If you go to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC you will see one of the most iconic images of the early 20th century – a stylised stencil portrait of Barack Obama that became synonymous with his 2008 presidential campaign. In solid, curved blocks of red, beige, and blue it depicts the soon-to-be-president’s face above a single word.
2008 was a time rich in hope. Specifically hope that the election of a black man to the highest office in the land might mean a new chapter in America’s ugly history of racial injustice.
The hope was sweet for a while, but it didn’t last long.
Sadly, the US has become all too familiar with news of black men being killed at the hands of police. So when news emerged on May 25th of the murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis officers it seemed initially like just the latest chapter in a hopeless story.
But the sudden upsurge of protests and activism around the world in the name of the Black Lives Matter movement – and inspired by Floyd’s murder – has begun to persuade even those most wearied by the fight for racial justice that hope may be in the air again…
Ta-Nehisi Coates has been one of the most prominent American black public intellectuals of the past decade. But he grew tired of being asked to provide white people with the answers about how to vanquish racism and reassure them that everything was going to be OK. In a famous appearance on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2017 he flat out refused to give Colbert the answer he was clearly hoping for when he asked: “Do you have any hope tonight for the people out there, about how we could be a better country, we could have better race relations, we could have better politics?”
“No” replied Coates to nervous laughter from the studio audience.
“I’m not asking you to make shit up,” replied Colbert, “I’m asking if you personally see any evidence for change in America”
“But I would have to make shit up to answer that question in a satisfying way” said Coates.
However, in a recent interview on the Ezra Klein Show, his position had shifted: “I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I see hope. I see progress right now” he said.
And if you look around you can see evidence of that progress, you can see room for hope. Companies publicly allying themselves with the BLM movement. White people – many of whom had always considered themselves to be ‘non-racist’ – starting to ask searching questions of their own complicity in systemic racism. People educating themselves about the history of their countries, raising their awareness of how the world as many of us know it is structured to privilege some people on the basis of their skin colour in ways that are so pervasive as to have become invisible to those who benefit from them most.
Yep, now there is hope.
Time for courageous action
Hope is a wonderful thing. But it can deceptive. It can offer false reassurance that because things are moving in the right direction we can take our foot of the gas.
At Global Warriors a huge shift in our thinking over the past couple of years has been from ‘conscious’ to ‘courageous’: an acknowledgement that whilst raising one’s awareness is a necessary prerequisite for action, it is not in itself action. Understanding is great, but where we truly make an impact is in how we choose to deploy that understanding to change the world around us.
As leaders we have a particular responsibility to not settle for the reassurance of hope, and the private satisfaction of raising our awareness. Now is the time for courageous action to challenge systemic racism and advocate for racial justice.
So what might courageous action look like for a leader at this vital moment?
Challenging your own preconceptions and changing culture
As a leader it may take courage to initiate real and direct conversations about racial inequality in the workplace, even when you might be worried about ‘saying the wrong thing’.
“Just come out of the gate and own it” says Laura Roberts, professor at the University of Virginia, “This is not the time to try and couch (conversations about race) in vagaries and flowery language.”
As a leader it may take courage to remain open and not defend against opinions that challenge your own world view of racism and equality. It may take courage to let go of some of the reasons and excuses you might have hung onto to make yourself feel like you were doing your bit (explaining away a lack of black and ethnic minority employees or leaders as because of ‘the industry we work in’; the reassuring fig-leaf of ‘diversity of thought’).
As a leader it may take courage to truly examine the practices in your company or team that could be disadvantaging people because of their skin colour. Vaneeta Sandhu of LifeLabs Learning identifies five areas that need to be addressed for companies to truly be working in ways that are anti-racist and anti-oppressive:
- recruiting and hiring;
- benefits and work conditions;
- assessments and promotions;
- meetings and social connection;
- learning and growth.
How is your business addressing these right now? What steps are being taken to ensure that there is true equality and justice in each of these vital areas?
As a leader it may take courage to accept that truly embracing anti-racism won’t be a quick fix. It won’t be something that can be polished off in a few months with the right mix of online training and good intentions. It will be long, it will be messy, it will be eternally unfinished. The desire to fix can be strong, but we are talking here about the legacy of many centuries of violent oppression. You are not going to fix this alone.
As a leader it may take courage to know that when trying to participate in a cultural shift of these proportions it’s impossible to get it ‘right’ all of the time. You will do your best and fall short sometimes. Others will do likewise. Only if we hold ourselves and others with compassion as we make our way through this moment together will we come out the other side truly united.
Courage and privilege
And courage is relative. We spoke in February about the power of privilege. For a white person in a position of leadership, to face all of these things directly may indeed take courage. But there is privilege in calling on courage to challenge one’s own preconceptions and do the work of creating truly anti-racist teams and companies.
Let’s keep in mind what this is all about, and where a different kind of courage is in evidence.
The courage of the black protesters who took to the streets to fight for justice.
The courage of the black mothers and fathers who watched their children walk out of the door to protest knowing that they were putting themselves in harm’s way.
The courage of the black mothers and fathers who watch their children walk out of the door every day into a world where they are treated as a threat.
The courage of black men and women who are willing to speak up and talk about their experience knowing that there will always be someone looking to silence them with an accusation of ‘playing the race card’.
The courage of black leaders who walk into board rooms as the only person of colour, knowing that everything they do and say will be interpreted by others through a set of preconceptions and prejudices they may not even be aware of.
There is the courage of working towards self-enlightenment and there is the courage of fighting for survival. There is the courage of embracing a fresh opportunity to do better and there is the courage of working for years – for generations – for justice. Even the way in which this moment is calling for us to find our courage is mediated by the privilege bestowed – or denied – by how we are situated racially and culturally.
There is hope. Hope that this could be a moment when through a huge and determined act of collective courage people of every colour, religion, class, and nationality can come together to begin the process of correcting an ongoing historical injustice.
The first step can be as simple as publicly and unapologetically saying three words.
Black Lives Matter.