Wake Up, Corporate America

If you don’t believe that racism is in the very air we breathe, you haven’t been paying attention. We watched in disgust as Amy Cooper, a White woman, wielded her privilege like a weapon against a Black man. We watched in horror as yet another Black man, this time George Floyd, was killed by police.

None of us get to sit this one out. If you’re Black in the United States of America, there’s no escaping the everyday manifestations of living in a culture that does not honor or respect you. A culture where you can be killed just sitting at home, or hanging out in your grandma’s backyard, or jogging down the street, or driving your car. If you’re a White person like I am, you can do all of those things without fear. There’s no escaping that we live in a White supremacist country whose structures and systems are geared to keep White folks on top.

Ibram X. Kendi, the author of How to Be an Antiracist, notes that “there is no such thing as a nonracist. Nonracists, historically, are people who defend policies that create racial inequity and express ideas of racial hierarchy.”

In short, there is no neutral territory here. We can be nonracist — and thus support white supremacy with silence at best and collusion at worst — or we can be antiracist — and thus explicitly oppose, resist, and dismantle white supremacy. Those are the two choices. And, at this moment when we speak about Amy Cooper and George Floyd in the same breath, the choices are starkly clear.

Companies can and must do better

It can get tiring to be an optimist today, but I am. I believe we can transform this moment. I believe in Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream that one day, “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little White boys and White girls as sisters and brothers.” (Emphasis mine.)

Most of us would do anything in our power to save our sisters and brothers from abuse and death. So, what would it take for White folks to see Black folks as our sisters and brothers? As Dr. Jennifer Harvey notes, “Antiracism never accidentally shows up.”

Research shows, and abolitionists proved hundreds of years ago, that changing people’s hearts and more importantly, behaviors, starts with creating an emotional connection. In 1807, the British Parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act — which banned British ships from engaging in the slave trade — after abolitionists posted maps in pubs and taverns throughout Europe that detailed how slaves were stacked and chained in ships. These same abolitionists then called for (and successfully drove) a boycott of sugar, resulting in radically reduced sugar demand. Emotional connection paired with a call to action led to radical transformation.

I suspect that most companies’ diversity, inclusion, and belonging efforts fall way short of engaging hearts. And if anecdotal evidence can be believed, diversity programs often harden them. They are aimed at sharing information and raising awareness, which research shows is often ineffective in driving change and can even result in harm and backlash.

Celebrating diversity isn’t enough. Training employees on how to disrupt unconscious bias isn’t enough. Hiring more people of color isn’t enough. Promoting employees of color isn’t enough. These are all very, very critical, but they simply are not enough. They’re not enough to get White people to become antiracists who actively work to dismantle systemic racism. They’re not enough to create the emotional connection that drives action. They’re not enough to turn “them” into “brothers and sisters.”

I’m the president of Articulate, a SaaS e-learning software company that has grown significantly over the last few years. As we began to dig into diversity, inclusion, and belonging in a serious way, we knew that it was absolutely essential that employees willingly and eagerly engaged in this important work. So, along with initiatives to improve hiring, educate employees, celebrate diversity, and ensure equity in compensation, we went a step further. We did something few companies were doing at the time (and sadly still are not): We set out to help our (then mostly White) employees become emotionally invested in disrupting racism.

We landed on a program based on the feature documentary, “I’m Not Racist… Am I?” For six weeks in small discussion groups, every person at the company watched high school students from a range of racial backgrounds in New York City painfully, earnestly, and transformatively confront racism in their midst. We watched White students awaken to the realization that they were hurting their Black classmates day in and day out. We witnessed the pain of Black students enduring these microaggressions and being harassed by police for being Black.

In our small group discussions, week after week, we connected deeply with these students’ struggles and pain in confronting racism. Over time, we began to feel in our very bones how their stories connected with our own narratives around race. (This experience was, of course, different for Black employees than White employees, and the skillful moderators helped us each navigate our way through these complexities.)

As a result of that experience⁠ — which is now part of our onboarding⁠ — the White folks at our company started having real conversations about race, which continue to this day. They are listening deeply. They are taking concrete action. They are having conversations about intersectionality, and how we might support Black folks who hold multiple minoritized identities. They are transforming into antiracists who are enraged, saddened, and propelled to action to change the system. They are seeing Black folks as brothers and sisters.

Of course, I would never attempt to speak for Black employees about their experience in this process. What I can say with certainty is that our company is changing. And we’re a much, much better company for it. In 2018, 24% of our new hires were employees of color. In 2019, 32% were people of color, approximately half of whom were Black. Even more importantly, our average turnover rate for Black employees for the last two years was 5%.

We have a long way to go as a company, but we are deeply committed as an organization to this journey. I’m calling on my colleagues — all those who lead teams, divisions, and whole companies — to join us. Invest in deeply engaging programs like this one to transform nonracists into antiracists at your company. Invest in identity-based organizations like Black Girls Code. Invest in fully institutionalizing equity strategies and submit substantial resources to them.

Catherine Wigginton Greene, Executive Director of Content and Learning at Point Made Learning told me, “When we first started developing an online program built around our feature documentary, ‘I’m Not Racist… Am I?’ the film title alone was enough to scare off most companies. ‘Our employees just aren’t ready for that,’ was something we heard over and over again.”

When will we be ready, corporate America, to acknowledge that we are part of the system? To own that corporate America is, sadly, one of the core spaces where people daily enact, reinforce, and support the mechanisms of White supremacy?

We have a choice. We can silently consent to this system, even as we tout our ineffective diversity programs. Or, we can commit to doing the real work, the hard work, the work that’s necessary to dismantle a system that’s killing our Black brothers and sisters.

UPDATE:

To reflect our commitment to racial justice, we’re honoring Black Out Tuesday on Tuesday, June 2, 2020 so that our team can spend the day taking action for racial justice or doing self care if they are members of marginalized communities. We have also donated a total of $100,000 to Black Lives Matter, NAACP, Color of Change, and Black Visions. We call on other organizations to do the same.

President of one of the first and largest fully remote companies in the U.S., Articulate/Rise.