It’s Time to Ditch the Lip Service and Snuff Out Systemic Racism
When I was growing up, no one talked about white privilege or diversity. My neighborhood lacked socioeconomic and racial diversity; like me, most of my friends were middle class, Jewish, and white. I knew I was fortunate, and I appreciated the opportunities I had, like traveling with my family and attending high-quality schools. But I didn’t fully understand how privileged I was until I got to college and spent time outside my community.
In college, I was eager to educate myself on experiences that differed from my own. As a resident advisor, I chose to put up a bulletin board using headlines from our student newspaper, such as “It’s a People Thing, Not a Black or White Thing.” Our campus was infamous for racism and issues with antisemitism, so I felt I was helping the cause with my bulletin board.
In retrospect — as I learn more about my privilege as a white woman and raise two children of color — I understand that my attempt to be “colorblind” failed to acknowledge the systemic racism that Black people and other people of color live with every day. As a CEO, it’s my duty to continue to check my privilege and ensure I am speaking out against injustices against marginalized communities.
Saying you’re an ally is not enough.
As leaders, we have to take action to understand and combat systemic racism because it is the right thing to do. We must work to recognize the difficulties people of color and other marginalized groups face — whether it’s due to their race, religion, sexual orientation, culture, ability, etc.
Marginalized communities are struggling, and we have to try to gain the perspective necessary to put ourselves in their shoes so we can commit to making a change. And that change needs to go beyond calling yourself an ally. As business leaders, we have the opportunity to fight racism and oppression directly through our policies, hiring practices, programs, and more.
Below are four steps business leaders can use to go beyond allyship. I am by no means perfect, but I found these lessons helpful in expanding my perspective and awareness as a leader.
1) Check your privilege.
By recognizing the hurt others have gone through, we open ourselves to becoming more aware of our own privilege and educated about the struggles of others. White leaders can’t change unless we acknowledge our own privileges and the prevalence of white supremacy in America.
It isn’t easy to look at our actions. Even if we have never overtly discriminated against people of color and other marginalized communities, we have been part of the systemic culture that is racist — and it’s our responsibility to fix that world.
2) Affirm people’s basic human rights.
Next, leaders must affirm people’s rights. People of color and marginalized groups face terrible pressure and are constantly told — overtly and covertly — that they don’t deserve the same rights to safety and individuality afforded to others. As leaders, we must reiterate that they have the same rights as everyone else and should be treated as such.
[Related: A Black Woman’s Worth at Work in 2020]
3) Don’t stop at diversity.
Diversity is important, but it shouldn’t be the only metric you consider. It’s great to know how much diversity we have in our companies and to keep that number high, but we also have to focus on systemic change.
A good starting point is your company’s mission statement. Does it need to be revisited to reflect your company’s values around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) more accurately? How can you elevate that message in your branding and day-to-day communications?
4) Pay more than lip service to the cause.
Words are powerful, but actions are what truly make lasting change. Read up, watch TED Talks, and take classes on diversity and inclusion — preferably using material created by people of color or marginalized community members. Then, develop DEI programs in your companies and measure their effectiveness.
We can take concrete steps to improve our DEI, like diversifying our vendors to include companies owned by people who have been systemically marginalized. Or we could work to fill board seats with people who have diverse backgrounds and thoughts. We must think broadly about how we can use our influence to make real change in the world, and we need to commit to making a difference through our actions.
As leaders, our people are looking to us to embrace cultures that acknowledge privilege and focus on equal opportunities for all. Verbal allyship is no longer enough — it’s time to learn more, speak out, and become involved in helping those marginalized in our society. Ultimately, these actions will make the world a better and more inclusive place for all.
Alison Gutterman is the president and CEO of Jelmar, the family-owned cleaning products manufacturer of CLR and Tarn-X products. She began her career at Jelmar in 1993 without a title or a desk, and in 2007 was named its president, bringing the company unprecedented success with her modern approach and leadership techniques. She also balances work with parenthood as a single mother of two children, and she resides in the greater Chicago area.
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