By Verna Myers
New words and phrases are added to the dictionary every year.
There are graphs that show the frequency of a word’s use over the decades and centuries. Prominent dictionaries even pick a new “word of the year” every year.
What all of these cultural trends have at their core is that how we think and feel about the world is embodied by how we speak about it. And how we move through the world sometimes comes to a crucial tipping point.
I remember consulting with a nonprofit juvenile justice agency in the liberal northeast years ago. A white male leader in the planning group objected to my use of the word “oppression” to describe systems like racism, sexism, elitism that target certain groups.
He said, “Well no one here is oppressed.”
How could I go on doing this? How could I teach a workshop to leaders who profess to care about the rights of young people, mostly Black and poor, if I can’t even talk about oppression?
Another client, a white male partner in a prestigious white shoe law firm in NY, similarly objected to my use of the term. “Nobody in this firm is oppressed,” he explained to me. “Not with these salaries. Oppression is like what happened to the Jews in Germany. No one is wearing armbands around here.”
How could I get this law firm partner to see that you could count the number of Black men on two hands who were partners in elite law firms of New York — despite the fact that many of them had been founded almost a century ago? And that there were no Black women or women of color partners at all?
In both cases, I convinced myself I could do some good, even if I couldn’t use the word “oppression.”
I got myself together, put on my compliant Harvard Law school educated mask and returned to the work.
Just like oppression, bias was a hard word for some.
Bias is something that people don’t know they have, not because they’re bad people but because in the brain’s attempt to process lots of data efficiently, it takes shortcuts.
Yet those shortcuts can prevent you from being hired or being considered for a promotion — and they can even get you killed when you are Black.
Even before the racial revelations that came flooding in with the horrific killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, I used the word in my TED Talk.
There I talk about the practice of brutality against Black people, recalling the names of Black men executed by police or other members of the state.
Maybe they hadn’t seen my talk, but when one of the most profitable banks in the country hired me to talk to employees about creating diverse and inclusive environments, they told me they prefer I not use the word “bias” in my slide deck. They suggested I talk about “assumptions” instead.
I took the word out of the deck but used it in my presentation. They never asked me back again.
“Where should I draw the line?” was a question I asked myself. Should I use these words in protest? How can we fix the thing if we can’t talk about the thing?
What I began to realize — and wish I had realized earlier in my work — is that I have been guilty, along with many in the Diversity & Inclusion Movement, of “system beating” as Valarie Batts of Visions, Inc. calls it.
We have bent over backward to take care of white people’s feelings as a way of surviving beside them.
We have used only the words that those in power could tolerate. I and many in my profession have worked hard not to offend, while at the same time asking Black and other marginalized employees to make adjustments so they can survive in a dominant culture; this forces them to shoulder the burden rather than the individuals fostering racism.
System beating may come across as professional and proper, but it is really a strategy for coping with the denial, the resistance, the cultural incompetence, and “the fragility of white people,” as Robin DiAngelos has termed it.
Even the words diversity and inclusion were strategic ways to point to inequities in a less troublesome way so that people in groups that have been privileged by racism wouldn’t be scared off from addressing the inexplicable imbalances in almost all areas of our society.
Inexplicable of course, unless you are willing to examine and name racism for the insidious and pernicious force it is.
Just a few weeks ago, I was advising someone about why anti-blackness was not “too negative” of a phrase to include in a memo to the company, but rather the proper term to refer to the stubborn sentiment pervading corporate and societal culture and preventing us from realizing true cultural change.
The person said, “I get it, I just don’t want it to upset people,” to which I wished I had replied, “Which people are we talking about?”
Because once you truly realize how long some of us have tolerated these damaging culture norms, you wouldn’t be arguing for comfort.
To take “anti-blackness” one step further: When I invited Eddie Moore, Jr., the founder of the White Privilege Conference, to my annual race and ethnicity conference he used the words white supremacy in his presentation. I watched people squirm in their seats.
Even I had an urge to say something to lessen the sting, but resisted.
“White supremacy” is a phrase that needs to be said and “anti-black racism” must be said, too.
The time has come to distinguish right from wrong. Racism is part of our country’s DNA. It doesn’t matter how much of a good person you think you are, we have all been made worse by an ingrained belief we caught that white is better, righter, smarter, and prettier, and this belief has created a system of power and privilege that benefits white people as a group and white males in particular.
Today is a new day. The cruel killings of Black people mostly unarmed and the brash and sadly resonating video of Amy Cooper, feigning fear of a Black birder who deigned to ask politely that she put her dog on a leash as required by the law, has changed our vernacular.
Today, all day, in one-on-one conversation with CEOs, in slide decks, group presentations, and social media, I get to use these words and phrases, from oppression and bias to institutionalized racism and white male privilege.
I get to explain how corporate, nonprofit, and government organizations have been shaped by racism — organizations in which Black people and other marginalized groups have to adeptly handle intentional and unconscious racist comments, and are tired and angry about the structural barriers they have to navigate just to show their capabilities.
I get to describe how these systems are operating exactly how they were intended — to preserve white culture and concentrate and maintain power in the hands of white males.
For years, the efficacy of diversity training has been debated.
Diversity training is helpful, but it’s time to move away from just “diversity” training because it hasn’t gotten us far enough or gone deep enough, quickly enough.
Let’s all agree that our schools, corporations, nonprofits, places of worship, and community organizations conduct anti-racism training with the goal of eradicating attitudes that keep us from seeing how our fates are inextricably connected.
And while we are at it, let’s name and do that work necessary to undo patriarchy, sexism and misogyny, xenophobia, ableism and queer and trans antagonism, too.
Anti-racism work doesn’t need to be divisive when we make it all of our business as a nation — and as a human race — to eliminate the deep disparities, violence and blatant disregard so many marginalized groups face daily.
We have an opportunity now to get out of the denial and rationalization around America’s history of racism, and make good on our American ideals.
Here are five steps companies can take to elevate the work necessary for achieving racial equity.
- Listen: Find ways for leaders to listen to the lived experiences of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) and other underrepresented and traditionally marginalized groups.
- Teach: Incorporate these learnings into conversations and trainings helping leaders to connect the dots from individual stories of racial bias, exclusion, and trauma to larger systemic issues informed by racism and other systems of oppression.
- Learn and use the vocabulary: Opt-in conversations, speaker series, book clubs, presentations by Employee Resource groups are all ways to help people understand the history, experiences, impact and systems that underlie these terms. When the terms are unpacked and myths are debunked, these words aren’t as scary. They are just the truth.
- Evaluate systems: Examine your culture and practices (hiring, evaluation, promotion, succession, compensation, etc.) and the external systems that feed into them to determine how well they support or hinder equity. Make the short-term and long term interventions necessary to remove the barriers and support the success for BIPOC employees and other underrepresented groups.
Originally posted on Business Insider