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What workplaces underestimate about their antiracism commitments

A rack of dress shirts
Reuters/Eric Thayer
Get ready to roll up your sleeves.
  • Isis Dallis
By Isis Dallis

Managing partner, Matter Unlimited

Published Last updated

Since the racial reckoning of 2020, corporations have committed over $50 billion in antiracism pledges. They have made promises to diversify teams and board rooms, establish inclusion practices, and “amplify the voices” of Black, brown, and indigenous people in the business world.

While these commitments are necessary—and signal the largest acknowledgment, collective effort, and financial investment made in history to remedy centuries of institutional racism and systemic economic oppression—they ignore sobering truths about the depth and scale of what it will actually take to deliver the only acceptable outcome: a just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive economy.

Here are 10 ideas that leaders will need to come to terms with in order to do the slow, essential work of building antiracist companies.

Not separate, equal

Current approaches suggest this work can be carried out adjacent or in parallel to the everyday work of organizations. Antiracism commitments are often treated like campaigns,  given motivating names, assigned to a special team, and rolled out among a litany of other corporate initiatives and priorities. Business as usual continues on a separate track while DE&I (diversity, equity, and inclusion) commitments, compartmentalized and contained, attempt transformational work within the constraints of the specific charter, budget, and scope assigned to them. But deep antiracism work is integrated, immersive, intense, and uncompromising. It cannot be separate from the work of the organization, it must be the work of the organization.

Hold the applause

Building an antiracist organization, and ultimately an antiracist economy, is selfless work. It isn’t about celebratory pledges and self-congratulatory progress announced at quarterly meetings. Companies shouldn’t expect a merit badge for returning stolen money or choosing to discontinue profiting off the Holocaust. Similarly, turning the tide on the intentional dehumanization, manipulation, and extraction of power and generational wealth from Black and Brown communities is nothing to be applauded. Correcting for this should be approached as a solemn and necessary duty, not to generate the kind of feel-good buzz that accompanies a product launch party.

This is going to hurt (aka, you will need to participate in your own undoing)

When antiracism commitments are launched with fanfare and excitement, almost no one talks about how painful it will be, how vulnerable leaders will need to be, and how much will need to be destroyed and exposed before they can even begin.

Just as demolition is the first phase of construction when remodeling, so must we destroy old structures to build new, antiracist ones. To skip this step is to miss exposing underlying issues that will most certainly undermine the integrity of the work we are setting out to do. Hard work laid on top of an unstable foundation will end in rubble. Antiracism work within organizations will take an emotional and financial toll. There is no hiring your way out of the problem; It cannot be subbed out to a crew. You won’t get to approve the plan and then show up on reveal day ready to relish in your remade company.

In the Oxford dictionary, the technical definition of sacrificial is something designed to be used up or destroyed in fulfilling a purpose or function. Leaders, you will need to pick up the sledgehammer and actively participate in your own undoing in fulfillment of a higher purpose. You will need to stand amid the dust and rubble, assess and accept the damage, and then begin the work to rebuild. This work isn’t superficial, it is sacrificial.

There are no proven models

Leaders are used to solving complex problems within relatively short timeframes by leveraging all manner of intelligence, tools, processes, and proven frameworks. We identify core issues and systematically and methodically solve for them with ingenuity, innovation, imagination, and plain hard work. Today’s leaders are so confident in their methodologies and tools, we are willing to attempt daunting, large-scale, never seen before challenges without hesitation. The bigger the challenge, the more energized we are by the possibility of solving it. We relish in the excitement and the energy of a 10x goal. We create working groups, define objectives and key results, roll it all into an 18-month plan, and diligently move through tasks and milestones until the completion date.

The problem is, there is no historical model or framework for what we are now attempting to do. Capitalism, an inherently inequitable system that was designed to create wealth disparity, has never been deprogrammed to defeat itself. Racism isn’t easily isolated and thus its dismantling is not easily broken down into digestible subtasks. We have to pause to ask ourselves: How do we track and measure that which can only be felt? There is no line for microaggressions on the balance sheet, no KPI for ache. Racism lives in the marrow.

