At this point in the year, we all know that 2020 has been an interesting period of many different revelations; some coming at the expense of human lives. As we wind down and transition out of this year and into 2021, I wanted to bring some attention to a problematic buzz phrase that I keep hearing, that sounds good in theory but can be very dangerous and lead to apathy.
A number of companies have started using the term “we need to start having tough conversations” when referencing the Black Lives Matter movement or the racial injustice movement. This summer, a number of big corporations came out committing to starting to have these so-called “tough conversations” and also committed to throwing millions of dollars at the Black community. Here’s the problem with that. First, while all things need to start with a conversation for sure and dialogue is required to express what the actual needs are, it’s not enough. It’s not enough to just talk about an issue if there are no real plans to actually fix anything. It feels like a lot of these corporations used this catch phrase to quiet down the noise from activists and disenfranchised people-effectively to shut them up and make empty promises that actually don’t mean anything. Because having conversations will not change anything unless there is a concentrated effort to put the actionable items into place based off of those conversations. Second, throwing money at the Black community as if that is the only thing we are asking for is insulting. Reparations do not need to be paid by companies to Black people unless there is something fundamentally inhumane they did towards us that they need to atone for. Reparations need to be paid by the federal government. Any money that companies choose to invest into community organizations should be because that is an actual focus and is in alignment with that companies goals. Black people do not need a pity fuck. We do not need money thrown at us by non-black-run organizations as they try to assuage their guilt, get a tax credit and use us as marketing for their charities. We want people who see the needs in the Black community and know they can genuinely help, without looking for praise and adoration from Black people.
Usually when money comes from companies, whether big or small, it comes at a price. They want their name and logo splashed everywhere, letting everyone know what they did and how much they donated. Or they want a say in how and where the money is spent. Or they want to use their charitable giving in their next ad campaign to show the world how “good” they are. It’s all about maintaining the brand reputation. Protecting the brand name, especially for large Fortune 500 corporations is paramount. It is usually tied to stock prices and investor and shareholder confidence. The last thing a company wants is to have bad PR or bad press. There is such thing as bad press in the corporate world and companies pay PR departments and legal counsel’s mucho dollars to protect them and bury or hide any negative press. This can end up fostering corporate environments where things are done solely or primarily for show and photo ops rather than being because it is truly in the best interest of the community as a whole.
I’m convinced the reason these companies move in this manner, committing to having these “tough conversations” is because they truly have no intention of actually changing anything. Most of these companies don’t really have an interest in shaking up their leadership boards by hiring qualified minority candidates into senior and executive levels. When they do, it is very slowly and usually is one person at a time. Some feel more comfortable (and barely at that) giving a position to a white woman than a person of colour in general, regardless of gender. Being in the corporate world for over 13 years, I’ve witnessed this on many levels at different companies. A lot of companies believe they are diverse and are doing a good job; until you find out what the positions are that Black people hold, how few there are in management and how even fewer there are in senior or executive management. Very rarely are Black people given multiple opportunities at the same level, even if they are qualified. If more POC and Black people inclusive of men, women, trans and NB/NGC folks where in positions of power and influence in these companies then there would be less of a need to have “tough conversations” because you would already have the right people in the room and a plethora of them to help companies navigate through some of their blind spots. But when you pigeon hole people into categories and you stick them figuratively in a box that does not allow you to see them as anything other than the colour of their skin or your own judgements or perceptions of them based on their ethnicity, the current environment is exactly what you get.
I’ve worked at large companies where we’ve had steering committees, which essentially is a group of people who are experts and SME’s at what they do, sit around and discuss the potential idea of something. There’s usually a leader who outlines the goal and then everyone gives their two cents of how they can make this goal work or what the pitfalls may be. Depending on the project, it can take anywhere from several months to several years to execute based on the scope of the project and what they are trying to achieve. Sadly, when I hear companies say to the Black community that they need to start having “tough conversations,” it reminds me of the steering committee model. Sit around and discuss and debate things for months on end, and then maybe try to execute it. The problem is, we are dealing with real human lives. People cannot wait for companies to stop being racist and supporting white supremacy but not hiring people of colour and specifically Black people into positions of power to help them change things. It’s not enough to throw Black people into diversity leadership, as if that is the only thing we can do. We recently heard the Well’s Fargo CEO claim that, and I quote, “There is a very limited pool of Black talent to recruit from.” While he did get destroyed and ended up retracting his statement, it gives us a brief peep into the minds of the white men controlling the corporate world and the boards making the hiring decisions on who gets the top spots in companies.
There has to be a real willingness to change the current structures of power in the workplace. Donating money and talking about race in companies falls pitifully short of what actually needs to happen to bring about real systemic changes and equality in hiring practices. If corporations are not actually going to do the real work of addressing the disparities in their own companies, not just sitting around asking Black people to relive and rehash their horrible stories of racism at work, then I’d honestly rather them just keep their money and keep on keeping on with what they’re doing. Personally, I’m sick and tired of being lied to by all of these companies who claim to care about my community and our lives but don’t actually back it up with real genuine action, as opposed to performative justice. I’m tired of Black and Indigenous people being used as photo ops and PR pieces, instead of companies actually wanting to help us because it’s just the right thing to do. We are not toys or puppets to be played with. We need real solutions and real partners to help us change. To the companies that are doing the real hard work (because there are), thank you. Whether you are ever publicly recognized or not, there are those of us in the community who see you and see what you’re doing. To those companies still on the fence or still deciding to turn a blind eye to my communities problems, we see you too and we will not forgot. Our dollar is powerful and our memory is long.