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How to build an actively anti-racist company

A protester holds a Black Lives Matter sign in front of an office building
Reuters/Lindsey Wasson
Speak up.
  • Jenni Avins
By Jenni Avins

senior lifestyle correspondent

Published Last updated on

In the days of protest following George Floyd’s killing, brands have been showing up on social media proclaiming that Black Lives Matter and pledging their corporate support—financial and otherwise—to push for racial equality.

But what might that corporate support look like, exactly? And how can it move beyond an Instagram post and a donation to create meaningful change?

Business leaders, especially white leaders, asking these questions may now find themselves in a crash course in anti-racism—the active dismantling of structures and norms upholding racist inequity. It’s imperative they embrace these issues. In the US and beyond, companies and consumer brands wield enormous economic and cultural power. Leaders who do the work to fight against racism may be rewarded with happier, more productive teams and access to a growing demographic of black and brown consumers who want to invest in companies that invest back in their communities.

Plus, it’s just the right thing to do.

Take stock, don’t stop

No matter how qualified a leader, any human grappling with the legacy of centuries of racial oppression and violence is likely to feel overwhelmed. Some leaders may find themselves facing their own complicity in white supremacy for the first time. It’s likely to get uncomfortable. But the idea is to just keep going.

Kyana Wheeler, a strategist for Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative who also trains corporate and nonprofit leaders, knows the conversations can be a lot. “Start where you are, and do what you can,” she says, invoking tennis great and activist Arthur Ashe. For white people unaccustomed to addressing race, it will likely be uncomfortable, and that’s okay. “Anti-racism is a journey,” she says. “Justice is the goal.”

And anti-racism is not the same as simply being “not racist,” as How to be an Antiracist author Ibram X. Kendi writes:

The opposite of racist isn’t “not racist.” It is “anti-racist.” What’s the difference? 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.”

Awkwardness and personal discomfort shouldn’t be a roadblock on a path towards anti-racism.

Neil Blumenthal, the co-founder and co-CEO of Warby Parker, expressed this on a recent phone call, two days after his company publicly pledged $1 million to organizations fighting racism and committed to building “a meaningful approach that uses our resources, our voice, and our platform to drive action and change.”

“As a leader and a white male, racism is not a subject that I’m as comfortable speaking about as many others,” Blumenthal says. “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.”

One step in Warby Parker’s journey toward anti-racism was to hire Paradigm, a strategic consulting firm that specializes in diversity, equity, and inclusion, in 2018. The firm helped Warby Parker revamp its hiring process, and train managers about unconscious bias and inclusive interviewing practices. Many lessons and actions don’t require the assistance of outside consultants. Here are a few places to start.

Name white supremacy

White supremacy—a culture that favors the ideas and actions of white people as “the norm” or superior to those of people of color—is omnipresent in American society, in workplaces, and in individuals. Acknowledging the existence of white supremacy in order to recognize and repair the ways we are complicit is a great early step. It requires, says Wheeler, that people (particularly white people) acknowledge whiteness and its impacts as important pieces of any conversation 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?”

Wheeler also compares white supremacy to the design bias toward able-bodied people, which might be entirely invisible to some: “A woman [in a wheelchair] once told me in one of my trainings, ‘I’m not disabled when I go home. My entire environment is set up for me to be able to function … outside of that, this world is created for you to function and not me, which then disables me.’”

Similarly, an environment that treats whiteness as the status quo “removes the access to support and love and joy and humanity for black folks,” says Wheeler. Seemingly benign corporate values, such as prizing education over experience, or actions like asking a job applicant about their commute or a recent vacation, are just a few ways that white supremacy can be reinforced in the workplace (pdf).

There are tons of resources for entrepreneurs who lack the resources to hire consultants to start them on this journey. Organizations such as Dismantling Racism Works offer free workbooks and information online, and anti-racist reading lists have proliferated this week.

Define your values, prioritize humanity

“Human-centered practices will get closer to anti-racist practices more than anything else,” says Wheeler. She says she often starts trainings by asking clients to identify their organization’s values, sometimes as articulated in a mission statement. She says they rarely, if ever, have to do with a company’s profit margins or bottom line, and almost always have a human aspect to them—great news for the humans who work there!

