Can we make Black History Month a catalyst for change?
By Jo Faragher on 14 October 2021
Black History Month this year will be an important one for many organisations. During 2020, many of us were struggling with the double impact of pandemic lockdowns and the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder some months before. This year offers the opportunity to not only be physically together to celebrate but the chance to set out solid plans for change.
With so much in the media about racism and inequality, you could also say there’s never been a more important time to celebrate the lives, achievements and heritage of Black and other ethnic minority colleagues. But Black History Month should also be about more than “performance”, according to Ekow Sanni-Thomas, founder of Inside Voices, a platform where employees can share their real experiences of workplace inclusion beyond the claims made by employers and their brands.
“We need to look at why companies are celebrating Black History Month,” he says. “They’re demonstrating they care, but it’s also about performance. Show me you care about Black futures as well.” Sanni-Thomas argues that organisations need to show how they’ve lived up to the commitments they made in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, and set goals for the coming year. “Instead of throwing a party, check in with us on your pay statistics, your representation targets. Make this a checkpoint on accountability as well as celebration,” he adds. “A party might win over employees that are more junior but the more cynical ones will see it as virtue-signalling.”
Cynthia Davis, co-founder of diversifying.io, a recruitment platform, agrees. “It’s important to remember throughout the course of this month that meaningful change cannot happen overnight,” she says. “Black History Month is an excellent opportunity to prompt organisations to review their processes, to listen to their employees and start creating the foundation for change. However, follow-through beyond October is essential.” She adds that organisations too often fall prey to “tokenistic gestures” that do not translate into long-term action. “We need to take the emphasis away from a branded Black History Month for visuals and start viewing it as a catalyst. We need to listen and then react, transforming processes and policies to create a more inclusive environment for your Black employees that will eventually become the norm. Actions and transparency in this ongoing journey are key.”
Workers also notice when their colleagues are being exploited or are expected to share experiences ‘on demand’, which can be draining on a personal level. Sanni-Thomas had this experience at a previous employer where a number of women had dropped off a panel after a previous experience led to no action.”We went through this experience for our co-workers but the recognition was not there,” he says. “Many companies use panels or conversations during Black History Month, which can be powerful and galvanise communities. But don’t use it as an opportunity for free labour. If someone is doing this and it’s not part of their job, they should be compensated – they’re not a free D&I resource.” Heidi R. Andersen, author of Diversity Intelligence: How to Create a Culture of Inclusion for your Business, witnessed something similar with a client when celebrating Pride month a couple of years ago.
“We helped them decorate the front of their headquarters with a giant rainbow flag visible to everyone inside and outside the building,” she remembers. “A member of the D&I counsel raised his voice at a meeting, saying: ‘We are over 6,000 employees in this company, and I seem to be the only gay person working here. Either you have somehow managed only to hire straight people, which is terrible, or at least 600 gay people are covering an essential side of themselves. Either way – this company should not hang a rainbow flag on the front during Pride month.’ The fact that so many of his colleagues didn’t feel psychologically safe enough to come out at work reminded him of how hard it was for him to reach that point – and to now reveal it for the first time at a meeting in the D&I counsel.”
Binna Kandola of diversity and inclusion consultancy Pearn Kandola reminds us that we should not dismiss celebratory initiatives as baseless, however. He argues that there are more discussions going on in organisations and wider society about racism now than ever before. “The reaction to George Floyd’s death last year has been very profound, and it has continued,” he says. “If people are prepared to make a statement, at least they’re doing something and it creates an expectation they’ll do more. They’re doing so publicly and can be held to account.”
Andersen points out that members of minority groups may react negatively if they feel initiatives are tokenistic or symbolic. “That is when minority celebration initiatives backfire,” she adds. “My advice is that if a company does not have a truly inclusive culture, then it is better to focus on creating a cultural transformation where everyone feels welcome and valued. If there is any doubt about the degree of inclusion in the organisation, they should start measuring it by fielding annual inclusion surveys and – based on the data – subsequently decide if it is wise to tag activities such as Pride and Black History Month.”
Davis offers five key pieces of advice for organisations looking to go further this Black History Month (and beyond):
- Have resources ready: this helps remove the burden of Black employees to ‘educate’ those around them. Sources such as the Black History Month magazine website show links to books, events and other resources.
- Create a safe place: A supportive email is not enough. Creating either a physical space or virtual Teams/Slack thread where colleagues can share experiences without fear of being judged or discriminated against is crucial.
- Schedule time for discussion: If issues are raised, allow time to have these points discussed. These could be dedicated sessions that allow Black colleagues to be heard, with follow-up actions where appropriate to show their views are being listened to.
- Bring in guest speakers: Bringing in guests to share insights who share heritage with your employees can be valuable, but remember to always pay them for their time and expertise – they should not be expected to educate the organisation for free.
- Ask questions: Create a comfortable environment where employees can talk about their experiences and to ask questions without fear of saying something offensive. If we don’t ask, we don’t learn.
d&i Leaders is a global community of senior diversity, inclusion and HR focused professionals, looking to collaborate, network and accelerate their workplace inclusion strategy.