Racial justice is your business

Achieving an equitable and inclusive culture

As I write this, a conversation about racial justice and equity grips the United States in a way I’ve not experienced in my lifetime.

The conversation started with a focus on racism in policing; the killing of George Floyd compelled our nation to face up to the horrors we saw in that video. Since then, the conversation has broadened, reaching beyond the most obvious, extreme cases of racism in our society and plunging into the kind of racism that feels at least as insidious and dangerous, and much more widespread — the myriad silent ways in which our society is set up to favor White Americans over Black and Brown Americans.

There have been many articles about the actions a business can take to create a more racially equitable operation. An examination of hiring and human resource practices is a good place to start. Businesses can also be more intentional in how they spend their money, adapting their purchasing and procurement to support more minority-owned businesses. Businesses can get serious about measuring their diversity and inclusion — establishing a baseline, setting goals and measuring progress. Businesses can commit to a learning agenda, ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to deepen their understanding of race in America.

All of these tactics can help businesses let go of practices that reinforce a race-based hierarchy. But I’d argue that the greatest gains, the most meaningful change, will be made when businesses do the hard work of examining and changing their culture. I think of organizational culture as the often-invisible set of norms that guides how we behave in a workplace. Others have defined it as “the values and behaviors that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organization” or “the corporate personality” of a place. Essentially, culture tells us how to be at work if we want to succeed.

The more I learn about the intersection of organizational culture and race, the more I understand that some aspects of corporate culture that seem positive on their face can operate to freeze the status quo hierarchy and quiet dissenting voices. For instance, like many workplaces, ours values respectful communication. Respect is a good thing, right? Yet one can see how the imperative for respect could discourage someone from challenging the predominant viewpoint. Respect can lead a group to avoid uncomfortable conversations at all costs, which can mean that issues of race never see the light of day.

If businesses are going to achieve a culture that is truly equitable and inclusive — where a breadth of perspectives will be heard and valued, where those voices will drive action and take the business to a different place — business leaders need to set aside defensiveness. We must commit to listening, learning and “undoing” some of what comes naturally. This may be the challenge of our lifetime. But it also feels like the moment when we can collectively bend our nation’s arc toward the ideals upon which America rests, ideals that are far from fully realized.

Christine Amer Mayer is President of GAR Foundation, which awards grants to 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations in Akron in the areas of education, economic and workforce development, arts and culture, basic needs, and nonprofit sector leadership.