Conflict and upheaval can spark fear and paralysis — they can also reveal critical opportunities to question your thinking, shake loose existing behaviors and open yourself up to personal responsibility to drive change. Our country is in the throes of such a moment right now. Protests against systemic racism, and the individual acts of injustice and violence it allows, urge us to step forward to transform ourselves, our organizations and our world.
Start with yourself to combat racism at home and work
Racial discrimination pervades our country even though it often only comes to the fore around particularly egregious episodes of violence (such as the recent death of George Floyd) and then quickly fades again from public attention. White people have the unique privilege of sequestering themselves from racism while people of color live it daily.
Still, many are pointing to the scope, endurance and action-oriented responses from individuals and organizations within the current protests as reason for hope. “Progress will come through tension, conflict and the contribution of critical allies,” explains Kashundra Foreman, who holds a master’s degree in human rights and social justice and is a Nursing Supervisor at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. “History shows us that great pain and sacrifice tend to come before great understanding.”
Ally as verb
Alarmed by a growing understanding that people of color do not enjoy the same treatment as their White counterparts, many people finally want to know what they can do to dismantle racism and accelerate progress. While action is required at the national level, personal change is critical.
One way to do that is by becoming a better ally. It starts with looking inside and then focusing on action. Foreman refers to that as “doing the work” meaning exploring your own ingrained racism, educating yourself about discrimination, raising difficult topics and thinking intentionally about how everyday experiences differ based on skin color.
The topic is vast, but here are some starting points.
- Understand White privilege
Being born White in the United States provides unequal access to power, resources and a sense of belonging as a member of the dominant culture.
Recent studies by McKinsey & Company report that Black Americans are likely to earn $1 million less than their White counterparts over their lifetime and that the median wealth of a White family was 10 times that of a Black family in 2016.
The 2019 Women in the Workplace Study by McKinsey & Company shows women now comprise 21% of C-suite executives in the Food Industry but only four percent are women of color. Black women face greater barriers to advancement, receive less support from managers and their organizations, and are more likely to be passed over for the first promotion to manager level positions than White women.
“Becoming aware of whiteness and challenging passivity or denial is an essential component of becoming a white ally,” Nicola Rollock, Ph.D., of Goldsmiths University of London, wrote last week in Financial Times
“It’s not about you being nice or not, you need to understand how your experiences may differ from mine and think about what barriers I might face in a day that you don’t even need to think about,” Foreman explains.
Robin DiAngelo, Ph.D., author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism
, says. “. . . if I am not aware of the barriers you face, then I won’t see them, much less be motivated to remove them.”
Extensive resources exist for White people to educate themselves about racism without calling on people of color to do the work for them. The National Museum of African American History and Culture
has links to a plethora of video and written resources.
- Ask questions, speak up, flag problems
Fear of saying the wrong thing lures some White people into damaging silence. “Making mistakes is how you learn and do better going forward,” says Layla F. Saad, author of Me and White Supremacy
. “Being called out/in is not a deterrent to the work. It is part of the work.”
Even if you don’t know exactly how to phrase it, check into the wellbeing of people of color colleagues during trying times like these and any time you witness discrimination or microaggressions in the workplace.
“Right now, we are having conversations in public spaces that many of us have never had outside our homes before,” Foreman explains. “That is progress, but we are also angry, tired and hurting and sometimes our responses will reflect that. Just know that there is no failure in the attempt to understand someone else’s perspective.”
Hire, recognize, promote
White allies can also speak up to focus credit and recognition when the ideas of women of color are ignored. Allies can also flag issues for management, such as why a Black candidate was passed over for a promotion.
A 2017 Nielsen Survey found that women of color are highly ambitious, often significantly more so than their white counterparts. Among Black women, 64 percent in the Nielsen survey said they had a goal of making it to the top of their profession, nearly double the percentage of non-Hispanic White women.
“One of the best ways to increase inclusiveness in the workplace is to invite people to the table who are generally excluded,” Foreman says. She also suggests that White colleagues frequently ask themselves about the ‘three Ps.’ “As you’re sitting in a meeting, take a minute to think about the role White privilege plays with regard to your Participation, Position and Power,” she advises.
“I don’t want people to reach out to me so they can check a box on the corporate agenda,” Foreman adds. “But where there is genuine interest and concern and where allies want to work together to create inclusion and equality, there is hope for the future.”
Learn more about WFF’s Women of Color Community of Interest