In all 50 American states and in over 15 countries, protests continue over the systematic oppression of Black people. Intentional or not, racism happens every day in all facets of life. With the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and so many more, staying silent on these acts is no longer an option. Racism, diversity, bias and systematic oppression are topics that should be discussed openly in all environments.
How can organizations professionally and respectfully open channels for their communities to address these matters?
To make change, one must understand what we are changing. Recognizing instances in which unconscious bias or oppression happens is the first step to creating an atmosphere of acceptance and diversity within your organization. Whether you know it or not, many Black, indigenous and people of color have feared speaking up about these barriers because of potential and current retaliation, leading organizations to have the privileged belief that this conversation is unwarranted or unneeded.
“Companies need to understand that there are people of color in their company quietly weathering the culture because they don’t think that there is anything they can do about it,” said Maxine Crump, president and CEO of Dialogue on Race Louisiana, an organization which leads conversations about racism and is dedicated to eliminating racism through education, action and transformation.
Barriers can take many forms: all white boards, advertising in magazines primarily catering to white or wealthy communities, wage disparities, unconscious biases, failing to promote employees of color and others.
Having conversations about race and oppression does not mean asking “are we racist?” It means asking “how am I part of the problem, and what can I do to be part of the solution?” Recognizing these barriers helps identify the characteristics that need to be removed from your organization’s culture to support inclusivity and bar systemic oppression.
Historically, conversations about racial injustice have been met with discomfort, anger, frustration, and in some instances, violence. While no one enjoys these tense conversations, they are nothing compared to the everyday struggle Black, indigenous and people of color face every day. At the end of the day, this discomfort and conflict will lead to open, honest and brave conversations about solutions to the unconscious bias and subtle racism within the communities of many organizations. Crump compares this situation to childbirth.
“Childbirth is one of the most beautiful things at the end,” she says. “But it’s messy bringing that baby in. They’re screaming and there’s blood, but you got to allow this messy part of the process that brings this beautiful thing forward.”
Without loud, messy and exhausting conversations, real change will never happen. It is these instances of conflict that evoke the emotion and visceral responses needed to end the systemic oppression of Black people.
As Ijeoma Oluo wrote in “So You Want To Talk About Race,” “Racial oppression should always be an emotional topic to discuss.”
“It should always be anger-inducing,” she continues. “As long as racism exists to ruin the lives of countless people of color, it should be something that upsets us. But it upsets us because it exists, not because we talk about it. And if you are white, and you don’t want to feel any of that pain by having these conversations, then you are asking people of color to bear the entire burden of racism alone.”
Create an open dialogue.
While allowing these conversations to be held is the main goal, fostering a space where employees feel comfortable being open and vulnerable with their beliefs and feelings is imperative to the success of your goals. How do we create open dialogue? Sharing an honest truth about your organization, like the background on your organization’s history, previous actions or bylaws that negatively impacted Black, indigenous and people of color, or by explaining how “in the past we participated in racism, but we have changed our actions and are not denying we have that legacy” are great ways to start fostering the trust and support necessary to create a platform for open, honest and brave conversation.
“Companies aren’t resistant to have change,” Crump explains. “They just haven’t seen that this conversation is one they should have to do anything about because they think you can’t change people. This isn’t about changing people, this is about giving a greater knowledge that companies think they have, but they do not have.”
Having this dialogue is the most important step toward implementing inclusivity within your organization. Many organizations believe they have no issues, so by opening the floor for suggestions and listening to the thoughts of employees, organizations are able to recognize where they may be lacking and discuss ways to fix them.
But you should also not rely solely on your staff to step up and come to you with issues. Be proactive about finding them, as well. Examine policies, pay structures and organizational charts to understand who is in power, and who stays in power.
Apply your findings.
While having these conversations is important, using the data and experiences you learn about to inform what you think, say and do is the biggest key to creating a culture of inclusivity and belonging within your organization. Crump says organizations need to ask themselves “what kind of company do I want to be?” Ask what kind of legacy you want to leave for your employees, children and the world.
Conversations on race are where everything starts, but action — real action — is where the biggest difference is made in the lives of Black, indigenous and people of color around the world. Making a change can seem difficult yet if you look closely, every instance of change started with one person speaking out and making the decision to act. That person could be you.