Climate action leaders know a thing or two about attempting massive, sweeping change with global, economic, systemic, behavioral, and interconnected historical underpinnings. We can study how, with the fate of humanity on the line, they realistically frame the challenge and soberly state the stakes. We can notice how they are addressing Earth science and behavioral science, and are unafraid to challenge deeply held beliefs surrounding each. We can study how they selflessly devote themselves to work that will be incomplete in their lifetimes all while diving into the work with a sense of urgency and commitment. We can take notes on their recognition that compartmentalizing only works on paper—and that adding “good” things in one column doesn’t meaningfully address the harm caused by the bad things in a different column.

We also can take note of those passive and compliant allies, who elect to sit on the sidelines and conduct business as usual while others take up the mantle of this all-important mission. They will watch from a safe distance as climate gladiators in the arena are doing the brave work of being vulnerable, submitting themselves to scrutiny, acknowledging the historical role they’ve played in the destruction of the earth, and choosing to openly and vulnerably participate in their own undoing to lead the way forward. We can notice how they watch while others wrestle with the hard questions, forge new alliances, and work to shift and expand the collective imagination around what is possible in this lifetime. Then we can decide which of those roles we will endeavor to play in this global racial reckoning and restructuring.

There is no completion date

Racism is multi-generational in the making and multi-generational in the fighting. It isn’t a battle to be “won.” It can not be vanquished by even the highest-performing team. Racism can only be recognized, and then actively rejected, every single day. In the western industrial achievement template, hard work is rewarded when the goal is reached or exceeded. There is no completion date when it comes to antiracism, though.Think more La Sagrada Familia than Burj Khalifa. To attempt this work, we must model ourselves after those who understood and were content in knowing that the pursuit of a thing, not the completion of it, held the miracles. Our sense of fulfillment, learning, and growth must be found in the work itself, of equitably rebuilding a system, and then attempting the infinite task of maintaining its equitableness.

There is no middle place

I’ve encountered executives who regularly exhibit bullish confidence, and who pride themselves on decisive leadership, silenced and hesitant to use the word antiracist, as it may be off-putting to investors and board members. Can we lean into the word “equity”? How about we call it an “inclusion initiative”?’ As Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to be an Antiracist, has argued, if you aren’t leading or working for an antiracist company, you’re leading or working for a racist one. Our language should be as pointed as the pain.

Inclusion is not belonging

Leaders used to conflate diversity and inclusion; now they often conflate inclusion and belonging. All three are vital to building the foundation for lasting and deep-seated institutional change. Diversifying teams and board rooms will help to ensure that those who have historically been left out of defining and executing strategic priorities and the culture of the organization will be included in those conversations, but it won’t guarantee that they will actually transform them.

In order to fully engage employees and ensure that antiracism work penetrates every decision, action, and interaction, leaders must focus on belonging, which is the foundation for any employee to engage and make their highest contribution.

There is a substantive difference between being included and feeling a sense of belonging, and often it’s illustrated in cultural norms and narratives that are casually circulated and reinforced throughout an organization. Ask anyone who has sat silently through an hour of team-building, failing to name any of the band members from The Police, White Snake, Def Leppard, or Led Zeppelin as “white culture trivia” masqueraded as “pop culture trivia.” Ask anyone who has thought, ”I don’t belong here” as co-workers, beaming with pride, take turns to share romantic tales of hope, sacrifice, industriousness, and self-determination when responding to the seemingly innocent prompt “share your ancestor’s immigration story.” Whether in team-building exercises or intense strategic road mapping sessions, leaders must ask themselves whose perspectives and lived experiences are being centered, referenced, and consulted.

DEI work can’t stop at the top

We know that a broader array of lived experiences means fewer blind spots. Incorporating wider and more disparate points of view means covering more ground and uncovering (and ultimately solving for), more tensions and pain points than your competitors. But let’s also acknowledge that diversity and equity work can be elitist, too. Companies diversifying executive teams and boards while refusing to meaningfully address pay inequity and workers’ rights amongst their frontline employees is a major problem. While the diversification of white-collar knowledge workers in conference rooms huddled around whiteboards may produce better ideas and lead to more imaginative and more profitable solutions, this is a very narrow and selective antiracism lens. When the time and humanity of workers across the C-suite and supply chain are valued equitably, the real antiracism work begins.

