Black employees say ‘performative allyship’ is an unchecked problem in the office
As racist practices in some workplaces have come to light, companies are under scrutiny for how they’re practicing allyship. Certainly posting a black square to Instagram is not enough. As organizations speak out against racial injustice, many have been accused of “performative allyship”—condemning racism through broad gestures but enabling its effects in their own workplaces.
Black employees from across industries told Fortune that they’re keenly familiar with such optical allyship. They say their companies speak out in support of racial equality but don’t hire black executives or equally pay black employees, don’t listen to their concerns regarding discrimination, or were completely silent about racism up until now. They have stories of affirming individuals and gestures, but those are much fewer and farther between.
Their point is clear: Companies may invest in showing customers that they care about issues affecting black Americans, but those acts are meaningless if they don’t invest in their black employees as well. They may make a splashy announcement about a Juneteenth company holiday, but the way they treat their black employees when they return on Monday matters just as much, if not more.
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The responses have been lightly edited. We’ve published only first names to respect the privacy of the contributors.
I spent the past three years in private banking in a city most notably known for being non-diverse. I have a number of stories, but the one that sticks most is when my bank was under public scrutiny for racist acts. They put out a well-written statement internally. Days passed with no commentary or check-ins on how I felt about the matter from any of my coworkers. Not one. Then one day, following a national call where the CEO addressed the headlines, I was pulled into a room by the managing director and asked, “So do I call you black or do I call you African-American?” Stunned, I said, “The respectful thing to do would be to call me, and anyone that identifies this way for that matter, African-American.” Which was met with, “Well, I’m hiring another black woman. I listened to you. You’re welcome.” —Monica, 25
Authentic inclusivity in my workplace does not exist; performative allyship abounds. Asking staff to recast the organization’s work in ways that “could be seen as having a racial justice lens,” when you have not historically applied a racial justice lens, is performative allyship. Using words to sway external black stakeholders in printed press releases, public statements, or on the website is performative allyship. Prioritizing the concerns of external black stakeholders while not being attentive to those of internal black staff is performative allyship. —Ricshawn, 46
When black people want to speak about their experience…just listen. Don’t try and solve; just listen. Most of the time, they just want to be heard and acknowledged. — Alex, 56
Since Mr. Floyd’s death, we have had a few Dialogue Circles, and all are welcome to attend. It’s been therapeutic for me. Our executive council hosted a conversation, and we openly talked about racism, white privilege, and discrimination. Most employees supported their effort, while a few posted insensitive questions. Still, I appreciate our leaders for taking a stance and acknowledging there is a lot more work to do and that they are willing to step up and lead the way. My company has always been one to cautiously tread the political waters, but I knew this was different. Our CEO has spoken out publicly a few times in support of BLM, protesting, and the change desperately needed in the U.S. —Adrienne, 49
While working at a women-led company, I became fully aware of what racism looked like in a workplace setting. If all your managers and executive team members are white, but you’re telling your customers you are all for women’s rights and inclusivity, you are lying, simply put. We have to see it within the company first before you can speak about it and use it for marketing to gain customers. —Brianna, 33
I’m so glad that you are digging in to learn more and are invested in growth and anti-racist education. But please stop sending me every article, podcast, and video you check out. I’m not going to give you a cookie, and I never signed up to be the official librarian for our company. I have a lot of work to do and don’t care to participate in every webinar you hear about. Tell your white coworkers about it. Please. —Carrie, 35
It is not about a slogan or a hashtag. Many corporations have been complicit, and the evidence is clear by looking at the lack of black faces in their senior leadership teams and boards. This moment requires honest self-examination and making room and advancement opportunities for qualified black colleagues. Laws and policies, while necessary, will not eradicate racism. The answer lies in people making a choice to behave differently and addressing even the smallest acts of racism or microaggressions in their sphere of influence. —LaToya, 44
I worked in a company of approximately 1,000 employees, of which only two to four African American employees were in management, and none were in senior management. The president would always state at his management retreats that he hated discrimination. My message to him would be to walk the walk. Put some people of color on that senior management team—more than one. Now is the time for him to make a difference. —Lynn, 60
