Like you, I have been watching with deep pain over the state of racism and injustice in our country, spurred to the world stage by the murder of George Floyd, as well as two weeks of other public incidents involving specific Anti-Blackness.
I am not surprised by protests across the country, since systemic injustice has been the foundation of racial relations since the founding of this country.
Among black friends, almost universally, I hear a deep rage, a deep fatigue and a deep cry for justice.
Among white friends, I hear dismay but also a sense of paralysis to know how, when or why to take action to make things better.
So I wanted to share my own perspective on doing anti-racist work as a white woman, as well as resources to be part of the solution to creating more equitable, just spaces in our businesses no matter where we are on our learning journey. Now is the time for action.
My Personal Context
I have a very explicit point of view about racism in the United States: I think it is pervasive, I think it is cancerous, and I think it is deeply systemic. I have been raised as a white person in White Supremacist culture, meaning that I have always been socialized that the standard of excellence, goodness, beauty and righteousness is based on the white (especially male) standard. I have benefitted from this privilege in a multitude of ways.
Unlearning this falsehood has been an ongoing, mistake-laden, never-ending and always evolving education.
Racism is close to home
I am the parent of bi-racial white and Navajo children. My husband and bonus son are Navajo. Many of my immediate circle of friends and clients are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). My son’s best friend is black.
Thus my own journey learning about my own racism and putting my awareness into action is vital to the health and well-being of those I love most in the world, and those who I work with every day in my business.
Just because I am proximate to folks of color — like literally sharing my home with them as my family members — does not mean in any way that I won’t put them in harms way by my actions informed by bias, or lack of awareness.
Which is why it is vital to the safety and well-being of my loved ones that I take an active role in my own unlearning every day.
Here is the reality:
My kids rarely, if ever, see themselves in school books represented in positions of power and leadership.
If they are, it is often rife with historical inaccuracy or with a stereotype.
So I have had to have scores of conversations with teachers and principals throughout their educational journey.
My son and his best friend are not safe in our neighborhood. On a daily basis, as they take a walk around the block, skateboard or walk the dogs, they are eyed with suspicion by certain neighbors who hold tight to their bags, avert their gaze, and actively refuse to respond when the boys say things like “Good afternoon!” in passing.
Even though my son has been in this neighborhood for 15 years since the day he was born, and his best friend for the past 6 years, in the past, when they returned in the early morning or late at night from a walk or run outside of the gate, they were often questioned by white neighbors about who they were and why they wanted entry. When they clearly explained that they live here, the suspicion didn’t stop.
This in a “nice, quiet, gated suburban neighborhood.”
It makes me seethe. And it makes me scared, especially the older and taller they get.
But it is part of the hard truth that I cannot choose to stay stuck “overwhelmed,” “devastated” or “heartbroken” , I must be prepared to address racism in very specific ways.
- I need to know the specific ways my kids and their BIPOC friends are unsafe, and how to mitigate the risk
- I need to be connected with and in open, brave conversation with the parents of my kids’ BIPOC friends to ensure that they can share with me what I can do to make their kids more safe when they are with us
- I need to be in communication with my white neighbors who have not done their own anti-racist work so they know my kids and their friends live here and have a right to walk outside, just like their kids do
- I need to be open to hearing ways in which my own unconscious bias impacts my family. (My daughter Angie is particularly helpful in this regard — she lets me know right away if I am tone policing, disrespecting or otherwise busy-bodying in ways that could be harmful)
- I need to be in deep relationship with BIPOC, but not get lazy in these relationships and assume that I have completed my work, don’t make mistakes, or that my identity does not sometimes impact the relationship. I also need to be committed to processing feedback in a mature and responsible way.
- I need to be in deep relationship with my in-laws, and trusted Navajo relatives, to ensure my kids are deeply held in their cultural identity on their Dad’s side
- I need to talk openly with my side of the family about race and racism, so they also know how to support our kids and their friends when they are with them
Becoming Anti-Racist in Business
I am not an equity and inclusion professional. My body of work is around careers in the world of work, and especially the world of small business.
