Non-Black leaders must take intentional, antiracist action now to dismantle the unfair systems that hold us back from building the equitable industry we dream about.
[There] is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist.” It is “antiracist.” What’s the difference?... 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 antiracist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of “not racist.” – Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist
The year is 2020. A global pandemic is raging in America, and it’s disproportionately affecting our Black and brown communities. A white cop killed George Floyd while three of his coworkers looked on, setting off a massive wave of protests throughout the entire world. Books about racism and police brutality are flying off the shelves as white people wake up to the reality that Black folks have been telling us about for decades. The PR departments of major corporations are releasing public Black Lives Matter statements and donating cash to racial justice orgs, only to be thoroughly and publicly dragged on Twitter by employees with damning receipts that show racism is alive and well in all levels of their organizations.
It didn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t have to be this way. The following is the first part in a series of love letters to my non-Black peers in tech.
Tech has a racism problem
What’s happening in the US, and in the corporate world in general, should not be surprising to us. We have a racism problem. Our problems in the tech world mirror the problems in our societies, and the data has been available to us for years. The 2017 Tech Leavers Study released by the Kapor Center told us that 40% of underrepresented men of color and 36% of underrepresented women of color leave their tech jobs due to unfair management practices, stereotyping, harassment, and bullying. Code2040 has told us for years that ‘While Black and Latinx people earn nearly 20% of computer science bachelor’s degrees, they make up only around 5% of the technical workforce at top tech companies’. In a UC Hastings study of women in STEM fields published in 2016, nearly 77% of Black women reported having to provide more evidence of competence than their colleagues. A 2015 study from Boston University shows us that Black workers are monitored more closely and penalized more harshly for mistakes, leading to longer periods of unemployment and lower wages than their white counterparts. Along the entry level to c-suite pipeline, men of color see their workforce representation drop from 16% to 10%, while women of color see a drop from 18% to an astonishing 4%, according to LeanIn.org’s updated Women in the Workplace Study from 2019.
And the data is useful, but one only needs to look around their office (or perhaps now, their Zoom gallery) to notice a pattern. Who do you work with? What does your executive team look like? Who is leading your projects? Your teams? Your organizations? Who gets promoted? Who is leaving? Would you even notice?
Leaders cannot be neutral
It is not enough for us to be aware of the data and promise to do better ourselves; to be more aware of our unconscious biases; to arrogantly appoint ourselves as Mentor to a Black coworker in order to assuage our guilt and make ourselves feel charitable. Charity is not justice, nor is it what high-performing, high-potential, or even just trying-their-damned-hardest Black workers need. What’s needed is for powerful people to fix the systems that cause these problems in the first place. For us in leadership to sit idle while the hiring and promotion pipelines leak Black and brown talent is to enable these systems. For us to possess authority and only do the bare minimum is a failure to act. And whether we like it or not, inaction is, ultimately, a racist action that upholds the status quo.
For my non-Black peers in the industry, this is hard to hear. We don’t want to think of ourselves as racists or exhibiting racist behavior. But we can acknowledge that we are both victims and perpetrators of racist systems, and we can counter our racist actions or inaction with good faith attempts to dismantle these systems.
Dismantling racist systems that benefit us also frees us. As my friend Marco Rogers, an accomplished technical lead and manager with stints at Yammer, Clover Health, and Mode, says, ‘White supremacy binds everyone. Not equally. Not in the same ways. But white people are also in need of liberation.’ The good news is we have the power to free ourselves; not from our guilt, which serves no useful purpose, but from an unfair system that makes it impossible to distinguish a success wholly earned from a success borne out of privilege. We can build the meritocracy our ancestors claimed to have built. And ultimately, we’ll feel even better about our own hard-fought successes when we do.
Right now you might be feeling daunted by the expectation. How does one fix or dismantle a system whose reach extends far beyond our own companies? You might also be thinking you don’t have much power, but that’s a trap! That feeling of being helpless or powerless is exactly what keeps these systems in place. The exciting truth is that there are actions all of us can take to chip away at the policies and institutions that lead to inequity in our workplaces. You don’t have to be a CEO, a VP, or even a line manager to make meaningful change. If you have enough seniority and clout in your organization that your feedback for someone carries weight, you can be an antiracist leader. What’s important is examining your own sphere of influence and using the capital you’ve built up to make things better within that sphere.
What follows is the first part of a multi-part series on antiracist actions in leadership. Some of these suggestions might apply to you, and some of them might be outside of your control. Regardless, I encourage you to read through these and think about the actions you can take, and how you might apply pressure to those in higher positions of leadership at your company to create more impactful and more lasting changes.
Antiracist actions in leadership: education
The first step to addressing a problem is understanding the problem. We can’t fix what we don’t understand. How do our Black peers and colleagues experience work? What challenges do they face that are different from ours? How do performance processes (both promotions and terminations) work for them? It’s important you find out this information so you can take further action.
