2020 became a highlight year for racial equity, or lack thereof, in our schools and organizations. After the murder of George Floyd by former policeman Derick Chauvin, many organizations pledged racial equity. Some even added it to their mission statements.
But over one year later, where are we? How many organizations have committed to understanding race as a starting point? What is race literacy, and what role does it play in your organizational equity?
In my first book, 11 Reasons to Become Race Literate, I define race literacy as “the knowledge and awareness of the history of race, how one is acculturated into a racial caste, the systems in the nation-state that support race as a human divide, and the impact of all of the above on our current events and individual lives.”
We were all educated under a system that leaves race out of the equation. Instead, history is segregated and parceled out with a sugar-coated spoonful to make it easier to absorb. But it’s those very missing pieces that make it difficult for your diversity equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives to stick and create greater synergy among your employees.
Instead of creating more cohesive relationships, employees act out of familiar patterns based on centuries of racial conditioning. White employees are stressed and afraid of saying the wrong thing. Black employees and employees of color are stressed by the micro and macro aggressions they experience with their White colleagues and managers. In the end, no one is comfortable. The same guilt, shame, and frustration that is part of our society permeate the work environment regarding race. While not equally, the stress of race and racism affects the organization from hiring right through to the bottom line.
It is the stress and discomfort caused by racial conditioning and lack of race literacy that makes for difficult communications among work colleagues–but this can be improved. Teams can be more productive as work relationships become more harmonious and ultimately businesses run more effectively. Managers and employees that become race literate understand that their current racial conditioning is hundreds of years in the making.
Race literacy gives context to outdated behaviors, and biases. Employees look at race differently. They act, react, and interact with their colleagues more authentically. They are able to see how the conditioning has affected their judgment and their biases, and when conscious, they choose to self-correct. As a result, businesses do better. So, what can an organization do to create equity?
Ensure your employees become race-literate.
Organizations that take race literacy seriously see to it that their employees understand the business case for racial equity. They don’t shy away from race, and they let their employees know that awareness of race is expected of all of their employees.
Encourage honest, compassionate communication.
Honesty is the foundation of healthy communication. When something race-related happens in an organization, don’t dismiss it, change the narrative, or go into denial. Meeting challenging situations head-on sends a message that “this is important to our company.” We are all dealing with hundreds of years of conditioning. Mistakes will be made on our way to healing and creating new ways of being with one another. Don’t ignore it. Move through it and learn.
Create a plan for racial equity.
As mentioned above, equity is not equality. Equity is about balance and justice. A plan to bring equity in the organization audits salaries. Remember the slogan, “equal work for equal pay?” Your organization may have to raise the wages of women, Black people, and people of color to create a more equitable playing field.
Audit your hiring practices and your mentoring programs. Look at the promotion rates and what may be needed to open doors of opportunity for Black and employees of color. Include all employees in special events. Listen to what people of color have to say about their work conditions. Listen to their ideas and give them credit for it.
Hold leaders accountable.
Employees need to hold organizational leaders accountable for showing up to DEI programs. There are many programs that corporate leaders can participate in to become more race literate and conscious. Corporate leaders can become an ally to the organization’s DEI mission by enhancing their own race literacy. This sets an example and sends a message to the rest of the organization that race literacy is one of their corporate values.
Know that education about race can create a culture where all can thrive.
Our educational system does not prepare us to be race-literate. As a result, people don’t know what they don’t know. Humility and a beginner’s mind are essential to our collective transformation. Racism is not the fault of anyone living today. Those of us alive today are simply repeating the unconscious patterns of hundreds of years of racial conditioning established on a myth.
Race is not real as there are no genetic markers differentiating one human group from another human group. But the condition derived from hundreds of years of racial conditioning, known as racism, is real. And this condition affects all aspects of our lives, including the work environment. Educating your employees about race can go a long way in creating a corporate culture where all can thrive.
It goes without saying that organizations with a diversity of employees are more innovative, creative, and positively impact the bottom line. But when you add race literacy to the mix, and your employees use it as a foundation for deeper understanding, you’ll find greater retention, loyalty, and a work environment where all can thrive.
I have had the pleasure of teaching a 2-day race literacy immersion program, Race Demystified, for the past 20-years. When individuals take their learning to the next level, they never see race the same way and it has a positive effect on the way they perform in the workplace–and in the world. Race education has a way of bringing out the best in–and for–everyone.