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How Black Women Are Addressing Racial Tensions at Work

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Photo: Getty Images/Ariel Skelley

Over the last several months, the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Rayshard Brooks, among many others, have catalyzed a global reckoning about the reality of systemic racism and police brutality. This has led many to speak out by participating in demonstrations nationwide. Activism can take many forms, though, and one way the current climate has positioned Black professionals to fight the deeply rooted systems of oppression Black people face on a daily basis is addressing race in the workplace.

Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas, creators of #TheShowMustBePaused, leveraged their networks and social media to halt the multibillion-dollar music industry on June 2, which became widely known and observed as Blackout Tuesday. “Our mission is to hold accountable the industry at large, including major corporations and their partners, who benefit from the efforts, struggles, and successes of Black people,” their website reads. “It is the obligation of these entities to protect and empower the Black communities that have made them disproportionately wealthy in ways that are measurable and transparent.”

The duo’s efforts resulted in Apple Music canceling its Beats 1 schedule and promoting a streaming station that featured the best in Black music; Spotify adding an 8-minute-and-46-second moment of silence to select playlists and podcasts on the platform; and three major record labels—Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group—pausing their regular operations.

As brands and companies started issuing public statements, women of color, many of whom are Black, called organizations to task for performative allyship. Former and current employees of corporations, including a number of media companies, shared their personal experiences navigating microaggressionsgaslighting, pay gaps and racial bias.

Though recent headlines showcase the results of Black women speaking out, it’s no secret that this comes at a cost. There are financial, mental, emotional, and even physical consequences to speaking up about societal issues that trickle into dynamics surrounding race in the workplace.

The recent killings by police officers and protests sent one Black San Francisco-based technology employee, who chooses to remain anonymous, into fight mode. Her manager and senior leadership failed to address the recent fatalities, both with internal and external communication. So, she sent an email alerting them to the importance of acknowledging and reacting to the news with a plan of action and why silence effectively acts in opposition of the Black Lives Matter movement—of upholding the fact that Black lives matter. She received an immediate response. Though she isn’t employed in a diversity and inclusion position or compensated for addressing tensions surrounding race in the workplace, she quickly acted in that capacity on behalf of her company.

She showed up, advising her company on the best way to address the current climate, but burnout ensued. “I found myself just crying—like randomly, unexpectedly crying,” she says. “I couldn’t pinpoint where the pain was coming from. But I just knew it was pain. I couldn’t really stop it, or anticipate it, or explain it.”

“Black people are being given so much more work on top of the day jobs that we have to do.”

Similarly, a Black, NYC-based talent-development professional, who chooses to remain anonymous, found herself toggling between anger and sadness, taking breaks from Zoom meetings to either ease her anxiety or cry out from frustration. While she admits recent events have led to a few genuine and impactful conversations with colleagues, she’s now being tapped to provide cultural insights. “Black people are being given so much more work on top of the day jobs that we have to do,” she says. “We still have to compensate for where white people just don’t understand the spaces. We have to come in and we have to fill in the blanks for them, and we’re not getting compensated for what we’re currently doing.”

After pushing through a rough professional year, inclusive of microaggressions and office politics, recent events forced another NYC-based Black professional, who requested to remain anonymous, to intervene at her company. This advertising pro caught wind that her white colleagues had planned to address the tension-laden climate of race in the workplace without involving any Black or POC staffers. Ultimately, the white colleagues examined their exclusionary approach and expressed desire to host a POC-led upcoming discussion instead.

“Dismantling racism means giving up privilege,” she says. “It means giving up all the ways in which white people have had advantages over people of color. I really question whether a lot of white people are really ready for that. I think that remains to be seen.”

Kai Deveraux Lawson, blogger, advertising professional, and co-host of Mixed Company podcast, says the current climate is an opportunity for people most impacted by systems of oppression to “be honest with what we need and what we want.” These most recent forms of racial tension remind her of the summer of 2016, when Philando Castile’s killing was captured on Facebook Live. By acknowledging the unique challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and current racial tensions in comparison to years past, Lawson sees some within the advertising industry taking steps toward “a progress that feels like progress and doesn’t just look like progress.”

To date, many of the diversity and inclusion solutions focus on hiring entry level, diverse talent, and positioning inclusion officers to remedy the issues at hand. What Lawson is really invested in, though, is conversations that will lead to policy changes . “A year from now, I want to talk about how there’s more accountability on the inside at advertising agencies and less about looking at all these programs that we pay money to pacify our employees.”

And some say they have hope to be able to move the needle and encourage their peers to not remain silent. “We, as Black professionals, are in some powerful rooms. Our responsibility, henceforth, is to keep our foot on the gas. Period. That’s it. Keep our foot on the gas and show up exactly as we are,” says the tech professional. “Show up and bring our full selves to every meeting, to every job, to every interview.”

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