When I was 15 years old, I started a new school where I was the only Black girl. A couple of weeks into my time there, I was invited to join the track team. No one had ever seen me run. I hadn’t tried out and nor did they have any information about my athletic ability. The assumption was simply that I was Black and therefore that’s where my abilities lay. It was a subtle but damaging piece of racism.
So it is in the corporate workplace for Black women. No one is going to kill you or call you the n-word. The acts of hostility are rarely particularly overt. But they’re there. Insidious. Sometimes so subtle they’re difficult to discern. The micro-aggressions and condescension you can’t quite put your finger on. Being held to higher standards or passed over for promotions. A performance review where you’re found to be not enough of this or too much of that. A co-worker who can’t quite seem to accept your authority. And all while navigating a space where no one looks like you and having to go along with the status quo for fear of either not seeming like a team player or worse, losing potential career advancement opportunities.
But what would it be like for Black women to truly bring our full selves to work? And how would you, the companies that employ us benefit? For years you’ve been missing out on the fullness of all that we bring to the table because we’ve had to cultivate a habit of caution to protect the precarious positions we’ve worked so hard to achieve.
At this moment in time, we’re in the middle of a revolution to save Black lives. There is work being done on the streets to ensure our survival, our ability to live another day. But we not only want to survive but thrive. That revolution needs to sweep across our workplaces, our communities and our infrastructures. A new survey published by Essence magazine revealed that an overwhelming majority (93 percent) of Black women in the U.S. have experienced racism in their lifetimes and almost half (45 percent) indicated that the place they’ve experienced racism most frequently is in the workplace. While we have the momentum, we must examine every aspect of public and private life and figure out how to make it better.
And Black women cannot and should not have to do this alone. Over the last few weeks, several non-Black friends and colleagues have reached out to me wanting to support, asking how to help. And I appreciate it. I want their help. It shouldn’t be on us to dismantle a system we didn’t create. But I believe allyship must always be actionable. Sympathy is nice, words are a balm, but the proof is in the deeds. How will you go above and beyond, outside of your comfort zone to make the world a fairer and safer place for all?
I run a women’s leadership network and also work with companies to build training programs and facilitate community building. I canvassed the Black women within my community for their insights. These are women who run successful businesses or work in C-level positions. They’ve navigated every obstacle, and are well placed to share what would help them succeed and how we improve our workplaces so future generations can thrive.
So here are a few ideas for how you can be an active ally in the workplace. In all of the actions below, if you don't know where to start, consider investing in a consultant to help you navigate.
1. Take responsibility
Start by taking an active vs. passive approach to allyship. Ally is a verb not a label. Read, listen, ask stupid questions but educate yourself on systemic racism and the part you play in upholding systems that dehumanize the Black community. Do not make this a problem for Black executives to solve as you come into your own consciousness about what's been happening in the world.
2. Hiring practices
Take a long hard look at your organization. Are you personally doing everything you can to hire Black candidates at every level but especially in positions of power - in the C-Suite?
Remember that managing diversity and inclusion issues is complicated and laborious. Ensure the responsibility of fixing your broken system doesn’t fall on your Black employees - managers or otherwise. Bring in the appropriate expertise and ensure that the intention to overcome implicit bias comes all the way from the top down.
3. Workplace culture
Be certain to not just check on Black friends, but also Black work colleagues and make the decision to pick up the emotional labor stresses they may be experiencing during these times.
And check in on the young Black people in your life or organizations. This is about more than a text or an email. Reach out and offer to meet with the Black employees in junior roles. Ask them what would make them proud to work at the company as you navigate the current climate.
4. Board and service
Actively work to bring Black leaders onto the boards of your companies, ideally in paid positions.
Join the board of a Black-founded non-profit that serves Black people and learn the servant leadership required to operate in a space that may be majority Black.
Assess your own investment portfolios and review what’s happening within the allocation of capital and why. If you need assistance identifying who could benefit from the distribution of your resources, feel comfortable asking Black colleagues for insight and do it now.
Consider investing in Black female entrepreneurs, who have to tackle two layers of systemic injustice – racism and sexism, and receive less than 0.06 percent of investment dollars. If you can’t write checks, make warm introductions to people who might invest.
6. Purchasing power
Commit to purchasing products and services from Black-owned businesses, not just once, but on an ongoing basis.
Elevate and amplify the work or products of Black-owned businesses by promoting them on your platforms and featuring them in PR efforts.
7. Marketing partnerships/Vendors
Engage in brand collaborations with both Black-owned start-ups and established companies. Suggest value added partnerships or collaborations you can participate in together.
Diversify your vendors and suppliers, and refer clients and projects to Black women owned businesses.
Strive for true diversity in all of your marketing campaigns. Be inclusive both in front of and behind the camera and truly reflect the world we live in.
Leverage your influence by refusing to speak on panels unless they also include Black speakers.
Open up your platforms - social media or otherwise to elevate Black voices.
Make strategic business introductions while simultaneously diversifying your own circles. If everyone in your network looks like you, it’s time for a radical shakeup.
Ensure any social justice work you do is not centered on you, but rather on the issue of systemic equity. Read anti-racism books such as Rachel Cargle’s ‘Watch the Eyes on the Prize’ series from start to finish.
Consider auditing the founders / leadership of the non-profits you give to and investing in the organizations of Black social entrepreneurs.
Commit to voting this fall for local, state and national candidates who support racial justice, equality and fairness. For extra credit, bring five people to the polls with you (or mail your ballots in together).
10. Above all, never undervalue the work and contributions of Black colleagues and partners.
Pay them. Respect them. Listen to them.
Dee Poku-Spalding is an entrepreneur, community builder and women’s advocate. She is the Founder and CEO of WIE (Women Inspiration, and Enterprise), an influential membership network and platform for women leaders. She also founded The Other Festival, a platform for female makers and creators and Black Women Raise, an initiative designed to increase access to capital for Black female founders