Jun 1, 2021
By Andrea Holman, PhD
A simplistic word with surprising impact and ripple effects on an individual and systemic level. In 2021, the fact that this was the verdict for the murderer of George Floyd sent unique and palpable ripple effects throughout the United States, particularly among many Black Americans. This word alone inferred so many more words for so many more people, and could be viewed as a referendum against police violence toward Black and Brown people and systemic racism.
Unfortunately, a verdict like this one is relatively uncommon considering the vast number of criminal court cases involving law enforcement officers accused of killing BIPOC individuals, particularly Black Americans. Many people hope and believe that this verdict represents a new national commitment to accountability for law enforcement, protection for all American citizens, and that it’s a catalyst for long-term racial equality. Others believe the verdict is merely the result of a temporary and trending focus on racial inequality and will not result in long-term change.
Individuals who identify as belonging to Black and Brown communities cannot afford for the latter to be the case. Following the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, those with racial privilege have an opportunity to reflect on how to cement their antiracism efforts to sustain individual and systemic justice efforts. As we commemorate the anniversary of George Floyd’s death this month, there is also an opportunity for groups to reflect on the impact and meaning of social justice efforts over the past year. These groups include (but are not limited to) leaders of the myriad businesses that made verbal commitments to stand with communities of color against racial injustice in 2020. If companies truly intend to uphold their initial statements and work toward racial justice and equity, consistency and commitment are key.
What follows are some key suggested steps to decrease feelings of confusion and ineptitude and empower people to be effective allies or advocates to Black Americans.
Ascribing a character trait to oneself involves internal, independent reflection. To be described with a character trait involves external, interpersonal evaluation. Too often, those with racial privilege approach issues of injustice with a self-proclaimed commitment to support Black, Indigenous or People of Color (BIPOC) but haven’t actually had someone within this group describe them that way. They may choose to make actions or statements but don’t leave the BIPOC individuals feeling advocated for.
While these efforts are well-intentioned, they can all too easily end up being temporary, self-aggrandizing, or performative. At worst, they can be alienating and hurtful. Instead, it may be more meaningful for those with racial privilege to ask the BIPOC around them about what efforts they’d like to see that would make them feel advocated for. This approach arises from humility, openness, and a desire to truly create change. Moving from this moment to a long-term movement must start with this step.
A critical but often overlooked component of racial advocacy and allyship is for those with power and privilege to recognize and take responsibility for their own biases and blindspots. This should include ongoing reflection and discussions of ways privilege can manifest and inequity can persist, both within and outside of a workplace, even in the absence of a nationally recognized race-related event. In doing this, employers can alleviate some of the mental burden Black employees bear by humbly acknowledging how systemic racism and individual employees’ race-related stress have been dismissed or perpetrated in their organization. This could happen via a formal statement to employees, individual meetings, or a companywide town hall meeting, among other forums. This type of action can lead to more honest dialogue and employee engagement that fuels long-lasting change.
The reflection and dialogue described above can create momentum throughout organizations to correct past harmful or hurtful [in]action that perpetuated, enabled, or represented racism. This has potential to drive lasting change and should continue. But it’s important to keep in mind that meaningful and effective advocacy efforts include actively listening and focusing on the grievances of those in need of advocacy. This means organizational leaders would do well to listen to Black individuals’ requests or wounds and not change the subject to something more comfortable. Additionally, companies’ advocacy efforts should address the more urgent racial issues of our time (for example, racial profiling, supporting efforts for racial justice or reducing implicit bias in hiring practices) before addressing other relevant, but less emergent issues (such as increasing the number of Black employees or renaming inanimate objects).
Many well-intentioned employer actions can have unintended negative impacts. For example, when efforts to increase diversity and inclusion start and stop at meeting quotas for hiring demographics, the impact is one-dimensional and does not effectively shift company culture. Meaningful, long-term change must reach farther and dig deeper.
America’s history of African enslavement and the Jim Crow era propagated ideas that Black people were inferior, inept, and insignificant. To incorporate antiracism in the workplace is to intentionally ensure that all policies, practices, and procedures counter these narratives. Merely being “non-racist” as a person or organization is not enough to stop the destructive, decades-long ripple effects of these narratives.. Rather than compartmentalizing efforts to increase diversity and inclusion to certain times of the year or during the hiring process, employers should actively incorporate antiracism throughout the fabric of their company, year-round. Some examples include:
The last suggestion is critical when considering the notable stress, fatigue, and discomfort Black people can experience when they are exclusively asked to educate and inform those around them about race and racism. One seemingly small, yet impactful way to reduce the workplace burden of education–and the subsequent mental weight on Black employees or “diversity hires” is to evenly distribute the workload. That means all employees should be responsible and accountable for disseminating education and engaging in work to shift cultural norms, reinforcing the fact that lasting, impactful antiracism efforts require company-wide investment.
Black Americans and the individuals around them benefit when the people in their lives affirm the truth that they are capable, valued, and significant. Engaging in long-term advocacy means continually speaking and acting in accordance with these statements, despite the antithetical beliefs that have been perpetuated throughout U.S. history. The aforementioned counter-narratives help bolster positive racial identity for Black employees, which can buffer against race-related stress. Strategies to embed these narratives within a company culture include:
Boosting statements of support with financial investment (for example, establishing partnerships with Black-owned businesses, or creating and funding internships for students from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs);
This time in history is both fragile and critical for pursuing a level of racial justice that many Black Americans could scarcely dream about before. With intentional, humble steps aimed at truly making BIPOC individuals feel advocated for, organizations can do their part in shifting from a trending moment to a transformative movement.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrea Holman, PhD, is the DEIB Program Manager for Workforce Mental Health at Lyra Health. Prior to her role at Lyra, she served as an Associate Professor of Psychology at Huston-Tillotson University. She primarily engages students in the classroom and conducts research understanding the psychological experience of African-Americans, specifically the complexities of race, identity and cultural mistrust and their impact on interracial interactions.