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How to Build an Actively Antiracist Culture

Neutrality is not an option. How to dismantle white supremacy in the workplace.

By Gustavo Razzetti

June 11, 2020

Neutrality is no longer an option. Being “not racist” is not enough. Either your workplace culture supports racism, or it’s antiracist.

As Ibram X. Kendi, the author of How to be an Antiracist, writes, “The opposite of racist isn’t “not racist;” it is “antiracist.” What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an antiracist.”

Research shows that, when the majority groups stay silent, they enable the oppression of marginalized groups. I feel energized seeing all the people joining national protests. The ‘we are all in this together’ mantra, that started with the pandemic, is now shaping how we fight racism, too.

My purpose—as both a thought leader and a human being—is to create a positive impact. During this uncertain time, I want to offer some thoughts to help you be an agent of positive change, too.

I’m excited to see how more and more organizations are realizing that being a bystander is no longer an option. Welcome to the era of actively antiracist cultures. Join us.

Speak Up; Silence Is Complicity

The past few weeks have shown that the lines between work and social issues are more connected than ever. As tensions mount across the US, CEOs are offering their perspectives to their employees and the general public. Companies are under pressure; they feel the need to weigh in, so they aren’t perceived as apathetic.

“It is quite momentous,” Jade Magnus Ogunnaike, a campaign director at Color of Change, told BBC, “There was a time five years ago when corporations wouldn’t say black lives matter for a billion dollars.”

But why now?

On the one hand, the scale of demonstrations that have spread globally makes it dangerous for companies to stay silent,  even if they’re reluctant. On the other hand, organizations want to protect their market share among minorities from both a sales and recruiting standpoint. Most importantly, internal pressure is mounting, forcing organizations to change.

Employee activism is on the rise and not just among Millennials. 76% of Gen-Xers believe they have the right to stand up against their employees when they are not living their core values.

Hundreds of Facebook employees protested their CEO’s protection of hate speech, including several engineers who resigned on the spot. An employee-led petition called for Google’s CEO to cancel a contract with the Pentagon because they believed the tech giant shouldn’t be involved in the business of war.  A few days ago, an Adidas employee demanded that the company apologize for its complacency in racism.

Staying silent and not being part of the social conversation was a safe play, now it’s dangerous.

Name the Real Problem

Last week’s statement from Ben & Jerry’s – the ice cream company owned by Unilever – stood out among halfhearted corporate America statements:

“What happened to George Floyd was not the result of a bad apple; it was the predictable consequence of a racist and prejudiced system and culture that has treated Black bodies as the enemy from the beginning.”

What made Ben & Jerry’s so extraordinary is that it didn’t just condemn racism and social injustice; it called on Americans to “dismantle white supremacy” and “grapple with the sins of our past.” The company went beyond showing sympathy; it named the root problem.

Most diversity programs fail, according to research by Harvard Business Review, because you can’t just outlaw bias. Also, the word “diversity” creates apprehension and stress among white people, making them defensive. Most importantly, it fails to name – and address – the elephant in the room.  

White supremacy—a culture that favors the ideas and actions of white people as “the norm”—is omnipresent in America both outside and inside the workplace.

It’s crucial to acknowledge white supremacy and repair the way everyone is complicit. As Kyana Wheeler, a strategist for Seattle’s Race and Social Injustice, recommends, “It requires that people (particularly white people) acknowledge whiteness and its impacts as important pieces of any conversation about race.”

Not surprisingly, many companies such as The Walt Disney Co. and Starbucks received backlash from people questioning their broad (politically correct) statements that failed to address the real problem and outline how to combat it, as Ben & Jerry’s did.

Start Where You Are

As a leader, you probably feel unequipped to deal with this social transformation and related tensions. However, you have the responsibility to model the right behavior. Your employees – especially those who are people of color – are looking at you.

It’s okay to not have all the answers. Speak up. People need an acknowledgment of what they’re going through.

As Melinda Gates wrote on Twitter, “I don’t have all the answers about how I can use my voice and my philanthropy to be part of the solution. I will continue to deepen my understanding and to stand with people and organizations working toward a future centered on gender and racial equality.”

Figure out what to say, even if it’s not perfect.

Daniel Lubetzky, the founder of snack company Kind, struggled writing a note to its employees. It was hard for him to find the right words until he was pushed out of his comfort zone by an email. An employee told Lubetzky that, by addressing social injustice, he would send a powerful message to the Kind team.

Kind founder learned a valuable lesson about leadership,  “Even when words are failing you, it’s very important for you to find those words and speak up. Your team needs that from you more than you realize,” he told CNBC.

People need an acknowledgment of what they’re going through. Start with where you are, and do what you can. It will be uncomfortable, but that’s okay. It’s never too late to do the right thing and address long-standing social injustice.

Empathize with Black Suffering (Racism Is Everyone’s Issue)

One of the privileges of racism is that most white people don’t need to carry race as an identity. They get to be themselves; they take their perspectives as the norm, disregarding the struggles of others.

Just as sexism is not only a women’s issue, racism shouldn’t only be a black issue. White Americans shouldn’t need to be reminded that black lives matter, the same way the black community shouldn’t experience constant fear.

As Ibram X. Kendi wrote in The Atlantic, “To be black and conscious of anti-black racism is to stare into the mirror of your own extinction.”