Profitability is not the objective 

Too often, the argument for corporate DEI and antiracism work leads with profitability as the primary motivation. To put forth as a primary argument that an antiracist economy is a more profitable one underscores the need for transforming the current system in the first place. From economists like Paul Krugman to scholars like Ibram X. Kendi, many point out that capitalist economic systems were not built to be fair. On the contrary, they were designed to be inequitable, to have winners and losers, to leverage the work of the masses for the advantage of the few.

Centering profitability keeps us pointed in exactly the same direction: unrelentingly focused on the gap between cost and revenue. This is fraught because we live in a world where global wealth, education, and opportunity gaps run along deep racial fault lines, and the cost side of the equation almost always rests heavily on the backs of black and brown bodies.

When we reinforce the notion that increasing profit is a stronger psychological motivator than reducing inequity and human suffering, we reinforce the mindset that got us here in the first place.

Let’s work to change the argument for antiracist economies. Stop leading with profitability, and instead center as the primary benefit a more equitable distribution of wealth and shared wealth creation. Doing so will require a seismic shift in defining success from individual to collective terms: the only path to a truly equitable outcome.

You need to dwell on the past

Before any wrong can be meaningfully addressed it must first be acknowledged, felt, and internalized. While it most certainly feels better to focus on the future, before we can begin to move forward we must look backward. For any of us well versed in the components of a true apology, or how to make amends, this all sounds easy enough. But in a culture obsessed with forward momentum, taking time to pause and reflect on the past is often met with impatient disdain. We move on from hardships and poor performances with haste. Emails announcing the lost deal too often sign off with “Onward!” instead of spending time internalizing the loss and understanding how it occurred so as not to be repeated again. We often act as though all the answers and context we need to avoid mistakes of the past and succeed in the future will be found in the future. 

Across the global economy, corporations are competing on razor-thin margins. It’s no wonder organizations are moving at record speed. Getting a fraction of a percent better or faster in any part of the supply chain could mean the difference between exceeding investors’ projections or missing them and watching your stock price tumble. It is understandable then, why some leaders who are bullish about communicating bold, inspiring visions, make pledges and media-worthy antiracist commitments, but then start to itch at the suggestion of taking a pause, looking backward, and spending time internalizing the historical role they, their companies, and the economy as a whole have played in perpetuating systemic racism and generational economic inequity.

In this era of  “move fast and break things,” and “fail forward,” optimization, speed, and efficiency have replaced reflection, investigation, and discussion. And therein lies the rub. This is slow work. Intentional work. Deep work. This work takes real time and focus, two of the most valuable resources an organization has.

A few notes on where to start

Brene Brown’s seminal works Daring Greatly and Dare to Lead are playbooks for every leader looking to understand the vulnerability and valor it will require to lead deep antiracism work. For those choosing to step into the arena, the first step isn’t to armor up. You start this battle by removing your armor. That’s right—you gather your pride, your position, your reputation, and your ego into your arms and you lay them down.

Whether in person or on screen, you start by staring deep into the eyes of every person on your team and telling the truth. You talk about the ways our nation, and the history of white supremacy and institutionalized racism it was built upon, has led to deep and systemic racial inequity. You dig into your specific industry and the ways it is a product of and contributor to the cycle of oppression and economic inequity.

Then you shift to your own company. You tell the origin story of the company and the ways it has actively or passively participated and profited off of a racist social and economic system that continues today. Talk about the ways your esteemed founders knowingly or unknowingly benefited from the systems, structures, and institutions that have propped up a racist society. You drill further down and speak to how each department has played a role as well (whether it’s research, marketing, product development, or finance—every department has played a specific role).

Finally, you tell your personal story. This is where the real vulnerability comes in. Speak of what you know and what you don’t; what you were raised to believe and what you weren’t; who you interacted with within your family, neighborhoods, and schools, and who you only got to know through the media and television. Tell them what you believe you have right and what you’re trying to get right. Tell them what you fear. Tell them you are ready to submit to this antiracism journey and are excited, nervous, and hopeful about where it will lead you, them, the company, the industry, and ultimately the global economy. And then begin the work.

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