A Bend on the Road to Equality: Four Ways to Stick with Uncomfortable Change
For organizations, addressing systemic inequalities — driving forward to an equitable and just society — is an epic journey. We must not quit or give up.
Everything we have experienced since George Floyd’s death seems like déjà vu.
In a much broader context, it feels like the more inequity we surface, the more familiar it is to the past. We have been on this journey for a long time. While it is obvious that we are far from where we began, we also know without a doubt that there is still a very long way to go.
As a Gen-Xer and a parent, I exemplify a generation that combines guarded optimism and some anxiety. Historically, for every step made in the right direction, we have seen at least two steps in the opposite direction.
The more we gaze and reflect, the more pronounced the faults appear, and the excuses to justify the imbalance are as baffling as can be. This selective blindness is both infuriating and frustrating. Yet there is a glimmer of hope because we are finally having conversations within the corporate world. We are amplifying the biases and barriers buried deep within the system — topics that were once taboo.
I am hopeful that the attention and momentum built in our consciousness in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death will continue to motivate us to action. Yet, I worry that as life goes on, we may become distracted and disillusioned by the energy, effort, and focus required to institute and maintain lasting change.
The faint applause
The data reveals the minuscule gains over the years: diversity and inclusion figures are flatlined, and the readiness to justify these numbers is overwhelmingly frustrating. We must embrace this moment for what it presents, without hesitation, as we remember the sacrifices, dreams, and patience of those who came before us, the pioneers who laid the tracks for the roads we ply.
We have the benefit of history. Our ancestors have shown us the way. The journey has never been fast enough, but it has followed the path of justice. We must keep our “inconvenient optimism” going and not give up. We lean sideways for the faint applause of our ancestors with the understanding that the flickering light of hope and justice may be delayed, but it will not be denied.
As with any long travel, fatigue can set in. It is at that moment that we must maintain focus, keep the faith, and firmly dig in. Long-lasting change takes time. It is helpful to see that Glassdoor has introduced a diversity and inclusion ranking tool for organizations. This helps put the grave danger posed by systemic racism at the fore of our discourse and psyche. In the associated trauma of systemic racism, historical injustices have disproportionately affected many of our communities of color. We must be intentional about the work we are doing.
Here are four ways organizations should continue to engage at this time.
1. MIND: Keep learning and unlearning.
Our shared mandate is to preserve, nurture, and celebrate equity, justice, and diversity. We are past the clarifying phase, and it’s high time we leverage what we know — insights, research, and data — to influence our organizations and communities. This mandate falls on leadership. Making leaders accountable and rewarding the results is not only a smart business decision but the right one.
There is a relearning that has to happen in tandem with all the new learning of this moment. There is undeniable pressure to acquiesce to the status quo — to ignore and discard inconvenient truths, hoping that we will eventually forget them. That is a cop-out, for the facts will remain. The sooner leaders confront the inevitable, the better it is for everyone.
If there are not enough chairs, we must create them or be creative with the ones we have. If doors are not open, we must keep knocking.
We must do away with mind games as we broadly examine institutional policies with the lens of equity and justice.
Those who seek to create equity must remember that head-based change soothes but does not solve long-lasting issues.
To help in this struggle, we must see learning as an extension of the journey, that starts from the mind and goes to the heart. It is equally learning, unlearning, and relearning. In many instances, it is being courageous about the issues and seeking to understand at a deeper level. If you have a circle of friends you can lean on, probe deeper to assimilate and practice what you are learning.
Ask yourself: So, what? Why is this important? What must I do with this vital information? Then, continue to ask if what you are doing is helping. Resist the urge to pat yourself on the back. You have only begun to take the right steps forward.
2. EYES: Open your eyes and be color bold.
Open your eyes to behold the beauty in the world. Do not submit to a pattern of denial or the drive to be neutral. To claim to be “colorblind” is not only misguided but myopic. The world is colorful. Refusing to see, appreciate, and acknowledge the uniqueness we all have and bring not only robs us but limits us exponentially. To see, value, and embrace color — our collective diversity in the world — is to be color bold.
Ibram X. Kendi highlights the danger of color blindness in this quote: “The colorblind individual by ostensibly failing to see race, fails to see racism and falls into racist passivity.” That passivity perpetuates injustice. It not only fails to understand and appreciate the collective beauty in the world but also fails to nurture and invite the same into our respective spaces.
We must understand unequivocally that any change rooted in denial can never last, no matter how long it goes on, for it will never be the ideal.
Color bold is a commitment to justice, equity, and action. To be color bold is to see the reality in the world — to both embrace and refuse to be limited by color. It is a bold approach.
See and celebrate the diversity around you. Acknowledge and invite others into the historically “monochromatic” settings where diverse voices are needed. Make being color bold, not a flavor of the season or a nice-to-have but a grounded, smart business and people proposition.
3. EARS: Keep listening and stay vulnerable.
There is a lot to decipher and each one of us have been listening and committing to a learning journey. You may think you have it all figured out. You do not.
So, continue to learn and unlearn by prying deeper, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable as you listen for the clarion call for equity and justice.
There is a lot of mistrust and broken promises, so listen for stories and examples. Listen to the pain. Acknowledge and demonstrate empathy without being defensive or dismissive.
What you are hearing is truth, and the data is clear about what needs to be done. So, let us quit playing games and stop ignoring the obvious. Let us get to work. Do not delegate your role as what must be done, must be.
4. NOSE: Be irritated by what smells.
The status quo has a natural pull on societies. It is a safe and predictable space. And it smells!
The status quo seeks normalcy and nudges towards the comfortable.
To help, resist that urge and intentionally confront it in your organizations. And as you do, expect feathers to be ruffled. That is a natural reaction to change. Stay resilient to the mission. Let your smell irritate you. Ask the uncomfortable questions because you understand that changing patterns is not without challenge and discomfort. Systemic change requires persistence as we recreate and redefine what should be.
As you persist, you will discover that lasting change produces significant tension between what is and what can be. It lurks in the gap between dissatisfaction and discomfort. So, stay with it, embrace the discomfort, and let the pressure birth the changes we need.
Measure and track progress, but do not hide behind the numbers. Pry deeper to see the people. Do not settle for summaries or excuses. Push the envelope forward as you invite more people to the table.
Finally, remember that you are leaning into the unknown and refusing to accept the prevalent realities of the past. This is how lasting change is normalized and grounded, so stay with it until you know, see, hear, and smell it.