One of my least favorite conversations begins when a well-meaning man plops down next to me and asks, ‘Sooo… what’s it like to be a woman in tech? I’m trying to learn.’ In that moment, I think about how I’m supposed to sum up more than a decade of wins and losses, sexist slights and generous investments in my advancement. I think about how I’m being asked to speak for the experience of women who are nothing like me and still just as valid. And I’m certainly not thinking to tell him, a near stranger, about all the times I was gaslit: moments when I was made to believe that I wasn’t talented or times I was told to stop overreacting. And then I usually say something brusque but not impolite, because this is an impossible question to answer, and it isn’t an effective way of learning.
If you want an honest understanding of your Black employees’ experiences without attempting that whole awkward ‘what’s it like?’ conversation, what follows are some things you can do to educate yourself.
Nothing is more enlightening than reading books and articles that were written to help underrepresented folks navigate the roadblocks majority groups have created for them. You might pick up The Memo by Minda Harts to hear her practical advice for Black women navigating the corporate world. You could read through the advice people of color in tech give to each other in countless POCIT interviews. Or if you want something geared towards bias in organizations, check out Giving Notice by the esteemed Freada Kapor Klein. Read the free case studies and recommendations from Project Include, or comb through the extensive resource library NCWIT provides. Get your Google on! And compensate people for their time and content. If a resource is free, consider making a financial contribution anyway or pay it forward by sharing it with your friends and peers.
Diversify your social media
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Follow the folks whose voices you rarely hear. Pro-tip: avoid making the self-serving ‘who should I follow?’ tweet that results in an endless string of replies full of Twitter handles (these replies tend to overwhelm folks’ mentions, and many times they can find themselves listed among people they’d rather not associate with). Find someone you want to hear more from, and look through the people they retweet and interact with. Follow the folks you feel you can learn from.
Examine your close relationships
White Americans’ social networks are 91% white, with most having no Black friends at all. How can you understand something as complicated as racial inequity if you don’t have close relationships with those who frequently experience it? Now, this doesn’t mean go out today and make a token friend disingenuously, nor does it mean to suddenly become overly friendly with that one non-white acquaintance in your contacts list. It also doesn’t mean to bombard your friends with questions about their oppression or requests to give you the next step in your personalized “antiracist action plan”. It’s simply an encouragement to reflect on who you connect with and how you tend to invest or not invest in furthering your relationships with them. Making close connections with people from different backgrounds will enhance your life and help you grow as a person. It will also expose you to all the ways your privilege has given you an advantage, whether you were aware of it or not.
Join an ERG
Your company most likely has an Employee Resource Group (ERG) for Black and/or Latinx employees, and they most likely welcome non-Black “allies” to join. Unlike the previous suggestions which aren’t specific to your company, ERGs provide a glimpse into how your colleagues experience the workplace you share with them. For tips on how to engage with these groups responsibly, please see my blog post on allyship in ERGs.
Run focus groups
Creating a space where it is safe to be candid about one’s experiences in the workplace is critical for addressing issues of unfairness. What’s equally important is ensuring participants know that real action will happen as a result (i.e. Please don’t ask that Black employees take time out of their days to drag out their workplace trauma just so that leaders at the company can feel like they took an action. Be clear in how you’ll respond). I recommend reading through this report that Dr. Erin L. Thomas and her team produced at Upwork as a result of their own internal investigations and focus groups. Specifically, I’d point you to page 12, which outlines a set of issues related to Black employee development that was uncovered in their research. These concerns are familiar, as I’ve heard similar complaints in every whisper network I’ve belonged to in every company I’ve worked for. Be brave and uncover these concerns. Believe these concerns. Publish them along with a plan for how to address them. Run follow up focus groups to assess your progress.
A quick note on focus groups: Practically speaking, in order to run these groups effectively they must be led by someone your Black employees trust. If you don’t have a trusted Diversity and Inclusion professional in your organization, or even if you do, consider engaging with a third party who has experience with this type of workplace assessment. I suggest that you do not place this responsibility on an underrepresented-but-passionate employee who also has a full time job to do.
Schedule regular 1:1s
How often do you talk to the Black employees on your team or within the organizations you lead? Do you only meet with those who ask you for time? Do the same people show up for your office hours every week? Would a Black person on your team trust you enough to tell you they think they might be experiencing bias in the workplace? Would you know them well enough to go to bat for them?
If you’re a line manager with a Black direct report, you hopefully already have a recurring 1:1 with them. If you’re a technical lead or a manager of managers, what’s stopping you from cultivating a relationship with your Black team members? Invest in these relationships now, so you have something to build on when problems arise. For anyone who manages managers, I strongly suggest ensuring they have recurring skip level 1:1s with at least one senior lead and one underrepresented team member from each team in their organization, at least once per month. Skip level 1:1s have been an incredible opportunity for me to catch problems early and deliver continuous feedback to managers in my organization. The constant touchpoints have also allowed me to more accurately diagnose problems with team dynamics or manager/direct report relationships that might otherwise show up as a “performance concern”. Investing a half hour of your time per month might literally change their experience at work and the trajectory of their growth.
Hopefully by now you’re feeling less daunted and more energized. There’s an infinite number of simple things we can do to better ourselves and our workplaces, if we’d only hold ourselves and our peers accountable for taking antiracist action.
In part two of The Antiracist Leader, I’ll be discussing one of the most important superpowers that’s bestowed on us the moment we gain even a modicum of power: the ability to sponsor others.