A firestorm of outrage, unrest and protest punctuates days and floods timelines in the wake of the senseless lynching of Ahmaud Arbery and the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Since the un-marginalized world awoke from its slumber with a riotous cry of #BlackLivesMatter, everyone wants in. Major brands and smaller companies are scrambling to show solidarity, with perfected performative posts that condemn racism. My Insta timeline is drowning in a sea of black squares, civil rights quotes, and carefully curated videos from corporate heavyweights. Even my tweets featured a somber black bird instead of their ubiquitous blue and white logo. Still, the silence is deafening for the Black professionals and allies who continue to message me about how their companies choose to show up — or not.
Here’s the thing: diversity and inclusion work is a marathon, not a sprint. Marathons demand endurance. And endurance requires preparation. You don’t just show up to the starting line to run 26.2 miles without a plan. You train day by day until you complete the race. Right now, companies are racing to allyship. Organizations are sprinting to show support, to show up for a marathon they never trained for. We’ve gone from pandemic to protest, and let’s face it, not many companies were racing toward racial equity before this all began. They quietly collected medals and checked boxes to register for the race, but never showed up at the starting line. Now that the curtain of injustice is pulled back, everyone’s slips are showing, as my grandma would say.
Corporate America spends millions of dollars on diversity and inclusion, but their efforts often fall flat for Black professionals, who are disheartened by seeing their corporations and colleagues clamor to create distance between themselves and the issues. According to the Center of Talent Innovation (CTI) Being Black in Corporate America 2020 study, the subject of race is more of a “third rail” at work — preventing the frank exploration of its merits and allowing systems of privilege to remain in place. Experiencing the trauma of racial injustice while advocating for change, especially in the workplace, is exhausting for black professionals. Even more cringey is employees succumbing to silence for fear of losing their livelihood.
That fear enables companies, especially those with predominantly white leadership at key levels, to cling to what’s codified in their handbooks and value statements, yet fail to acknowledge and address the systemic racism that exists within their walls.
Activism is my rent for living on this planet. – Alice Walker
Despite the source of the ignition, it’s been beautiful to see the spark of national and global outpouring against racial injustice. Yet in many offices, virtual or otherwise, Black professionals and our allies are left with more questions than answers. What should I do if my company is silent about racism? How can I take a stand? Amplify my voice? How do I address racism without losing my job? While I’m standing by to see which brands toe the line and which ones actually show up to run the race, I want to share four tips to become a workplace activist and activate allyship.
1. Find a Safe Place: Consider an internal ally with influence and access to key stakeholders that you can meet with or email. Share your transparent feedback. Be gentle in your discourse, but unapologetic in your perspective. Ask their views on how you might be able to help implement internal change, and who else might be willing to listen. This person should be someone who will know what is already being done at higher levels or who might be willing to take the lead on collective action throughout the organization. Activist Rachel Cargle created a downloadable letter template for Employer Accountability that you can use to hold your employer responsible.
2. Offer the Framework: If your organization is unclear on how to speak up or take a stance because of the lack of diversity in the C-suite or otherwise, offer yourself as a conduit for appropriate tools. There are already amazing allies like Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein who have created and circulated an anti-racism toolkit, and From Privilege to Progress, who has designed a framework for Allyship (Learn, Speak Up, Amplify). Ground your messaging in solutions and help internal teams work smarter, not harder. The resources are available and you can help bridge the information gap. Not knowing where to begin is not an acceptable excuse for inaction.
3. Band Together: As an HR and D&I practitioner, it is deeply disturbing to hear from so many professionals who fear retaliatory action from their HR department. Legal protections are nuanced and complex, but banding together as a collective generally affords more protection to everyone. Rally other employees who share your concerns to speak out as a group. It’s harder to dismiss the feedback or retaliate against an entire group of professionals. Collectively, ask your company to support organizations like The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. and The Center for Policing Equity. Request that your company makes financial investments in corporate social responsibility dollars, supporting anti-racist reform, policy change and racial equity.
4. Move On: Don’t be afraid to take your talent elsewhere. While the recent unemployment numbers might cause delays in finding a new job, it’s important to remember you always have options. Start strategizing now to align yourself with a company that better serves your professional needs, including mental health and psychological safety. No company should benefit from your Black brilliance, if the basic tenets of humanity escape them. Visit sites like Kanarys, who are doing the real work to ensure we improve inclusion and equity in the workplace, by normalizing equity transparency and pointing diverse talent in the right direction.
Toni Howard Lowe is a Career & Workforce Strategist focused on challenging Fortune 100, 200, and 500 organizations to eradicate pay disparity for women and bridge the career gap for underrepresented minority professionals entering and currently in the workforce. She is a go-to career cultivation expert and D&I trailblazer known for her passionate advocacy for diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace. Toni is a sought-after trainer, speaker, panelist and moderator. She has partnered with recognized brands and organizations like Google, Southwest Airlines, Ally Financial, BB&T, and United States Black Chamber of Commerce. Her insights have also appeared in Forbes, Fast Company, NBC News, Huffington Post, Black Enterprise, Business Management Daily, Glassdoor and many more, where she speaks as an expert on inclusive leadership and workforce insights.