Quartzy: the act up edition

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It’s Friday.

We are Jenni Avins and Sarah Todd, writing from the West Coast and the Midwest of the US today, as demonstrations against racism and police violence continue.

These are by no means the first protests following an unarmed black person killed by a white police officer in the US. And while it’s easy to feel helpless or exhausted watching traumatic and familiar events unfold, this week has felt different, and we hope that it is.

Protest is a time-honored and powerful way to make a meaningful difference, but it isn’t available to everyone, and it’s far from the only way. We spent this week looking at how to join the fight for racial justice and create change: in ourselves, in our workplaces, and in our economy. Here are a few.

a protestor holds an upside-down US flag
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Acknowledge the problem. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, and in the US, we have a problem called white supremacy. White supremacy is not just an ideology held by violent extremists. It’s a culture that favors the ideas, contributions, and actions of white people as superior to those of people of color. And it’s everywhere.

We must acknowledge the existence of white supremacy in order to recognize and repair the ways we are complicit, says Kyana Wheeler, a strategist for Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative. This requires that people (particularly white people) acknowledge whiteness and its impacts in conversations about race.

“It’s very similar to gender,” says Wheeler. “If you could get men to sit in a room and talk about what it means to be a man in this world and the pain that is associated with the impact of maleness on women and non-gender folks, that would be huge, right?”

(We’d pay to watch this, btw.)

“Start where you are, and do what you can,” says Wheeler, invoking tennis great and activist Arthur Ashe. For white people unaccustomed to addressing race, it will likely be uncomfortable, and that’s okay.

“As a leader and a white male, racism is not a subject that I’m as comfortable speaking about as many others,” Neil Blumenthal, the cofounder and co-CEO of Warby Parker, told us this week. “But my comfort level and my vocabulary can’t limit the amount that I speak to it, and can’t limit the action that we take.”

Anti-racism is not a passive position. Anti-racism—the active dismantling of structures and norms upholding racist inequity—isn’t the same as simply being “not racist,” as How to be an Antiracist author Ibram X. Kendi writes:

One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an anti-racist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of “not racist.”

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Make your voice heard. In addition to Wheeler and Blumenthal, we talked this week to Stephanie Creary, an assistant professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, about creating anti-racist workplaces. Creary says employees can push their companies to take concrete action against structural inequality. Workers can, and should, call on leadership to take three categories of action:

  • Donate to social-justice organizations
  • Cultivate a diverse list of vendors to do business with
  • Increase opportunities for black employees to be hired and promoted

That last category is where companies often visibly falter, despite their stated diversity goals. Wheeler also says a myopic focus on those numbers can keep leaders from making the necessary internal changes to keep and support employees once they’ve hired them.

“Any time you start with the end goal already in mind, you’ve lost your anti-racism effort,” says Wheeler. “Begin with: What might I learn so that I can imagine things differently?”

Image: Into Action

Build a better workplace. Employees can push executives to take concrete steps proven to increase opportunities for black employees, such as implementing targeted recruitment programs at historically black colleges and universities, establishing diversity committees and other internal systems (pdf) that hold managers responsible for advancing people of color, and creating sponsorship programs that encourage managers to actively get to know, and advocate for, people from underrepresented groups.

They can also push employers to create more inclusive workplaces. “Every individual has to feel comfortable within the workplace, and has to be able to bring their whole selves to work,” says Blumenthal.

Some concrete steps workers can push for include transparency around salaries and team diversity, employee-led resource groups, mentorship, and benefits packages for events such as parenthood and gender transition leave.

Emphasize accountability. Employees can also challenge their companies when they fall short of their stated values on racial equality. This week, Facebook and Instagram employees staged a “virtual walkout” over their CEO’s handling of a violent anti-protest post by US president Donald Trump.

Taking a public stand against one’s employer isn’t an option for everyone. Retaliation is a possibility, and some employees can’t afford to risk losing their jobs—and, in the US, their health insurance. But collective action and employee organizing, as with mass walkouts, can help minimize the chances of being singled out.

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Support black-owned businesses. This is a simple, direct way to help counterbalance the economic inequality that disproportionately affects black communities. And with many small businesses still reeling from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, there’s even more reason to open your wallet.

a clerk helps a customer at Eso Won Books, a black-owned bookstore in Los Angeles
Image: Quartz/Jenni Avins

The Strategist compiled a list of 77 black-owned bookstores, beauty businesses, apparel companies, and more. For an even more expansive list of black-owned bookstores across the US, check out LitHub. And Food & Wine has a handy guide to locating black-owned restaurants.

Speak up. Consumers can also use their power to support socially responsible businesses and participate in social-media campaigns against companies exposed for discrimination. While boycotts and backlashes don’t always directly dent companies’ finances, they can do a lot of reputational damage and invite more media scrutiny. That makes them an effective tool of persuading companies to change their behavior.

These are all small steps in the right direction, to keep on walking the walk long after the talk has quieted. As Wheeler told us this week: “Anti-racism is a journey. Justice is the goal.”

Take care,


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book cover: The Vanishing Half
Image: Penguin Random House

About those reading lists. A lot of anti-racist reading lists are circulating on social media right now, offering up an array of novels, poems, essays, and nonfiction books by black authors. In an article for Vulture, Lauren Michele Jackson argues that these lists—while well-intentioned—seem to be intended for those who are “predisposed to read black art zoologically.” The person who approaches a Toni Morrison novel looking for lessons and action steps, expecting that it will teach them how to be anti-racist, is likely to miss much of the richness, beauty, and complexity of Morrison’s work.

It’s absolutely important to cultivate a diverse media diet, read books by black authors, and seek a better understanding of other people’s experiences and histories. And there are certainly books, like Kendi’s, explicitly aimed at helping people to become better, more effective allies. But “it is unfair to beg other literature and other authors, many of them dead, to do this sort of work for someone,” Jackson writes. This weekend, Sarah is looking forward to digging into Brit Bennett’s new novel, The Vanishing Half, a story about passing and racial identity that’s already getting rave reviews. She’ll be trying to read it on its own terms.