Editor’s Note: Irving Washington is Executive Director/CEO for the Online News Association and co-host of Texts to Table, a new conversation series on race and leadership. You can follow him on Twitter at @IrvWashington3. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Last month, like many Black executives, I wrestled with the emotional and psychological toll of leading an organization during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. My emotions ranged from despair to anger. During that period, I wrote a public post on LinkedIn that used a medical metaphor to examine how systemic racism in this country has failed us.
Black people have long said to doctors – metaphorically the American people and American leadership – that we are in pain. Far too often we have been misdiagnosed and dismissed as if our pain wasn’t real. Expanding on this metaphor, the killing of George Floyd has been like a heart attack, and the urgent response has shown that not only was our pain real, but this was a moment when we could no longer be silent about it.
Paradoxically, this, in fact, is a moment for some leaders to be silent and do the work of processing some of the pain of the past. Pressure is mounting on leaders to say something, but too many allies are doing so without really understanding what they are speaking up for.
Many people and organizations seem only to be taking a stand to relieve the uncomfortable tension they’re feeling from realizing they’ve turned a blind eye on racism for years. Moreover, some of these same organizations are being called out by their own workforce for saying Black Lives Matter publicly, but not caring about, promoting, or hiring Black employees.
It’s a moment of awakening that’s unnerving for many. Their first thoughts may be, “How can I solve this quickly?” It’s a well-meaning reaction – but misplaced.
It’s also a moment when Black people across the country are once again bearing the burden. By being asked to serve on newly founded diversity committee or doing outreach to diversify their company’s network, they are being asked to give hundreds of hours of unpaid labor in the name of inclusion.
It’s a moment of endless questions on how to be a better ally or anti-racist – well-meaning yet overwhelming.
Last week, three other black executives and I launched Texts to Table, where we brought our private text conversations to life on YouTube. We shared our experiences and different walks of life as we have processed and responded to the events of Black Lives Matter. We also discussed what it means to be a Black person and CEO in 2020. My co-host Shawn Boynes, Executive Director, American Association of Anatomy, made this point: Allies, instead of asking your Black colleagues, “How can I do better?” reframe it and declare, “I will do better.”
Here is how that might look.
Doing better means internalizing and acknowledging that systemic racism is real. You don’t need to hear another story of another Black person’s trauma to get this.
As I processed the response to Georgie Floyd’s death, I realized that part of the anger I was feeling came from knowing systemic racism was real – from personal experience – but seeing it brushed aside in the workplace. I had actually begun to doubt myself, wondering if certain experiences were, in fact, real. I had made excuses for microaggressions or unintentional offenses. The simple act of acknowledging systemic racism will go a long way with your Black friends and colleagues.
Doing better means reckoning with how your own network of Black friends and colleagues, if you have one, may have perceived you or your past actions, big or small. Here’s the thing that many people don’t understand in their rush to be anti-racists: It doesn’t matter how many Black Lives Matter posters you have in your yard if even one Black person has experienced any form of racism from you – intentional or not. Doing better means recognizing you’ve likely done a racist action even if you didn’t mean to.
Doing better means cleaning up your own house. Racism is both systemic and personal. For organizations, it means talking to your Black employees first, before that Black Lives Matter press release goes public. You can’t combat the system if you haven’t addressed matters within your own network.
Most of the outrage right now is within organizations that had diversity and inclusion statements and practices. However, while they proudly proclaimed Black Lives Matter publicly, their employees reminded them that they didn’t practice what they preached. We must move beyond blanket statements. And, just so you know, we always notice when we’re the only Black person in the room
Doing better means recognizing white fragility. Resist the urge to solve this problem right away to ease your guilt. Ask yourself, why do you care now? Can you see yourself still supporting Black Lives Matter in five years? Why were you silent before? This is a moment to be sure you know your authentic attitude toward racism. Listen to your own voice. If you’re faking it, people will know. If you still don’t believe any of the above, you’re better off just staying silent.
In fact, doing better might mean that you need to step back – a lot. This is a moment to lift other voices, particularly Black voices. It’s a moment when we must not center whiteness. Rather than making this moment about your feelings and reactions to the Black Lives Moment, listen to and believe the experiences of Black people in America – without judgment. This might not be a problem you’re equipped to solve in the short term. The best thing you can do is find and support someone who is.
Most importantly, this is not a game you can win. Doing better means actively enjoying the process of learning how to be better. There’s no finish line. You must fall in love with the process of becoming anti-racist. It’s a journey, not a race.