Think about the words being used at work that don’t include all races. —LaTanya, 42
I would like for white people to stop expecting me to speak for an entire race. Stop trying to explain racism to me when I live it daily. Stop acting as if this is something new. Racism was rampant last month, last year, and the century before that. Realize that my “living my best life” could get me killed. And no, you do not understand. An HR staff person actually said “enough already” regarding BLM. —Dee, 55
I left a job that I was good at because management created an environment so wrought with microaggressions that I doubted everything about myself including my excellence and my worth. The company encouraged everyone to bring their full selves to work, but in reality, the culture only embraced “whites who bike.” My concerns were largely met with dismissal by leadership who were too timid to attribute my experience to discrimination and were uninterested in real change that fostered an inclusive environment. Emotionally drained, I left the job recently, but the scars and trauma remain close to the surface. I am slow to trust, am hypervigilant, and so hurt by how I was treated. I find it pretty funny that now that Black Lives Matter is the topic du jour, the same people who were complicit in my misery are now reaching out to “check on me” and to start a dialogue. —C, 35
We have to advocate for ourselves, and we’re made to feel we’re asking for far too much. Real allyship is as rare as a desert oasis. Example: A new CRO hired a white woman to work under me for 30% more pay. My manager used a rote Google search to address my concerns until I went to the head of HR myself. Three weeks after I was given back pay and promoted, I was laid off. —Racquel, 30
One white woman has directly advocated for me to managers. She has facilitated wider conversations about race because she knows people will listen to her. She takes the stage and gives it to me and the two other black people in our office. She has given me advice. She has bought me coffee on rough days recently. She realizes she can’t solve everything, but she tries and does what she can and is open to critique on herself. But this is one person. No one else has been like this.
People send me messages asking me if they can do anything, but I hardly know them. They just know I am the black one on the West Coast team. One man asked me if I have “recovered” since we last spoke two weeks ago. No, I have not recovered from hundreds of years of abuse of my people and my attempt to keep working so I can keep surviving in this city. —Nia, 25
There are too many missed opportunities by white people to become allies. It’s great if you want to be an ally, but we need to know that you have our back when we need it most and will not back down or shy away from the difficult conversations that take place when it comes to promoting black people. At my age, I should not have to wonder if I will be able to retire in less than 20 years, but it is a constant struggle just to be seen. —Tonja, 49
Allyship is not just about intent; it requires proactive action. Saying you are not racist is not an action. Saying you want to help, but you don’t know how to is not an action. Asking the oppressed to educate you about the well-researched, well-documented issues that are oppressing them is not an action. Letting your privilege go unchecked is not an action. Being silent is not an action.
Change starts with you as an individual and then becomes collective. But you must want the change. Those who benefit from systemic discrimination are fighting just as hard to keep certain biased laws and policies in place as those who are trying to dismantle them. But are you willing to continue benefiting from something that hurts or literally kills someone else? The answer should be an emphatic no. Think about what changes you can make to support your colleagues, family, and friends who are feeling frustrated and like every odd is against them. You have a duty as a human being to do better for them. —Amber, 30
That you do not use the so-called “N-word” does not mean you are not a racist, and saying you are not racist does not absolve you of being aware and accountable for your casual and subtle racist behavior. —Oneita, 51
Two stories on allyship: A senior executive gave us a ride back from a meeting, and his radio was blaring a live Trump rally. This was a full bit on ungrateful NFL players kneeling. I could sense the white people in the car were as uncomfortable as me, but no one said anything. Finally, as I couldn’t take it anymore, I put in my earbuds.
A white male executive I’ve been friendly with whispered to me in a meeting that we were in the minority because everyone else in the room was a woman. I whispered back, “Welcome to my everyday experience.” He was stunned and apologized that he never thought of it before. —Joe, 43
More coverage on the intersection of race and business from Fortune:
- Working While Black: Stories from black corporate America
- Why making Juneteenth a company holiday is a powerful statement
- Stacey Abrams: Safeguarding voting rights fights the “virus” of systemic racism
- Fortune survey: 62% of CEOs plan policy changes in response to current calls for racial justice
- How Sean “Diddy” Combs is helping black-owned businesses survive the coronavirus pandemic