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If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem

That was the slogan I chanted at the 1969 March on Washington to end the war in Viet Nam. And it is the same sentiment I want to shout from the mountain tops in 2016 about a different, more insidious war.

I’ve been reading Carol Anderson’s book, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. It is a history lesson that I and everyone else never got in school. It is painful, chilling and shocking. You must read it immediately. Especially white people. Especially business people who are in a position to effect change. The punch line is that the racial divide is not about black rage but about white rage. White rage that has systematically (through legal and legislative processes) denied African Americans true equality in this country. I dare any white person to walk away from this book still believing any number of bromides: it is so much better, blacks play the victim, my family didn’t own slaves, reverse racism is alive and well, I don’t personally disrespect people of color etc.

You may think that this leadership and business blog isn’t the right forum for this topic but I strongly disagree. It is well documented that the biggest social changes have gotten their start in the corporate world. As imperfect as these advances are… women and gay rights, diversity and inclusion practices, global connectedness, intergenerational respect, digital explosion…they were first embraced within companies because it made good economic sense. Laws and social acceptance followed the corporate lead on these kinds of issues.

That is why I want to push white leaders harder on the racial discrimination that still exists in our companies. I’m not talking here of the obvious metrics: diverse staff percentages, people of color in top leadership roles, inclusive hiring practices, sensitivity training. I’m talking about the less conscious and less overtly hostile behaviors of well intentioned and open minded colleagues and leaders. Stuff like this:

  • Not noticing that the slate of potential candidates for an open position are all white. Not insisting that HR serve up a panel that is more varied.
  • Not noticing that a project team is composed of all white (or all male or all one discipline) members. Not even pausing to consider that the team’s results may not be as robust without some different perspectives in the room.
  • Using the word “qualified” when speaking about people of color but never using that adjective with whites.
  • Seeing each black peer as the voice of their entire race. That there is a monolithic black experience that your one colleague can represent.
  • Understanding that Black Lives Matters isn’t just about confrontations with police. It also means that blacks are invisible in your company too.
  • Understanding that when you suggest to your black colleague that he must visit the national parks around Utah and Wyoming that the small nod he offers withholds the truth. He will never go to Utah or Wyoming because it’s uncomfortable at best and unsafe at worst to be the only black person for miles around.
  • Using words like “polish” or “fit” as code for not white when deciding if a black person is right for a promotion. Not wanting to make a department feel uneasy with someone who is different.
  • Thinking of black people as too different for you to relate to so you don’t consider them for key roles.
  • Asking black people “so how did you get here” (aka. how did you beat the odds) but never asking white people the same question.
  • Seeing inclusion as a box to check versus the right thing for the business…not to mention society.
  • Not noticing that you join the all white lunch table in the cafeteria. But thinking that the all black table is an act of hostility or exclusion.

We white people do these sorts of things all the time. Many of us don’t mean to be harmful or to perpetuate disrespectful habits but we are doing just that all the same. To make our actions better represent our good intentions and open mindedness we have to take a cold, unvarnished look in the mirror. I don’t have all the answers but I have a few suggestions.

  • Educate yourself. Read books and articles you would not ordinarily gravitate towards. Whether it is White Rage or The New Jim Crow  or The Underground Railroad…learn US history for real. Not the sanitized version most of us got in school. Understand how hard whites fought (and won) to keep African Americans separate, uneducated and impoverished. Read things that make you uncomfortable.
  • Stop denying your white privilege. It just is. Period. Even if you don’t actively lord it over anyone you get to walk through this world without a target on your back. No need for guilt or denial or lashing out. Just acceptance and awareness that non-whites did not win that lottery.
  • Start paying attention. Even if your team or department is nearly all white, start calling that out and state what a disadvantage that is. Engage other whites in noticing this and take active steps to change this. Notice when the HR recruiters offer up only white candidates.
  • Speak up. White leaders have the power to make the changes. When the discussion does not include other voices or other bodies or other customer considerations (aka. non-white) insist that decisions cannot be made without additional input. Break up the monotone, homogeneous group think that is corporate life.
  • Have tough talks with other whites. Challenge your white colleagues to start on their own personal introspection and change process. Push back on all white decisions or hires or discussions. Turn up the contrast dial so that all white becomes blinding.
  • Change the headline. Stop talking about diversity and inclusion. That is so yesterday. Start talking about living up to the corporate (not to mention US) values. Values of robust dialogue/debate, engaging in new thinking, breaking down barriers, being in step with the 21st century, letting go of old ways of viewing the business/the world. To bring your business into the world we live in today, new faces are a baseline requirement.

I’m not opposed to corporations doing the right thing for the sake of profitability. After all, capitalism is uniquely American. But if blacks are responsible for all the enslaved, brutal, free labor that built the wealth of this country then it is unconscionable that they be left out of the fruits of their labor and losses. Business leaders, it is hundreds of years late but it is time to right this horrific wrong. Blacks have long understood this: until whites acknowledge this country’s original sin of slavery we cannot unite as a nation nor fully thrive in our businesses and the world.

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