Editor’s Note: Randal Pinkett, PhD, is the Chairman and CEO of BCT Partners, a research, consulting, training, technology and analytics firm that provides insights about diverse people that can lead to more equity. He is the co-author of the book Black Faces in White Places and the forthcoming “Black Faces in High Places.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
I’ve had the honor of hosting almost a dozen town halls, forums and “listen and learn” sessions over the past few months – both within my company and also with several corporations, nonprofit organizations and academic institutions. Some were quite small – with as few as eight participants – while others had over 800 people. I’ve heard the honest, transparent and, sometimes, raw feelings and frustrations of employees. I’ve had one-on-one conversations with managers, executives and leaders, including global CEOs, as they have prepared for courageous conversations. I’ve also been inspired by NFL star Emmanuel Acho’s, “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man,” so, in deference to him, let’s consider this a candid conversation with a Black businessman.
As we are deep into this moment of civil unrest over systemic racism, everyone in the business world from individual contributors to managers to executives has asked “Where do we go from here?” That’s a common question after a business releases a “statement” (or debates whether to release a statement), holds a town hall or articulates its commitment to racial equity.
The answer is companies are going to have to do continuous work if they truly want to achieve tangible and lasting change. My advice on how they can do this begins with dispelling the seven most common myths about racial equity that I’ve heard over the past few months:
Myth #1: It’s better to remain silent out of fear of saying the wrong thing, being judged or being labelled a racist, than to speak out in this moment. I’ve primarily heard this myth from my private conversations with White people; less so within large groups. This is a time when your voice is needed more than ever. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We will not remember the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” Don’t be the silent friend. Educate yourself on the basic language of racial equity: non-racist vs. anti-racist; equal vs. equitable; White privilege and White fragility; and the differences between diversity equity, inclusion and belonging. Then find your voice. You must find your voice. It’s OK to make mistakes and you can decide how vocal you want to be in this moment, but this is not the moment to be silent and let fear paralyze you.
Myth #2: White privilege doesn’t exist. Interestingly, I have seldom heard this from anyone directly. I’ve more often heard this from people in a forum who say they’ve heard it from other people. So, let’s first define what we mean by privilege:
A good analogy of privilege is a fish in a stream. For White people, you are going with the stream. It’s not that you aren’t working hard, facing certain obstacles, experiencing certain challenges but, at the end of the day, the stream helps you swim faster. For Black people, we are going against the stream. Just like White people, we’re working hard, we’re facing certain obstacles, we’re experiencing certain challenges, but the stream makes it more difficult for us to swim. Much like it is difficult for a fish to be aware of its stream, it is difficult to acknowledge privilege when you are the beneficiary.
In other words, privilege gives certain groups unearned advantages of which they may be unaware. If you’re White, male, Christian, straight, and able-bodied, then you are quintupling down on privilege. I enjoy certain advantages as a man and yet I endure certain disadvantages as a Black man. That’s not a complaint; it is simply my reality.
If you’re willing to acknowledge that privilege exists, then it doesn’t necessarily mean you should give up your advantages, but it does suggest you have the opportunity to help those who are disadvantaged. That could mean mentorship, sponsorship or advocacy on behalf of a Black employee to help them overcome certain obstacles when they are in – and out of – the room. It could also mean going as far as Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit, who stepped down from the board of Reddit and urged the board to fill his seat with a Black candidate.
To focus your efforts, you must look across your organization’s entire lifecycle from recruitment to hiring to development to retention to advancement in order to determine exactly where advantage and disadvantage are at play.
Myth #3: If I focus my company’s efforts specifically on Black people in America, then it is to the exclusion of other groups. I have found this to be a challenge for leaders and a particular challenge for global leaders, given the differences in how race unfolds across cultures internationally. This question of whether to focus on Black people or focus on other groups is not an either/or proposition; it’s an “and.” Black people are the canary in the coal mine. We are often hit earlier and harder than everybody else. A good analogy is ramps for people with disabilities. By focusing on people with disabilities, ramps make life better for many other groups such as parents with strollers, cyclists and children. By focusing on Black people, the most oppressed group, you are helping all groups. John Powell, a professor of law and African American studies at UC Berkeley, defines this concept as “targeted universalism,” which means setting universal goals pursued by targeted strategies for specific groups in order to achieve those goals.
Myth #4: The source of the problem is racist community policing. Racist community policing is a symptom, not the source. The source is racism and there are several other symptoms of the source. Just look at the lack of representation in Corporate America. There are only four Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and they are all men.
That is a symptom. To address the symptoms in your organization, you must begin to address the source of the problem: racism. You must help shift employee behaviors and shift your organization’s cultures from being non-racist to anti-racist and that means a culture that is not passive on matters of racism, but rather, is actively seeking to dismantle racism. This leads to Myth #5 …
Myth #5: Individuals are the problem. Before we point out specific people, we need to address the racist cultures, racist laws, and racist policies, that produce racist individuals. There are four dimensions of racism: internalized, which speaks to your beliefs; interpersonal, which speaks to your behavior; institutional, which speaks to your organizational culture, and structural, which speaks to society. You can’t reduce these problems to individuals because you otherwise ignore the complexities of race; you obscure the four dimensions of racism. If you are an executive or a CEO, you have the opportunity to influence and dismantle racism across all four of these dimensions.
Myth #6: A plan that commits to spending money on Black issues but does not also commit to spending money with Black businesses is a complete plan. Spending money on Black issues addresses the social components of the problem but not the economics of the problem. In addition to workforce diversity and workplace diversity, you also need supplier diversity, which means diversifying the ownership of the companies you do business with. Most companies do not have supplier diversity programs, much less, a specific focus on increasing the amount of money they spend with Black-owned businesses. While African-Americans, according to the 2010 census, represent 13.6% of the US population and make up as much as 38% of a state’s population (in Washington DC, it’s 52%), a report released in 2016 analyzing 2012 data on minority business ownership showed that the percentage of sales flowing to Black-owned businesses nationally was only 1.3%.
This is the time for you to get serious about supporting both Black issues and Black businesses.
Myth #7: Being colorblind is the gold standard for seeing other people. I hear this one quite often. And the danger of this myth is that it can also lead you to thinking that the workplace is a pure meritocracy and that your company only hires the best and the brightest when the data shows that Black people are underrepresented at many levels, and especially on boards and in the C-suite. I want you to see my color. The gold standard is not to be colorblind but, in the words of Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments, to be “color brave” – to have candid conversations about race, to fully see color, and to still treat people fairly.
You must build your cultural competence, which means four things: increasing your cultural awareness; expanding your cultural knowledge; building your cultural skills, and fostering greater cultural encounters.
So those are the seven myths, but I’ll give you a final bonus myth and it’s this: that discomfort is a bad thing. I want you to know that discomfort is not even a good thing; it is a great thing. I want you to feel discomfort. Why? Because discomfort and growth must co-exist. You can’t have one without the other. So, get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Lean into the discomfort because it is in those moments that you know you are growing and, I would argue, growing into a better person tomorrow than the one you are today.
If you desire to change the culture of your organization to be more diverse, more equitable and more inclusive, then it begins with you … and it won’t come easy. Making a statement may have been hard, but doing the work will be harder. Let’s change this moment into a movement so we are never in this moment again. We can do this … together.