Prior to George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, racism was viewed as a societal issue requiring response and intervention from government. For companies, staying silent and not being part of the social conversation was a safe play. Yet nationwide protests within the United Kingdom providing solidarity to those in the US, commenced a public discourse about racial inequality and systemic racism closer to home. And the thought it will simply pass is unrealistic, racial equity will be one of the most important issues that companies face this decade.
Corporate neutrality is no longer an option
Companies are recognising that social change is amongst us and a corporate decision to do nothing and ‘play it safe’ is visibly supportive of the status quo. A ‘business as usual’ standpoint that values ingrained false hierarchies of human worth. Even businesses with the best intentions face centuries-old systemic obstacles, and while many organisations have promoted diversity and inclusion over the years, the idea of being explicitly anti-racist is a newer concept.
To be an anti-racist company is to acknowledge the permanence of racism through organisations, industries and communities, and to recognise it as a system of unequal opportunity and punishment based on skin colour.
The system isn’t always obvious. It can conceal itself in policies, procedures, unspoken corporate culture and routines that move people into different paths of opportunity, where White people have greater access and Black people have less, due to race.
An anti-racist organisation will acknowledge systemic racism within the workplace, from individual workers to C-suite leaders, as well as the ways wealth inequality in society may impact their bottom line though their consumer base.
Anti-racist leaders take such evaluations and examine where in the work experience they can actively make existing systems of oppression equitable by opening up paths of opportunity to workers who previously didn’t have access to them.
Therefore an anti-racist response requires everyday focus from within corporates and personal responsibility from individuals. It requires embedding into our lives so that our perceptions change, and social and workplace interactions become equitable. But such systemic change will only happen when all parts of the system change with it. This is a description of real change rather than tokenism, beyond press releases, donations to charities and the revision of diversity policies. Yes, these are appropriate actions and should be on a company’s radar, however achieving racial equity in the workplace requires more. It requires evaluation of an organisation’s culture, focusing where racism is embedded within. One that addresses everything from the structural and social systems of a corporate to the role the company plays within the economy. It requires action to be well planned, strategic, sustainable and taken seriously.
Disrupting White corporate supremacy will require deep listening, learning and action. The commitment to being for something rather than telling people about what the company is against: for White leaders to become comfortable with their discomfort and be accountable for change.
Return on investment
The idea that, in order to value human lives equally, an organisation must see positive and comparable business returns, is racist and highly problematic given the centuries of structural disadvantage faced by Black people, with full cooperation of the corporate sector.
However, businesses that evaluate internal practices to identify and break down biases and create a diverse and inclusive work environment can produce immediate gains in increased retention and employee satisfaction, as well as new business solutions that come from combining different perspectives. Corporates can also explore new products and markets that better meet the needs of Black people, which also makes good business sense.
Further consumers, and employees, across industries now look to corporates to lead anti-racist long-term structural change. Today’s consumers have strong convictions and are looking to brands, rather than government, to solve social problems. Their call for change is substantial and gaining ground, and they will choose, switch, avoid, or even boycott a company based on its track record. People are no longer compelled to accept the status quo or convinced by vague banalities about change: they want to see companies committing to action within their own walls.
It is business leaders who are expected to take a lead in making the change. One in which trust will be shaped for generations to come. It’s a moment of challenge, but also of significant opportunity, and those that step forward will be rewarded with trust and loyalty.