Career & Jobs

7 Ways To Encourage Workplace Anti-Racism, Nearly Three Years Since America’s Racial Reckoning

After George Floyd’s May 2020 murder triggered a long overdue racial reckoning grounded in Black Lives Matter advocacy, anti-racism became a trendy workplace buzzword. Companies kicked into PR overdrive, racing to release pledges to become anti-racist insisting that non racist was not good enough. Instead, they committed to building truly anti-racist organizations willing to face hard truths, encourage difficult conversations and more toward a new level of inclusion and equity for Black professionals in particular.

Fast forward almost three years and the persistent racial disparities suggest that what seemed like performative PR at the time may have actually been….performative PR. Arguably, Black professionals are the least surprised as they’ve grown quite accustomed to the predictable cycle of tragic, high publicity racial event followed by lofty executive racial justice word salad followed by performative, vague, inconsequential actions followed by a return to the status quo. Rinse and repeat until the next highly publicized tragedy.

While many branded themselves “allies” as a badge of honor over the past few years, the lack of action has exposed many so-called “allies” to be more interested in self-aggrandizement than any real commitment to racial justice or equity. While many signed up for the initial self-affirming easy part—the cool book clubs, social media hashtags and yard signs—very few opted for the day to day awkward conversation, uncomfortable introspection or novel challenges to workplace norms.

But there are exceptions.

Long since the company-wide racial equity platitudes have dissolved into faint, deja-vu like whispers, there are some with deep, sincere reservoirs of commitment not quite sure how to redirect their organizations back to the anti-racism path. As we approach the three-year anniversary of many of these coporate commitments, it’s a great time for these dedicated advocates to recharge and recommit to creating a more anti-racist workplace. Here are seven demonstrable ways to make a discernable difference.

1. Revive the term anti-racism.

A funny thing happened since the summer of 2020. Workplaces started talking less and less about racism, racial justice and racial equity and more and more about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and belonging. All are very important concepts, but in a tragically ironic “all lives matter” vs. “Black Lives Matter” sorta way, the latter is too often weaponized as a guise to spinelessly and conspicuously avoid any consequential, durable focus on the former. Consciously use terminology derived from the word ‘race’ to help normalize that specificity.

2. Suggest anti-racism specific initiatives.

Expand on the previous suggestion by redirecting conversations where more generic DEI solutions are proposed to address racism specific problems. In most organizations DEI alone has not successfully addressed racism so the persistent racial disparities suggest that specific, targeted anti-racism initiatives are also necessary. Encourage a “both and” approach that supports broad DEI efforts but also calls for specific anti-racism focused goals, activities and resources.

If you’re not quite sure where to start, study Shereen Daniel’s The Anti-Racist Organization: Dismantling Systemic Racism in the Workplace. Remember though that the book is merely a tool to help guide future action and of very little utility on its own, not unlike a hammer that lays in a drawer for a decade. Read it to help inspire and coordinate future action for you and your organization.

3. Push back against use of the pejorative “woke.”

The modern term “woke” is to anti-racism what the n-word is to broader society. It’s both an appropriation and a slur and should not be used in a pejorative sense at any time. As a pejorative, it’s code for “we’re really going too far with this equity stuff” but since that sounds too much like crude, primordial racism, sexism and/or homophobia, the ill-defined “woke” is simply used as a convenient euphemism.

Conservative writer Bethany Mandel’s interview recently went viral for her inability to provide a simple definition when asked even though she’d written a book with an entire chapter dedicated to defining ‘woke.’

It’s an offensive term that mocks historically marginalized communities’ efforts to fight for equity. Its use makes many feel targeted, minimized and belittled. Insist that it not be used in the workplace. (More on this in my next article.)

4. Ask provocative questions in a meeting.

One of my favorite Dr. King quotes is “In the end, we’ll remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Unfortunately, many workplaces are filled with microaggressions and inappropriate comments as well as legacy policies and processes impacted by systemic racism, but feeling bad about that is not anti-racism. Wishing things were different is not anti-racism. Telling someone after a meeting that you agreed with their controversial comment is not anti-racism.

Putting your hand in the air when a race related issue isn’t being raised or addressed but should be—that’s anti-racism.

One of the best ways to raise difficult issues or push against the momentum of just maintaining the status quo is to turn your concern into a question. The question doesn’t just stop the momentum, but it also creates a space for others who might share your concern to chime in as well.

5. Develop a meeting culture that embraces push back.

To really boost the impact of suggestion #4, actively work to build a meeting culture that embraces candor, questioning and pushback. (This has so many amazing benefits that extend well beyond the equity space.) A team that I led rotated the role of devil’s advocate to try to shift our culture to one that naturally embraced push back. For each meeting a different person would play the role of devil’s advocate, and they would wear a toy badge indicating their role for the meeting. It worked so well that if the person wasn’t doing “their job” by questioning ideas, raising concerns, etc., the team would call them out on it. Eventually, we stopped using the badge because we no longer needed it. Our meeting culture had shifted.

6. Find 3-4 others similarly committed to anti-racism and stay in communication.

It is so helpful to surround yourself with a handful of others who are similarly determined and passionate in order to protect your mental health, keep you motivated and act as a source of support and reassurance when you experience gaslighting or worse. It’s also helpful to have a small team already in place so that as issues arise where you need support or perhaps want to surface it as a group, you’re ready.

7. Print out your organization’s summer 2020 anti-racism pledge (or other communication) for use as an accountability tool.

If a goal is perpetually aspirational, it’s not a goal; it’s an empty promise at best. If my kids are in college, but I’m still determined to lose the baby weight, I’m only deluding myself. As the three year anniversary of George Floyd’s death approaches, ask leadership to provide a readout on goal attainment levels for previously articulated goals.

To encourage accountability on an ongoing basis, pose the same types of questions that you would of any real corporate priority. “What does success look like? What are key metrics? Have we identified root causes for disparate outcomes? What is our timeline for goal attainment? Who are champions for each goal? What resources have been allocated for goal attainment?”

Many organizations issued public statements and pledged money after the George Floyd tragedy and subsequent protests for the same reason that you might Venmo $20 to the class parent instead of volunteering to bake brownies and send them to school—it’s easier, quicker and you feel good about contributing, but that short cut, check the box approach won’t come close to detangling and diffusing centuries of deeply ingrained racial discrimination and oppression. It won’t change corporate cultures or shift belief systems. It will just allow you to cross something off your to-do list and rest easier because you did something, even if it was just the bare minimum.

Virtually everyone engaged in this work in any real way agrees that rooting out systemic racism and shifting corporate cultures is tedious, painstaking work. Can we also agree that nibbling around the edges with occasional speakers and heritage month reflections won’t get us there? The great news is that seismic shifts don’t necessarily require larger than life charismatic personalities constantly protesting and demanding monumental change. Instead, what’s arguably more powerful is regular, every day advocates who are truly committed to small, persistent actions. As Margaret Mead famously said, “A small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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