Black Lives Matter: What can we all do?
Recent incidents of police brutality towards Black Americans in the U.S. has sent waves of shock and sadness across the globe. It is not the first time we have seen human cruelty at this level and yet, it seems, the lessons from history remain unheeded. This is a human rights atrocity, and a violent, secondary blow to communities who are already suffering disproportionately at the hands of COVID-19. This has created an urgent platform for change, but many remain unaware or unsure of what they can or should do.
We are afraid to talk about Race. Race and racial identities are complex, historical and deep-rooted in our psyches, and in the psyche of nations and societies. We don’t always understand the nuances, and we are scared of ‘getting it wrong’ and being misunderstood or mislabelled. But if we are all scared to talk about race... how will we ever make any progress?. Silence is complicity. It is time to step up, face uncomfortable truths and be brave with this. As recent writers have highlighted, “We are either racist or antiracist, there is nothing in between.”
So, several friends and colleagues have reached out in the last week, expressing outrage, asking what they can do. They are donating money to the cause and buying all the right books. The thing is: it’s not as simple as giving money or joining a protest. Yes, that’s a positive step to take right now and a good place to start, but it isn’t enough. What happens when the hashtag isn’t trending any more or something else starts dominating the news? The real shift will only come from the deeper, uncomfortable work that we all need to do on ourselves – both “inward” and “outward” – to see real change in the long run.
And this is what that looks like.
Download the infographic here:
The first step is to take a big, bold stride towards building your own understanding, knowledge and empathy. There are plenty of resources out there to help you.
Learn about history and about other cultures.
Read blogs and books by authors who have a different background from you. This is one example.
Look at the data and understand the issues of structural inequality across the justice system, the health system, education and beyond. Here are some facts to start you off: Black Americans are disproportionately more likely than white Americans to be arrested, to be convicted once arrested, to get longer sentences and to get fatally shot.
Look at your organisational data and spot patterns of inequity – not just disproportionate representation but differences in employee experience, sentiment and progression, as well as discrepancies in different customer groups’ access and experience. Acknowledging and identifying the problem is your starting point.
Acknowledge what you don’t know. Ask honest and respectful questions. Demonstrate interest, curiosity and empathy, not challenge. Seek to understand (and not assume, correct or intellectualise) what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. Nobody is better positioned to shed light on an issue than a person experiencing it.
Equally, be mindful that it's not the job of Black people or people of colour to educate you or justify the issue: they may not feel comfortable doing so and it can be emotionally exhausting.
There are many books, articles, blogs, videos and posts you can read to build your understanding of race and racism (This is a great list, for example, and drop me a line if you want more.). Self-education should be your starting point.
It’s not just about consuming the facts. It’s about doing the work with those facts. And that is:
Dig deeper. Try to uncover WHY you might see discrepancies in your organisational or social data. For example: If there are disproportionately more Black employees at junior levels, ask WHY? If there are disproportionately more White applicants to your Grad program, ask WHY? And what can you do about it?
Practice perspective-taking. Spend time honestly reflecting on “What if it was me?” and “How would I feel?” or “How would it be different for me?”
Go outside your comfort zone. Speak to someone who is different from you, who you’ve never spoken to at work or in your local community.
Find a reverse mentor – someone who comes from a different background.
Try a “day in the life” of someone you don’t know very well.
Listen. Just listen. To the perspective and lived experience of others. This means putting your own ego aside and focusing on what the other person is saying, making sure that there is alignment between what ‘they are saying’ and what ‘you are hearing’. This means ‘active listening’ or ‘deep listening’ – there are many resources to help you practice this, and it’s a key focus for a lot of our coaching work right now.
In short: Be open to new knowledge – both written and experiential – and allow it to help you tap into your humanity, and your empathy.
And remember: if you are seeing this as “helping others”, you might need to re-frame.
This is about using knowledge and compassion to build a better, fairer society.
This is about all of us.
Many of our biases are learnt at an early age and unbeknownst to us, they enter our psyche through what we see, hear and experience through books and media and our everyday interactions with others. These become ingrained in our way of being and so normalised that they are difficult to see, let along change. The concept of bias can bring up defensiveness in many of us, but we all have them! Know that our biases are often unconscious and may not be our fault.
Educating ourselves and changing these are our responsibility.
The only way we can change society is by changing ourselves, however uncomfortable and challenging that may be. So begin to build a stronger awareness of what your underlying assumptions and prejudices may be (Again: we ALL have some).
Take the Harvard IAT test, for example. Where are your blindspots?
What ideas and scripts have you adopted about your own and other races?
Without judgment, honestly reflect on how your underlying biases and stereotypes might be impacting your actions, your reactions and decisions. Observe yourself and your stream of thoughts and behaviour in relation to people of other races, as you move throughout your day.
What biases are you seeing played out around you? Observe others.
