We need to talk about the harm of white supremacy in the workplace
In June 2019, I wrote this piece for Sojourners magazine regarding my experiences with racism in the nonprofit sector. A year later, our country finally seemed to awaken to the realities of systemic racism in our country, after a couple of months into a global pandemic that is killing and harming Black and brown people at much higher rates, and a summer of uprisings as a result of police brutality and state-sanctioned violence against Black lives. This created a sudden wave of statements and interest on the part of corporate America to be seen as standing with Black lives, and denouncing white supremacy. However, months following that public show of solidarity, many organizations are demonstrating that for many of them, these statements are just that: PR tools.
Last night I learned about the firing of Timnit Gebru, a researcher in Google’s Ethical Artificial Intelligence (AI) team, who was fired via email suddenly and immediately by the team’s SVP Jeff Dean. This really hit through to the core of my heart, recognizing many of the same characteristics of my own sudden departure from a past employer after unapologetically standing up for the value of my work. To be honest, seeing it happening to another well qualified Black woman, an authority in her field, brings up for me the physical, emotional, and mental impact of having been treated in such a dehumanizing way by a leader in an organization that claims to hold values of racial and gender equity.
Most shocking of all is that the email that earned Ms. Gebru her separation from the organization was shared in an employee resource group (ERG), or as it is called in other organizations, an affinity group. ERGs and affinity groups are meant to be safe spaces where staff can express their frustrations and challenges of dealing with the dominant culture in the organization. The name of the group that Timnit emailed the supposedly offending email was “Brain women and allies.” Now, imagine expressing your frustration to a group designed to deal with exactly the kind of problems raised by Ms. Gebru, and having it be used to let you go, and to try to make it sound as if you resigned, when the truth is that you are being pushed out because you are expressing an unpopular view in front of the white male dominant culture in the organization. What type of allyship is that?
My experience, while devastating at the time, was just the kind of trigger that I needed to know that I was ready to start my own business. Or at least I knew that I could not possibly join another white dominant leadership team where my ideas and perspectives would be disrespected and silenced to the point of termination. If Mr. Dean had been trained on the cultural competencies necessary to lead a diverse team, he would have understood that firing someone over email, during a global pandemic, is not only inhumane and dehumanizing, it’s quite probably also illegal (I am not familiar with CA labor laws.) White supremacy culture is what allows leaders like Mr. Dean to quickly and one-sidedly decide that the outspoken Black woman is disposable, without as much as one conversation.
In their excellent piece “The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture” Okun & Jones exposed the damaging nature of using norms and standards that are not proactively named or chosen by the group, and that promote white supremacy thinking. They pose that there are indeed effective and easy to implement antidotes to the harmful behavior that is commonplace in our society. Below I examine three specific ways in which Mr. Dean and the Google organization upholded white supremacy culture in their interactions with Ms. Gebru:
White supremacy culture does not respect Black women enough to have dialogue with us.
Choosing not to be in dialogue with us is dehumanizing. In an interview with Bloomberg, Ms. Gebru called it “the most fundamental silencing” and described feeling “constantly dehumanized.” This kind of treatment is not an exception, but the norm in America’s workplaces. It makes us wonder, why am I not worthy of a least a phone call or at most an attempt to negotiate a compromise? Is my work valued sufficiently to merit a conversation? What is it about Black women that has white leaders think we are so dangerous or scary that they could not extend to us the gesture of a conversation, seeking to understand where we are coming from? How much longer will we need to remind our colleagues and supervisors that we are human? As Sojourner Truth said in 1851 “Ain’t I a woman?”
Cultural competent leaders are those who have sufficient respect to have a conversation with their staff and who work on developing the capacity to move through conflict in productive and generative ways, and not in destructive ways.
White supremacy holds no cultural humility. My understanding is that Ms. Gebru’s email was addressing issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion—a topic that her own life experience makes her an expert in. Why would Mr. Dean think that he was right and she was wrong? How does a white man get the last say on issues that affect Black and brown people? And even if he was right (which, full disclosure, I highly doubt, but that may be my own bias speaking) he could have still shown cultural humility and called her in to try to understand more about her perspective, and perhaps even try to sell her on his. White supremacy assumes that the dominant culture is right and that the culture and views of people of color are defective or flawed.
Cultural competent leaders listen more than they speak, and they seek to understand before being understood. They take responsibility for their own inability to bring staff into the fold. Great leaders do the work needed to have others follow. I heard someone recently say that if your teams are not following, you are not leading, you’re just out for a walk. This should also apply to leading Black women, if they are unwilling to follow, you should ask yourself why.
White supremacy basks in power and control and only thinks in win/lose terms. Power imbalanced conversations in the workplace often result in the “acceptance of your immediate resignation” when what we are communicating is an opportunity for negotiating the best path forward for all involved. By saying to her employer something akin to “if we cannot reach agreement, let’s talk about a transition plan” (my words) Ms. Gebru was signaling to her employer about her boundaries, and demonstrated a desire to depart in an amicable way. By pretending she resigned, firing her immediately, and removing access to her email, while using the words “we accept your resignation” they demonstrated a show of power, of wanting to show who was in control. This was not about what was best for the staff, the team, or the organization. It was about controlling someone else’s livelihood, career, reputation, and wellbeing. White supremacy is ruthless in its intent to harm, to damage, to destroy. This is not behavior conducive to the type of equitable and just environment that is touted all over the organization’s publicly-stated values.
Cultural competent leaders know how to balance the needs of the organizations and their staff. They do the work to obtain compromise and resolve differences without dehumanizing the other party. Cultural competent leaders have the decency to offer an exit severance package to their senior Black female staff, just as they normally do with their senior white male staff.
There are strong emotions attached to the term “white supremacy,” triggering people into defensiveness and exiting the conversation. However, leaving the conversation will not fix the problem. Neither will pretending there isn’t a problem. Back in June and July white corporate America made commitments to listening to Black leaders, but many of us are still struggling to be heard. Too many of us are still being tone-policed into expressing our needs and frustrations in white dominant approved ways, and in the case of Ms. Gebru, the silencing can go as far as immediate termination, possibly intended to silence not just her, but others with similar views.
Language is important, and we need to name things as they are, so that we can finally deal with them. Rightly, James Baldwin said “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” A deep and long-term commitment to culture transformation is what is needed at every level of our society, and disposing of Black women who tell the truth is not serving anyone at all. Dismantling white supremacy and working to heal the harm caused (past and present) is the work for us to do at every level of society, including not just our workplaces, but also our places of worship and learning. The time to go beyond statements is now. I believe that while dismantling white supremacy can only be done by white people, trusting and following the leadership of Black professionals will be crucial to our collective success.
Itzbeth Menjívar is a culture strategist and racial justice consultant and is the Founder and Chief Bridge-Builder of BridgePeople LLC.