This post was written by Satta Sarma-Hightower.
America is experiencing a reckoning when it comes to race.
Although the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent nationwide protests have led to serious discussions about police reform, they’ve also pushed the conversation forward about how we can create more racial equity in every part of American life—from education and healthcare to business and the workplace.
Although diversity and inclusion have been ongoing topics in the workplace, it’s clear that companies know they need to do better. This is especially true in the fashion industry, where the leadership of the major fashion houses is largely homogenous. It’s costing companies: leading to tone-deaf products evoking blackface, for example, being pulled from shelves. Last year, only 35% of ad campaigns featured models of color. And in the wake of today’s movement, anonymous accounts have emerged on Instagram detailing racist and unwelcoming cultures at some fashion brands, including an incident where an employee at one company belittled the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”
Aniyia Williams, founder and director of Black & Brown Founders and Zebras Unite, says the best way to start this transformation is to: “F--k the status quo.”
“Each of us has inherited a legacy that's teeming with racism and sexism. The mounting pressures, the stress, the fears, the violence, the anger, the danger of this moment; we are experiencing a reckoning right now and something has got to give,” Williams says.
This blunt assessment was how Williams kicked off her talk, “Reimagining Racial Equity from the Ground Up,” at the Business of Fashion (BoF) Professional Summit, which provided educational content on how brands can build a responsible fashion business.
For the fashion industry—and all industries—to become more equitable and inclusive, Williams says they have to start by acknowledging the power of white supremacy in the workplace.
“One of the things that always strikes me about conversations about equity and racism is how most people view things like white supremacy as this boogeyman that's just kind of lurking in the shadows waiting to jump out and embarrass you in front of all your coworkers or your friends,” she says. “But in reality, it's something that really builds up in the little decisions that you're making every day. Racism is really the sum of many behaviors, big and small, mostly small.”
Williams admitted that the phrase “white supremacy” probably makes some people uncomfortable, but that this “discomfort itself might be telling.” She says that sitting in discomfort and having difficult conversations is key to making meaningful progress on these issues.
Frequently, we think of white supremacy in its most extreme forms—the use of racial slurs or neo-Nazis carrying tiki torches in Charlottesville. However, both socially unacceptable and socially acceptable forms of this bias and privilege exist in our society. Some actions and beliefs that fall into the latter category include:
- Racist mascots
- Racial profiling
- Fearing people of color
- Not believing the experiences of people of BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color)
- Bootstrap theory (or the idea that people—based on their own sheer determination and effort—should be able to climb the socioeconomic ladder).
- Prioritizing white voices as experts
- Cultural appropriation
- Believing we are “post-racial”
- Discriminatory hiring practices
Racism is insidious. To root it out, it’s crucial to understand that even in its most subtle forms racism can have a detrimental impact in the workplace. In her talk, Williams outlined the following ways racism manifests itself within organizations and provided strategies that businesses of all sizes can use to begin making meaningful changes. Here’s an overview:
Perfectionism is the tendency to fixate on what’s “wrong” and the limited ability to identify, name and appreciate what’s “right.”
“I think one of the ways to think about countering this is to create a work environment that really venerates learning, one that accounts for the fact that everyone is going to make mistakes at some point, and those mistakes are opportunities for learning, as well,” Williams says.
It can be difficult to innovate in business when people respond to new or challenging ideas with defensiveness. This also creates an environment where it’s difficult to raise ideas.
Williams says “the answer to this is really to understand the link between defensiveness and fear, whether that is a fear of losing power, a fear of losing face or your reputation being damaged, a fear of discomfort, or a fear of losing your privilege.”
Fear of open conflict
Some employees or leaders also may have a fear of open conflict, which equates raising difficult issues with being impolite, rude, or out of line.
“One of the ways to think about this is not requiring people who raise hard issues to do so in, ‘acceptable ways,’ because civility is a weapon of white supremacy,” Williams says. “I can not overstate that if you are hung up on the delivery, it probably means that you are missing the message. People, especially people of color, are not responsible for your feelings.”
“You have to know that conflict is inevitable. It's what you do when it happens that really matters,” she adds.
People who simply view things as “black and white” demonstrate this type of binary thinking, which involves little to no sense that things can be “both/and” rather than just “either/or.”
“You really want to notice when people are using that kind of language and push them to come up with more than two options. Push them to envision more than two ways that something could be happening or that a scenario could go when people are simplifying very complex issues,” Williams says. “I personally like to think of things in terms of spectrums, where those two things might be at two other ends, and there is an entire universe of options and things that can be happening in between that.”
Power hoarding is probably one of the most obvious examples of racism, bias, and privilege in the workplace. It happens when people feel threatened by potential changes in the workplace or the possibility of distributing some of their decision-making authority to other people in the organization.
To combat power hoarding, it’s critical to define what good leadership looks like, William says. Good leaders nurture their employees and build their confidence and skills. When this happens, employees contribute even more value and some of the power centers within organizations start to shift.
