The occurrences of the last month have been difficult to truly comprehend for many of us. There have been and continue to be protests, uprising and demands for change across North America (and beyond) – all of which are educating individuals and igniting the possibility of systemic change. This change is beyond overdue. But where can/should leaders start implementing this change where their own workplaces are concerned? How can we move forward to ensure a strong and lasting impact is made?

In part, we need to begin with a common language and common set of definitions for racism. Within Canada (as it is in the US), broadly speaking, it’s become very evident that many leaders of fundamental systems and corporations themselves aren’t clear. This was strongly exemplified by the RCMP Commissioner citing an example related to height when asked to provide an example of systemic racism, which followed upon an earlier statement that the RCMP “doesn’t have systemic racism.”

That striking example aside, leaders in every organization must talk about the issues and definitions that are fundamental to their own policies – and understand the limits to which they may be able to do so. To truly support and lead anti-racist/anti-discrimination/anti-harassment policy, leaders need to better understand why they’re necessary in their workplaces (beyond mere compliance). Many organizations are led largely by dominant culture leaders (e.g. white, male, cisgender and/or heterosexual) who likely haven’t experienced systemic racism or discrimination. For that reason, it’s critical to be educated on how this has impacted your own workplace by those who are in a position to do so. “Nothing about us without us” is a slogan coined (originally with respect to disability rights) to address the concept that policies shouldn’t be rolled out without direct input from those who are affected by the policy.

We believe that to make genuine, lasting organizational change in the space of racism and discrimination, leaders need to commit to doing the work – individually and together. This involves engaging in challenging dialogue, answering tough questions and unraveling ‘the way it’s always been done’ – work that likely requires facilitation and coaching. As is the case for any major reform/healing in any space, the first step is awareness and acknowledgement of the truth.

That work begins with an acknowledgement that racism/discrimination very possibly exists in your organization (and may be systemic), along with a commitment to understanding before trying to fix it. Understanding it involves engaging marginalized groups and individuals within your organization (including, if possible, those who’ve left) and being prepared/open to hear their stories and perspectives. Let them explain the challenges they’ve faced in your workplace. This work should also inform your organization’s stance on equity, diversity and inclusion. In defining those terms, do they truly support/uphold an anti-racist/anti-discriminatory culture and associated policy, or do they actually intend for marginalized persons/groups to conform to dominant ones?

It’s also about clarity on the differences between being not-racist versus anti-racist – and understanding your own stance in this regard. Being racist versus not racist isn’t an either/or, but rather is/should be a continuous striving towards being anti-racist. Saying one is not racist is like saying one is not an angry/emotional person. The reality is that we all feel emotions and get angry from time to time, just like the vast majority of us think or express racist and anti-racist thoughts and ideas from time to time, whether we do so intentionally or not. In his book How to be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi suggests that stating one is non-racist takes accountability and action away. If we state that we or our organizations are not racist (or prejudiced or angry) we close ourselves off to seeing how our actions, thoughts, comments, ideas, policies, etc. are/may actually be racist (or otherwise negatively impacting someone/something). Rather, it’s a mechanism that defies the need for action or change, and ignores the inequities associated with it.

Upon getting clear on the differences between being not racist versus anti-racist, learn what it means to be anti-racist and how it can/should show up within your workplace. Ibram X. Kendi defines an anti-racist as “someone who is expressing an antiracist idea or supporting an antiracist policy with their actions; who does not think anything is wrong or right/inferior or superior with any of the racial groups”. This involves:

  • Being aware and recognizing racial inequities, as well as your own bias within your workplace
  • Having an understanding of your own position and (for some) privilege
  • Challenging racist ideas you’ve had/continue to have
  • Reflecting on how you’ve justified racial inequity, how your ideas/choices have contributed to or influenced policies or procedures
  • Committing to influencing or changing policies that lead to inequity
  • Supporting and promoting anti-racist ideas and policies, and committing to associated action
  • Not being a bystander; taking action/stepping in if you hear or see something inappropriate (e.g. hearing a racist joke or comment)

While it may seem like you’re doing the right thing by developing and rolling out a policy against racism and other forms of discrimination, it is critical to ensure it appropriately defines and addresses the real issues – and truly prevents systemic racism and discrimination.