Long before I even knew what challenging racism and white supremacy in the workplace truly looked like, it was clear to me that most offices weren’t safe spaces for a Black, plus-size woman. And this isn’t just a corporate problem: Throughout my 20-plus years working in progressive and social justice organisations, I have often felt like I was left to fend for myself against the aggressions — both micro and macro — that I experienced. Just a few years ago, I was leading an event that included organisations outside of my own when a member of one of them came up to me and asked if she could pet my hair. Yes, pet.
When I responded with anger, frustration and a very clear “no,” she was shocked and let me know that her granddaughter had hair like mine that she petted all the time. My response was, “I’m concerned for your granddaughter.” She walked away in a huff. The group of people who witnessed this interaction offered me whispered apologies but not one person in that predominantly white group of onlookers had come to my defence during the interaction.
The following Monday, my supervisor, who had not been present at the event, called — not to check in with me about what had happened, but to chastise me about my tone and behaviour during this interaction.
Regardless of how wild this sounds, it’s not uncommon. These types of violations of Black people’s humanity are found across all sectors and industries, up and down the hierarchy.
Whether it is navigating the comments about our new hairstyle, the fit of our clothing or staring down white fragility on the daily, Black people shoulder the burden of navigating and countering the conscious and unconscious bias they experience in the workplace, typically with little to no support from leadership. And many of us got “The Talk” from our parents about having to work twice as hard as our white counterparts in order to get respect.
During and immediately after the 2020 uprisings in response to the murder of George Floyd, organisations and businesses across the country clamoured to let Black staff know that their lives mattered. There was the development of anti-racist messaging, special programming, graphics and social assets, all plastered with red, black and green or kente cloth (*insert eye roll*) design. And then, about 150 years late, institutions got wind of what Juneteenth was, and that was a whole new office shake-up.
Once again, Black people were showing up to staff meetings only to experience more emotional labor as they were thrust into the centre of their organisations’ attempts to “meet the moment.” I think I speak for almost every Black person when I say that it was exhausting. And we are still tired as hell.
DEI practitioners were flooded with calls from schools, nonprofits and Fortune 500 companies all hoping to quickly implement strategies that would expediently transform their racial equity issues in ways that would yield immediate results. My partners and I at For The Culture, an equity and culture-shift firm, were flooded with inquiries. And because we’ve done this work for years before all these companies “woke up,” it was jarring.
Over the last three years, many have realised what most Black people already knew: that challenging systems of oppression takes far more than an afternoon training, especially in states like Florida where laws like Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Stop W.O.K.E Act are attempting to ban DEI practices in the workplace. Many Black employees (and other employees of colour) that I engage with have yet to see true follow-through from their leadership, and the urgency that was present in 2020 has been replaced with angst, frustration and the desire to just move on.
Resting on the laurels of passive values isn’t going to move us deeper into our collective journey. Lip service isn’t cutting it now, and it never has. Change only comes when there is a real commitment to digging, to making long-term investments and trusting the values to actively guide us from rhetoric to action.
For employers committed to creating affirming spaces for Black staff, I want to offer FTC’s See to Shift approach as one of many tools available for forward movement and palpable transformation.
SEE. Take a hard look at the institutional culture and climate, not just your team. Take the time to comb through employee engagement survey data, deeply examine your institutional policies, hiring processes, and evaluation and feedback loops. But also, recognise Black staff as full human beings with the right to experience a full range of emotions, and as sometimes overworked employees who deserve to be appropriately compensated for not just labor, but their ideas and investment in the brand.
STRATEGISE. Don’t just take that initial glance at the data you collect and then report back to Black staff what they probably already know. Use this information to build a plan for how you will shift the culture of the organisation. And then put the money and resources behind the plan (and the people involved) to make it happen — even if it means reallocating some resources from the swag budget or the annual holiday party. After all, budgets are moral documents.
STRENGTHEN. Work with internal and/or external DEI practitioners and culture shifters to strengthen existing skills, build new muscles and invest in institutional infrastructure so that everyone is able to lend their creativity and skill to the work of changing the culture. Making the workplace better for Black staff isn’t just Black people’s job. Transforming culture and institutionalising equity is not an act of social welfare or a box to be checked. It is the path to restoring our individual, organisational and collective humanities.
SHIFT. Now, take that plan and turn it into sustainable action by prioritising equity in all facets of your workplace, not just HR. Support teams and departments in setting goals and objectives that incorporate DEI. Institute long-term education; create, staff and resource the DEI department; rewrite employee handbooks; revise the holiday calendar. And remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Keep seeking information and growing, evaluate your progress and absolutely keep listening to Black staff.
This isn’t the formula for perfection. It’s our blueprint for creating a shift in culture in the workplace, and an invitation to try something substantial. Black people deserve a workplace that values them for their full humanity and their unique, individual gifts, not just for their productivity or the percentage increase in demographics.…and guess what? Everyone else will benefit as well.
Nia Martin-Robinson (she/her) is a Black, queer woman and a founding partner of For The Culture, a leading equity and culture shift firm working to help teams use their values as a bridge to get from rhetoric to reality.