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Ways to address racial injustice in your company

Regardless of the current laws, there has always been a divide in America felt deeply by the Black community, and ignored by the white masses. Every Black man and woman who’s made it in the business world has at least a handful of white colleges calling him right now asking what they should be doing. If you don’t have any Black employees it’s time to reassess how you are identifying and elevating Black talent.

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This article should not be written by a white person. It’s not my place to give advice on how to better support the Black community—one I am not a part of. However, it is also not the burden of the Black community to hold our hands and guide us to our humanity. So the best I can do right now is to circulate the ideas I’ve learned from listening to Black voices leading the movement.

Omar Johnson, former CMO of Beats by Dre and former VP of Marketing for Apple, wrote a candid letter to corporate white America in the latest New York Times. He spoke about what it was like starting at the bottom and working his way up the corporate ladder. He was held back with thinly veiled excuses like “not a culture fit,” or “more suitable for urban marketing, not global.” He heard every office microaggressions there is, from dog-whistling—”you’re too aggressive, disruptive, difficult”—to discounting his voice during big decisions. His experiences are not unlike most Black Americans’ in the world of business. 

Regardless of the current laws, there has always been a divide in America felt deeply by the Black community, and ignored by the white masses. Johnson lived in a separate world within the same office as his coworkers. He attributes his success to a Black mentor and others who saw his potential and “took a chance” on him. With his foot in the door, he created marketing campaigns that shaped culture and built a company that’s integral to our interactions with music. 

Every Black man and woman who’s made it in the business world has at least a handful of white colleges calling him right now asking what they should be doing. To all these lost businessmen and women, Omar has a message. 

Step Zero: Acknowledgment

Johnson’s piece for the New York Times opens with a repetition of the same question he’s been asked by all his white colleges – What should I do? His tone is tired with a hint of hopelessness. 

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“For starters, the fact that you’re only just asking now is part of the problem. Companies have been profiting off Black culture and Black consumers for decades. Are you just now realizing that all Black lives matter, not just those of Black artists and athletes? Not just Black dollars? Ask yourself that, truthfully. That’s step zero.” 

Take time to reflect on your own biases, your biases as a leader or employee, and the overall company biases you’ve seen. Drop your defenses and ask yourself how you’ve been supporting or partaking in the problem of inequality. This is deeper than overt racist comments or publicly supporting a racist organization like the KKK. Look at where you shop, live, eat, who you encounter day-to-day. Look at how your time, money, words, and energy are being spent. Then look at their ripple effects. It’s time to get critical. Once you’re honest with yourself, it’s time to do better. 

Step 1: Internal Changes

Listen. Listen to your Black employees. This is not brand new to them, they have been dealing with racial injustice their whole lives and they have been sounding the alarms for years. Think back to all the times a Black employee has come to you with a comment, question, or concern about the company. What did you say? How did you handle it? 

This isn’t about guilt; it’s about learning from previous experiences and understanding how your company plays into systemic racism. If your Black employees haven’t spoken out, ask yourself if they are being silenced in any way? 

If you don’t have any Black employees or you only have a token Black employee it’s time to reassess how you are identifying, recruiting, developing, and elevating Black talent. Retention and promotion are just as important as recruiting and hiring. Filling the entry-level positions with Black men and women to appease guilt or save face is not the solution. Johnson says we need to “give power and authority to rising Black leaders.”

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Step 2: External Dollars

Companies have always profited off of the Black consumer, so why are they not supporting the communities they benefit from? Johnson urges businesses to support Black organizations fighting for racial justice and revolutionize criminal justice and public safety. 

He also sees the need to invest in Black-owned businesses and Black leaders—“Buy Black. Create a cycle of Black opportunity and Black prosperity.” 

For both internal and external development, training your employees on microaggressions and unconscious bias is a skill they can use throughout life. Many people have grown up with unconscious bias and it manifests in microaggressions like labeling a Black employee with terms like “aggressive,” “disruptive,” or “difficult” to silence their voices and subtly hold them back.

This work is long overdue. It is our responsibility to assess our own actions and the actions of the company we work for and make a change for the better.

(Featured image by Alexis Fauvet via Unsplash)

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Jessica Welch is the Marketing Content Associate at BigSpeak Speakers Bureau. She graduated with a degree in English, minor in Anthropology from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Her studies at Cal Poly were focused on Creative Writing and Cultural Anthropology. Jessica enjoys partnering with BigSpeak's roster of exclusive speakers to create original content that spreads their unique messages.