A Message to White Leaders: Connecting George Floyd with your Daily Work

July 9, 2020

George Floyd’s murder was not an isolated incident and it is not disconnected from you. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Nina Pop and many, many more Black lives are rooted in a fundamental, systemic undervaluing of people of color, and specifically Black people.

Despite the progress in equal rights and other gains communities have won, the mindset and culture that values white over all other and most drastically over Black identities, is alive and well in our workplaces.

It is important to recognize that the police violence Black people experience happens while the police are on the clock. All the police departments across the nation are places of work, and specifically a public place of work. Public places of work are the workplaces which payroll is supported by tax dollars.

Public institutions were designed and created during troubling and unjust times in our history, when slavery was the institutionalized form of racism. Perhaps the most damaging legacy of slavery is the mindset that values white lives over Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latinxs, and multi racial/ethnic lives.

It is the sense of worthiness of white lives and unworthiness of Black lives. There is no other place more apparent of white superiority than in the workplace. After all, slavery is the the act of forcing people into unpaid work. This is why Step Up has always focused on recognizing, owning, and disrupting biases in the workplace that uphold dominant identities, the most salient of which is white.

We need to be willing to remove from our workplaces the mindsets and behaviors that continue to reinforce a 400 year old system of oppression, injustice, inhumanity.

There are plenty of resources available for what you should be doing right now (support your Black colleagues, donate, make external and internal statements). People are paying attention. Your words and actions right now are important.

It’s also important to understand that you’re here for the long game. While the protests are bringing renewed visibility to a centuries-old problem, they will subside - hopefully with real, effective, institutional changes in place. But racism won’t end here.

Valuing Black bodies and perspectives

When organizations are implicitly and explicitly biased in favor of traits of white supremacy culture - individualism, conflict avoidance, perfectionism, and more - it shows up in hiring processes, performance reviews, employee handbooks, and most importantly daily interactions between coworkers, customers, vendors, stakeholders, etc.

What would it look like to value a Black employee’s opinion? What does healthy conflict to discuss racism and other biases look like? Are you expecting your Black employees to check their emotions at the door and have non-emotionally charged discussions? Have you considered having a facilitator for these important discussions?

It is well-documented that diversity provides value to companies, but an ongoing legacy of biased policies and practices is preventing most organizations from truly demonstrating that they value diverse perspectives and prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion.

You have opportunities every day to disrupt this system. As a leader, you set the tone for what is valued on your team and in your organization.

It starts with you.

Are you more critical of Black employees than employees who look like you? In-group bias often leads us to see potential in people who remind us of ourselves, but require more proof of capability of people who are different than us. Intentional coaching, mentoring, and (importantly) sponsoring of employees of color can help.

Do you communicate the importance of valuing diversity with your team? With other leaders in your organization? The most effective leadership teams prioritize diversity. Change can start with you, but sustainable change needs to be held by everyone.

Are you getting in your own way? Sometimes jumping into action before assessing where you are personally can cause more harm than good. Do your homework to understand the legacy of institutional racism in the US. Build your own EQ skills to have healthy conversations where you can drop the defenses to truly connect.

The systemic bias that Black lives do not matter as much as white lives is the same bias that leads to inequitable treatment -- lower pay, harsher performance reviews, less access to promotions -- of Black people in our organizations.