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

Tania A. Ibarra, CPA
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, specifically Black people.

Despite the progress in equal rights and other gains communities have won, the mindset and culture that values white over all others 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 nationwide are places of work, specifically public places of work. Public places of work are the workplaces in which tax dollars support payroll.

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, Latinx, and multi-racial/ethnic lives.

It is the sense of worthiness of white lives and the unworthiness of Black lives. There is no other place more apparent of white superiority than in the workplace. After all, slavery is 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, and inhumanity.

Plenty of resources are available for what you should be doing right now (support your Black colleaguesdonate, make external and internal statements). People are paying attention. Your words and actions right now are critical.

It’s also important to understand that you’re here for the long game. While the protests bring 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. Still, an ongoing legacy of biased policies and practices prevents 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 by your team and 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 the capability of different people. Intentional coaching, mentoring, and (notably) sponsoring 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 everyone needs to hold on to sustainable change.

Are you getting in your 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 EQ skills to have healthy conversations where you can drop the defenses to connect genuinely.

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