My work is focused on clients committed to making transformational change in the world. I often do this work in intersectional communities, so by definition, understanding identity, diversity, equity, inclusion and justice is central to this work.
If you are committed to creating a more equitable, inclusive environment in your business, here are things I try to practice (copied from a long comment I left on a fellow white coach’s post when he asked what he needed to do to be better informed):
1. Hire a reputable DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) firm to analyze and evaluate the specific ways in which racism is showing up in yourself and your business. It shows up in all of us white folks regardless if we do not actively set out to discriminate. Learn about systemic racism and the way it has affected your black and brown customers and their ancestors for hundreds of years.
2. After doing thoughtful analysis and reflection, in partnership with your community, develop a strategy to decide the specific ways that you and your business can be actively anti-racist. One of the reasons why it is not a good idea to immediately jump to a solution around solving inequity is that without any kind of analysis or understanding of the problem, there is no way we can understand what the solution would be. It would be the equivalent of walking into a business without doing any analysis whatsoever or having any information about the financial performance and immediately suggest an expensive solution. I know you would never do that in a business situation and this is no different. If anti-racism and equity work is new to you, the education and analysis process is critical.
3. Continue to hire paid advisors to support you in your learning journey in this initiative. It is not about being right or not being able to make mistakes, it is about approaching the work from a leadership lens and being willing to be humble and acknowledge inequity. Those of us in the coaching world are constantly reminding folks of the value of hiring trained professionals to support us in our business growth. It wouldn’t be fair to ask our black and brown friends to provide free ongoing business advice, so we shouldn’t rely on them to support our leadership journey around equity after some initial context.
4. I caution you to not frame this from a reactive perspective, only speaking out and taking action when there are black and brown dead bodies in the streets. The bigger issue is how we are providing an effective and safe environment for our customers. African-American, Latinx, Asian American, Native American and other groups are some of the fastest growing segments of business owners. Those leaders who are not actively doing their work to understand and support communities that come from a different historical and cultural perspective of our own as white folk will lose credibility, and ultimately business. Would you want to give your money to somebody who has chosen to ignore your humanity and has stayed silent on issues you have clearly stated are impacting your safety? Would you continue to support someone who never ever features you on stage in a position of leadership or authority? I wouldn’t which is why I have tuned out so many folks who have great business advice because I am so sick and tired of never seeing the representation of the diversity of their customer base featured on their podcasts, on stages and in positions of leadership within their companies.
Dismantling systemic racism in this country is going to be a job that will take a number of generations actively working together on systemic change. Speaking up is good. Taking steps are good. I appreciate all your efforts. It is not about being perfect, it is about learning together every day.
Here are some resources to support your learning:
Expert DEI consultants:
Talking with your kids about racism hosted by Dr. Kira Banks, with panelists Tim Wise, Bomani Jackson, Adelaide Lancaster and Nicole Lee
Diversity is an Asset and Social Justice Intensive – excellent skill building classes by the Adaway Group
Whiteness at Work — free webinar by Desiree Adaway
Resources from the Center for Racial Justice in Education
Speaking up and actively working against racism may feel scary, but it is rooted in the most transformational tool of all time: love.
As Desiree Adaway always says, let’s get free together. #blacklivesmatter
I welcome your thoughts or comments. Just hit reply and let me know what’s on your mind.
Erin Geesaman Rabke says
Always deeply grateful for your heart, your leadership, your humility and your wisdom. Thank you.
Suzanne Walden-Wells says
Hi Pam – I have been saving your email all week so I could devote the time to absorb it. I knew it would be full and important and, of course, it is. Thank you for sharing so openly the story of your family’s struggle and ongoing journey. I am so appreciative of your insight and your willingness to step into hard places while helping others do the same.
Darby Israel says
This was a very interesting read. I love the frankness and candor. The book white Fragility echoes similar ideas.