A colorized image of the 1963 civil rights March on Washington, where an estimated 250,000 people gathered to demand equal access to jobs, housing and education — and hear Martin Luther King Jr.'s now famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
Corporate efforts to observe Black History Month are often cringe-worthy at best and offensive at worst. If you're planning to add a kente avatar on social media or pen a generic letter to employees, please do us all a favor and stop now. Business leaders can — and should — do better. Here's some advice to get you started, from the Black thought leaders who have been telling us for years.
Don't: Pander to your employees and customers this Black History Month
In the Year of Our Lord 2023, we should really all be past the platitudinous "Happy Black History Month" email to employees — or worse, the dreaded product drop. Think back to when TriplePundit asked workplace inclusion expert Kim Crowder about corporate cash-grabs around Juneteenth: “This is a repeat of why Juneteenth was needed," she reminded business leaders. "It is basically commodifying the Black American experience by those who do not share those experiences and who have benefitted from the enslavement of people.”
The same holds true for brands that seek to capitalize on Black History Month while doing little to honor Black history or benefit Black communities. Just ask Ernest Owens, editor at large for Philadelphia magazine, who has never been shy with his opinions about how brands observe the holiday.
"Just like Pride Month, Black History Month has become a routine time of year when corporations say the absolute most while doing the least for marginalized communities," he wrote in a 2021 op/ed for the Washington Post.
Do: Look inwardly — and act accordingly
Rather than looking to commodify the holiday or pat your company on the back for its great work on racial equity, turn your mind to the work ahead of you — and communicate frankly and thoughtfully with your employees and stakeholders about what comes up.
“Organizations should be looking beyond one day and focusing on areas such as pay equity, promotion rates, the ability for Black team members’ work to be seen and acknowledged, and partnering with Black businesses regularly — including paying them well for their work," Crowder told us. “The goal is to work toward Black liberation every day."
Don't: Expect praise for pennies
In December polling commissioned by TriplePundit, less than 20 percent of over 3,000 U.S. consumers said they'd be impressed by a billion-dollar company donating $5 million to a social cause like racial equity, with the majority agreeing that "business should do more."
Findings like these indicate that people are growing more wary of brands appearing to "check the box" by donating to a nonprofit. They want to see what changes you're making, and they want to hear about the outcomes of that change.
“The key here is authentic leadership — in other words, walking the walk, not just talking the talk,” Gary Cunningham, president and CEO of Prosperity Now, told TriplePundit back in 2021. “It’s easy to say that you’re anti-racist without changing anything about how your organization operates.”
Do: Champion your partners
Of course, there's absolutely nothing wrong with donating to nonprofits or establishing new programs that look to address racial equity, nor is it intrinsically wrong to communicate these programs during Black History Month. But if you do, do so thoughtfully.
Find clear alignment between your company, your teams and the nonprofits you support. Communicate with your stakeholders about the great work your partners do and why you trust them. For example, did someone from your team recommend this organization? Does it work in your community? Is it particularly positioned to address the issues your teams and stakeholders care about most? Remember, this is an opportunity to educate your stakeholders about the issues — and highlight the perspective of your community partners that know these issues best.
“So often I’ve witnessed corporations and business leaders act as if because they are very smart and can solve problems that they can understand and know how to solve the complex problems of racial and ethnic inequality,” Cunningham told us. “Trust the guidance of people who can help you learn, help you bring your work into the community, and help you understand the depth of the issues that you’re trying to contain.”
Don't: Task your Black employees with more unpaid work
As companies pushed to demonstrate their commitment to racial equity in 2020, it wasn't long before they looked toward their Black employees to do the hard work for them.
Asking Black employees to speak on panels, lead new employee resource groups, or consult on strategies for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) — all for no added compensation — is not only unfair, but it also plainly illustrates the very inequities these companies claim to oppose. Over half of Black women in particular told the consultancy Every Level Leadership they feel singled out as the sole resource to educate their colleagues about DEI.
Think of your team's well-being, and don't repeat the ugly cycle this Black History Month. As Najoh Tita-Reid, chief marketing officer for Logitech, observed in Fortune back in June 2020: "Black people did not create these problems, so please do not expect us to resolve them alone."
Do: Take responsibility for educating yourself
It's past time for non-Black people to take personal responsibility for educating themselves about racial justice issues, rather than leaning on their friends and colleagues. If you're an executive, read more, watch more and generally consume more media about the topic. Encourage everyone in your organization to do the same, and give them opportunities to discuss it, if and when they choose.
"Take responsibility for your own education on racial issues," Tita-Reid suggested in Fortune. "Create companywide forums and Q&A sessions to educate large groups. Bring in experts, if needed, to provide actionable plans that systematically implement racial equity. Identify those of us who are open to speak, and respect those of us who do not want to talk about the situation."
When it comes to your formal DEI strategy work: Resource it, and pay your teams accordingly. "Do not shortchange race equity work," Andrea J. Rogers and Tiloma Jayasinghe of Community Resource Exchange recommend in Nonprofit Quarterly. "And if you feel like doing that, ask yourself why, and take this opportunity to unpack biases around what is valued, who is valued, and what impact means for your organization."
Image credit: Original image from the U.S. Library of Congress; Colorized by Jordan J. Lloyd., Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division; Available via Unseen Histories on Unsplash
Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL.