With the recently passed anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, I’ve had opportunity to see some pretty grave missteps when it comes to addressing antiracism in organizations. One of the main ways this happens is when white leaders center their own feelings about racism rather than acknowledge and address systemic, institutional racism within their company.
The antiracism conference
At a recent company retreat I was moderating, my clients were trying to address their mandates, deliverables, processes, working to create antiracist policies and procedures in their company. This work was bringing together four different departments, and small group discussions were key to creating actual implementable recommendations and strategies. This can sound like corporate jargon, so let me be layperson clear: Four different departments were trying to make their company less racist and eventually antiracist by changing how they do business every day.
Unfortunately, this work was interrupted.
Give real thought to antiracism in your company
The CEO joined in the afternoon—cutting short the small group sessions—and she completely bungled any talk about racism. She should have been listening to the commentary and insights of participants, what they’d brought to and gleaned from their small group sessions. Instead, she started with vague generalities about her convictions, how much she cares about racism—she seemed on the defensive and wanting to perform her allyship and non-racism.
When she started taking questions, things really fell apart. One of the clients said, “You’re at the helm of this company with more than 7,500 employees. You have a chance to actually change our company culture. How do you propose eradicating our racism and creating an actual antiracist mission?” They weren’t being rude; they’d been fired up by the work they’d been able to accomplish and were excited to hear how the CEO might help them implement real change.
The CEO answered with CEO vagueness. “We hear you, it’s hard work, it’ll take time, but we’re working on it,” etc.
Sycophants in the audience, people who only showed up to the conference for her parts, nodded along with her vagaries. Other parties, though, weren’t buying it. They pushed. They said things like, “There are biases in our operations, in everything we do, and what’s stopping us is the policy and processes that you are responsible for. And you have the chance to change them!”
The CEO became visibly annoyed because her pat answers weren’t satisfying the questioners. The more they pushed, the more irritated she became, and eventually she ran out of clichés and had to switch gears altogether.
Tears as dominance
Where did she turn? Toward George Floyd, of course. She brought the conversation away from her role in the company’s practices and instead asserted her right to centre her emotions. She talked about how she as a mother was moved to tears by his murder, how she still cries about it often. And as she talked, she began to cry.
Was this vulnerability? Intimacy? Or was it just…predictable?
Faced with the real need for her work in the world, she resorted to waxing on about her own sadness, knowing that no one would dare question or interrupt her tears. My most generous interpretation of it is that she was simply tone deaf, ignorant of how many times white women’s tears have precipitated Black people’s deaths. My least generous interpretation is that she chose a dramatic murder to deflect attention on herself, and by bringing it up in this way caused real pain to Black attendees who were just trying to do their jobs.
It went on for a long time.
I watched the white participants on my screen tearing up and the Black and other racialized participants go blank, stony-faced, unresponsive. I could see the hope slip from some faces who thought that day might lead to change; I could see their disappointment as they realized their CEO simply was not ready to make any systemic changes.
How to respond to a CEO who doesn’t get it
I didn’t have the mandate to cut off the CEO, and I knew that calling her into a conversation about what she’d done would just derail the day further, which wasn’t fair to any of the other participants.
So when she was finally finished, I did the only thing that I could do. I simply said, “Thank you. Any other questions?”
That was it. I didn’t acknowledge her tears, because they had already derailed the day. I just moved the conversation along and didn’t give her any more space.
By giving my bland, five-word follow-up to the CEO’s speech, I gave permission to my clients to move on from it too. They, two racialized people, thanked everyone for their participation and reiterated their desire to address racism on a systems level. Nobody made any more mention of what the CEO had said.
How to truly address organizational racism?
Organizations, and especially leaders in organizations, need to be aware that every decision and direction of the organization since its inception has likely been made with a white lens. This is true in the public sector as well as the private. From the very mission to the structures and governance, finance, HR, IT, legal, all risk, merits, priorities—all are created and perpetuated with a white lens, and are implicitly biased against people of colour, especially Black and Indigenous people.
It would be lovely to give a list of five easy ways to do this, but there isn’t a shortcut to this awareness and understanding. Organizations need to engage in meaningful anti-racist training, including and beyond DEI training. Individuals need to read deeply and widely to start to undo the effects of white supremacy within themselves. (If you’re looking for steps to take personally, see my post from June 2020 for specific action and reading recommendations.)
Once an organization has acknowledged and identified the pervasive white lens in all its activities, the work is to rebuild a truly antiracist business or organizational culture. That means in policies, processes, practices. It means in hiring, mentoring, promoting. It means you should be working to make every aspect of your business not just non-racist (which is a fiction) but actively antiracist. It means running events like my clients above organized—and allowing employees’ insights and recommendations to take centre stage.
It is easy to mean well but slip back into old patterns, so a vital component to shifting to an antiracist organization is to create solid, organization-specific metrics to monitor progress. Some of these might be:
- Hiring and advancing BIPOC employees; see if your company can reflect or even outstrip the true demographics of the general population where you live
- Inviting BIPOC board members
- Adding more Black- or Indigenous-owned businesses to your supply chain
You need to be able to measure and monitor your progress, so choose a meaningful group of metrics that allows you to be honest about where you’ve done well and where you need to improve.
Your leadership is vital
As a leader, you have to take responsibility for the systemic racism in the areas you oversee. It might be a bummer, but it’s true. And you can’t fall back on tears when things get difficult. But here’s the other side of that coin: as a leader, you have the immense privilege and joy of making the world a better place, one antiracist policy at a time!
Is your workplace becoming antiracist? Are you and your colleagues being professional and active in conversations about racism, or have you seen similar displays to the one described above? What are the barriers to making your company antiracist?
If you need help guiding the antiracist conversation productively, get in touch.