Companies and academic institutions are scrambling to overhaul their diversity and inclusion (D&I) policies in the wake of widespread Black Lives Matter protests. Many of us have read the internal emails, participated in hastily-arranged anti-racism video calls, and scrolled past the social media posts put out in recent weeks.
Still, some remain skeptical that the public-facing statements are indicative of real change.
After all, discrimination is commonplace, especially at work. Many companies have been rewarding the toxic behaviour of their senior executives for years and actively keeping underrepresented groups out of leadership roles.
“My company, which has not issued an official statement on anti-Black racism, recently asked employees to sign up for a newly-established D&I task force,” says ‘B,’ a computer programmer in Ontario, Canada, who asked to speak anonymously.
“But the request feels hollow. My company has a track record of promoting white people, and most of them are male. I think only one of our senior leaders is a person of colour and we have very few Black workers at any level. The racial discrepancy becomes even more glaring when you step outside of my office, which resides in one of the most multicultural cities in Canada.”
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PERFORMATIVE ALLYSHIP IS DANGEROUS
Organizations rushing to establish anti-racism protocols are at risk of becoming “performative allies” — a term used to describe surface-level activism that does not bring lasting change but allows the perpetrator to feel good about their actions.
Performative allyship often comes in the form of vague statements about injustice. These statements feel hollow because they usually lack self-awareness, accountability, or any understanding of the deep-rooted, systemic issues that made the Black Lives Matter movement necessary in the first place.
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Organizations that do not wish to change may cite their superficial D&I policy as proof that the company’s racism problem has been “solved” and use it as a tool to further silence and gaslight employees who try to raise concerns.
In a worst-case scenario, performative allyship can be deadly.
“I am not overlooking the fact that public allyship can help spur positive change. Voices can be heard, and some small version of justice may even be served as a result,” Holiday Phillips wrote in May in response to George Floyd’s murder.
“But we must also not be lulled into believing that this kind of allyship is enough to dismantle the conditions that made it possible for an innocent Black man to be lynched in broad daylight. And we must not let the kind of performative allyship that begins and ends with hashtags take centre stage in the quest for equality.”
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DO YOU REALLY WANT TO BE AN ALLY? PROVE IT.
In many places, companies will need to overhaul their way of doing business. Studies show that many diversity initiatives fail. As the Harvard Business Review points out, some of the most successful anti-racism initiatives “aren’t even designed with diversity in mind.”
Here are four ways companies can demonstrate an authentic commitment to ending anti-Black racism.
1 – PROMOTE, MENTOR, AND RETAIN BLACK EMPLOYEES
Instead of asking Black employees to volunteer their time to fix the problems created by systemic racism, organizations can demonstrate their commitment to inclusion by giving Black employees the power to create real change. This involves acting on their suggestions and by paying them the same as white counterparts with the same level of experience and expertise.
In 2018, Black professionals held just 3.2 per cent of all senior leadership roles in U.S. businesses, according to a December 2019 report. Diversity and inclusion are more likely to become an organizational cornerstone if a company is driven by a diverse and inclusive array of voices.
2 – SUPPORT EMPLOYEES WHO SPEAK OUT AGAINST DISCRIMINATION
A key component of allyship is supporting and amplifying minority voices.
The first step towards that is building trust by creating a space where employees can open up without fear of ramifications.
“As a company, it’s vital to ensure safe places exist where employees feel able to speak about what is happening,” Sarah Shakour and Madeleine Hillyer write in a recent piece for the World Economic Forum.
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“Another way to be an ally is by educating yourself to better understand your Black colleagues’ perspective. There are several books to help you learn about white privilege and how to start noticing systemic racism, while the National Museum of African American History and Culture has released an online programme that will help you learn about race through different exercises and videos.”
3 – BE SPECIFIC ABOUT WHAT YOU INTEND TO CHANGE
An abstract statement denouncing racism for PR purposes will only further marginalize minority voices.
Companies can show their support for Black Lives Matter by providing concrete examples of what they intend to do, or have already done, to dismantle systemic racism.
For example, for the month of June, cosmetics retailer Sephora is allowing customers to redeem points collected through its Insider Rewards Program for donations to the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), a civil rights organization dedicated to empowering Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, with 500 points equaling a $10 donation, 1,000 points equaling a $20 donation, and 1,500 points equaling a $30 donation.
And Microsoft has pledged to hire more Black employees across all levels of its workforce, including at the senior leadership level. The company also says it will make an effort to work with more Black suppliers.
4 – BE HUMBLE AND GET UNCOMFORTABLE
Allyship is a skill. It’s one that is developed by listening, acknowledging mistakes and moving past them, and having uncomfortable conversations.
Allies won’t always get it right. That doesn’t mean a person or an organization isn’t up to the task. Making a commitment toward improvement and getting comfortable with discomfort will help the process.
Here are some tips on how to become an ally, courtesy of Alberta Health Services:
- Listen, listen, and listen some more.
- Don’t make assumptions. If you aren’t sure how to help, ask.
- When you learn something is insensitive or offensive, stop saying or doing it. If you witness that behaviour from others, call it out.
- If you are in a position of privilege, acknowledge it, and use it to help colleagues who may not have enjoyed the same advantages.
- Do not speak for others and do not grandstand. Authentic allyship is humble and sincere.
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