Having spent two years at the helm of an EdTech startup as co-founder and COO, one of my tasks was to build the company as explicitly anti-racist and committed to diversity, equity and belonging. By and large I succeeded…
We implemented a large number of progressive initiatives – we learned from the challeges and we kept working at it (until I left and was subjected to the most intense form of DARVO I’ve ever experienced in the workplace).
But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t racism. There was…and lots of it. In fact as the most senior Black or Brown leader, I was on the receiving end of weekly incidents of racism, even (especially) from my white co-founder.
When I’ve talked about this in the past most (white) people are incredulous: “Wait, what? How? What did they do? What does it look like?”
And someone asked me recently what microaggressions and other forms of racism look like, at the top of a company.
Here’s my lived experience…
🔬 Leadership scrutinise the performance of Black and Brown team members in a way they do not with white team members.
For example, this shows up with an impatient “She’s late” response if a Black/Brown colleague is indeed 1-2 minutes late to a meeting versus the space & grace extended to a white person for their tardiness (no comments, no impatience, “Oh I’m sure there’ll be a good reason”).
🎢 When opportunities exist to promote or fill a gap, guess who’s first in line at their suggestion? Yes, the white person on the team.
And when this is pointed out: “Oh of course, I forgot about them”. Once is passable, multiple times is not.
🛡 An ongoing defence and protection of white colleagues with a unique ability to look the other way or simply appear to not see performance issues which are, for Black and Brown colleagues, almost immediately called into question and highlighted.
⚖️ Even with an equally-senior colleague, there’s an expectation that the excellent Black or Brown leader will pick up the slack and cover for mediocre performance, only for the yt leader to shift the blame if things don’t go smoothly.
These are not uncommon experiences at all – racism is rife within companies – and they happen right at the top too, even in self-proclaimed anti-racist organisations, despite any intention to do/be better. (I’ll be talking more about intention vs impact).
If there’s a majority white leadership, despite any intention otherwise, without significant support, racism will continue across the company and the white leadership will continue to do more harm.
It doesn’t need to be this way. If it is, send your leaders to join the Anti-Racist Leadership Association for ongoing support to eliminate their racism and harmful impact.