“Challenges to your leadership are healthy and productive. They help you become a better leader,” Williams says.
Paternalism is a byproduct of both racism and sexism. Those with power think they are capable of making decisions for and in the interests of those without power.
Williams says the key to combating paternalism is to focus on empowerment rather than control in the workplace. One of the most effective ways to make this transition is to include the people who are affected by a decision in the decision-making process.
“Make sure that everyone knows and understands their level of responsibility and authority in the organization. I think it's very helpful to define a frame for people that includes the universe of autonomy that they have, and within that, let them do what needs to be done, let them own it, let them make decisions,” she says.
Individualism has been a trademark of the business world for decades. With this kind of thinking, competition is valued over cooperation. It also creates an environment where the needs and wants of a few people with power supersede the needs and wants of those with less of it.
“One of the big issues with individualism is that it creates a lack of accountability, [and it’s] a major problem in our society today. But I think it also shows up in the world of business and how we take ownership over the decisions that we're making, both as individuals and as the whole organization, and our willingness to actually engage with the consequences of those decisions that we're making,” Williams says. “One of the ways to really think about this is to evaluate people based on their ability to delegate to others and evaluating people based on their ability to work as part of a team to accomplish their goals.”
Right to comfort
This is the belief that those in power have a right to emotional and psychological comfort.
Echoing Williams’ previous point, the key to overcoming this is to not make other people responsible for your feelings and “understanding that discomfort is at the root of growth and learning.”
Williams also shared larger, overarching principles that should guide businesses as they try to create more racial equity within their organizations.
Get comfortable with discomfort
She says it’s important for people to get out of their comfort zone because change is going to happen either way.
“It's really easy to get comfortable with things that are wrong, but the problem with comfort is that if you only want to stay there, then you will never find truth,” Williams says.
Plus, everyone has bias so objectivity is largely a myth. In the workplace, objectivity is the belief that emotions are inherently destructive, irrational and should not play a role in the decision-making or group process.
“It's important to realize that everyone lives in a different reality that is formed by their experiences, and that reality affects the way that people understand things. It affects the way that they communicate. It affects the way that they respond to you in different contexts,” Williams says. “This is another reason why it's really important for you to be able to sit in discomfort and to be able to learn how to listen when people are expressing themselves in ways which are unfamiliar to you, or again, might make you uncomfortable.”
“Assume that everyone has a valid point and that your job is to understand what that point is,” she adds.
Redefine success metrics
Capitalism is strongly rooted in the idea of infinite growth, but there are limits to this. People and businesses are consuming the world’s natural resources in ways that aren’t sustainable, and this will have an adverse effect on humanity today and for generations to come.
We need to reimagine how we measure progress, Williams says, adding that companies need to move toward a form of cost-benefit analysis that doesn’t just measure financial metrics, but that also factors in the cost of morale, credibility and the use of resources.
She also urges employees and leaders to focus on minimizing harm to others. Many class, race and gender struggles point to business as the source, Williams says, but we can create more equity in this space by adopting a mindset that focuses less on self-interest and more on the greater, collective good. This will create a more considerate capitalist society.
“We can redefine the rules of business and we can use business as a tool for changing other systems, but we have to really design [work cultures] with human nature in mind,” Williams says.
Make room for other forms of communication
Written communication is the standard in workplaces across America—if it’s not in a memo, it doesn’t exist. But this doesn’t take into account or value other ways in which information gets shared.
Instead of holding people to a very strict set of rules, “you really want to make sure that you're working in your organization to develop the ability to notice when people do things differently and how you can support them in doing that,” Williams says.
This is critical when leaders are working cross-culturally. In these situations, it’s important “to be clear that you have learning to do about the way that community operates. Be explicit and be transparent about that and empower people from those communities to take the lead.”
Make time for inclusivity
As the pace of business and the drive to outpace the competition has increased, a sense of urgency has become pervasive in business. It leads to a belief that it’s too difficult to take the time to be inclusive, democratic or to do thoughtful decision-making.
Rather than arbitrary deadlines, Williams says leaders should try to develop realistic work plans and timeframes, understand that some things may take longer than expected, and create some buffer room in these instances.
Decide what role you want to play
People also need to determine their role in making society and the workplace more equitable.
“You can make a choice today about what role you're going to play in the future of business, and the future of your business. At most, are you going to be a leader of change? And at the least, are you going to be able to keep up?” Williams says.
But change isn’t just a mindset, it also requires a lot of hard work and difficult conversations. Change often happens at the very edge of discomfort, and it’s time for businesses—in the fashion industry and beyond—to get comfortable with this discomfort to move toward more racial equity.
“We can't solve problems that haven't been acknowledged, and the first step is admitting that you have one,” Williams says. “So, we have to make sure that we're creating these safe spaces for honest, authentic conversations.”