This has been a tough couple of months — Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd. I’d describe it as soul crushing. It’s one thing to have to take on the burden of racism and violence as a black woman. I’ve done this my whole life and I keep on doing it. But as a mom of three black young adults who are now out from under my watchful eye, I’m scared for them. And this fear doesn’t leave me. I’ve simply learned to compartmentalize it. It’s getting harder to do. I’m looking for a new path forward and I’m counting on the business community to help provide it.
I’m on social media every day. Companies and business leaders like Tim Cook are all saying the right things. It gives me hope. We’re publicly acknowledging that the death of George Floyd by four police officers is unconscionable. But we’ve done this before so my worry is that our reactions will once again lead to inaction and this can’t be if we want real change.
Engage your black employees
I’ve spent my career in technology. In my professional meetings, I’m more often than not the only person of color. Yet during my 20+ year career, I’ve never been asked about race. I find this odd considering that black people occupy just 3.2% of the senior leadership roles at large companies in the United States. And when there is a lack of diversity in the c-suite, you absolutely need to reach out to black employees across your business. You can’t understand racial issues without them.
I get that it’s hard and definitely more than a little intimidating. When you haven’t lived an experience, you’re coming into discussions knowing far less than those who you’re speaking with. But here’s the thing: we tell employees all the time to lean into their work, their thinking, etc. Leaders need to do the same with uncomfortable conversations about race: lean in and listen. You don’t always have to be the one speaking. Don’t let fear hold you back from this full engagement. This is the only way you can create inclusion programs that actually improve opportunities for people.
Know this: part of the reason why the George Floyd protests have escalated to riots is because people don’t feel heard. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar articulated this point well in a recent op-ed in the LA Times. This is a horrific outcome that could have been avoided simply by listening without judgement and the preconceived notions that perpetuate negative stereotypes and attitudes.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
Now more than ever, your black employees need to hear from you. We need your support. We want to know that you are committed to help put an end to the racism and violence that permeates our society. This isn’t just a personal weight we are carrying. My burden comes with me to the office every single day. When I see executives and colleagues tiptoeing around racial issues and consciously not addressing the elephant in the room as I have in the past, it hurts. I don’t feel included. I feel like I was brought on to make diversity numbers look better, or even worse, that they want my work product but not me.
Unconscious biases are everywhere, even in the heads of the most evolved minds and workplaces. It’s evident in where we choose to live, the neighborhoods we drive around instead of through, the friends we keep, the people we hire.
The only way to end these biases is to have honest discussions about them. Starbucks did this really well in the wake of the George Floyd protests with a meeting and letter to employees.
I was also blown away that four members of my Televerde executive team reached out to me personally to ask how I was, including my CEO and CFO. That one question, “How are you doing?” meant the world to me. I felt like I wasn’t alone and that I as a person was valued for the first time in my professional career.
Later, our Operating Committee addressed the issue head-on in an all-employee letter. This will open up the door to conversations with other black employees, many of whom are incarcerated so their experiences with race and injustice will offer insights that I don’t have. In this way, we are all learning and growing together. And when we know better, as Maya Angelou said, we do better.
More actions, less speechifying
Now the real work begins. We need to move past words and to action. We can’t let this moment get away from us. Breonna, Ahmaud, and George — we can’t let their tragic deaths be in vain.
As business leaders, we must recognize our responsibility to help solve issues of inequality and injustice more broadly.
We must lead by example and get our own houses in order and then be more present in the communities that need our help. This is how we build trust. From trust, the people hurting can move from discomfort to comfort and start on their journey to reach their human potential.
We are all in this together and it will take every one of us to fix this. Racism isn’t a black problem; it’s a societal ill — the pandemic of the human consciousness. We are all human beings who want the same things: love, respect, opportunity. More than that, we want to feel as though our life is valued as much as our lighter skin brothers and sisters.
I’m calling on all business leaders to have the tough conversations, to be a public voice for the oppressed, and to turn your outrage into action so we can finally break the cycle of “reaction/inaction” and put an end to racial injustice.
Deanna Ransom is the head of Global Marketing for Televerde, an integrated sales and marketing technology organization based in Phoenix, Arizona.