That time I failed to be an anti-racist (again)
A rant about why systematic racism is a business issue
This is a post born from the bravery of my friend and colleague Aaron Smith. I have known Aaron since we first worked together over 12 years ago. He always makes time for me and is a frequent sounding board when I need some stabilization. I read in his writing where he referred to me as a mentor -- funny, somehow I always feel I am the one learning from him.
Why use the adjective brave you might ask? Well, to be direct, I am an old white man with all of the white privilege that comes with it. I am also well connected in the local tech community, helping senior executives solve some of their most challenging issues. If you haven’t figured it out yet, Aaron is a black man. It’s not without some measure of professional risk when a black man calls senior executives for continuing to contribute to the systematic racism in this country and in the south in particular. But that is exactly what he did, and not only am I humbled and appreciative, he was 100% correct in doing so. I was in fact continuing to support the machine of systematic racism.
Let’s spend a moment unpacking why this is important and why developing relationships with people of color, black people in particular, matters for your business. We have trust between us that has been built over time that we can freely challenge each other and become better people. I’ve seen Aaron work as the only black person in the room making product decisions. I’ve never had to be the only white man in the room. I doubt many of you have been. By now we have come to know that there are real repercussions when business decisions are made without diversity and inclusion.
Take for example SnapChat.
Earlier this month SnapChat created a Juneteenth filter that required the user to smile and break the chains of racism. How many black people do you think were consulted before this gaff?
The Washington Redskins football team has recently agreed to change their name to The Washington Football Team while they find a new name. I digress...
I have to assume Aaron wasn’t the only person to read my post and cringe, but he was the one willing to speak out and provide the data that I was blind to.
So, how did it happen that I made this mistake?
Well, it started (like a lot of things in 2020) with the COVID-19 pandemic and a blog post. This particular post focused on what leadership looks like as we move to working remotely since leadership is my wheelhouse.
After I wrote the post, I realized that my privilege was showing - and that not everyone had the opportunity to “just work remotely” - so, I added a disclaimer acknowledging that fact.
This was that disclaimer:
I added this little disclaimer after I wrote the bulk of this post. There are some real businesses that are not conducive to having a remote workforce. These businesses are struggling in very real ways right now and will be for quite some time. Those of us from the "cube farms" world need to be empathetic to this fact and not just assume that everyone has the opportunity to earn a living from home; that is a different ranting post...
THIS is where I missed the mark - fully. I, like many other white men understand and may even call out that we have privilege but completely failed in naming it as the WHITE privilege it is. The oft (ok, almost always) unspoken white part of the privilege is in fact the core of where the rest of the privilege comes from. With this failure, I helped keep the status quo of systematic racism in place. Simply not acknowledging it is a very large part of the problem. A thing that can not be named can not be solved. This is “problem solving 101 stuff”, and I talk about it all the time. From this point of view, racism is like all problems, we start solving it by agreeing it is real and naming it.
So, here we are, I have made an error, I will own it and take clear action to correct it. And when I miss again (and I will) I can only hope that those around me will have the courage of my friend Aaron and call me out.
I will now make my first correction by extending my original post with these thoughts.
This inflection point should not just about helping those in the cube farms and those who lead them adapt to a new normal. This needs to be seen as an opportunity to remake our workforce into a more inclusive space of opportunity overall. In short - increase the opportunity for black people to join a now remote workforce.
So what will that look like - HOW do we start to tackle this issue in a way that is helpful and does not support the continuation of systematic racism.
I will stop me right here -- I do not have the ultimate answer. None of us do. But that should not stop us from solving the problem through iterative and measurable steps. It’s a social problem that is also a business problem. There are proven, fact-based processes that can get us closer to the solution of any business problem.
I have a possible path to that answer that mostly includes me sitting down and being quiet. I read, I observe, and I test. Other companies are doing the same, like Reed Hastings and Netflix. Reed is conducting an experiment using a framework he learned from members of the black community and his own Agile to the core business processes. Win or lose, this small step will inform what other companies should do to address the problems in the community that we did not directly cause but have benefitted from for too long.
Where I will not be quiet is where I call other white men of privilege to join with me and support real diversity and inclusion programs. Programs that put black people into the hiring pipeline of our boards and of our executive hiring, Programs that look for opportunities to make it possible for black people in fields outside of the cube farms of technology like healthcare support, legal services support and others to join in right here and right now. From where they are at.
It was pointed out that with the addition of remote possibilities we can make jobs more attractive to black people. I call this out, because if you have been reading to this point and just assuming that black people are all waiting with anticipation to join your company - that too is a mindset of privilege that supports systematic racism. Black people do not want to come work in your “fancy new hot-spot office” where there are no restaurants they like or a black barber/beauty shop within miles. Now that we are more remote, it is possible for black people to stay close to the comforts they need and want - just like we their white counterparts do now and take very much for granted - white [insert anything] is the default.
What can you do RIGHT NOW?
Let’s look at this like any other business problem - As stated above - yes, this is a social problem, but it is also a business problem.
I am not a social activist or a D&I expert and this is the place where I need to step back and be quiet and let those experts lead us toward solving the social problem. I will support this by educating myself and others and by using my privileged wealth to financially support those people and those groups.
I will also support this by helping address the business problem of systematic racism.
I have talked before about how consumers even in a B2B world need to be listened to and that in the end, missing that mark will cost you dearly in the marketplace.
If we do not have diverse boards and executive teams, how can we expect to “hear” or understand people from those communities. We can not, and we are missing the mark with those consumers. This is the aforementioned repercussions when we assume to know without having these relationships with black people.
Start with accountability.
It is hard to “check yourself”, so do what all good leaders do in change environments when we want to leave the status quo behind. Empower the people around you to cover your blindspots. Specifically this means this means making sure they know you WANT them to tell you when you are messing things up.
You may not be lucky enough to have a trusting relationship with a black person like I do with Aaron. Also, do not make the mistake of finding that one black person in your company and decide that now is the time for “bonding over a conversation about racism”. This is NOT the place to start. Read So You Want to Talk About Race or White Fragility for more on this. Even so, you do have a trusted person in your business life who can help you. Get them on the path - set the meeting right now to have that conversation of accountability.
Add this item to your next leadership agenda.
Make it a Rock.
Add it to your OKRs.
Add it to your backlog.
Use whatever framework you have for running your business - make this item a priority right now.
This is not a Marketing item.
This is an Operations Item.
This is an HR item.
This is a Company item.
This is not THE answer, this is the path to the answer. Like all leadership paths, it is not clear and it is never ending.
We must name an issue to solve it - systematic racism is the name of this issue.
Start right there.
I want to close with the acknowledgement that in the end, this particular mistake will actually turn out to be very beneficial for me and I owe that to Aaron.
Aaron challenged me to join with him and collaborate on writing some blogs, articles and maybe even a larger project. I have humbly accepted and am quite excited to see where this might go.
This blog post is the first of what I hope are many collaborations on a variety of business topics.