That line struck a chord with me, reminding me how hard it is to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes – especially those who have gone through so much pain, fear, and discrimination. Black Americans see very little of the American dream and experience mostly the American nightmare, to paraphrase Malcolm X.

Ibram X. Kendi captures this collective suffering in a shocking way in his piece, The American Nightmare:

“What one black American experiences, many black Americans experience. Black Americans are constantly stepping into the toil and terror and trauma of other Black Americans. Black Americans are constantly stepping into the souls of the dead. Because they know: They could have been them; they are them.”

As a leader, it’s your job to understand what your team members are going through. It’s challenging and uncomfortable, but you need to address racial injustice. You, not your team members, should start that conversation.

No one has the right answer (me neither). Show that you care. Begin by asking how you can help.

The Root Problem of Racism: Understanding White Supremacy

At its core, racism is a powerful system that creates false hierarchies of human values. Its distorted logic extends beyond race, from the way we regard people of color to how we treat people of different sexes or gender identities.

In Dismantling Racism, Tema Okun provides a detailed analysis of what drives White Supremacy. Perfectionism, defensiveness, either/or thinking – among others – are the root causes of racist cultures. All these elements are almost invisible but still powerful.

Perfectionism is about showing little appreciation for the work that others are doing. It usually involves pointing out how the person or work is inadequate. Mistakes are seen as personal, making someone feel like they are the mistake.

Binary thinking encourages a white supremacy culture. As Okun explains, thinking in good/bad, right/wrong, and with us/against us terms excludes from the conversation those who are (or look) different. It creates unnecessary conflict with no room to consider alternatives or to allow different voices to speak up.

Defensiveness is typical behavior in rigid structures. By trying to protect power and hierarchies, rather than getting the best out of each person, organizations promote toxic behaviors. People exercise power by rejecting new ideas, usually being rude to others or intimidating them.  

The belief that there’s only one right way to do things creates an “us” versus “them” divide. Those who agree with the ‘established way’ are accepted; the rest are rejected as if there’s something wrong with them. This way of thinking hinders collaboration and creativity.

Creating a culture of psychological safety, appreciation, and diversity of thought are some of the antidotes. Notice when people think in binary terms (either/or), or when individualistic mindsets promote social hierarchies.

Admit Mistakes; Apologize Authentically

Ben & Jerry’s did more than just speak up and encourage others to not stay silent. The ice cream manufacturer acknowledged its own problems; lacking diversity in its workforce. As Chris Miller, its global activism manager, told The Wall Street Journal, “We have one black person at corporate headquarters. Our demographics, internally, don’t look dissimilar to the community in which it resides.”

There’s been a lot of pushback from consumers, many saying that brands are trying to look good in the middle of social uproar, but a message of support is meaningless if there’s no commitment to change.

The NFL caught most of us by surprise when it apologized publicly, a few days after some of the most prominent black stars called out the league for staying silent.

In a mea culpa video, NFL’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, said, “We, the NFL, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black People. We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.”

Goodell felt compelled to apologize when sponsors and white players started to speak up.  Interestingly to note, he apologized though notably not to Colin Kaepernick himself (the player who started the kneeling ritual to call out racism).

It seems that the NFL will allow players to demonstrate during the national anthem.

Unfortunately, many apologies seem inauthentic and look the same. They lack credibility and authenticity.

As writer Helen Donahue tweeted, it seems that most designers have been asked to keep the apologies “on brand.”

One of the reasons is that there are very few black designers part of the conversation.  Bobby Martin, the founding partner of Champions Design, shed some light, “If black designers were part of the process, it would be a much richer message. There would be more vulnerability and more action that would come out of it.”

A Culture that Practices Antiracist Activism

Expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Movement is the right message, but it’s not enough.

A recent survey by Morning Consult shows that companies are expected to help communities recover from unrest and make their own workplaces less racist. People want organizations to commit resources, not just express their support.

In the past, most organizations avoided social issues for fear of backlash. However, many are now realizing that our society is at a turning point –they need a new approach. Although voicing one’s support can be divisive, staying silent is even more dangerous.

Many US companies are donating to justice organizations that were hit by the pandemic.

Walmart promised to put $100m into a new racial equity center; Nike announced a $40 million commitment over four years to support social justice, education, and racial inequality organizations. Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Spotify announced donations of $10m or more each.

Many were criticized for supporting the cause, but lacking diversity at an executive level. Another critical step is addressing pay and working conditions for black workers and other minorities. Pay transparency is the way to go to tackle the elephant in the room.

Most importantly, take your support to the next level by aligning your behaviors with your values. Here are some great tips and advice.

I was excited to see that so many organizations stood up against injustice in the past few weeks even if it costed them.

Lego paused advertising for toys that feature police and the White House, while the co-founder of social media site Reddit resigned from its board, saying a black candidate should replace him. The American distributor of Fuji stopped selling bikes to police forces after officers were using their bikes to harm protestors.

Today, NASCAR announced the ban of Confederate flags (a symbol of white supremacy) at races and events, while Amazon banned police from using its face recognition system year until Congress can implement appropriate regulations.

None of the above companies are perfect, but their decisions show that we’re living in extraordinary times. Let’s celebrate progress and follow their example. Actions, not words, define whether your culture is racist or antiracist. There’s no room for neutrality.

Are you interested in building an anti-racist culture? Do you want to tackle the root cause affecting inclusion in the workplace, not just the symptoms?

Reach out.

What do you think?



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