Dear Corporate America: Stop Using #BLM to Boost Profits
Photo credit: Sharon Chang
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is the largest civil rights movement in modern history.
Take a moment to let that sink in.
What started out as a call for dismantling the institution of policing in the US as we know it quickly evolved into a global movement which has completely redefined the ways we engage with one another around issues of race. Although policing remains at the core of the movement, it has expanded to encompass an age-old moral dilemma of basic human rights for our Black communities worldwide.
For companies to treat this movement as a political issue is incredibly shortsighted and harmful to all of their stakeholders, not just their Black employees. We have all seen several companies either remain silent during this critical time when we, as activists, allies, and accomplices, need to see solidarity from the companies we support, patronize, and work for.
I read just yesterday about another global, well-known company who reprimanded employees who wore face masks with the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ written on them. Most large companies have declared solidarity amongst the BLM activists and supporters; however, behind closed doors, their actions are not aligning with their public stance.
Organizational leaders, I didn’t think I needed to tell you this, but (sigh) I suppose I need to make this blatantly clear for you:
The Black Lives Matter movement is NOT a political tool for you to wield for however it most positively affects your bottom line.
To do so is not just irresponsible, but it is literally profiting off of the blood, sweat, tears, pain, and oppression of our most marginalized group—the Black community. It is not simply bad business; it is utterly reprehensible.
Something you should know about me: I am an eternal optimist and idealist. I truly see people, communities, and organizations as pure beings and entities. I have this (oftentimes, arguably, too generous) view of humanity that leads me to believe that if most people truly knew how they were harming others… if they were able to come up several levels, out of their own intentions and narrow views, to see the whole picture as I, and so many others, see it, they would be appalled by their own actions. I wholeheartedly believe that these people would find these actions and behaviors unacceptable. Or, if a leader truly felt okay with the collateral damage of their capitalistic actions (or inaction), I believe that leaders and communities surrounding that person would challenge the behavior and strip them of their power. This is the viewpoint that colors my world and the reason that I think that we all have the choice to know better, do better, and be better—to one another, to our communities, and to this planet.
Now, knowing that about me, you should know I don’t necessarily think you are a bad person for not prioritizing the experience of the humans who work for you. You are likely a product of your conditioning, the false narrative that tells us that capitalism and racism are not intimately entwined (read more on that in Ibram X. Kendi’s brilliant book, How to Be an Anti-Racist). However, I do hold leaders accountable to changing behaviors when they see the error in their ways. No more hand holding once the truth has been revealed. It’s your turn to show up and do the work.
And, I'm willing to provide you with a few pointers to get you started. Because as intimately as racism is currently entagled with capitalism, I am just as committed to the work of creating more human-centered, anti-racist leaders.
Get clear on your values and priorities, starting at the top, and actively center anti-racist business processes and practices.
Stop treating anti-racism work (such as diversity, equity, and inclusion) as a separate group or ideology, existing only to support achieving “diversity” targets, occasionally educating managers, and processing equal employment claims. Anti-racism work needs to be at the core of every business decision made, every meeting, every interaction, or else the required culture shift is impossible.
Ensure you are holding leaders accountable to these values and priorities at all levels of your organization. Be sure to align all communication (internal and external) to these, and let go of leaders who refuse to get on board. They are not simply making your job harder; they are actively undermining your efforts and creating harm to your employees. They need to be shown the door.
Actively engage employees in creating the culture shift. Make sure they know that their voice matters significantly in this work, and that they are safe and protected to call out leaders who are not living the company’s values and commitment to anti-racism.
Be vulnerable, authentic, and willing to make (and own up to) mistakes.
Anti-racist work is tough. For those of us who have been working hard to be anti-racist, it has likely been a long, arduous, lifelong journey. It’s not supposed to be easy. If it were, we would all be anti-racists, all the time! It just doesn’t work that way. So, when doing this important work, be willing to put some skin in the game and show vulnerability and authenticity to your employees and other leaders. (And hey, while you’re at it, go ahead and do the same with your friends and family.)
I recently coached a White, cisgender male leader around this. He leads a large group of leaders and employees and issued an organization-wide message asserting his bold and clear solidarity with the Black community, humbly admitting mistakes he’s personally made in this work, and publicly committing to continuing to learn and listen. He was met with some disagreeing voices, but the overwhelming majority of responses he received were from Black and Brown employees, thanking him for showing up as a “safe” person during this time.
Be sure to follow up with clear alignment to your message via thoughtful and informed action. Authenticity and vulnerability mean nothing in this work without creating change in the ways you center, amplify, heal, advocate for, hire, retain, engage, and promote underrepresented individuals in your organization. It is much more harmful to people of color for leaders to espouse support and solidarity without following up with aligned action. It creates instant distrust and lack of safety.
What surprises me the most about working with leaders in this capacity is their belief that they should know (intuitively?) how to do anti-racism work. How on Earth would you know how to do it if it’s never been taught to you and you have been, up until this point, seemingly thriving in an inherently racist system? Make the investment in your people and your organization to hire a leadership coach and consultant highly skilled in anti-racism work, and prioritize hiring Black consultants, where possible. It’s important to get the right people to support you in this work to ensure that you are not creating further harm to the people of color in your organizations. I’ve seen many (well-intended) organizations recently make facepalm-worthy mistakes because they didn’t make the investment to bring in highly skilled consultants. Don’t be that organization.
A side note worth mentioning: don’t expect the Black people (or any POC, for that matter) in your organization to take the burden of teaching everyone else how to do this work effectively. It doesn’t really matter if you are paying them. They don’t have to opt in to educating their White colleagues about how to do this right. It’s energetically, emotionally, and mentally draining, and they are already SO exhausted. If they opt in to helping with the work, then yay! Be sure to compensate them very well, express gratitude often, and honor what they need as they (generously) support you and your organization.
At the end of the day, it is going to take each and every one of us to acknowledge and amplify Black people’s stories and lived experiences in order to change our current reality. As leaders, we have an obligation to create a more healing, restorative, and sustainable way to do business if any of us are going to thrive. It’s not just about freeing our Black community; it is about freeing ourselves. To quote the Indigenous Australian artist, activist and academic, Lilla Watson: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”