Applying a human lens, says Wheeler, is a perfect way to start working toward anti-racism in the workplace.

“You get more out of your people when you actually care [about their needs],” says Wheeler. “Identify what your people internally need … they won’t believe in you unless you address internally what needs to be addressed. And oftentimes we skip over the actual people, and do the organization thing. The people are your organization and you need their investment.”

And while working toward anti-racism internally—rather than with sweeping public gestures—might feel small, its impact can be huge. In fact, Warby Parker’s $1 million pledge was not the reason I called Blumenthal for this story. Rather, it was because a friend who is a director there mentioned that, a few days after the protests began, she had been on the phone with fellow employees as part of a phone tree designed to ensure that every employee received a call from a coworker.

“The main reason [for the phone tree] was just to check in and ensure that people knew that we cared about them, and wanted to make sure that they were okay,” says Blumenthal. “That people were doing okay from a mental health perspective and to remind folks that we do have some resources available that they can access.” Corporate employees were also reminded to take advantage of the company’s unlimited paid time off policy if they needed to.

In a moment when the topics in the news can trigger strong emotions and past traumas, there’s a good chance that employees—particularly those of color—will need some time off. Policies like Warby Parker’s are designed to be flexible enough for people to take the time they need.

Think beyond diversity, to inclusivity

Diversity initiatives alone, as valuable as they can be, will not make your company anti-racist. “Diversity is specifically about numerical categorization,” says Wheeler. “There’s nothing about change in that.”

A focus on racially-categorized employment statistics can be short-sighted and even counterproductive.

“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?”

For example, a leader laser-focused on expanding their recruiting pool in four weeks might share a job posting widely, but a step back might have shown that job description was worded in a way that was discouraging applicants. “If you think it’s about one thing, I promise you, you’ll do the journey, you’ll learn it’s about something else,” says Wheeler.

Inclusivity means removing barriers that keep all employees from participating equally in the workplace, and equity means making sure that their voices are heard, valued, and recognized accordingly. In addition to trainings such as Wheeler’s and Paradigm’s, steps in the right direction can include transparency around salaries and team diversity, employee-led resource groups, mentorship, and benefits packages for events such as parenthood and gender transition leave.

Blumenthal says he sees many companies deploying resources to recruit diverse candidates, without investing in creating an inclusive workplace to retain them.

“How do you create high-performing teams that are engaged and productive?” he asks. “Number one, every individual has to feel comfortable within the workplace, and has to be able to bring their whole selves to work. And that’s really about creating an inclusive environment. And then we want to build a team that is reflective of the country, that is going to come up with the best ideas.”

Hold yourself accountable

“Part of our accountability is to be uncomfortable, because people are dying and hurting and trying to survive, not thrive,” says Wheeler. “An uncomfortable conversation and a discomfort around this, that’s part of our accountability is to be in this together. I would start with my people inside and help them make the company what it needs to be.”

Wheeler emphasizes that timelines for this kind of work might require far more patience than some corporate leaders are accustomed to. “There’s no reason to say, ‘well, we’re going to begin to hire more folks of color,’ if you can’t retain them,” she says. “There’s no reason to force yourself into a different place on the continuum.”

Internal accountability is important, but public accountability can help organizations stick to their goals even once the news cycle has moved on.

Blumenthal readily admits that Warby Parker has a long way to go.

“I think we’ve been more vocal publicly around LGBTQ+ equality or gender equality, and haven’t been as loud as we should be around combating racism and furthering racial equality. So that’s a commitment that we’ve made as a team over the last week,” he says. “We need to do more and need to talk about it more and talk about it in terms of systemic racism and racial equality.”

The company publishes annual reports using globally-recognized sustainability standards to account for the company’s environmental and social impacts. Anyone can read in the 2019 version (pdf) that 14% of Warby Parker’s employees identify as black or African-American, and that the company’s store teams were trained to address bias and discrimination in retail spaces.

“We’re by no means where we’d like to be… but we’ve committed to holding ourselves accountable,” says Blumenthal. “Businesses and brands have the ability to influence culture and influence society, and need to take that responsibility seriously and do more.”

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