Corporate America Talks Race

7 minute read

It is an understatement to say that the past few weeks in America have been tumultuous. We are living in historic times made possible by a worsening and politicized pandemic and subsequent economic depression. The video of George Floyd’s murder sparked nationwide protests that have set off a nation-wide moment of self-reflection as we grapple with our own complicity in an abusive and racist system.

Corporations, and their leaders, have also had their role in this system cast under a glaring spotlight and have been unable to stay silent. In what feels like a watershed moment, many have made more direct statements than one would have expected possible . I am partial to the words of Ben and Jerry (yes, the ice cream company) myself. While corporations have been more direct than in years past, the conversations within the office (or, well, on Zoom calls) reveal a corporate culture that still has much to learn on matters of race and inclusion.

A little context before I go further: the points below are a result of both my own experiences the last few weeks as an employee in corporate America and reflections based on conversations I’ve had with friends about the response of our respective employers to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others. I share them not in the spirit of finger pointing but of constructive criticism.

Dear Corporate Leaders: You don’t know how to talk about Race

First, the hard truth. Lots of leaders are not performing well in this moment. I have numerous examples of cringe-worthy company-wide town halls from friends who have been disappointed with the language and approach taken by their leadership. I’m going to group some of the examples into a few themes below and share recommendations that are wholly my own (and thus incomplete) but I hope they’re a starting point for introspection and discussion.

Sucking the oxygen out of the room

It’s clear that a question that’s top of mind for many leaders is something to the effect of, “what do I say to my org/team?” I wish more leaders would ask themselves, “am I the right person to address my team?” The questions we’re grappling with as a society are deeply complex and require both nuance and education to get right. You can’t parachute in one morning after protests with the right things to say.

My recommendation here is to pass the microphone. Maybe there’s someone more capable of speaking on these issues within your org. Sometimes that may be a more junior person who has been leading diversity issues internally or at previous jobs. Maybe there isn’t. First, that is something to reflect on in and of itself. Second, consider instead highlighting resources for learning and giving your team dedicated time to engage with those resources, don’t just assign homework for after class.

One other note: when as a leader you get up to speak on a touchy and emotional topic, be very cognizant about WHO you receive feedback from. It’s likely you will not hear from folks who are disappointed because sticking your neck out to say, “hey that town hall was really difficult for me to sit through” when your boss is clearly well intentioned is a big professional gamble few are willing to ever take, let alone right now.

Centering yourself

Perhaps the clearest sign that the leaders stepping up to speak on issues of race and violence in America aren’t prepared for the task is how often they make their remarks about their own experiences. Considering that the vast majority of corporate leaders are not Black and have not been grappling with these issues a discussion of how you have come to realize you are racist is not really a topic of conversation with your org.

You should probably instead discuss that with your therapist or spouse.

Remaining “apolitical”

If you think the phrase “Black lives matter” is too political for your workplace, ask yourself what that says about our politics. You cannot and should not shed your humanity in service of professional norms. Although some firms are making direct statements, we are overwhelmingly awash in anodyne and cowardly statements from corporations that simply “reject racism.” Even Steve King wouldn’t embrace racism today and he’s the most thinly veiled of white supremacists. You have to go further, your people demand it of you. It’s not a courageous act to bear witness to the truth that’s plain for all of us.

Of course, this will be difficult. Your organization’s muscle memory will reflexively kick in and you will want to avoid political controversy. Myles Udland wrote about this well in his latest newsletter,

The politics of no politics that pervades corporate America hinges on the assumption that all political views contain equal parts right and wrong, a classic both sides construction all readers will recognize. And this view argues that conviction on an issue — any issue — should be respected on the basis of the conviction alone. Passing judgement on someone else’s stance is cowardly, taking a stand is heroic, and who are you (we) to say what’s right and wrong anyway?

Back in 2016, Taylor Swift famously said: “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one that I have never asked to be a part of, since 2009.”

I think about Swift’s statement all the time.

It offers such a succinct summation of the apolitical stance that so many people and institutions of privilege were taught to take. If the politics make you uncomfortable, just declare yourself apolitical. Problem solved.

But we do not live in an apolitical world. Having “no political views” is the most popular brand of politics for those made uncomfortable by what has broken their way, by what they’ve never had to confront, by the profits they’ve earned off the suffering of others. And yet this “no view” political position is a highly political stance.

Burdening your Black employees

This one is easy. Do not ask your Black employees to explain what is happening. It is not their job, unless maybe they are explicitly on staff as diversity and inclusion personnel, to explain systemic racism to your team. If folks want to take on that work themselves, please recognize them for their labor.

My one caveat here is that you absolutely should give Black employees a platform to discuss their experiences within the firm. They should be able to have frank discussions with your team about how it has affected them at work, if they wish to do so. It will be an uncomfortable conversation and it may help to experiment with how those conversations are structured (small groups or having a dedicated ombudsman, etc.). This brings me to my last point.

Jumping to problem solving

Nearly every organization has published a list of actions or promises about how they’ll do better. I think that’s great. I worry, however, about the process that led to the generation of those lists. Who was in the room? How did you decide what the problems were internally that needed to be fixed? American corporations have had diversity and inclusion initiatives for as far back as I can remember and so far they’ve failed to live up to the task. Did you take a step back to ask what we need to do differently? Did you take time to listen to your Black employees, alumni, and applicants about their experiences? Or did you get your same team of almost all-white executives together to come up with an X point plan?

Please take the time to listen before jumping into solutions mode. Too often the first meeting on these issues was a hastily organized town hall led by a corporate executive that ended with some list of promises cooked up by the executive team. I realize these are well-intentioned efforts but if you’re serious about making a change it will require a more thoughtful process and many more uncomfortable conversations before you zero-in on a better answer.

So, where do we go?

My last message is to those of us who aren’t yet leaders. Frankly, we cannot expect the current generation of leaders to have answers to a problem they never spent much time thinking about previously. If they had good answers, we’d already have better solutions . They played by the rules of a different game and it left them unprepared.

The upshot, however, is that we will need to find our voice to push and agitate and hold them accountable if we wish to see real change. Many of us are doing just that in the street at protests. We also must do it within the organizations that employ us. Create environments where you support others who speak up; don’t leave folks on an island.

There have been and will be a slew of announcements about diversity initiatives and promises to do better (see above). Be skeptical until leaders themselves are measured by their ability to deliver on what they’re promising. Demand their evaluations be updated to include metrics around diversity, equity and inclusion. Corporations “measure what matters” as they say, take note of what they’re measuring. Pay particular attention to where in the career pipeline those metrics focus. It’s one thing to begin hiring more Black people. It’s another to support them so they successfully advance in your organization to positions of leadership.

Lastly, practice having the hard conversations yourself so you develop that skillset. You’ll need it in a few years when you’re in the big chair.