“It’s not my job to explain what it means to be Black,” is what I’ve heard from a number of people. I’ve had this discussion quite a bit lately regarding explaining the Black experience in Corporate America. Many people are angry and want change, but there is an opportunity at stake. I believe there has never been a better time to have this conversation in Corporate America. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery have sparked the biggest movement in my lifetime to end systematic racism in America. Black Lives Matter is a phrase that is no longer shunned within Corporate America and is finally being embraced by many high-profile companies.
The NBA and the Players Association recently announced their plans to paint Black Lives Matter on courts when the season returns, as well as allow players to replace their names with social messages on the backs of their jerseys. NASCAR, a sport that has been called to the carpet on numerous occasions for a lack of diversity, announced the ban of the Confederate Flag inside its events. They also said “good riddance” to the one driver who spoke out publicly against the ban. Just a few weeks ago, many companies acknowledged Juneteenth for the first time. We’ve seen companies such as Twitter, Nike, Target, Mastercard and Spotify all celebrate Juneteenth even though many of their employees were probably unfamiliar with the day and had to learn the meaning behind the day. I was happy to see that my company, Coyne PR, closed its doors as a day of reflection. Two months ago, I would’ve never imagined things like this happening. With that said, the work is just getting started.
The plight of Blacks in America is something we’ve all discussed and debated amongst ourselves and maybe even a few of our White friends for years. The discussion amongst ourselves is how do we make sure this movement doesn’t lose steam when the NFL and NBA return to action and America reopens from COVID-19. The fact of the matter is that we don’t know how much longer this will be top of mind. Perhaps it took the public attention surrounding the murders of unarmed Blacks alongside a Global Pandemic that brought a loss of sports for America to finally listen to our cries. With that said, it’s the responsibility of Black leaders in Corporate America to speak up and educate our peers, colleagues and ESPECIALLY the C Suite on why it’s important to go beyond social media hashtags and corporate statements to start making real change. We owe it to ourselves and definitely the young Black leaders of tomorrow that look up to us for guidance. We must remember the feeling of pretending not to be uncomfortable when we walk into meetings and don’t see anyone else like us. Let’s make that change now.
I have a message for fellow Black executives. Now that Corporate America is listening, we must implement a winning strategy to make sure that the Black Lives Matter movement and our call to end systemic racism comes to fruition. TALK TO THE YOUNG BLACK EMPLOYEES. It starts with getting a temperature check of the black employees within our organizations to make sure they are okay and to learn what experiences they may be facing. Frankly, they are likely dealing with circumstances that may be more difficult than we know or may be experiencing personally. It is our responsibility to give them the voice they don’t have. Make sure that they are being treated fairly and have an opportunity to give their ideas on how things can improve in the workplace. They are on the frontlines every day, so we must protect them at all costs. This may sound like an obvious step, but we can’t assume White supervisors are speaking to them. Their supervisors may fear coming across the wrong way or are simply afraid of those necessary, but uncomfortable conversations.
Take our learnings to the C Suite after we gain clarity on happenings within the organization. Utilize our voices and key learnings to educate the higher ups on what’s happening in the workplace. From there, we can offer suggestions and have real dialogue on how to make our experiences better. For example, does your company need a Mentor program? Is your internship program conducting due diligence to make sure you are recruiting diverse talent? Not all Black college students attend HBCUs, so are you working with organizations such as INROADS Inc. to find talent? Are your leaders actively seeking out employees of color or miraculously expecting talent to fall in their laps? Black employees have long felt that we must perform at a higher level just to be considered equal to our peers. Are Black employees finding it more difficult to get promoted? In many cases, the answer to this question is “yes.” This is statistical data that can be easily pulled up with minimal effort by employers.
I have been in Public Relations for more than 20 years and worked for firms that are considered mid-sized, as well as for global powerhouses. With that said, there has only been one occasion where I’ve experienced a Black executive in a leadership position outside of myself. This lack of representation has caused many Blacks to believe that our only chance of financial prosperity is through entrepreneurship. I’ve had to seek out mentorship from other sources and trade experiences with peers in other industries to help me get through difficult moments. I’m sure there are many Black executives who will read this and relate to this experience. We all have a role to play. Some people march. Some people utilize their popularity in sports and social media to bring injustice to the forefront. The behind the scenes work is equally important. If you’re a Black leader in Corporate America, this is a role we must all play to make a lasting change. Let’s think of our children, nieces, nephews, cousins and those young black employees that we may not realize look up to us and use that as fuel to motivate us and give us the passion to help make a difference. Now is not the time to be silent and worry about your internal standing. As the saying goes, “Play your position,” because Corporate America is finally listening.