Today, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2021, I woke up thinking about a marketing communications position in my 20s at a dot com start-up. It was the quintessential start-up experience—from the game room to the always stocked beer fridge to the mostly 22-year-old crowd. I was 26 when I worked there, and I was considered ‘mature’ and experienced—I had a baby, so I was the mom. Truthfully, I was one of the most experienced professionals because I had held a job since I was 13 years old and I was one of the most experienced people because I had not lived with my parents for years. The founders went from business school to mom’s garage, to our office. It was a wonderful experience, and I benefitted from it, but I see some things differently now.
For example, this was the job where the perfect California surfer MBA graduate (who told everyone that he got his job because his mother was on the board) came to me a week in as my boss, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. I cannot fail again. I need you.” And as I spent the next six months managing my boss and making nearly every decision for him (making him look incredible), I had no idea of the privilege that was at play. He was a white, wealthy, gorgeous male relying wholly and entirely on a low, ethnic working-class girl to make most of the marketing department’s major decisions. Obviously, fast forward a few decades, and neither of us would feel comfortable with that situation, and neither of us (meaning me) would now tolerate it.
I am sure that he is a lovely man and that Mark* has grown up to be a fine human who does not rely on his parents’ money or stature within American culture as a white male. I am sure that he learned not to continue the traditions of systemic racism that he learned inadvertently throughout his privileged childhood in Santa Barbara and his time at his Ivy League colleges. Unfortunately, Mark* was not the only person whose privilege harmed me in that position.
Another man, who was from a country that does not even attempt to hide its pervasive gender discrimination, made work difficult. Although he had lived and worked professionally in the United States for many years, he made it very clear at every interaction that I was not a capable decision-maker, although I was senior to him. He did not say this out loud, in front of anyone else; he would just simply refuse any action that included something that I needed to be done.
Once I was clear that this was happening and it was not merely a coincidence, I went to my boss, a young female, and explained the situation. She said, “Oh, darn, I can’t believe this is happening again.” I was shocked that this was a known issue and had been tolerated for some time, but she had goals, she respected me, and there was work that needed to get done. The man was reassigned, basically demoted, which meant that he sat in a room and only interacted with one person (his male direct manager) and was off the teams that would have forced him to interact with different types of people, including the female kind.
All of this happened in the 90s, and all of us, no one more than me, would like to sit around and say, well, that was the old days; we’ve made so much progress. Today you and I both know that is absolutely not true. Each of us working at our organizations have to be keenly aware that not only has racism (in all of its forms) never gone away, it has actually become bolder, more toxic, and more extreme in the past few years.
Every organization has to make part of its mission to extinguish racism’s flames—whether it be flaming white supremacy, standard white privilege, or toxic masculinity culture. And any organization that states that they have “solved” the problem, that there is no race anxiety or race issues at their organization, must go back to the drawing board, shred the playbook, and start again to ensure that they are not relying on their own built-in biases to come to that conclusion.
We are all biased, and we all begin to shut down when presented with information, observations, thoughts, or ideas that push back against what we feel we know to be true. In 2020 I talked at length about having the difficult conversation and what that means for organizations and for my industry, public relations.
To address my own biases, I’ve tried to read and understand what’s happening on the other side of my universe with misinformation, alt-right news outlets, and conspiracy theory fueled social media. It’s not easy because I want to throw my hands in the air every day and claim that they are all just idiots. Can millions of people really just be dumb? Over 81,200,000 people voted for President Biden. Do Trump supporters really believe that there are 81 million stupid people in the United States? The problem is that we will not be able to bridge our social and political divide until we have eradicated racism—there’s no uniting with racism as long as the embers of those flames float around as subtle hints of support with what-about-isms and the both-sides examinations, as if the other side of racism is worthy of study.
I know that much of this is out of the control and purview of business, especially small businesses that do not have the resources to solve large societal issues. However, the embers that spark from the flames of racism can pop out and land within your organization, and you may not even be aware. Since racism is such a difficult, ugly word, most organizations look to ‘diversity and inclusion‘ to build equality and right the past’s wrongs. It’s not easy for an organization to do; like humans, organizations have biases, and most have done such a great job building cultures that support those biases that they cannot see them, and they certainly cannot see them as wrong.
Many people feel that they should or would like to make a meaningful change or contribution to the conversation but are rightfully concerned about being too political, getting into sensitive discussions, and ultimately making a mistake. For businesses, a business-as-usual approach feels safest and most comfortable. We simply do not want to rock the boat or make anyone feel uncomfortable.
While you have to ensure that you are having the necessary conversations with your employees, there are other steps that you can take to advocate for diversity without putting your brand in harm’s way. Many people will advise that forcefully, loudly, advocating for minorities is the only way to protect your brand. We see it with companies such and Nike and Ben & Jerry’s. However, those are well-established billion-dollar corporations.
For tips on how small businesses can promote diversity, read my post on easy, non-political things you can do to improve diversity and inclusion. Short answer: make your digital presence and social media more diverse by updating your imagery, reimagining your events, and thoughtfully addressing your advocacy. And while you’re thinking about it, hopefully not only today but every day, I also have some suggestions on what not to do.
I recently wrote on LinkedIn about being a professional ally to Black and brown women (my phrase for all minorities or people of color). While the heaviness of 2020 drags into more heaviness in 2021, please know that BIPOC people are exhausted. We are physically, emotionally, and socially assaulted with the realities of racism daily. No platform has entirely eliminated the support of racism and certainly not the what-about-isms and both-sides conversations that are veiled attempts, albeit potentially unintended, to hide personal or institutional support of outright racism.
When considering your contributions to ending racism, to supporting diversity and inclusion, and to taking actions that show your support, please consider what not to do when being a professional ally to Black and brown women:
- 🛑 Making us explain racism to you in all its forms and at every plot twist. Google your news and political history. If you do not understand the connection between industrialized police forces and racism, that is on you.
- 🛑 Dragging us into conversations with people who are on the racism spectrum. You need to protect my energy. Maybe instead of attempting inclusion by trapping us in a room with someone who may fan the flames of racism, try supporting us more subtly. For example, just like my page or share my post rather than launching another intense race conversation.
- 🛑 Bringing your ‘both sides’ at every turn. Yes, it is true: There are often two sides to a story. However, when an unknown white person tries to tell me the other side of every race related story, it is insulting. Someone who says I love Trump cannot adequately hold space for being an ally. You simply cannot be for known racists and their supporters and still claim to be an ally. Sometimes you have to pick a side.
- 🛑 Telling me anything, actually, for a hot minute. For most of 2020, you heard the cries of Black people begging white people to stop racism. This is not something that minorities can fix. However, as we all now see, it did not work. Maybe we try a different tack: If you need to talk about race or racism, please ask a question and then listen. All of your talking and explaining now sounds a little like you are mounting a defense since it clearly has not worked.
- 🛑 Trying to get a free participation award. White people posting that they are not racist or are against racism did not fix racism. Yes, silence is complicity, but we all need to put our money where our mouths are. If you truly need or desire my expertise, hire me. Economic equality goes hand in hand with social equality, and neither will happen without the other. Your heart leads you to say supporting things. Your brain needs to lead you to take supportive actions.
- 🛑 Trying to amplify your thoughts, opinions, and ideas for a hot minute. Your voice has been heard since the beginning of time. Would it hurt to take a break? If you are genuinely about equity, you can share space quietly right now. Maybe ask for others’ thoughts instead. I know this is all so hard and scary and gross—but right now, I cannot hold your race anxiety too.