December 29, 2020 at 8:50 pm #3832
Dear Corporate America: Choosing Comfort Over Antiracism Progress Isn’t Really Allyship
In the aftermath of this summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations, modern corporate workplaces are discussing antiracism like never before. On video calls and in conference rooms, they’re engaging in complex, often uncomfortable discussions with courage and conviction, then inevitably something happens. Someone—resistant to the Black Lives Matter concept—aggressively questions an underlying point or otherwise expresses discontent or discomfort. Too often this push back flips an emotional switch in the room that triggers an automatic, reflexive retreat from the previous momentum, and the energy immediately shifts to appeasing said colleague (or leader) to soothe and safe guard their ego. The same dynamic often plays out on social media—one person barks discontent then everyone jumps in to “make sure they’re not offended”—sheepishly, if not apologetically, retreating from the original point of the post.
While it may be tempting to rationalize that equivocation and moderation from true antiracism is a reasonable compromise given the need to ensure everyone “remains comfortable,” the truth is that in the racial justice ecosystem, comfort is kryptonite for real progress. By placating, appeasing or acquiescing to the lone resistant voice, the group is trading the opportunity for real gains for the façade of “antiracism lite” which is really just treading water—going nowhere, accomplishing nothing. Don’t fall into that trap.
Given a choice between progress and comfort, choose progress. Why? Because prioritizing comfort over progress means that the organization will only progress as far as the least progressive person in the room will permit.
Where Does the Resistance Come From and What Does It Sound Like?
Unfortunately, resistance can and will come from everywhere and anyone. Sometimes it’s packaged as one might expect—say, an older white man who rejects the entire concept of Black Lives Matter insisting it’s discriminatory and overblown. This dynamic while not terribly unexpected can feel particularly awkward given the historical positioning of older white men atop the racial caste system (to adopt the parlance of Isabel Wilkerson’s New York Times bestseller Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents). Arguably, for some older white males (in particular)—having grown accustomed to being deferred and pandered to in and out of the workplace—when discussions begin to shift to focus on Black and Brown communities or their comments are met with push back, the new experience can feel jarring and unsettling to say the least. Indeed, for some it may feel like “reverse racism” in part because the discussion feels like the antithesis of their normal lived experience.
However, it’s so important to point out that the resistance or the rush to appease the resistor can also come from Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) leaders and/or Black and Brown professionals themselves. “I maintain even with Black Lives Matters, decision-makers (irrespective of skin color) struggle to prioritize antiracism because to do so is to focus on Black people, and they are still very uncomfortable with that,” insists antiracism advocate Shereen Daniels. “There is also a discomfort experienced by white Human Resources and D&I leaders who struggle with the idea of focusing on Black people. Whilst they may say they understand it’s necessary, when you drill down into their plans and even the language they use, you will often hear things like ‘The business wouldn’t feel comfortable just investing in racial equity so we need to broaden it out to make sure it gets signed off.’” Regrettably, Black and Brown professionals themselves are sometimes the first to try to appease resistant voices (or may even possibly be among them). The reasons for this are certainly varied and complex. Arguably, it’s not difficult to understand that many suffer from a generational PTSD that has embedded a deep-seated, primal, subconscious fear of angering white people. Others may feel that a strategy of appeasement is simply most effective (notwithstanding the lacking historical precedent).
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