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Speaking up: Pushing Past Silence for Your Black Employees

As our nation’s long history of racial inequity and injustice comes into the spotlight once again on a national scale, some of us are left struggling to know what to say and what to do. Many of us, especially fellow white people, are frozen in silence, in fear of saying the wrong thing, of creating more harm than good. Silence, however, speaks volumes; it does not go unnoticed.

Finding the right way to speak up and step up is imperative for leaders to do right now and in the future.

A statement from the top, condemning the senseless murders and blatant disregard for Black people in America, based solely on the color of their skin, is not controversial; it is not political; it is imperative.

Below are some helpful talking points and action steps for leaders to get started.

Be Vulnerable

This is a time when leaders need to exhibit vulnerability. By doing so, they allow for other leaders, managers, and employees to do the same. Leaders don’t, and won’t, have all of the answers, and it’s important for them to recognize and acknowledge that.

Avoid Colorblindness

“We’re all in this together” is not helpful during these times. This is a time to speak up and show support specifically for the Black community. All lives cannot matter until Black lives matter. This is not the time to use watered down buzzwords or phrases like “diversity” or even “People of Color”, but instead “Black” – with a capital B.

Resist Distractions

Now more than ever some of us, particularly white people, are willing to turn away, disengage, or wish away the challenges of confronting and dismantling systemic and outright racism. We must acknowledge that Black, Brown, and Indigenous people in America face daily indignities and endangerment of their lives, especially during our current health crisis. They don’t get to opt-out and neither should white folks.

Engage Existing Stakeholders

Draw from resources such as the company Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council and race-related Employee Business Resource Groups (EBRGs). Have these groups review messages before sending them to all staff. Encourage them to draft their own messages as a follow-up, creating guidance for fellow leaders around anti-racism work within the organization. But recognize that these groups need support and time for healing as well.

Humanize the Workplace

Work with EBRGs to help cultivate opportunities for connection, prioritizing Black employees. Consider allowing work time in support of this space. What is deemed as work-related and “professional” in today’s workplace is often upholding whiteness, white supremacy, and the status quo.

Do More Than Performative Measures

We need action over hashtags. Stand in solidarity by accelerating action. Consider making financial contributions personally as a leader, and as an organization to Black-run organizations doing racial equity and justice work. Look into supporting policy change. Get involved in the community. Diversify the Board. So that the next time a company post includes #blacklivesmatter, it means something.

Say Their Names

Name the Black people in America who have tragically lost their lives including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and many more. Be direct. Take a stance. By dancing around the topic at hand, a leader is exhibiting their reluctance to really “go there” when it matters most.

Encourage Employees to Take the Time They Need

Give employees explicit permission to take time to care for themselves and their loved ones in coping with trauma. During this time, people may be reluctant to taking time off or asking for accommodations at the risk of them seeming less dependable or essential.

Proactively Provide Support

Questions like, “What additional resources do you need right now?” can be helpful in finding tangible ways to support employees during this time, but many employees would rather be informed of what resources are already available or being made available. Does HR have a system set up for fielding questions? Can DEI Council members offer support? Is there an Employee Assistance Program in place?

Bring Others Along

Build personal and organization-wide awareness by sharing resources that advance equity, advocacy, allyship, and self-care. Some examples include:

Commit to Taking Personal Action

Leaders must hold themselves and others accountable to change. One can start by doing the following:

  • Push past defensiveness. Take this opportunity to learn, grow, and challenge yourself to do better. Don’t shut down; for that is a privilege awarded only to few.
  • Lean into discomfort. This work is hard. It’s okay to feel embarrassed, ashamed, and even defeated. Feel the feelings, process them, and then get to work. Channel your rage, sadness, remorse into action.
  • Don’t speak over, but rather amplify Black voices. By lifting up voices, we share the weight of this work and bring their messages to our often majority-white networks.
  • Seek out the truth. Diversify the intake of information. Question sources of information in online news, social media, and television. Actively listen to Black voices to learn, rather than to dismiss.
  • Follow organizations doing racial equity and justice work. Once again, get involved and donate to help this movement, which is not merely a moment in time, affect change.
  • Do a deep dive into the history of race. The current events are not new. They are a result of a system made to only serve few.
  • Educate yourself. Seek out resources that expand knowledge around race and racism. Do not lean on Black friends and family who have carried this burden for far too long.
  • Dispel myths. The concept of colorblindness is harmful, we all see color. By ignoring one’s identity, we ignore one’s struggles. It is important to recognize, celebrate, and champion differences – and similarities.
  • Challenge your beliefs. Who do you consider “thugs”? What is the difference between a protest and riot, and what does history tell us about these today? What angers you more, property or the murder of innocent lives? Is MLK Jr. deemed okay, but Malcolm X is not?
  • Engage in dialogue. Talk with loved ones and help them become anti-racist. Stay in it. Have the difficult conversations. We can do hard things.

And finally, remember that you don’t need to do this alone. You shouldn’t do this alone. IBIS is here to help you, whether through facilitated deep dive conversations, consultation, coaching, or training. Don’t hesitate to reach out. This is a learning journey and it takes time, but it is crucial for creating an organization, and a country, where all people can be safe and free.

Alex Suggs is a Senior Consultant at IBIS.  She is energized by courageous conversations and operating through a design-thinking lens, engaging in a human-centered approach with empathy as a key aspect in approaching challenges.