As we are deep into this moment of civil unrest over systemic racism, everyone in the business world from individual contributors to managers to executives has asked “Where do we go from here?” That’s a common question after a business releases a “statement” (or debates whether to release a statement), holds a town hall or articulates its commitment to racial equity.
The answer is companies are going to have to do continuous work if they truly want to achieve tangible and lasting change. My advice on how they can do this begins with dispelling the seven most common myths about racial equity that I’ve heard over the past few months:
Myth #1: It’s better to remain silent out of fear of saying the wrong thing, being judged or being labelled a racist, than to speak out in this moment. I’ve primarily heard this myth from my private conversations with White people; less so within large groups. This is a time when your voice is needed more than ever. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We will not remember the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” Don’t be the silent friend. Educate yourself on the basic language of racial equity: non-racist vs. anti-racist; equal vs. equitable; White privilege and White fragility; and he differences between diversity equity, inclusion and belonging. Then find your voice. You must find your voice. It’s OK to make mistakes and you can decide how vocal you want to be in this moment, but this is not the moment to be silent and let fear paralyze you.
Myth #2: White privilege doesn’t exist. Interestingly, I have seldom heard this from anyone directly. I’ve more often heard this from people in a forum who say they’ve heard it from other people. So, let’s first define what we mean by privilege:
A good analogy of privilege is a fish in a stream. For White people, you are going with the stream. It’s not that you aren’t working hard, facing certain obstacles, experiencing certain challenges but, at the end of the day, the stream helps you swim faster. For Black people, we are going against the stream. Just like White people, we’re working hard, we’re facing certain obstacles, we’re experiencing certain challenges, but the stream makes it more difficult for us to swim. Much like it is difficult for a fish to be aware of its stream, it is difficult to acknowledge privilege when you are the beneficiary.
In other words, privilege gives certain groups unearned advantages of which they may be unaware. If you’re White, male, Christian, straight, and able-bodied, then you are quintupling down on privilege. I enjoy certain advantages as a man and yet I endure certain disadvantages as a Black man. That’s not a complaint; it is simply my reality.
To focus your efforts, you must look across your organization’s entire lifecycle from recruitment to hiring to development to retention to advancement in order to determine exactly where advantage and disadvantage are at play.
That is a symptom. To address the symptoms in your organization, you must begin to address the source of the problem: racism. You must help shift employee behaviors and shift your organization’s cultures from being non-racist to anti-racist and that means a culture that is not passive on matters of racism, but rather, is actively seeking to dismantle racism. This leads to Myth #5 …
Myth #5: Individuals are the problem. Before we point out specific people, we need to address the racist cultures, racist laws, and racist policies, that produce racist individuals. There are four dimensions of racism: internalized, which speaks to your beliefs; interpersonal, which speaks to your behavior; institutional, which speaks to your organizational culture, and structural, which speaks to society. You can’t reduce these problems to individuals because you otherwise ignore the complexities of race; you obscure the four dimensions of racism. If you are an executive or a CEO, you have the opportunity to influence and dismantle racism across all four of these dimensions.
This is the time for you to get serious about supporting both Black issues and Black businesses.
You must build your cultural competence, which means four things: increasing your cultural awareness; expanding your cultural knowledge; building your cultural skills, and fostering greater cultural encounters.
So those are the seven myths, but I’ll give you a final bonus myth and it’s this: that discomfort is a bad thing. I want you to know that discomfort is not even a good thing; it is a great thing. I want you to feel discomfort. Why? Because discomfort and growth must co-exist. You can’t have one without the other. So, get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Lean into the discomfort because it is in those moments that you know you are growing and, I would argue, growing into a better person tomorrow than the one you are today.
If you desire to change the culture of your organization to be more diverse, more equitable and more inclusive, then it begins with you … and it won’t come easy. Making a statement may have been hard, but doing the work will be harder. Let’s change this moment into a movement so we are never in this moment again. We can do this … together.
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