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“You Didn’t Mean Not To…”

In a recent blog post on antiracism and social change, we talked about a reference to Martin Luther King’s famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which he states we are at the fourth step, direct action, because “racial injustice engulfs this community.”   

And then, like now, racial injustice still engulfs this community, whether we choose to see it or not. 

Many of us, corporate leaders, in particular, chose not to see the injustice. We saw racial injustice as someone else’s problem, something someone else did, someone who was racist. It certainly wasn’t our fault there was racial injustice…or was it? 

When I was young and would get into trouble because I had invariably crossed a line or behaved in a way that was disrespectful, I would often use the excuse:

 “Well, I didn’t mean to.”

And then my mother, more often than not, would say quite slowly: 

“Well, you didn’t mean not to either.” 

Many of us in leadership positions are using that excuse when it comes to being anti-racist. We aren’t racists, but we aren’t anti-racists either. 

“We didn’t mean to.” 

But we also didn’t mean not to, either. Did we?

We know equity, diversity, and inclusion are important and have become even more critical to an equitable society. Most leaders want to have more people of color on senior teams, as clients and as partners but have never made it a focus. They understand the value of a talent pool that is representative of varied backgrounds, but have not made it a priority or a goal. 

Why?

Because it was a “nice to have” and not a “must-have.” And so because diversity was not a goal, it was also not defined, measured, nor was it managed, and therefore, nor was it valued. 

But as evidenced in recent protests and widespread support of #BlackLivesMatter, leaders like me began to lift our heads. We began to see that because we were not part of the solution we were part of the problem. We have to take responsibility to do better and be better. Not just in words, but in actions. Actions that are measurable and accountable. 

In his recent article in The Atlantic, John Rice, CEO, and President of Management Leadership of Tomorrow, says “Only when people align on what racist behavior looks like will we be able to take practical steps to make those behaviors costly.” 

Rice says that his father first gave him his playbook to fight racism 30 years ago. Emmett Rice – an economist, Tuskegee Airman, a Ph.D., Cornell professor, and one of seven governors of the Federal Reserve Board in the 1980s – fought racism his whole life. The underlying message of the playbook he gave his son? “Increase the cost of racist behavior.”

But the younger Rice goes further than that. In his article, he identifies first, second, and third-degree racism with the third being the most “pernicious” which he says, “undergirds the everyday black experience.”

When employers, educational institutions, and governmental entities do not unwind practices that disadvantage people of color in the competition with whites for economic and career mobility, that is fundamentally racist—not to mention cancerous to our economy and inconsistent with the American dream. For example, the majority of white executives operate as if there is a tension between increasing racial diversity and maintaining the excellence-based “meritocracies” that have made their organizations successful. After all, who in their right mind would argue against the concept of meritocracy?

John Rice, CEO, and President of Management Leadership of Tomorrow
So what can leaders begin to do “to unwind” these practices? And how can communications leaders support them?

It first begins with accepting the inconvenient truth that our silence is part of the problem and will continue to be if direct action is not a crucial part of our quest for social change. 

Lisa Borders, former Time’s UP CEO and President and former president of the WNBA, will join me for a conversation on these and other questions during our next DC Communicators, hosted by Proof Strategies, on July 23rd. I invite you to register and join our conversation about the practical steps we can take, as an industry, to affect positive change.

The answers are not obvious, but they’re there. We just have to do the hard work to make sure we find them. 

Join us!

Mimi Carter, U.S. General Manager & Sr. Vice President

Mimi Carter, U.S. General Manager & Sr. Vice President

Mimi has been both a nonprofit and agency leader during her 22-year career in communications, marketing and public relations. Having focused her work primarily on clients in education, international development, arts, health sciences, technology, and financial services, she is well versed in designing innovative digital strategies to help organizations achieve specific goals.

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