How to Promote Long-Term Allyship, Advocacy, and Anti-Racism in the Workplace

Jul 30, 2020

By Andrea Holman, PhD

The trending hashtags have decreased. Protest attendance has waned, and news coverage has shifted as other priorities occupy our time and attention. As a result, many are left wondering: Was the recent  national focus on racial injustice a catalyst for long-term changes toward racial equality, or just a passing trend?

Those of us who identify as Black or African American cannot afford for this to be the case. To avoid losing the momentum the anti-racism movement gained following the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, it stands to reason that  those with racial privilege would reflect on how to cement their anti-racism efforts. This includes leaders of  the myriad businesses that recently made verbal commitments standing with the Black community and against racial injustice. If these companies truly intend to uphold their initial statements  and work toward racial justice and equity, now is the time for consistent action.

But for many well-intentioned organizations and employees, questions remain about what it means to be an ally to their Black team members, and how to advocate for racial justice. While the answers to these questions may not be easy, there are a number of  meaningful efforts organizations can take to sustain the movement against anti-Black racism. 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.

Identifying as an advocate: description vs. ascription 

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.

Habitually reflect and take responsibility for past company [in]action

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.

Make sure advocacy efforts are focused and relevant 

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).

Establish anti-racism through corporate policies 

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.

Why?

America’s history of African enslavement and the Jim Crow era propagated ideas that Black people were inferior, inept, and insignificant. To incorporate anti-racism 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 anti-racism throughout the fabric of their company, year-round.  Some examples include:

  • Corporate matching of donations to anti-racist or identity-affirming organizations;
  • Companywide policies that hold individual employees accountable when their actions counter anti-racism policies;
  • Mandated trainings on topics that promote an anti-racist culture and advocacy (including privilege,  intersectionality, and implicit bias);
  • Ongoing access to educational resources that help employees better understand contemporary race-related issues; and
  • Responsibility and accountability for all employees to disseminate education and engage in work to shift cultural norms and decrease the workplace burden of education on Black employees or “diversity hires.”

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 anti-racism efforts require company-wide investment.

Promote Black affirmation in corporate culture

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);

  • Offering flexible work options, such as working remotely, if an employee discloses that race-based stress is interfering with their ability to work in certain spaces;
  • Acknowledging notable dates and figures in American history that affirm Black humanity, such as Juneteenth;
  • Continuously engaging in active listening sessions and being responsive to help employees feel seen and valued

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, serves 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.