What biases might be inherent in your organisation or institution as a whole, part of the (sometimes unwritten and sometimes obvious!) ways of doing things, that might give certain groups an advantage? What sorts of banter or ‘jokes’ are normal, for example?
Remember that bias is heightened when decisions are crucial and have to be made quickly or under pressure – like a cop deciding whether someone is going for their wallet or their gun or in a Boardroom or when you’re close to a deadline – and that’s when you might need to pause and check yourself.
But it also plays out in less pressured situations.
We all face millions of small decisions every day – about who to smile at, who to listen to, who to eat lunch with, who to trust, who to promote, who to help. We make many of these decisions unconsciously. Yet, even seemingly trivial behaviours can have a big impact – like eye contact, smiling or nodding or pronouncing a name correctly.
So ask yourself:
Who do you gravitate to in groups?
Who, in your team or your circle of friends, do you call first for advice?
Who do you listen to the most in your meetings? Who speaks the most?
Who is in your close personal network? And who isn’t?
What decisions do you make every day that impact others, and how do you make them?
Slowly begin to unlearn and rewire some of your assumptions and automatic behaviours that are getting in the way of fairness and inclusion : both, in your personal, every-day interactions and decisions, and more widely, in the way in which your organisation or community works.
Silence is complicity.
Now is the time when we need to hear as many voices as possible speaking up for what is right – particularly voices of those who are in the majority or in positions of privilege or power.
But this does not just mean making grand statements on social media or using the right hashtags. It means speaking up in the moments when it matters.
It means speaking up in real life, not just online.
It means speaking up when it’s awkward or difficult, with a friend or colleague or relative.
It means speaking up because it’s the right thing to do, not just because it makes you look good.
It means speaking up in a constructive way, that can create positive change, not just to blame and shame.
It means supporting, but not speaking on behalf of someone else or another group. For example, through amplifying Black voices and taking a position of supporter, as opposed to leader.
And don’t just declare your support, SHOW it.
You know that little voice inside you that told you that you should probably say something when you heard that racist joke, but you didn’t.. perhaps because it was awkward or perhaps because you didn’t want to rock the boat? Well, it’s time to listen to the voice now, and let others hear it so they know they are not alone with their little own voices that are telling them the same thing. Even if it something as simple as saying “What makes you say that?” or “That’s not funny”.
Many CEOs and leaders are making public statements about being “appalled” and offering support to the BLM movement. That is excellent, but the real test is what these organisations and leaders actually do to support and empower their employees internally, how inclusive their practices are, how diverse their leadership teams are, and crucially, what they will do going forward – once this story is old news – to make sure their leadership and practices remain inclusive across the business. That’s what we need to hear more about.
Companies that are most vocal about being equitable and meritocratic are often, paradoxically, less meritocratic in reality (see: paradox of meritocracy) and they show greater discrepancies in hiring and promotion.
Why? Because the corporate brand and image becomes a shield that people unconsciously hide behind – “Of course we are fair and equal, look at our brand! It’s what we are about!” – and consequently, they become less vigilant, less critical of themselves and less accountable for their personal actions and decisions. (I like to call this the “Benetton effect”!)
So let’s have less talk, and more action.
What can you do to cast the net more widely so your organisation opens itself to people from different backgrounds, both in terms of employees and customer/ user base?
What can you do to help under-represented groups enter and progress within your workplace? How do you create more equitable opportunities? What influencing factors may be acting as barriers for Black people and people of colour and how can you play a role in removing these?
What can you do to create a climate where people from different backgrounds are treated fairly, included, empowered and feel a sense of belonging so they don’t need to “cover” or change parts of themselves to fit in?
Personally, you may or may not have the power to change the policies or the government or who is running your organisation and how. But every one of us has some locus of control – however big or small that may be.
So ask yourself:
Where do you have power to impact change? What is within your span of influence?
Who and what do you affect through your role at work or your place in society?
What can you do? What WILL you do?
Once you’ve read this article, choose at least one simple action (big or small) you will commit to and share it with someone so that they can hold you accountable.
The truth is, much of the change will come as a result of each and every one of us taking action in the day-to-day. The small things. Which all add up and influence the big things.
Don’t wait for others, or for a mandate from someone else. Demonstrate through your words as well as your actions what is acceptable and what isn’t. Set the example.
Be the change you want to see.
In the words of Obama: "This is a moment, and we have had moments like this before where people are paying attention. And that doesn't mean that everything will get solved, so don't get disheartened, because this is a marathon, not a sprint. But the fact that people are paying attention provides an opportunity to educate, activate, mobilize and act... And I hope we are able to seize this moment."
 “Gun or Wallet”, p.61, Rewire: A Radical Approach to Tackling Diversity and Difference by Yates and Sachdev
 Castilla, Emilio J., and Stephen Benard. “The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organizations.” Administrative Science Quarterly 55 (2010): 543-576. © 2010 by Johnson Graduate School, Cornell University.