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There is still reason to be optimistic about race and corporate diversity

December 17, 2021, 8:27 PM UTC

With another pandemic year about to come to a close, raceAhead promises to be your partner in building a better world in 2022. To start us off, the great Jonathan Vanian brings us a much needed dose of optimism.

But first, here’s your bell hooks has joined the elders week in review, in Haiku…

The moment we choose
to love, we move against. We
choose community,

we move against. We
choose love, we liberate. When
we all move against

we choose life instead
of dominator fear. The
moment we choose to

love justice as we
love ourselves, we move against.
Move towards freedom,

to revel in our
differences. To move from
the margin: Choose love.

raceAhead returns on January 4, 2022. Wishing you and yours a safe and happy season. May we all be blessed with fresh starts and restored hearts.

Ellen McGirt (along with Wandy, Jonathan, and Ashley)

In brief

I’ve long been pessimistic about the idea of businesses taking race and diversity seriously throughout my working career as a journalist and person of color.

Over the years I’ve seen many corporate diversity reports showing minuscule improvements that seem to counter the fluffy statements about diversity found in many press releases. It’s part of a long tradition of companies paying lip service to the idea of diversity and inclusion, but failing to take concrete steps to address the systemic issues within their own businesses.

And after the tragic killing of George Floyd and rise of violence against Asians during the COVID-19 pandemic, every word of support coming from corporations seemed to ring extra hollow in my ears. It’s been a tough year-and-a-half and I’ve been feeling a bit burned out, sorry.

But when I talk to people like Evelyn Carter, managing director at DEI firm Paradigm, I remember what it’s like to be optimistic. And Carter, as she puts it, is very optimistic about the future of business and race.

She remembers that it wasn’t too long ago that many companies regarded the notion of unconscious and implicit bias as being “contestable terms.” Ditto having a “moral case” for improving diversity and equity in the business. Back then, in order to justify making work equitable for everyone regardless of their race and background, companies needed to cite studies proving that diverse workforces are good for business and productivity. God forbid executives just want to create a level playing field for all their employees because of basic decency.

“Now I have clients who are coming to me saying, ‘I want anti-racism training; I want to talk about white supremacy and privilege,” Carter says. “Those are big shifts.”

Part of Carter’s job involves helping people think about their attitudes and behaviors. For instance, we’ve probably all experienced someone in our lives saying something to the effect of “well, everyone’s biased,” during a discussion about racism. That kind of statement has the effect of being a conversation stopper, a kind of thought-terminating cliché that’s intended to end the discussion with a broad generalization.

Says Carter, “I feel like my job is like the art of taking what might otherwise be ‘conversation stoppers’ and helping people think through them.”

In this scenario, Carter explains how she changes the tone of the phrase “well, everyone’s biased” from sounding defeated to containing more of a sense of urgency.

“So, it's really taking the pivot from not just saying, ‘oh, everyone has [bias] so there's nothing that can be done,’ but to saying, ‘everyone has [bias] and that means it's really serious,’” she says. Once people understand the seriousness of bias and how it influences their actions toward others, they can gain a sense of empathy and willingness to learn how to change.

The idea is to help people “feel more motivated with what they can do,” Carter says.

Carter recalls one of the most challenging times in her career when a client required her “to write a 10 page-single spaced memo explaining our approach to allyship and the research that justified it.” Companies may have some ambivalence about diversity initiatives and the reasons why they should consider them, but this particular client was really stubborn, asking her to essentially defend and validate every one of her thoughts and recommendations.

“And then George Floyd was murdered,” she says.

Following Floyd’s death and the ensuing societal reckoning over race, the company’s chief people officer, a white woman, called Carter up in tears—something Carter says she will never forget.

“She said, Evelyn, I realized I am part of the problem,” Carter recalls, “I am doing to you exactly what your workshop is trying to teach us not to do.”

Carter says that “On the one hand, I am so glad that realization happened, and now we've done allyship workshops out the wazoo with them and we're doing so much more work.”

But the experience took a mental toll on Carter that she says she’s still grappling with.

Tying this back to my unyielding pessimism about business and race (I’m a journalist, after all), people like Carter help me understand that my view is limited to only myself. Speaking to her and the many other amazing people I’ve gotten to know while contributing to Race Ahead has given me hope that there are folks out there in the C-suite trenches trying to make a difference.

Carter says she’s optimistic, and who am I to doubt that feeling?

“I think I'm most optimistic for the increasing number of organizations I'm working with and the conversations that we're having, about how they are hearing things from their employees and they want to make change,” Carter says.


Jonathan Vanian 

Until next year....

When writer, poet, activist, and feminist scholar bell hooks died this week at 69, Black women in my life or orbit gathered in hushed digital spaces to grieve. Did you know she was sick? We talked about the shock of adding her name to a growing list of not-yet-elders we have lost this year. And then the inevitable: Because of her, I am. For so many of us, she was the first spark of insight into the complex intersections of our identities. Because of her, we had clearer eyes to see what was ahead, to embrace the tools of theory and serious inquiry to excavate the unique pain of Black womanhood in Western life. She was complicated, yes, but because of her, we are.

So, for any of you who are not Black women, this means that these tender conversations were happening all around you, on social media, between Zooms and calls, during hybrid holiday parties, or in hallways after meetings, if you’re lucky enough to safely be around people these days. Did you notice them? Sense them? Were you able to listen in without joining in?

I ask because the clues to the lived experience of others are all around us, every day. The ability to notice and respect the true humanity of people who are different from ourselves is a fundamental skill in a new leadership age. Every interaction, product, service, or partnership needs to be steeped in that foundation. It’s a skill that anyone can put into practice every day.

Here’s a small example from my own life.

Earlier this year, I hosted a meeting for our Fortune Connect members to discuss the unconscionable rise in violence against the AAPI communities in the U.S. We were there to talk about solutions, but also to listen. We welcomed a handful of Asian American speakers, who shared a variety of perspectives and lived a variety of lives—a journalist, a big company CEO, an elected official, a television personality, a professor, and an MBA student, among them. But regardless of their specific ideas or experiences, everyone said that the worst part was the fear they felt for the safety of their parents and elders, and the anger they felt by not being able to protect them. The pain was palpable. I was so struck by the uniformity of their existential dread, that I have made it a point to periodically ask after the parents of my AAPI friends and colleagues. On Mother’s Day this year, I asked my AAPI colleagues to tell their mothers how much I value working with them, and how much they bring to Fortune. It was a small clue I felt grateful to have noticed. Building on it has brought a new richness to many of my relationships.

The fundamental tools of inclusive leadership will continue to be a core focus for raceAhead in 2022, best told through the lived experiences of the people who are building better cultures with courage, imagination, and respect. Like many of you, I’m feeling a tremendous sense of urgency to meet this moment and to get the work moving. To scale my own efforts will require a squad of my own, which is something I’ve been working on for most of this year. Stay tuned for more on that. (Yes, that’s a clue.)

Until then, please know how grateful we are for your readership and support, the work you do every day, and the stand you take in the world.


This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

Mood board

Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings. May your words ring out for all eternity, bell hooks. We'll be thinking of you as we auld lang syne our way out of 2021.
Margaret Thomas—The The Washington Post/Getty Images

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