With America coming together over the Black Lives Matter movement, we’re on the verge of momentous change. And not just change within our political system. There has been a paradigm shift in the way we examine race and the injustices built into our system—every part of our system. That includes corporate America, with each of our businesses playing a role.
Diversity and Inclusion Expert Risha Grant recently lifted the veil to expose how businesses may be contributing to the problem without realizing it. She offers ways to address the issues at hand within your office and steps towards reframing diversity and creating a business that properly represents the people it serves.
I spoke with Grant after watching a webinar that featured her ideas on turning your business into a more inclusive space. I highly recommend watching the webinar to gain a firmer understanding of privilege, unconscious biases, and other important topics we did not discuss in this interview.
When Grant answered the call she sounded upbeat. I could hear her smile as she spoke with a hint of excitement in her voice. Grant has studied and worked in the Diversity and Inclusion space her entire life, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many times in the past 2 months she’s been asked the question I was about to ask her.
My first statement, “Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, I know you’re very busy”—something I generally preface my interviews with, but this time it felt too small. Before I even asked, I knew Grant’s lines had been ringing nonstop, her inbox barraged with emails, since the death of George Floyd.
I asked her point-blank how it feels to have offered this up for years, holding the hands of white men in charge and guiding them delicately through the work that needed to be done to make their businesses a safe place for everyone. How does it feel to hope your message doesn’t fall on the deaf ears of a CEO who thinks D&I is “nice, but not a priority here”? How does it feel to work for decades to change office culture and create a better workplace for people of color and only now feel heard?
She said, “I’m tired.” She said she wished it wasn’t too late, that it didn’t take death for people to listen. And she said she’s hopeful. This outpouring of businesses asking “WHAT CAN WE DO?” that keeps her working 14 hour days is what she’s waited for her whole life and she’s ready. The Black community is beyond ready.
In the hopes of spreading her message of diversity and inclusion in the workplace to all who are lost, here are some common questions she’s been receiving.
Q: How do you address fairness if everyone’s circumstances are different, so the appearance results in different outcomes?
Grant: You have to focus on equity. Equity gives everybody access to the same opportunities, training, mentorship, promotions. It gives everyone the same access point. A good example of equity is kids watching a baseball game. The tallest kid can see fine, but the smallest kid can’t see over the crowd. Equality would be giving both kids a box to stand on, but the tall kid doesn’t need a box and sees better than anyone else in the crowd (not to mention he blocks the view of other kids). Equity would be bringing the small kid up to the same height as everyone else by only giving him or her a box.
Q: As a leader, how do you reassure staff when management refuses to acknowledge differences?
Grant: The only thing you can do is be an ally. It’s hard to reassure your team of something different than what is really going on. In fact, it’s impossible. What you can do is be a support and a voice for any people of color in your office. People need to see you as an ally. For some companies, you may be the one point of contact for your black colleges—someone who will help them fight for justice in the workplace.
That being said, we have progressed to a point where management who doesn’t see the value in people need to go—because that’s what we’re talking about when we say “diversity,” we just mean people. That leadership will quickly be replaced.
For those of you up against leadership that won’t create an inclusive team – silence is deafening. You have to keep speaking up for what is right.
Q: As an employer offering equal opportunities, how can I lawfully promote my commitment to diversity without landing out of bounds with individuals of other races or ethnic groups?
Grant: Well, no one should ever hire or fire based on diversity. Your company has to reflect the community it serves, and most don’t right now. The system was built to be unfair to diverse people. All they want is equity. The law doesn’t say you can’t hire whoever you want to hire but we see the effects. Right now, people are only hiring others who look and think like them, so the system repeats itself.
Your team can set goals for diversity to make sure you represent the community you serve. Get creative with the ways you recruit talent. Create a partnership with the Black Student Association at your local college and turn to them when you’re looking to hire.
Q: In your opinion, to start the conversation at our place of employment – is it helpful to have a facilitator that is an expert in diversity? Is it necessary? What are good first steps?
Grant: If there is someone in your organization that has a good rapport with employees there’s nothing wrong with having them host the discussion…if they’re comfortable. But they must have a reputation for embracing diversity and inclusion and have put actions behind their words in the past. They need to be a real ally.
You also need to go into these conversations with a plan of action. Conversations are just talk, which is a great first step but you need to go further. People are interested in what actions will be taken after the meeting. While some of your team may be brand new to the idea of diversity other people have lived with racial injustices their whole lives and are tired of talking. They’re ready for action. You have to marry the two places your employees are coming from.
Q: Is it appropriate to apologize for actions/micro-aggressions/privileges/bias that I simply may not have had the awareness to realize I was doing or is a blanket apology not meaningful and again putting it on the victim rather than me taking responsibility?
Grant: We often overcomplicate things. If you’ve offended someone personally, then yes, apologize. It doesn’t need to be a blanket apology. Instead of giving blanket apologies use your actions to show change. I personally have received blanket apologies from white folks, and I’m not really sure what to do with the apology. Because, to be honest, the years of injustices are not okay, blanket apologies without action don’t mean anything.
I’ve been telling those who call and email me apologies to take action and to speak up when they see something wrong. Say it’s not okay when it’s happening, instead of apologizing later. Call out policies that don’t work for everybody. Validate the black experience in the workplace.
Q: How do we work toward creating better opportunities to compound social and financial capital in the black community across generations? I see that as part of what is embedded in the term “white privilege”. Systems have allowed advantages to compound across generations.
Grant: Dismantle the system on PURPOSE and rebuild. Systemic racism is in every system ON PURPOSE. The system is not broken; it’s functioning exactly how it’s supposed to benefit the people it was built for. This won’t stop until we create a NEW system.
*Grant offers solutions in her webinar with BigSpeak host Marianne Kuga.
Q: Is it the white person’s responsibility as an ally to take on educating these people, since the Black community has worked at making people understand systemic racism for centuries?
Grant: United we stand has to mean something. And it hasn’t in my entire life. When you see something, say something. People can talk to their friends; everyone is more perceptive to a friend. I believe doing things on the micro-level has a massive impact. We are centers of influence with our kids, with our friends, with our communities.
It’s so simple and easy and we’ve forgotten—be a good person.