image of Sheryl Miller

How silence incurs violence on diversity & inclusivity progress in business | Sheryl Miller

BlackLivesMatter is an opportunity for organisations to strike uncomfortable but necessary conversations if they really want to invoke positive social change

LinkedIn provides an excellent window into the current and much needed conversations that are and aren’t happening in business circles. The relative silence from this community with regards to the racially charged protests sweeping across the US around the murder of George Floyd, is resounding. It’s like the largest elephant in the room that no one wants to be the first to address.

Fear is a powerful motivator for action and inaction. In the same way that we might balk at the thought of talking about grief and therefore suffer in silence, we get extremely uncomfortable when talking about race.

This insecurity has reason. Some brands and high profile spokespeople have been called out for tokenism, blackwashing and disingenuity of their words, especially when it jars with actions (L’Oréal brand ambassadors of colour promoting skin lightening creams while outwardly supporting the Black Lives Movement is a case in point). On the flipside, the silence of others have been equally pronounced.

Silence can read as apathy; a contentment with the status quo; a polite acceptance of structural racism. But, equally, the silence can be the result of fear-induced verbal paralysis. Fear with regards to saying and doing the right thing. Fear of being held accountable to corporate diversity & inclusivity pledges made long ago that were never honoured. Fear of how to broach and manage this internally with teams, particularly black employees who may be traumatised by those awful videos of police brutality; and fear of coming across as reactionary and inauthentic in speech, especially when the teams in which they represent have zero faces of colour within it.

In my own networks and discussions as a mentor, I’ve noted that even black professionals are hesitant in posting anything at all on the civil unrest, conscious of looking unprofessional or hurting career prospects. They’re afraid of calling out tokenistic, disingenuous bosses who pay lip service to the black agenda whilst still underhandedly promoting a structure of exclusion in which only Oxbridge graduates whose first language is English benefit.

When writing this piece, I’ve been mindful of not guilt-shaming well intentioned white people who feel they are not racist, for fear of shutting down the conversation. And yet, sometimes, what needs to be understood is that walking on eggshells for fear of offending people benefiting from a system that works against you is tiring and frustrating. The truth is, when emotions are high, at least a few of those eggshells are going to get stomped on. The stance is clear. You’re damned if you do speak out and damned if you don’t.

But silence kills progress. It wields damage on the rigor of diversity & inclusivity initiatives. It affirms the status quo. Where government is failing to move the needle on race issues, businesses are empowered to set better standards for all. This can only come from a place of uncomfortable, if painful, authentic discourse without fear of reprimand.

There is a spectrum of racism along which we all sit. Being conscious of this is the first step towards improving our social condition. Never has there been a more opportune time to strike uncomfortable conversations if positive social change is to eventually happen.

It is time for empathic leadership to be exercised and to challenge our usual go-to way of thinking by reading about racial disparity in police stop and search, detainment and sentencing; studying research about BAME prospects in the job market; Googling ‘black people detained under the Mental Health Act’ and then looking at the composition of the C-suite where you work. Do you find it strange that it is so white and so male? Would you find it strange if it were an all-black, all-female board? To be authentically inclusive, to connect with someone on a human level, by acknowledging the pain and hurt brought about by something they may not be able to understand, but can sympathise with is a simple but potent act of solidarity.

Right now, silence from the boardroom will speak volumes to black people that do not feel as if they belong in your organisation. I’m not going to pretend it’s an easy conversation to have. But please, let’s be brave and start the conversation.

Sheryl Miller  is an award winning serial entrepreneur, business coach and author of  Smashing Stereotypes: How To Get Ahead When You’re The Only _____ In The Room.    

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