December 4, 2021

questions for the emperor

statue of superman in metropolis, illinois
photo caption: a large statue of a stern-looking white guy wearing form-fitting clothing. he is covered up from the neck down in tight blue fabric. a long sheet of red cloth starts at his shoulders and falls behind him. he stands proud in front of a government building. he’s been in that spot for a while but he hasn’t done anything yet.

This week, a mostly-white jury found Ahmaud Arbery’s lynch mob guilty of his assault, kidnapping, and murder. A few days earlier, a different jury found a different murderer not guilty of killing two men. Those men were protesting the Kenosha police shooting of Jacob Blake. These murders are horrific. The justice that was served or not served is not enough to balance the lives that we lost.

The Movement for Black Lives reached cultural consciousness last year. Since then, lots of companies released statements that express the shock and outrage that the system… is what it is. This outrage comes with a burnishing of their credentials as an antiracist organization. Their goals to end anti-Black racism and discrimination. Their plans to do so that begin with listening and learning. But for so, so many companies, that’s where their efforts end.

It’s not wrong for people to commit to racial equity and antiracism without knowing how to do that. I present, in this spirit, some questions to help people in power imagine or articulate their plans. These questions work best when they begin conversations. They can help add context to statements that sound or feel hollow. People without power have plenty of ideas about how to get out of the situations they are in. But people in power are too easily out of touch, have misguided or ill-formed ideas, or have ulterior motives. These aren’t meant to be gotcha questions. While not everyone responds well when they feel caught unawares or called out, you don’t have to go easy on them. Ask these hard questions, or even harder ones. But be ready with ideas about what to do, where to go, or who to ask.

listening to people

Few status quo organizations listen to their community or constituents in meaningful ways. Many white leaders have never reflected on how meritocracy depends on their whiteness. One way to learn about those impacts is to listen to people who have not had that privilege. I’m not the first to say that learning on one’s own, through media like books, podcasts, movies, is important. But talking to real people who consent to sharing their stories is significantly better. People are more complex than the books or media they produce: one is not a substitute for the other.

  • Why do this now? What’s important to you about this moment?
  • What’s something you’ve learned recently about racial inequality?
  • Who in your circle of influence would you believe if they told you that some belief or practice is racist?
  • How would someone outside that circle tell you?
  • Who leads your organization’s antiracism initiatives?
  • Who do you include in decisions that affect the entire organization?
  • How has your organization changed since you started? How will it change?

sharing your progress

Some companies start and end their antiracist journey with a public statement. I can’t relate: I don’t even like telling people I’m watching a TV show until I’ve finished it (I’m afraid of spoilers). Statements themselves aren’t all bad. They can help raise needed visibility and awareness of the issues they’re about. But they often lack candor about where we really are as a company. A public statement should not be the last we hear about your efforts, it should be the beginning of a dialogue. Most of all, the public should not be hearing about your antiracism plans before your employees. Leaders who are truly committed to change should start by empowering and informing the people who are paid to be there.

  • What have you shared inside the company about your progress towards racial equity? What about outside the company?
  • If you wrote a statement on racial equity or your goal to be an antiracist organization, who wrote it?
  • What was their race and proximity to power?
  • Where did the ideas in the statement come from?
  • What have you done since you first made this statement?
  • After your statement came out, how did you include your community?

taking action or ideating action

I hate to say it, but we should celebrate companies that take any action towards antiracism. Right or wrong (wrong), I live in a country where a significant number of people are vocally or violently racist. Taking a stand against that is unfortunately still a bold choice for many companies. That doesn’t mean we should settle for the scraps they hand out. Instead, we should encourage their progress and demand more.

  • What have you done so far?
  • What is a recent accomplishment that you’re proud of?
  • In what area could you be doing better?
  • Who has contributed to your progress?
  • What excites you about making these changes?
  • What doubts do you have about the direction your antiracism plans are going?
  • Where are you seeking feedback? From whom?
  • What’s an example of a recent decision you’ve made that would’ve been different without having an antiracism practice?

accountability

Action without community guidance is worse than no action at all. If we are to work in service of the community, then community must be our guide. We should compensate them or turn power over for their expertise. How else will we know if what we’re doing is causing harm?

  • How do your values (of DEI) show up in your work? How did they show up in your work today?
  • How do you hold your leaders and peers accountable for advancing antiracism?
  • Who have been your biggest supports in your antiracism practice?
  • Who has surprised you?
  • Who has challenged your thinking?
  • How will you know if you’re on the right track?
  • You’re in charge. What’s your timeline for change?
  • When will you check in with us again?

A lot of these questions challenge the roots of workplace white-dominant culture. Antiracism and racial equity seeks candid communication with everyone, not behind closed doors among the powerful. We must urge everyone to approach this practice with humility and openness. We should also expect much more from our leaders than what they are prepared to give. And as leaders, we should change what’s within our power and support the causes demanding more.

Most leaders will have blind spots on experiences they cannot feel for themselves. Rather than shy away from those gaps in our awareness, we should embrace what others alone can know. After all, the emperor was naked well before someone finally told him. Now he knows! Yes, everyone else already knew. But now he knows, too. Together, we can do something about it.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture[dot]space

Font Resize
Contrast