize with sincerity. Next, starting/continuing to do the inner work on anti-racism and — not to erase Black women — anti-sexism; showing up with greater integrity and using your power to shift your culture is the best way to be supportive.
- Inserting qualifiers. If you are tempted to say, “I support Black lives but I don’t condone [looting/non-peaceful protest/insert any action done by Black people]…” Ask yourself why you need to quantify your support. Remember what you are trying to achieve and consider the worst way your message can be perceived. Would a qualifier put the value of inanimate objects on par — or higher — with Black lives and liberation?
Own Your Complicity and Apologize
Unsurprisingly, by and large, Black tech workers by and large deemed “affirming” statements of “solidarity” issued by organizations — and every company, to be fair — as performative PR at best. That’s because they are until they are demonstrably not.
Most organization’s released statements — and I reviewed many including those from fields unrelated to tech — chose passive voice over any ownership of complicity. For some Black tech workers, who have suffered frustrating, painful, and/or even traumatizing experiences at these organizations, they are acts of systemic gaslighting. Revisionist history to control a false narrative.
While DEI initiatives have been hugely popular in the last several years, data show they not been effective as hoped (well, unless you are a white female). I have a lot of thoughts on DEI, but let me just say this: ethical behavior proceeds equity. All of the “unconscious bias” and “sensitivity” training — or even equity-designed systems — are for naught against low accountability for unethical behavior.
Data also shows that a disproportionate number of Black tech workers quit the tech industry altogether, citing reasons such as discrimination, biased yet legal mistreatment, career stagnation, and isolation, etc.
This movement, this uprising, is not merely about protecting Black lives from systemic physical violence.
It’s about Black lives flourishing. Black talent, intellectual labor, bodies, citizenry, history, perspectives, innovation, creativity, cultural influence, and joy as valuable and worthy of protection.
When Black tech workers collectively struggle to flourish and contribute, it impacts the Black lives, communities, and futures tied to them. We are all mutually interdependent — as Covid-19 tragically reminded us. When Black lives flourish, it adds to our collective liberation.
So, where does your organization stand?
- At the gate: Is recruitment using an unstructured interview format, highly-susceptible to bias? Is the candidate experience captured for both accountability and to review for biases?
- Through the door: How many Black leaders hold strategic decision-making power? How many Black junior workers are being explicitly sponsored and groomed?
- In the world: Is there intentional data and technology ethos with corresponding policies tied to systems-based practices to minimize causing harm to vulnerable communities?
- Apologize and take ownership of actions by your leadership and organization that failed to appropriately prioritize and support Black lives in the workplace, local community, and beyond. This includes your Black consumer base.
- Divest from forgiveness. Invest in the labor of reconciliation apart from the need to relieve guilt or shame. Apologize without targeting forgiveness. True amends have no strings attached.
- Passive voice/justifying/minimizing outcomes. Decenter your feelings. Be explicit. Use 1st person narrative. No excuses.
- Declaring yourself as being in “solidarity” or an “ally”: Solidarity is the goal. Allyship implies “helping” Black tech workers in a manner that is paternalistic or charitable. Solidarity recognizes that our liberation is bound. Doing “the work” deepens and strengthens your ability to create an equitable and humane work environment. We are as we do.
- Becoming immobilized for fear of appearing “fake.” That’s understandable. Sit with it and work through the discomfort. Let your actions hereafter speak for themselves.
- “Virtual signaling” on social media platforms: The only media statement that matters is the one that breaks your silence and follow-ups of demonstrable positive results. Anything more can get close to “virtue signaling” territory. If you or your company weren’t #Blacklivesmatter before George Floyd, company diversity consists of a brunette and light-skinned Jerome, or it does not currently have any Black tech workers; if you are using whichever platform to share/like/post your “solidarity”/outrage/feelings instead of amplifying actual Black voices and doing the unseen inner work— I would call that an impediment toward being in actual solidarity. While it’s positive to speak out, be mindful of perception’s impact on credibility on your social media content.
Here is a Sincere Apology Example
Well. I originally crafted a boilerplate apology. On second thought, nah. I gave a lot to consider. What is the best way to deliver this statement? Let this guide be your guide.
On a final note: be hyper-aware about your motivations for making a statement. Know that insincerity lives in a glasshouse. Know that supporting your organization’s Black tech workers is a basic job function as a leader.
Divest from reward, praise, or gratitude for what amounts to treating Black lives as fully human and valuable.