Silence doesn’t challenge systemic bias.
An anti-racist leader commits to seeing how race is used to isolate, disadvantage, and make power inaccessible to Black people. They are alert to unequal outcomes and work to dismantle systematic racism within their organisation and areas of influence.
This commitment is not performative diversity without accountability, i.e. the occasional company policy or social media post. It is an ongoing leadership practice that judges every company decision against its potential racist or anti-racist impact, one that is visible to employees, stakeholders and clients, actively guiding the organisation towards greater equity.
Yet in commencing a path of anti-racism, leaders get caught up with concerns based on the ‘appropriateness’ of when and how they should commit to anti-racism. This is a question considering an appropriate time to commence action predetermined by a corporate leader’s suitable attainment of appropriate information/training/guidance/divine intervention. It’s a question bound by privilege.
Consider it this way.
Your Black employees were ready yesterday.
They were ready last week, last month, last year and the year before that…
So in considering the question of ‘when’.
You are ready now.
And if your comprehension is one of a long way to go, grappling with how to get started, then contemplate the obvious and look around you.
Look at your surroundings
If you consider the demographic composition of your town or city, is its ethnic reality reflected within your company? If, for example, your organisation is based in London do White people make up more than half your workforce? Where in the company hierarchy are they most employed.
From this you may determine that assumptions are made in your organisation about who is an employee, who gets to be an employee, and why this is the way it is. In fact what do you assume to be the reasons and barriers for Black people to be excluded either from employment, retention or progression within your organisation.
Because let’s face it, most corporate employees are White, most corporate executives are White, and corporates didn’t become so White without a lot of unfairness and discrimination. So, at the outset of questioning your organisation’s partnership with systemic racism and your leadership within the affiliation, start with obvious, look around you and ask why.
Recognising fear based beliefs
It has never been more important for companies to authentically engage in difficult conversations about racial equity and systemic change, yet corporate leaders hesitate. More often than not this is related to fear, and to be honest, fear is really the operative emotion we’re working with right now. It’s a reason why many companies have not gone down this path before.
But to truly create change, those in leadership need to work through their discomfort and reexamine their views and actions. Silence doesn’t challenge systemic bias. And fear can direct views and action which, even unintentionally, can have profound impact on whether Black employees feel connected, empowered or pushed aside and held back.
Now corporate leaders are generally ‘fix it’ people, with a desire for strategy, i.e. ‘Just tell me what to do’.
Yet recognising fear based beliefs around systemic racism is emotional work for White leaders. It’s uncomfortable and always contains a desire to move onto something more concrete, something more comfortable. In such moments it’s worth considering that White people don’t have to think or talk about race. We can go through life without dealing with it. It’s a choice we have. It’s not a choice Black people have. Therefore corporate leaders need to interrupt their pattern of thinking and consider new patterns, ones that address the systems of power that oppress and advantage certain people within their workplace.
Within this there are three main fear-related barriers to anti-racist leadership:
i. There isn’t a problem
This fear-related barrier is based on meritocratic ideology. The illusion of opportunity equality that every employee has the same chance to succeed within a firm as long as they work hard enough. That there is no bias built into the system. Except success does not equate to having a superior or inferior work ethic, and such meritocratic criteria within a workplace diverts attention from the systemic structures and conditions that are making it impossible for Black people to succeed. A corporate structural demographic is not simply a reflection of variation in individual talent and effort as it negates long-standing disparities within the distribution of resources and life chances for Black people.
If you have surveyed your organisation and it’s demographic doesn’t reflect the ethnic reality outside its front door, then you have a systemic racism problem: this shortcoming being an effective indicator that meritocracy is not an equity solution.
ii. There’s no benefit in talking
For White people it’s uncomfortable talking about race, our unconscious biases and our privileges (though not as uncomfortable as living through and experiencing racism), but there is great benefit in talking.
There are numerous historical moments where progress has only been made because conversations were had, for example (and amongst many others): universal suffrage, gender equality and marriage equality. None of these things were achieved through comfort and silence. Conversations were started, were continued and are still being had to ensure they continue to progress. The more conversations, the more likely change will happen.
iii. There will be negative consequences
The fear of negative consequences: the potentiality of damaging relationships for saying the wrong thing, for making mistakes or alienating White employees. Of risk and PR disaster.
Compare the risk of anti-racist leadership to that of company innovation. When it comes to innovation the possibility of failure is outweighed by the need to future proof. When it comes to an organisational sea change to lead fairly, the argument is the same: the potentiality of failure is outweighed by the need to future proof the organisation. The business case for anti-racist leadership is one previously presented and one to be reckoned with.
In acknowledging and confronting their own fear, an anti-racist leader recognises how ill-equipped most White employees are to confront systemic racism. Yet permission can’t be given to White people to escape or avoid challenges to our privilege, this would be a privilege unto itself. To begin to address corporate systemic racism requires leaders to be visibly doing the work themselves. Experience your discomfort in an honest and forthright way, accept you won’t be perfect, but commit to doing better.
Changing fear based beliefs
Leadership is about inspiring others to make a belief become reality, and a company can never improve unless its leader first improves themselves. So, in order to make it safe for others to speak and enable idea generation to shape reform, change must start from the top. Change that is coupled with intention, commitment, and then action. Your anti-racist company starts with you.
Recognising personal fear based beliefs is just the beginning, and it’s a practice that requires ongoing attention to reinforce personal values and commitment to anti-racist corporate leadership. To move beyond recognition to changing fear based beliefs requires anti-racist leaders to sit comfortably with discomfort.
There are numerous ways to begin, three are offered here:
Changing fear based beliefs requires intention. The awareness of what you say and do in conscious pursuit of anti-racist leadership. It deactivates your reliance on default thinking, your ‘autopilot’ constructed from previously held beliefs, and adjusts the way you look at the world. Working within intention will boost your motivation to make lasting change.
Retune your assumptions by choosing to see and value the qualities and details that set individuals apart, and therefore challenge subconscious stereotypes. Throughout history to this current day, Black people have been labelled with a negative group identity, e.g. lazy, dangerous and angry. When you value individuality and the humanity in others, you will see Black people as individual human beings with their own preferences.
Consider how you will build your inclusive leadership capabilities: how you will make decisions in accordance with your anti-racist values. Be transparent with your employees and reasonable about what you know, what you don’t know and what you are doing about it.
The opportunity to recognise and change fear based beliefs, and the unconscious bias contained within them, is now. Recognise you don’t have to have all the answers, yet it’s time for you to step up and own your anti-racist leadership.