We’re seeing signs that individuals and corporations want anti-racist change right now. There’s real talk about police reform, open support of Black Lives Matter, and new or revived company DEI initiatives. There is movement in the landscape of social response and responsibility for racism, bias, and disenfranchisement.
At this moment, I want to hold space for the many kinds of opportunities arising and acknowledge that not all DEI work is in fact equitable or lasting. I’m not trying to be cynical or dismissive of anyone’s work or intentions. But we have, right now, an opening for change that won’t last forever. While it’s here, women of color need to be sure to work for our own advancement, build allyship, and hold everyone to account.
A New Kind of Conversation
Conversations about race in corporate spaces have come into the open like never before. Recently, on a team call for a volunteer position I hold, a white colleague of mine spoke to leadership, making the request for hiring black and brown employees as proof of our commitment to equity and inclusion. I found myself speaking up in the moment too, using my colleague’s allyship to add that not hiring people of color is in contradiction to our goals and undermines future recruiting.
Had I chosen to speak up like this five years ago, I have no doubt my concerns would have been mine alone. The response from others would have been dismissive (why is she talking about race again?). But today, not only did my concerns get heard, they were voiced by others. While disappointed in our hiring, I believe that consciousness has been built in the leadership.
At another company, recent DEI work hasn’t resulted in the changes employees had hoped (and worked) for. Instead of simply settling for a completed DEI plan, employees are noticing the lack of execution on the plan, asking questions, and pressing for follow-through and results.
The Opportunity Won’t Last Forever
As women of color, our capacity to confront racism is expanding. Our sense of safety to speak out is growing, as are the number of allies willing to speak out with us. But this window is small, and it will close before all the necessary work is done.
We see it closing already in the discourse around “getting back to normal” after COVID. Yes, we want our work and school and social lives back. But, lurking beneath that desire is also wanting to get our power structures back to the “normal” of acceptable police brutality, unequal pay, and racial discrimination.
And so, even with all the positive changes and even perhaps with some DEI initiatives in place at your company, it’s still up to us to advocate for ourselves. There is a real gap between company DEI initiatives and the actual advancement of women and people of color. Therefore, clarity becomes even more essential: knowing exactly what equity means for us, and how to advance it for ourselves.
Don’t Wait for Advancement to Come to You
Here are a few ways you can seize opportunities and confront roadblocks to your own advancement.
Choose Your Participation Carefully
Black women, including my clients, are being asked to lead, facilitate, or otherwise contribute to many different kinds of DEI work in their organizations right now. The vast majority of these requests are not accompanied by additional compensation or resources. We are being asked to tell our stories of microaggressions, lead diversity training, or allow our images to endorse the company’s self-proclaimed diversity. When we do this work for free, we become complicit in the ineffectual and disingenuous.
Before you say yes to any kind of DEI work, know what the advancement opportunity is for you beyond promises of prestige, honor, or gratitude.
Will you be compensated fairly for your time, expertise, and access? Will you be given a new title or salary increase for your added responsibilities? Will you be given a team to help with the work? Will they provide for your travel?
Get clear on what your organization is really willing to invest in their DEI commitments, and what they have invested so far. If it hasn’t been and isn’t yet enough, this is the moment for you to start a conversation about your organization living out their values. The bottom line: if you are asked for DEI work, use the request to advance your own equity.
You may also be asked to participate in giving feedback via climate surveys. Before you spend your time and energy on helping your organization understand their own problems, ask about what your feedback will lead to. Will there be action items, new accountability measures, working groups to actually change company policy? Too often, we see these surveys go nowhere, serving only to reopen wounds and leave employees feeling unheard, at risk for further marginalization or even retaliation.
Leverage Allyship and Conflict
Right now, allies seem easier to spot and effectively cultivate. There may be people in your organization who are willing to speak out with you. They may be ready to confront leadership about policies and practices, call out biases in colleagues, or back up your bias disruption. If they are indeed your allies, they will recognize that one person’s disenfranchisement affects the entire organization, and they will be willing to take action.
We need to get vulnerable with our allies. Often, we’re too ashamed to share the multitude of insults we experience. We think there must be something wrong with us when we receive embarrassing reprimands about our “attitude,” or when we’re told to be “better team players” and “less reactive” to others. When we share these details with our allies, we grow our support system, gain witnesses to our experience, and build their awareness so they’ll see these incidents the next time.
In short, allies are there to use their privilege to help shoulder the burden and responsibility of disrupting bias. They’re able to share in raising the necessary conflicts, naming the problem, asking for further conversations, and holding others accountable. They can bear witness when others try to deny bias is even happening. They can stand with you in demanding that white colleagues not only handle the disruption but also their ensuing discomfort. An ally can bring palpable relief to your work experience, making you feel less alone, less exhausted, and less crazy.
“There will be a resistance to your ambition. There will be people who say to you, ‘You are out of your lane,’ because they are burdened by only having the capacity to see what has always been instead of what can be. But don’t you let that burden you.”
– Kamala Harris
Get Clear on What You Deliver
We are so used to overachieving that our level of excellence does not usually align with our white colleagues’. We’re used to proving ourselves against people’s biases, doing more than what’s asked, and approaching every problem with exceptional depth and rigor. Our white colleagues, who have not had to walk this same road, can be surprised by our approach. They can feel outperformed and therefore threatened. They can mistake our excellence and work ethic for overstepping, for straying out of our lane. And historically, when white people find themselves asking, “who do you think you are?” things get very dangerous for Black people.
The truth is, none of our hard work will ever topple the barriers of privilege—a lifetime of access, mobility, networks, presumption of superiority, and nepotism. Working harder won’t disrupt any of these structures. So, we need to adapt our approach. Instead of defaulting to above and beyond, we need to stop and ask, “What’s expected of me here?” This doesn’t mean we lower our standards or fail to deliver excellence. It means we know the parameters of other people’s desired outcomes. When we ask, listen, and confirm what they’re looking for, they feel heard and we know exactly what to deliver. If we decide to deliver beyond their expectations, we educate them about the value of our work in advance of doing the work.
“If you are a Black woman, and you show up in a space with new ideas, asking people to be different than they have before, then you are subject to this criticism about not knowing your place, being too ambitious, wanting too much.”
– Keneshia Grant, Associate Professor of Political Science at Howard University
Advancing your own equity begins with discerning which opportunities will expand your capacity to advocate for yourself, ask for what you need, and push your organization to living its values—and which opportunities won’t.
Read more about disrupting bias, negotiating compensation, and finding allies on the Leverage to Lead blog.
,MJ Mathis and Joy Turner are Associate Leadership Coaches and Facilitators at Leverage to Lead.
,Melody S. Gee is a freelance creative content strategist.