Companies Without Racists can Perpetuate Racism

No Racism

First, it was the we-are-in-this-together COVID-19 letters. Every company felt the need to send an email saying they hoped we were doing well in these difficult times and offering a reminder that even though we’re apart, we’re still together. Now it’s time for the Black Lives Matter emails. I’ve noticed they have a similar format. The four elements include:

  1. A summary of recent events (“The past few days and weeks…”)
  2. A statement of solidarity (“We stand with black people!”)
  3. A summary of how the company does good (“We are donating!”)
  4. A reaffirmation of care (“We will continue to support justice.”)

There’s nothing wrong with public statements acknowledging the incredible pain and trauma permeating the world. In fact, saying something is the least we can do. An email is not enough, though, and companies big and small are being called to task for it. It is not enough to not be racist. We need to actively be anti-racist. Esteemed psychologist, author, and former Spelman College president Beverly Tatum writes, “In order to interrupt systemic racism, we have to be working all the time.”

Systemic racism is reinforced by silence and inactivity. Diversity has been on our radar here at Gravitational and it has been important to use to encourage respectful behavior as well as the maintenance of a safe and holistically healthy environment. Still, in explicit and implicit ways, we had other priorities as a company. Other things came before the goal of fully addressing issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

It’s painful to say that. I’m the Director of Human Resources, so I have an important role to play in diversity and inclusion, recruitment and hiring practices, policies, supervision, and organizational culture. I’m complicit in our company not doing everything we can to have clear and comprehensive systems and policies related to diversity and anti-racism. I’m also a Black woman and the mother of Black sons, so the sting of guilt and embarrassment about what we could and should have been doing is profound.

I’m intentional in the use of the words embarrassment and guilt versus shame. In Brené Brown’s work Dare to Lead, she defines shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and that something we have done makes us unworthy. Shame leaves us feeling immobilized, disconnected, and more interested in hiding our inadequacies. This is the danger of seeing racism as binary: either we are racist or we’re not racist. If we see ourselves as “good,” we want to be in the “not racist” category and any feelings that might fall in the “racist” category cause shame. In fact, we may not talk about racism at all because of that shame.

Racism is not a binary. Racism is the air that we breathe—much more toxic and pervasive than coronavirus. All of us are infected and must intentionally and consistently do work to insulate ourselves against the racism and anti-blackness that has plagued this country.

Embarrassment includes this feeling of discomfort that comes with shame, but while shame makes us feel alone, embarrassment includes the element of knowing we’re not the only ones who have participated in the embarrassing action. Not doing enough to end racism isn’t just a Gravitational problem. It’s a national embarrassment.

Guilt, in comparison, is feeling bad about something when we compare our actions to our values and they don’t match up. This cognitive dissonance should propel us in a positive direction. Guilt and embarrassment, while uncomfortable, can be adaptive and helpful in moving us to action.

You may be embarrassed that you and your company have not done enough prior to this point to increase diversity in meaningful ways. You may feel a sense of guilt about not being a better ally, not speaking up when an opportunity arose, not hiring the Black candidate when they could have done an excellent job, not prioritizing significant anti-racist work because it wasn’t easy. Perhaps the path wasn’t clear, other tasks had to be prioritized, success seemed ambiguous…well, here we are.

Perpetuate Racism

We want to believe that we are good and most of us do have good intentions. If we see a fire, we want to help put it out. One drop at a time isn’t enough, though. I’m proud to work at Gravitational, and in my six months working in the company, have enjoyed all of my interactions with my colleagues. But our “niceness” will not protect us from the just indignation of others when there is a discrepancy between our good intentions and any evidence of their existence.

According to Laura Silva in a brilliantly direct and scathing post on LinkedIn, “I’m not giving out participation trophies; DO the actual work.”

So what does doing the actual work look like? Here is a start:

This work comes with an element of fear and nervousness. It’s like when my teenager says he wants to go with his friends to protest. I’m both proud of his commitment to change and fearful that he will be targeted and misunderstood, or that mistakes he might make will be costly. We cannot expect perfection or that action will be easy and comfortable, but we must act.

Again, I don’t know all of the right answers, but that’s not going to stop me and it’s not going to stop Gravitational as a company from taking some giant leaps forward. I’ve written about Open Source Organizational Culture here at Gravitational and being open and transparent about where we are and where we want to be is a part of that. I’m not going to say we’re halfway to the finish line when in reality, we’re warming up on the sidelines. By being transparent, we can hold ourselves accountable and benefit from the collective expertise of a wider audience. Join me in moving past the shame and beyond our guilt and embarrassment and into action.

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