Can companies support their black employees right now?

Whilst things simmer from the civil unrest arising from the brutal George Floyd killing in Minnesota USA and the subsequent plight of the African Americans  (in the U.S.) and the African Caribbean’s (in the U.K.), we are now seeing for the first time in history, major corporations and powerful employers, committing to increasing their diversity numbers; donating to racial justice organisations and joining the now global chant: ‘Black Lives Matter’. 

As a consequence, companies have been asked to review their workplace practices, and evaluate how their office/workplace culture may be contributing to black bias .

Just 20 years ago in the U.K. large organisations needed only to show that they employed a token number of black employees. There was no requirement to demonstrate the position held by these black employees. So often they held low level positions, like domestics or janitors. It would not be uncommon for a senior black fashion stylist to enter a large fashion design studio and be mistaken by the receptionist as the gofer.

I recall in 1997 when I entered the business affairs department of a large music company (a deliberately un-named company) to see a lawyer on behalf of my client. The receptionist assumed that I was a recording artist. She could not accept that I was the Antoinette Olivia Taylor, a partner of my own city legal practice, black being equal and possibly more qualified than her white male lawyer employer, whom I was to see.

Leslienne Elle Santiago worked as a general manager at Reformation. An environmentally sustainable fashion brand, from 2013 to 2016. She expressed her experience working at the company as systematic racism, involving general mistreatment, and feeling discomfort and often being passed up for promotion.

Santiago also made reference to an image of the Vice President of Wholesale at Reformation, Elana Rosenblatt, in February 2014, tearing into fried chicken- The caption saying “Happy Black History Month!!”.

Perhaps she thought her white privilege orientation would excuse her as being interesting and ‘down’ with black culture. But I think people were appalled by what appeared to be unsympathetic for persecuted blacks and people of colour. Especially at a time when Americans have taken to the streets to protest the killing of black people at the hands of the police. Today in the U.K. racism in the police force is alive and kicking.

Reformation Founder, Yael Aflalo apologised three days later saying that she had “failed” referring to the companies “white gaze” and ignorance. ” As a Company, we have not leveraged our platform, our voice, and our content to combat the racism and injustice that persuades our country, and that will change, starting now”, she said.

[Yael Aflalo Founder of Reformation: Photo by Michelle McSwain @ BofF]

Three days later Elana Rosenblatt apologised and stepped down.

However, Aflalo also stepped down from her role as Chief Executive. She was replaced by the current president Hali Borenstein.

More recently, the company Johnson and Johnson- currently in litigation, needs to prove beyond statements that says that they are not racist. They have produced talcum powder used on skin containing asbestos. Talcum powder distributed principally to African countries, including Ghana, South Africa, Kenya and black communities like Brazil. There is currently a call on banning this product. It is claimed that Johnson and Johnson “…must acknowledge that they have engaged in practices that have targeted and harmed black, and brown communities.” says Ms Choudhry, the senior policy manager for the National Health Womens Network.

Companies are today asked to analyse discrimination in the workplace. Employers are asked to sincerely support their black employees by considering pay disparities, tokenism, micro-aggression, toxic relationships and institutional prejudices.

For those employers who are truly committed they must:

  1. Listen, then take fast action. Simply sharing words of reassurance is not enough. Listen, and breakdown how they will address the problem promptly. Their black employee should not feel alienated. They should be made to feel one of the team. Demonstrate to their employees that inappropriate workplace behaviour will not be accepted.
  2. Provide flexibility and mental health resources. For someone who is a target or oppressed they will find it a lot to compartmentalise and therefore meet deadlines. They should consider paid time off for discounted therapy sessions or peer-to-peer support programs. Get them to get involved in long-term initiatives to create lasting measurable impact.
  3. Hold regular anti racism training and unconscious bias training courses. For instance they should organise regular training seminars for the whole team to participate. By making them structured, and consisting of interactive practices in dialogue, there could be real collective growth. These groups should be led by people of colour whom are in a better position to suggest impactful solutions.

Perhaps with all the above, we will begin to hear more public announcements from people like Anna Winter, editor in chief of American Vogue and most powerful editrix, who apologised for ‘intolerant behaviour’ at Vogue. She admitted to lack of diversity at American Vogue and candidly said that ‘she took responsibility’ for past mistakes.

Was this because she felt under siege when the former editor at large at American Vogue, Andre Leon Talley said in a radio interview in June 2020 that: “I want to say one thing. Dame Anna Wintour is a colonial broad; she’s a colonial Dame. I do not think she will ever let anything get in the way of her white privilege. “

[ Anna Wintour pictured above with Andre Leon Talley]

There has been talk of Anna Wintour standing down and Edward Kobina Enninful OBE- editor-in-Chief of British Vogue replacing her. But Roger Lynch, the chief executive officer said that Anna Winter would not be resigning. He reiterated Conde Nast’s commitment to anti racism, justice and equality and outlined a 12 point plan to clean up the company, which included hiring ‘A global chief inclusion officer’.

[Anna Wintour pictured above with Edward Enninful in 2019]

The trouble with simply demanding the departures of these notably high-powered women, (whom should empathise somewhat with the social injustice of discrimination, which is another topic) without working through and dealing with these systematic issues, leaves those who remain in these institutions with no game plan for dealing with racism and prejudice. Therefore unable to make a real effort to support black employees.

One thought on “Can companies support their black employees right now?

  1. It’s an interesting blog, but as the saying goes “If the area has been infected and poisoned, You need to cut it out, let it heal and plant something new”.

    So this is a wake-up call, get your act together real change is need in the institutions, company’s and society or heads with the roll.

    Post traumatic slave disorder as been totally dismissed by the white privileged for over 499 years. The truth is out they can no longer dismiss that they have gained financially, spiritually and socially from the blood an suffering of Slavery.

    We are all still waiting for our 4 acres and a mule and at today’s prices they’re going to have to break open all there piggy banks.

    Let me know what it feels like to have a black or ethnic security guard following them around the store.

    Great blog Ms Taylor keep up the good work. Now I can go and drink some coconut water and feel good about myself

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