Addressing Racism, Word by Word

To achieve progress in addressing racism, businesses must move beyond arguments about semantics.

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As protests against racism have filled streets across the country this year, I’ve been hearing from businesses looking for ways to navigate these controversial times. They generally have good intentions. But all too often, their efforts to take action devolve into petty battles over language.

The terms unconscious bias, white privilege, and even Black Lives Matter can trigger emotional, defensive responses — something I see frequently in deeply conservative parts of Texas where I consult with companies. It becomes a trap.

Even the term racism stymies some organizations. Many people have been taught that all racists wear hoods or swastikas; they’re toxic, violent, terrible people. So, many instinctively reject the idea that they, and good people they know, may be part of a racist culture. We want a language that “others” racism to those horrible people over there, but never ourselves.

People also recoil against the concept of systemic racism. If they’ve had success within the system, they feel this term diminishes their own hard work and skills. People similarly resist language that limits their behavior or calls for significant change. Whether it is “defund the police” or calling someone a “Karen,” we spend more time battling the labels themselves than the concepts that drive them.

Part of the problem lies in language itself. In sessions I lead for businesses, I often discuss how people who live in certain icy parts of the world have dozens of words for snow and ice because their survival depends on it. When something plays a major role in your life, you recognize the many different forms it can come in. In American culture, we use the same word, racism, for a Ku Klux Klan member burning a cross on a lawn and a teacher discouraging Black children from applying to the best schools because she assumes they won’t get in. Both are racist, and both need to be addressed, but they’re not the same. Treating them as such makes it nearly impossible to address them successfully.

Even the terms diversity and inclusion can mean different things to different people. As a result, many businesses spend more time arguing about semantics than getting things done. Three key steps can help companies solve this problem.

Start by Busting Myths

As surprising as it may sound, I’ve found that a powerful way to begin building coalitions for change inside businesses is through a story about George Washington. I remind people that we were all raised to believe that the first U.S. president had wooden teeth. In fact, his dentures included human teeth, and historical documents show that he purchased the teeth of slaves. I ask groups, “Why were we misled?” It helps people realize that racism dates back to our founding in ways large and small (literally), many of which we may not be aware of.

I discuss similar myths of recent years. People often think of largely Black areas as being “drug infested.” So I talk about how Black people are arrested for marijuana possession at four times the rate of white people. I ask, “Do you think all the white people who are running these big cannabis companies now never smoked marijuana until it was legal?” This makes people laugh. But I point out the stark difference: “One group goes to jail and has their lives ruined, while the other goes on to make millions.”

People tell me that they hadn’t known or thought about this before. Humility and the willingness to question the history we’ve been taught is crucial.

Focus on the Levers That Perpetuate Inequity

Once people coalesce around the idea that inequities exist all around us, they can examine the levers inside a business that perpetuate such inequities.

Here, I often begin with questions about internships. I ask people how many of them began their careers with an internship. How did they get those positions? Often, through family connections. Was the intern position unpaid? If so, how did they manage to live and eat during that time? I ask hiring managers how many of the people they’ve hired over the years began their careers this way.

Then I give the example of a brilliant young woman who works two jobs to put herself through school, doesn’t have the time or the finances to get an internship, and therefore can’t create the kind of résumé that would get her hired. Again, many people across the spectrum admit that this situation is ridiculous and should be addressed.

Every organization has numerous levers. To name just a few: where and how it recruits, whether certain colleges are given preference, whether people of color are less likely to stay with the company and be given promotions. In these conversations, we take a good, hard look at all of these levers, and colleagues commit to work together to address them.

Avoid Homeostasis

One of the biggest challenges is ending a natural desire for things to be “normal.” If we’re going to achieve progress, we have to accept that the previous “normal” shouldn’t come back. We must stand strong against those who want to default to the status quo when progress threatens.

This is where business leaders must send a clear message with a pragmatic, optimistic tone: “Yes, changes in how things operate will be uncomfortable for some. But change will make the organization better. To achieve ambitious business objectives, we need to attract the brightest people of any background and extract the maximum giftedness out of every employee in the organization. We must create an environment in which everyone can thrive.”

That’s language everyone — at least, everyone who wants a great organization — can agree on.


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