So you’ve supported #blacklivesmatter – what’s next?
By Jo Faragher on 4 June 2020
The events in Minneapolis and across the US this week cannot fail to have shocked us all. Protests have swept America and beyond to condemn the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer, who knelt on his neck until he could no longer breathe.
As the #blacklivesmatter protests have grown, so has the anger against repeated incidents of brutality or explicit racism against the black community. A widely shared video of another incident in New York’s Central Park, when banker Amy Cooper called the police claiming “an African American man is threatening my life” (Christian Cooper was only asking her to put her dog on a leash), was another shocking example of the day-to-day racism experienced by black people.
There’s a famous Martin Luther King quote that says “there comes a time when silence becomes betrayal”, and over the past few days we have seen corporations make public stands in support of the black community – to show that they are not silent on this issue. On Tuesday this week, many businesses took part in #blackouttuesday, where they simply posted black squares on their social media feeds and nothing else, to show their support. But as black squares and pledges of solidarity flooded our social media feeds, many also rightly asked of those businesses and individuals, what are you going to do after the hashtag stops trending and the news cycle moves onto something else?
Many businesses have signposted resources, petitions or funding platforms such as the Minnesota Freedom Fund where people can offer financial support and find out more about the issues. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was one of a number of high profile executives to offer financial support, pledging $10 million to groups working on racial justice. But is there a role for organisations in building allyship with the black community in light of these events, and in supporting employees to educate themselves? How can they back up their public displays of solidarity with real actions that help break down the barriers for their black employees and their communities and families? (I’m aware that I write this as a white woman in a position of privilege, so am also learning about how the systems and structures society has in place discriminate against black people every day.)
“The initial response of manifesting support was a positive step,” says Rob Neil, head of leadership and culture change at the Department for Education. “Leaders are acknowledging that something needs doing.” Now, he says, they need to back up these gestures with real funding for employee resource groups in their organisations. “Your black and ethnic minority staff will, prior to George Floyd’s death, have already created a safe space, attempting to push consciousness of anti-racism issues to the forefront of your organisation. Now you need to invest in those intrinsic owners. It takes big bold leadership to invest properly in your black staff networks – making full-time, paid roles for those who lead them.” This is how organisations can learn more about the lived experience and needs of their black employees, he adds, not through unpaid, voluntary network activities that end up being done on top of someone’s day job.
Call out and take action
Professor Binna Kandola, business psychologist and author of Racism at Work: The Danger of Indifference, believes organisations need to do more to tackle the microaggressions that – if they are allowed to build up – sustain systemic racism. “The behaviour of the officers is likely not to have been an aberration, but instead, part of a pattern,” he explains. “There may well have been comments, ‘jokes’ and constant criticism of minorities – black people in particular. If this is, indeed, the case then others will have witnessed the actions and either taken no action themselves, or if they did, had their concerns minimised and dismissed as overreaction.” How businesses engage with their workforce now on how to become “proper allies” is crucial, he adds. Bystander programmes can work, for example, in supporting employees who witness racist comments or behaviour to report them; while taking action if something has been reported shows that these behaviours do not go unchallenged.
Lily Zheng, an organizational consultant on D&I and author, points out that – particularly as events unfolded at the weekend, many organisations simply felt paralysed and did not know the right thing to do or say. “If this is you, you’re keeping an eye on current events and know that we’re living through a moment of racial reckoning on top of a global pandemic. You want to show that you care, and that you’re trying to be supportive, but don’t know the right thing to do or say,” she said in a recent LinkedIn post. She advocated making a direct announcement denouncing the recent violent events, offering leave if colleagues want to volunteer support to black-led initiatives, and allocating funds if possible to support relevant initiatives. She also suggests encouraging opt-in learning opportunities where employees can share resources.
Don’t dilute your language
Talking openly, and not diluting your language, is crucial, according to Sheree Atcheson, head of diversity and inclusion at challenger bank Monzo. In a recent Forbes article, she said: “Make it clear you’re talking about Black issues, not ‘people of color.’ Black folks are being murdered in the streets. This is not the time for digressing or diluting the issue for non-Black comfort. There is no place for this – ever.” Companies can amplify the conversation by sharing links to black-driven research and encouraging employees to look at the structural issues behind racism. Because we’re all (mostly) working remotely, one idea might be to offer an open space on a communications platform such as Slack or Teams so people can discuss events openly, she adds.
But Atcheson also makes an important point about being sensitive to black colleagues’ feelings right now. Many will be drained by the news and exhausted by requests from friends and co-workers to help them understand their experience. Don’t add to that. “There is no onus on them to educate you,” she adds. “Use Google and online resources to educate yourself,” she says. Neil agrees: “Don’t just flag stuff up that other people have written, you’re surfing on other people’s wind,” he says. “You’re happy to put your name to mental health issues, to gender issues, to disability. But what about race?”
Time to act
The current wave of racism in the US (and globally) has been described as a second pandemic, while statistics show that BAME patients are 2 to 3 times more likely to die of Covid-19. Employees and customers expect more than gestures from those at the top of their organisations and are hungry to learn (it’s no surprise that Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race topped the Amazon charts this week). There has never been a better time to support your senior teams and employee resource groups to do something tangible.
Some of the potential actions could be:
- Asking employees to reflect on their own personal networks
- Offering financial support to black-led initiatives such as the Stephen Lawrence Trust
- Create a learning hub where employees can educate themselves on the inequalities experience by black people
- Consider offering time off for attendance at protests/marches/vigils
- Reflect on who your organisation invites to pitch for work and speak at conferences, but also who within your organisation is put forward for such opportunities
- Make a start on ethnicity pay gap reporting before it becomes a legal requirement
- Offer listening and reporting mechanisms where racist actions can be reported and investigated
- Create discussion threads on platforms such as Slack where staff can have a ‘safe space’ to discuss these issues
- Racism at Work free webinar series from Pearn Kandola – 8 to 12 June
- The Colour of Class Two Part online conversation
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.