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Charleston Business

Does Your Reality Match Your Rhetoric?

By Charlene Wheeless

Senior Advisor of Equity and Justice, APCO Worldwide

As someone who has engaged with corporate America for more than 30 years, and as a Black citizen of the United States, I was impressed with the way many companies responded to the clarion call for racial and social justice last year. Commitments to do better were made; racial equity task forces formed; the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion industry blew up for consultants – many of whom have more business than they could have ever imagined in such a short period. 

Corporate foundations started rethinking their strategies and where they want to channel their investments. CEOs went public with their outrage and demanded that enough was enough. In my lifetime, I never thought I would see such broad support for the tearing down of structural racism and bias in our nation’s policies and laws. It has indeed been remarkable to witness.

When I speak to employees from companies whose leaders took a firm stand last summer, I also hear that a strange thing is happening inside those companies – nothing. It will take time before we see significant changes regarding racial justice in the workplace, but one thing is for sure: if we don’t start, we won’t get there. I hear about company plans to hire more diverse candidates and provide training to current employees. No doubt, there are charts, graphs, succession and recruitment plans developed. Corporate America is very good at solving problems. 

Leaders also need to make sure they are solving the right problem. Ask yourself three crucial questions:

  • Am I showing the same level of concern internally that I have expressed externally? In other words, is my house in order?
  • Do I recognize that the problem is much bigger and more profound than diversity and inclusion and talent management? If the answer is yes, why am I using decades-old strategies that haven’t worked in the past and expect them to deliver results now?
  • What am I doing to address systemic bias, injustice, and racial inequality in my company? Am I dismantling biased systems and creating new ones that favor everyone? 

I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but good old common sense tells me that if you are just doing more of what you were doing before and doubling down on those strategies, you’re going to be really disappointed in about a year or so. Sure, you’ll have success in attracting Black talent to top-level positions, and you’ll pepper them throughout your organization. And in just a few years, maybe it will extend to five years if you’re lucky, you will look up and realize that nearly every one of those Black professionals has left your company. 

A few years ago, a friend wrote a business book titled “The Fish isn’t Sick…The Water is Dirty.” Corporate America, our water is dirty, and it’s time for a full cleaning. The roots of racism and injustice are embedded in power and privilege. The ruling caste/majority has taken extreme measures to ensure their power structure went unharmed. We must address the systems, structures and privilege that propel at least one homogeneous group forward and oppresses others.

If the storming of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., has shown us anything, it’s that the trauma your Black and brown employees felt last summer is definitely continuing into the new year. As a Black American watching the events unfold on my screen, my first thought wasn’t the shock of people storming the Capitol – that came later.  It was, “If those people were Black, they would all be dead.” 

Putting race aside, it was a brazen attack on our democracy. Still, I couldn’t shake the stark contrast between the way Black Lives Matter demonstrators were treated by police in June of 2020 during a peaceful rally and the lack of “law and order” unveiled on a predominantly white and dangerous mob last month. 

This eventually led me back to thoughts of the workplace: The trauma everyone was and still is experiencing. The one-two punch Black people felt because we inherently know that we are not afforded the same entitlement (no matter how misplaced) or the protections as our white counterparts. What happens now and how you continue to support your Black employees, colleagues and friends who are undoubtedly feeling another traumatic assault matters.

The rules that applied earlier still do, and in other cases, more decisive actions are required. But first, let’s start with the most important:  Don’t ask what you can do.  Just do something that counts. Raise issues in the workplace; when you see an injustice, no matter how small, address it. Allyship can come in many sizes – actions of support don’t have to be big to be meaningful.

As you continue to grapple with what to do and when, remember the sage words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing.” Let’s not wait for another atrocity to get our houses in order.

Charlene Wheeless is the principal of a strategic advisory firm and is the senior advisor of equity and justice for APCO Worldwide, a leading advisory and advocacy communications consultancy helping leading public and private sector organizations navigate the challenges of today. Her debut book “You are Enough!: Reclaiming your Career and your Life with Purpose, Passion and Unapologetic Authenticity” is slated for publication in May 2021.