In response to recent Black Lives Matters demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, corporate America doubled down on its commitment to antiracism. Many issued statements of support for Black Lives Matter echoing sentiments and phraseology from How To Be an Antiracist author Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. Indeed, there seemed to be one recurring theme in these statements—a specific commitment to antiracism. While many companies have pledged financial support for antiracism efforts, they’ve similarly been compelled to look inward to address long standing racial tensions and inequities within their own borders. To do this, many leaders have understandably looked to their existing Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) councils, committees and leaders to dismantle racism and build antiracist workplaces.
Unfortunately, that seemingly logical inclination may actually be a grave mistake.
While “diversity and inclusion” may sound a lot like antiracism, they’re really not the same thing. In some organizations, asking the Chief Diversity Officer or D&I Committee Chair to lead its antiracism efforts might be as inappropriate and ineffective as asking the Chief Human Resource Officer to design and code a new Sharepoint site for employee feedback. While D&I is quite broad by design (since the focus is after all on diversity), antiracism on the other hand is a much more specific problem requiring targeted focus. Yes, there are absolutely D&I leaders within companies who also possess the expertise, racial stamina and passion to effectively lead and support effective antiracism work, but unfortunately that may be the exception more than the rule.
While unique concepts themselves, Diversity and Inclusion typically shows up within organizations as a unit that focuses on the breadth of difference—both visible and invisible—in the workplace. These areas of diversity may include a wide spectrum of very important areas of potential discrimination, disparate treatment or inequity including those based on gender, sexual orientation, age, parental/marital status, geographic area, work style….and ethnicity or race. Unfortunately, this inherent breadth creates an opportunity (if not an invitation) to minimize or even ignore focus on any particular area of difference that may not be as comfortable to discuss or easy to address.
I specifically recall attending internal diversity training sessions during my tenure in corporate America where the facilitator would start the session emphasizing the importance of looking beyond race and gender when thinking about D&I. They would then role model that by specifically deemphasizing race and instead focus on other areas within the broad spectrum of difference—particularly those providing opportunities for more comfortable conversation for them and the mostly white audience. Niche HR consultancy managing director Shereen Daniels explains, “It is very common for business leaders to approach me for help because they have tasked their D&I leader to come up with an antiracism strategy and in essence they are receiving the same plans they’ve been working on over the last few years (with a few changes).”
Possibly the best evidence of this nagging lack of focus (both intentional and unintentional) on race within the broader D&I umbrella is the dismal racial equity results achieved over the past couple decades. Indeed, one could reasonably make the case that with only four African Americans leading Fortune 500 companies after decades of D&I efforts, something hasn’t worked. Furthermore, NASDAQ is now considering requiring listed companies to maintain a minimum level of board diversity ostensibly because boards continue to lack substantive diversity. The Time article “Diversity Has Become a Booming Business. So Where Are the Results,” provides a sobering potential explanation for why companies have yielded so little progress in this area. The article explains, “Lauren B. Edelman, a professor of law and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, found that courts tend to look for symbolic structures of diversity rather than their efficacy. In other words, the diversity apparatus doesn’t have to work–it just has to exist–and it can help shield a company against successful bias lawsuits, which are already difficult to win.” Similarly, Founder of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion, Michael Bach explains, “As DEI practitioners we haven’t spent enough time on (or haven’t had the ability to focus on) dealing with systemic racism in our workplaces.”
Another challenge is that true antiracism work requires addressing the systemic nature of racism—not just the individual here or there who may make an offensive remark (although that certainly requires attention as well). One of the long-standing indictments of D&I organizations is that they’re often designed as a separate, disconnected (stepchild) appendage of the main organization—oftentimes with insufficient budget, resources or executive authority. The reality is that most significant impacts of disparity and discrimination in the workplace are overwhelmingly driven by the systemic racism that has been deeply embedded into long standing processes, policies and the organizational DNA itself over many, many years. Inherently, this systemic nature impacts virtually every area of the business or organization and to be sufficiently addressed requires attention from subject matter experts across every functional area and/or leaders with the authority to change long-standing processes and procedures.
