Racism in the Workplace: Calling All White Leaders

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” ~ Archbishop Desmond Tutu

It’s time to wake up. Be a part of the solution. To all the white leaders of our society: we need to look inward, be accountable, raise organizational awareness, and take compassionate action.  As our country continues to battle the COVID-19 virus, a 400+-year-old virus continues to plague this country. This virus is systemic racism—and it needs to be eradicated. Let the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others be the last of their kind. People of color have been subject to pervasive racism, de-legitimization, and dehumanization that has caused incredible pain and suffering.  Systemic racism continues to exact a devastating toll on our minds, our institutions, our society, and all of humanity for too long, and it has to be dismantled.

Being outraged is not enough. Thinking all lives matter is missing the point entirely. I am a privileged white male, and I am enraged and heartbroken. And truthfully, I am wondering: What the hell has taken me so long to realize that I play an integral role in the dismantling of the racist structure in which we live? I have not done enough, and I need to do more. As white leaders, it is not enough to acknowledge the problem, or feel broken-hearted, or feel rage.  It is not enough to read a book on it or take an unconscious bias class.  To deconstruct this system, we must devote ourselves to a shift in our consciousness and make a lifelong commitment to understanding our conditioned biases.

“The challenge of the 21st century is not to demand equal opportunity in the machinery of oppression, but rather to identify and dismantle those structures in which racism continues to be embedded.” ~ Angela Davis

Though we white persons of privilege cannot truly understand the rage and collective suffering within the black community, we can extend compassion and take action. This work requires an enduring commitment and vigilance to unearth and eradicate the implicit biases and racism that we carry as individuals and as organizations. This is not about judgment or shame; this is about doing more. 

If your inner voice is saying, “These recent atrocities are devastating, but I am not a racist. I treat everyone equally. I have black friends.” Think again.  We all need to think again. Begin with the premise that you are racist, albeit implicitly. You, along with everyone else in this society, possess conditioned biases that unintentionally feed the structure of oppression and racism. Our obligation to humanity demands that we stand in solidarity to uncover these biases individually and organizationally. Neutrality or inaction is tantamount to being complicit. 

Today’s leaders must assume the mantle of social and moral responsibility inherent in their role. While many white leaders are doing powerful anti-racist work, collectively, we need to do more. Now is the time to be historic agents of change by helping to dismantle the systemic racism that permeates our institutions and culture.

Things to consider as a leader:

Communicate with your team: Acknowledge systemic racism and discuss your thoughts on the organizational path forward with your team internally. If you have not already done so, make a public statement articulating your organization’s solidarity to the call for justice and humanity for all. Statements need to be authentic and supported by your lived values and actions. Otherwise, you are contributing to the problem.

Listen and lead with compassion: Check-in with your employees of color to see how they are doing at this moment in time. Ask if they care to share their experiences in the workplace and what you can do to be more supportive.  People want to be heard, and storytelling can be a powerful medium to help heal and build connection and safety. In addition, all white employees need to do their own work, away from colleagues of color, in uncovering their conditioned biases. 

Look inward and be vulnerable: Reflect on your role and how you may be perpetuating systemic racism. For example, have you hired enough people that don’t look like you (i.e., minorities) and invested in their success? Seek to identify your own implicit biases and commit to the hard work of personal growth.  Encourage white people to explore their own conditioned biases.

Question your culture: Are you living your values, and does your organization’s culture hold others accountable for microaggressions and conditioned biases? Build a culture of communication, connection, safety and trust.

Take action organizationally:  Empower a team of employees to review your current diversity & inclusion efforts (e.g., implicit bias training, values, hiring, promotion, compensation, community involvement, philanthropy, etc.) and effect positive change. Review and rebalance your investments, charities, and partnerships to better support minority-owned organizations and those focused on racial justice.

Embrace fallibility in this process: Mistakes are inevitable in the pursuit of dismantling this structure of racism. Expect them. Learn and grow from them. Keep moving forward.

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

The essence of humanity is our interconnectedness. This reality has been referenced by spiritual leaders for millennia and is validated by modern science. We must recognize and celebrate our differences (e.g., race, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.) without letting these differences veil our true nature: interconnectedness. The prejudice and suffering born from the illusion of our separateness (e.g., hatred, systemic racism, gender inequality) continues to poison our society and the soul of this planet.

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” ~Albert Einstein

I remain an optimist. And, I am acutely aware that the garden of positivity and hope will wither without the nourishment of progress and change.

Be a leader. Look inward. Raise awareness. Be anti-racist. Eradicate the 400-year-old virus. 

N.B. Please forgive me for any lapses in knowledge, language, or propriety that I may have committed. I couldn’t wait for my awareness and ongoing education to catch up to the sense of urgency I feel.