It’s overwhelming for many Black Americans to be inundated with questions about their take on race relations during the COVID-19 pandemic and as the chorus to defund the police grows louder, especially during the era of Google. After all, many of those questions can be answered with a few Web searches and the reading of a few well-argued, well-written articles. Suddenly, white people are discovering their one Black friend could be a font of information of anything related to racism, diversity, inclusion or even the Confederacy.
Imagine being that one Black friend if he or she is also an employee of a large company. “First, do not inundate your black colleagues with requests to help you understand and solve racial injustice as if it is their duty,” wrote Najoh Tita-Reid on Fortune earlier this month. “Remember that in many workplaces, we are outnumbered — and so many people are asking us for our input right now.”
Speaking of input, companies are adding to this emotional toll as they boast about their donations to the Black Lives Matter movement and other proclamations to “stand” with the Black community. For some, these follow on efforts over the past several years to improve diversity credentials through the work of committees usually called “employee resource groups,” or ERGs.
But there’s an ugly side to some of these ERGs, along with concurrent pledges to improve a company’s diversity and inclusion efforts. Many corporate CEOs, who quite frankly are in part where they are because they are the beneficiaries of straight white male privilege, get the credit and public relations points for launching or accelerating these diversity agendas. Such accolades, however, come at the expense of Black employees tasked with running these ERGs, a devotion of time they often end up giving for free.
This has got to stop, along with the sudden wave of copycat pledges to hire more Black and other nonwhite employees and executives by 2025. Here’s the memo to companies: You can hire these hardworking and talented professionals as soon as possible, so there’s no need to wait five years. And in any event, considering the state of the economy with this first wave of the novel coronavirus only becoming worse, those promises ring hollow. So, stop making them, and start hiring, now.
What’s occurring within many companies is really not fundamentally different from the legacy of slavery in the U.S., or what is going on with our system of mass incarceration that films such as Ava DuVernay's 13th have expertly distilled. Employees often join ERGs out of a sense of mission and purpose. They are asked to do everything from launch new diversity and inclusion initiatives, to speak on conference panels, review product launches and evaluate local civil rights groups for potential donations. The reality is that they’ve got to do this: If such work is not done, then these same employees run the risk that their voices are not heard.
As one Silicon Valley consultant summed up in a recent article on the Washington Post, “We joined the ERG because we needed help, but we became the help.”
The result is a vicious cycle. White executives often get the credit for good diversity deeds. In addition, external public relations firms, tasked with communicating these initiatives (fact: the reps sending these emails out are almost always white), profit off of people’s work that has been done for zero compensation.
The same Washington Post article noted that within the tech industry, some companies are beginning to realize that such work indeed merits compensation. But at a time with high unemployment and an economy teetering near collapse, the odds are high that many Black employees, and many other people of color, feel as if they have to take on this ERG workload, or else risk losing their jobs. Or, they may even be told their time spend on ERG work is interfering with their day-to-day job duties. Either way, companies that pride themselves on innovation can do better when it comes to finding more thoughtful and innovative ways of how they can treat people of color — and that starts with fair compensation.
Reactions to the Post article on social media suggested this is not a problem relegated to tech companies.
“This problem isn't exclusive to Big Tech. U.S. companies and orgs, including those in science and environmental spaces, are also maintaining largely white upper ranks and expecting employees of color to essentially work two jobs while only paying them for one,” wrote one Twitter user.
Other industries have revealed similar episodes of egregious behavior. Earlier this month, Bon Appetit contended with accusations that it only paid white editors for time spent on filming videos for blogs and social media, while people of color in similar job positions were compelled to do it for free. The magazine’s parent company, Condé Nast, denied the accusations, but the Band-Aid masking a culture of white privilege was ripped off as Bon Appetit's former editor-in-chief, Adam Rapoport, resigned after photos of him in blackface emerged.
Even before the past several tumultuous weeks, it’s been clear a reset in the office is needed. The challenge many companies now face is that their sudden emphasis in taking on race, whether it’s becoming more “woke” or pledging to hire more people of color, the results come across as tone deaf. As one TriplePundit reader recently emailed to the newsroom, “There's a literal mad dash to hire POC employees and people are getting a ton of unwanted outreach, which I also feel doesn't help the situation. It doesn’t feel good to have been pursuing roles in a certain industry for years, but now you're getting all these calls because companies want to meet a quota or tokenize you.”
Image credit: Unsplash
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.