It’s Time to Think Differently About Equity
As a Black man, I’ve lived in a white world my whole life — from prep school in New York, to the Ivy league, to presenting in the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies. In some respects, this certainly gave me access and privilege that other African Americans didn’t have. And in other respects, it gave me sort of an insider perspective into things I wish I had not experienced, relative to white privilege. I heard things, saw things and learned things that hurt me and showed me what racism is even when you’re present. I learned that despite my potential and my accomplishments, there were still two different scorecards. (Practically all people of color and all women — and especially women of color — know this to be true.) I succeeded and I made mistakes. I saw that when my white (largely male) colleagues made mistakes, those often turned into development opportunities, and when I and my Black colleagues made those same mistakes, they were often treated as performance issues. For a while, I didn’t process that, both because of my innate sense of self-accountability, and because of a semi-conscious desire to believe my experience wasn’t due to something beyond my control or influence. This double-standard enables racism, inequity and inequality to flourish.
As part of a recent project, we helped a group of African Americans safely share authentic stories about some of their life experiences. With their permission, we developed insights from those experiences and shared them with a variety of business and organizational leaders. A number of these leaders were white, and from what I knew of a few of them, I would consider some of them to be allies, supportive of equity. And still, even for those few, as they heard stories of experiences with racism, they began to see contexts they had not previously considered. These stories were deep. They were joyful and painful. They were stories of avoiding and navigating. They were stories of fear and hope. And ultimately, they were stories of overcoming, because that is what Black America represents: overcoming. I understood these stories. And here’s what happened to some of the white people listening to these stories: They changed their minds about what the Black experience is, about what white privilege is, and how to close the gap between the two. And some of them have started taking action within their own spheres of influence to make change.
It showed what can happen when people in power pay attention and listen to those who are marginalized, less advantaged and less privileged. It showed what can happen when those people in power reflect on how their decisions create these experiences in the first place. And it showed what can happen when self-reflection is followed by enlightened action.
Over the past two weeks, because of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, the intense grief African Americans have felt (for these and all the deaths before them), and the response from the rest of America, my community and I have experienced American contradiction at its finest: so much love + hate, support + drain, wisdom + ignorance, and help + hurt.
And my goodness, just weeks before these recent murders, I experienced despair, depression and confusion as a result of the devastation my community was facing during the Covid19 pandemic.
And I’ll be honest, through it all, I’ve had to push through to find the good. To be there for my family, to support and lead my teams, and to be in fellowship with my community.
On a personal community level, it has been largely okay.
But on the business community level, it has not been okay.
I mean, the statements, the outreach, the social posts — yes, I’m glad that’s all happening.
And that is not enough.
Diversity, alone, is not enough.
Inclusion, alone, is not enough.
It is not nearly enough to create the system-level change — the equity — that African Americans and all of America need and deserve.
System-level change requires system-level action, not just sentiment. (Especially when the sentiment doesn’t acknowledge how absent you or your organization has been from this fight for justice, before now.)
If you have white privilege embodied in running a company, overseeing an institution, leading a large organization or influencing those who do, then you have system-level access and we need you to use it for system-level action.
Why? Because we live in a capital-oriented society, where an eyepopping amount of wealth was created through the domination of indigenous people, the enslavement of African people, and a modern labor approach that worsens inequities among people of color, women and the poor. And White people and corporations have been the biggest beneficiaries of this system in America for 400 years. And you occupy positions of power and privilege in that system. Therefore, equitable, system-level economic solutions depend on you.
Done right, equitable solutions bring about healing. Healing starts with empathy that results in action. Responsible, lasting, positive action must involve more than corporate stances and statements on social. It must involve White leaders with power and privilege in business — and also in academia, philanthropy and government — to really take things seriously and not just think about the present as a moment you’ll look back on. Rather, this is about a future you need to look forward to.
- Pay authentic attention to what is going on; go past the headline and study how America got here
- Listen to our stories to understand our experiences and gain empathy
- Reflect on what this means to you; have conversations with other white people about the impact of your policies, practices, actions and privilege on African Americans and other people of color
- Take enlightened action to enable equitable solutions with and for the African American community and other communities of color
- Work with businesses, nonprofits and other institutions run by people who are not like you, and who have lived different experiences than you
I’ve been in your world for a long, long time. I know you can do whatever you put your mind to.
So put your mind to this.