Talking About Race and Police Violence at Work

symantec-black-lives-matter-topper2

16031523381_7fcb553987_z

A total of 816 people and counting have been killed by police in the U.S. this year. That number is increasing at an almost daily rate, according to information culled from an open-source database established by the Guardian newspaper to track fatal police shootings around the country.

The impact of these murders has been thoroughly expressed within affected communities, across the news cycle, and rooted within the deluge of op/eds written by black community leaders sounding off about the state of emergency on black lives.

Unfortunately, most of corporate America remains mum on said emergency. Reasons vary, but the silence is strange given corporate support for other social issues such as the LGBT community’s quest for equal rights and elimination of the gender pay gap.

Mandela Schumacher-Hodge is one of a sparse representation of women of color leaders in tech and venture capital.
Mandela Schumacher-Hodge is one of a sparse representation of women of color leaders in tech and venture capital.

Those hardest hit by the silence may be those at home: minority employees who do not have the luxury of sharing their thoughts and feelings without the fear of being ostracized, silenced, or potentially putting their job in jeopardy.

In a heartfelt open letter following the killings of several black men, Mandela Schumacher-Hodge (who is a black woman) wrote passionately about her very first experience having her boss (who is a white woman) speak up on these surmounting issues.

“When I went into work yesterday, the first thing my boss, who is a White woman, mentioned to me was the anger and pain she was feeling about the fatal shootings of two more Black men by White police officers,” wrote Schumacher-Hodge, portfolio services director for social impact investment firm Kapor Capital.

When asked why her employer’s open dialogue about race and the subsequent killings of black men was significant to her, Schumacher-Hodge adds that not one of her previous employers or colleagues broke the silence to discuss how she or any other employees of color might be feeling in the wake of national tragedies.

The article, written in early July, offered several straightforward tactics white colleagues can implement to help support colleagues of color:

  1. Educate yourself
  2. Talk about it
  3. Give people space
  4. Take action
  5. *Keep* looking in the mirror

Readers took that advice to heart. The letter fueled an onset of outreach from Schumacher-Hodge’s former colleagues who apologized for never thinking to ask her about how she was feeling. A few simply claimed they weren’t sure how to bring it up or even how to start the conversation. That’s something Freada Kapor — Schumacher-Hodge’s boss and company founder — admits must drastically change if the work environment is to ever truly be a space for everyone to fully be themselves.

Kapor is also the founder of the Level Playing Field Institute which promotes innovative approaches to fairness in higher education and workplaces.

“We need a new norm,” Kapor says. “You can’t be a decent boss unless you create an environment about what’s going on in the world and how it impacts [people] coming into work every day.”

“People have the right to have their experiences and thoughts and to express them to the point that they are not being uncivil or disrespectful to others. People who are marginalized [in this country] are usually silenced in society.”

So, how does leadership cultivate a safe environment where employees can have an open dialogue about the state of affairs without fear?

Kapor prescribes creating a culture of diversity and inclusivity by physically creating safe spaces and then starting the conversation at the top.

Freada Kapor is founder and partner of Kapor Capital and the Kapor Center for Social Impact.
Freada Kapor is founder and partner of Kapor Capital and the Kapor Center for Social Impact.

For example, Kapor and Schumacher-Hodge point to the signals riddled throughout Kapor Capital’s San Francisco headquarters indicating the environment is a safe space to have emotional conversations. Black Lives Matter signs are posted on the windows and sentiments about what’s going on in the world remain highly visible. Staffers also use email exchanges to share content and resources on a variety of topics to facilitate these important conversations.

Kapor also points to the makeup of the firm: A majority of its portfolio company’s CEOs are people of color, and leadership staff is also very diverse. That’s in stark contrast to most corporate environments, particularly in the Bay Area’s massive technology industry where black and brown people represent less than 3 percent of employees.

This diversity, Kapor says, makes all the difference when it comes to willingness to discuss race in the workplace. LGBT issues come to light the first time a favorite cousin brings his boyfriend to Thanksgiving, and gender equality takes on new meaning when a daughter hears offhand insults in the workplace. But many executives lack a frame of reference when it comes to relating to people of color. That means they must be intentional when it comes to fixing the problem.

“I think it is a complete and utter lack of empathy and reflection of how separate we are by race in this country,” Kapor explains. “White Americans live in a bubble and don’t have a real opportunity to interact in real ways with people of color that will give us a basis for empathy.” Thus, a police officer murdering a black man registers a closeness for people of color — they realize  the next person transfigured into a hashtag at the hands of a police officer could very well be their fathers, husbands, brothers, nephews or sons.

Contrastingly, white people without close ties to people of different races can show apathy through inexperience. That can be extremely detrimental as it translates into discriminatory policies throughout society and police held unaccountable for racially motivated killings. As a minority in the workplace, it doesn’t surprise me that a person of color might choose to stay silent.

Kapor’s firm holds listening tours and trainings for CEOs, particularly the white males, who have directly asked for help having conversations on race and diversity.

“It’s our responsibility to educate ourselves and other white people, especially those in power,” she says. “It’s not our job to delegate [the responsibility of diversity] and ask others to clean up the mess we made.”

Image credits: 1) Flickr/niXerKG 2) and 3) courtesy of Kapor Capital

Sherrell Dorsey

Sherrell Dorsey is a social impact storyteller, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. Sherrell speaks and writes frequently on the topics of sustainability, technology, and digital inclusion.

Leave a Reply