Another glaring problem is that D&I leaders are often ill equipped or unqualified to address the complex and systemic nature of racism. Daniels explains, “There is not enough conversation about the role of DEI practitioners and HR leaders in dismantling racism as some of them will be part of the problem, no matter how much they see themselves as part of the solution.” Indeed, many D&I leaders are themselves woefully uneducated on the topics of systemic racism and racial discrimination if not unconscious perpetuators themselves. “DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) infrastructure often subscribes to an ethos of white supremacy, because process and practice are often designed and developed by white people with very low racial literacy who are more interested in maintaining white comfort and giving the impression that they care about DEI rather than doing substantive work to alleviate oppression on people of color,” insists racial equity consultant Dr. Tracey A. Benson, Ed.L.D. “In my experience the vast majority of DEI efforts are reduced to performative antiracism—when a person, group of people or organization intentionally performs an action to signal their desire to ‘be seen as antiracist’ (e.g. publishing a Black Lives Matter statement, forming an antiracist reading group, convening racial affinity groups to talk about racism) with no connection to how these actions will address the racial oppression of people of color.”
Indeed, this clear incongruence may be part of the reason why there was significant backlash after the flurry of corporate statements supporting Black Lives Matter this summer. The Washington Post article “Corporations say they support Black Lives Matter. Their employees doubt them.” highlights the frustration many employees of color continue to feel struggling with the disconnect between their company’s corporate statement and their lived day to day experience—in spite of the fact that that D&I roles have reportedly more than doubled since 2015. “There is a lot of work to be done with the people functions of many organizations who are the gatekeepers and may often project feelings of discomfort by claiming the organization isn’t ready to become antiracist,” insists Daniels. “The reality is, it’s more than likely them who aren’t ready. They just don’t want to admit it.”
If D&I departments aren’t the answer, what is?
While Diversity & Inclusion departments play an important role addressing the broad spectrum of difference and cultivation of environments and cultures that engender a sense of belonging and inclusiveness, successful antiracism initiatives require advocates and experts with specific focus on creating racial equity in the workplace. Unlike the typical D&I model, this often requires a multipronged approach with representation not necessarily from Human Resources but instead throughout relevant business areas (e.g. finance, marketing, IT, communications, strategy) or industries to target the root causes wherever they may be. Success also requires that the drivers of these efforts are connected high enough in the food chain to make key decisions and more importantly possess the integrity and fortitude required to speak truth to power—an increasingly rare attribute among D&I executives who are often more focused on assuaging executive egos. Instead of viewing antiracism as a job for generalists, it should be addressed by the most relevant specialists who know (and have significant influence in) the particular business, industry or functional area. The truth is that the race related challenges and the best path to progress in education, finance, law or real estate may be different than those in healthcare, publishing, banking or information technology. If the focus is on achieving true progress, the complex issue of racial disparity and inequity should be addressed as other business problems would be—using experts in those sectors or functional areas—with specific focus on antiracism.
Jonathan Andrew Perez is just one example of what that might look like. He left his position as a senior assistant district attorney after years working as a trial assistant and trainer in progressive prosecution, in order to found the program, Justiceology By Design. Jonathan left soon after the shooting of George Floyd because he too often saw prosecutors and lawyers of color falling victim to internal politics and embedded systems of bias that did not align with the external-facing social justice statements by organizations, law firms and public offices. Similarly, former school principal and author of Unconscious Bias in Schools: A Developmental Approach to Exploring Race and Racism, Dr. Tracey A Benson ED.L.D. has developed a racial equity consultancy focused on addressing racism, inequity and discrimination within the education sector. Benson’s 17-week Anti-Racist Leadership Institute seeks to help leaders understand their individual role and responsibility in combating racism within their school, school district, or education-based organization. A great starting point for many organizations struggling with low levels of racial literacy and stamina is The Racial Equity Institute that provides a range of workshops designed to help organizations promote equity.
Approaching antiracism as a strategic priority with the support of antiracism consultants and experts (internal or external) who have industry or sector specific credibility and experience is a dramatically different approach than just asking the organization’s diversity lead (who may have no particular antiracism expertise) to start a book club or bring in a speaker. Indeed, in order to be successful these efforts—much like other business initiatives—require targeted focus, appropriate resources and senior level support.
Should companies continue to embrace D&I departments, committees and initiatives? Absolutely, in part because racism obviously isn’t the only area of concern around inclusiveness, equity and belonging. Indeed, D&I is absolutely necessary but just not sufficient to address the challenge of building antiracist workplaces. For this complex, long standing battle, success lies in pursuing a “both and,” not an “either or” strategy.
Original post from forbes.com By: Dana Brownlee