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Dismantling White Supremacy Culture in the Workplace

Our country is at a crossroads right now, and we’re living in a moment where millions of Americans are facing health risks, economic uncertainty and threats to their personal wellbeing as part of a society that has normalized growth and prosperity through long-standing colonialism and systemic racism. Taking a closer look at these systemic patterns, we find that not only has our society perpetuated systemic racism for centuries, but it has been built through an enduring American caste system. I recently read, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson which describes how caste in America is invisible to nearly all of us with certain power and privilege. According to Wilkerson, “caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.”

This perceived rank or hierarchy goes hand in hand with most corporate cultures in America where there are ladders to climb and promotions to earn. And hence, the topic of this post: how colonialism, casteism and systemic racism have manifested white supremacy culture in the workplace – and how we as business leaders and employees can begin to take it down. The task is a large one given how invisible the inner workings of caste and systemic racism are in the ongoing invisibility of white supremacy culture in the workplace. As activist Janaya 'Future' Khan so accurately stated in her #WeVoteNext Summit talk here, “privilege is not about what you’ve gone through, it’s about what you haven’t had to go through.” When someone hasn’t had to go through something, that something is not on their radar or part of their worldview, regardless of good intent.

As part of the process of seeing and combatting the invisible, it is important to acknowledge that we have all grown up in and been shaped by institutions that have preserved systemic racism, such as schools, workplaces, government, financial institutions, places of worship and more. And as a result, we hold conscious and unconscious biases that influence how we show up in broader society, and specifically in our workplace. At Avenue, we have the honor of working with a long-time colleague, friend and consultant, Alexis Braly James, CEO of Construct the Present to unpack our biases and unlearn the systemic knowledge, habits and tendencies that we hold. My personal journey of learning and growth is just beginning, and I’m excited to share how I’m approaching my new knowledge, insights and awareness by putting it into action and daily practice.

Our purpose at Avenue is to empower transformational change. For us, this means that “we partner with clients who embody our values for creating global impact and change through their product and business model. We facilitate meaningful marketing efforts to further our client's growth and impact and support transformational growth opportunities for our team members.” I believe this is an opportunity to lean into my values and those of Avenue to understand and acknowledge our history, engage with the present moment and take action to lay the groundwork for a more diverse, equitable and inclusive society.

This is a complex movement and impact doesn’t happen overnight. However, I believe that rather than being a passive bystander, which is a choice, we can be active participants in positive change. This post seeks to capture what we’re learning at Avenue, how we’re growing and what we’re changing within our culture.

What is White Supremacy Culture?

The big question is: what exactly is it? Our team recently discussed this white supremacy culture resource during our monthly anti-racism meeting from Dismantling Racism Works (dRworks) by Tema Okun. This is just one of many sources of learning on this topic. Okun describes white supremacy culture as “a list of characteristics (of white supremacy culture) that show up in our organizations. Culture is powerful precisely because it is so present and at the same time so very difficult to name or identify. The characteristics listed below are damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being proactively named or chosen by the group. They are damaging because they promote white supremacy thinking. Because we all live in a white supremacy culture, these characteristics show up in the attitudes and behaviors of all of us – people of color and white people. Therefore, these attitudes and behaviors can show up in any group or organization, whether it is white-led or predominantly white or people of color-led or predominantly people of color.”

I’ve selected a sampling from the list of characteristics in Okun’s resource that resonated with me for the purpose of illustrating how these tendencies show up without our noticing and are thus maintained within a workplace culture:

  • Perfectionism: little time, energy, or money put into reflection or identifying lessons learned that can improve practice, in other words, little or no learning from mistakes. A tendency to identify what’s wrong; little ability to identify, name, and appreciate what’s right.

  • Sense of urgency: continued sense of urgency that makes it difficult to take time to be inclusive, encourage democratic and/or thoughtful decision-making, to think long-term, to consider consequences. Frequently results in sacrificing potential allies for quick or highly visible results, for example sacrificing interests of communities of color in order to win victories for white people (seen as default or norm community).

  • Quantity over quality: all resources of an organization are directed toward producing measurable goals. Things that can be measured are more highly valued than things that cannot, for example, numbers of people attending a meeting, newsletter circulation, money spent are valued more than the quality of relationships, democratic decision-making, ability to constructively deal with conflict. Little or no value attached to process; if it can’t be measured, it has no value. Discomfort with emotion and feelings.

  • Worship of the written word: if it’s not in a memo, it doesn’t exist. The organization does not take into account or value other ways in which information gets shared. Those with strong documentation and writing skills are more highly valued, even in organizations where the ability to relate to others is key to the mission.

  • Progress is bigger, more: observed in how we define success (success is always bigger, more). Progress is an organization that expands (adds staff, adds projects) or develops the ability to serve more people (regardless of how well they are serving them).

Actively Engaging in Dismantling White Supremacy Culture in the Workplace

As the leader of a company and an active member of multiple business organizations and accelerator programs, I consistently experience society’s inherent demand for businesses and corporations to deliver profit to shareholders, and that more is better. More revenue, more profit, more employees. The pedestal that we put growth and profit on undermines the very fabric of a diverse, equitable and inclusive economy. This is just one of the many reasons why I love being a Certified B Corporation®. At Avenue, we are part of a unique movement of businesses across the globe that are collectively leading in this conversation and actively working to learn and unlearn. I believe there is an opportunity for businesses to reimagine what inclusivity and success looks like. And I see this already being done across the B Corp community and businesses who have committed to things like conscious capitalism, triple bottom line and values-led leadership. There is hope. And there is good work being done across many sectors of government policy, financial investment and legal structures that create an avenue towards an inclusive economy that works for everyone.

As part of my active process to unlearn my own white supremacy culture tendencies, I’ve referred back to a tool from a book I read in 2017, “Start Here” by Nate Klemp, PhD and Eric Langshur. Their Notice, Shift and Rewire (NSR) tool requires developing a moment-to-moment habit of attention. Beginning to Notice and name our habits and tendencies brings choice in where we can make a change. Shifting brings about the change and action. And Rewiring brings lasting neurological integration. Essentially, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” According to Klemp and Langshur, “activating a new network of neurons repeatedly creates metabolic changes in the brain to grow new networks of activation” It is possible to notice, shift and rewire for positive change!

Here are three steps Avenue is using as part of the NSR tool to actively engage in shifting actions that will begin to dismantle white supremacy culture in the workplace:

  1. Taking the time to Notice where white supremacy culture tendencies (see Okun’s list above) show up. For example:

  • Defining and measuring Avenue’s success with metrics that focus on more than just growth (and bigger, more). There are other healthy ways to show progress in an organization.

  • Approaching daily tasks with more intention and with less of a sense of urgency which makes it difficult to take the time to be inclusive and thoughtful.

  1. Making a Shift to break away from those tendencies. For example:

  • Taking time for ongoing internal conversations and training around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), anti-racism and white supremacy culture.

  • Aligning our values as a company with our DEI, anti-racism and white supremacy culture work and goals.

  • Incorporating this work across all facets of our business, including hiring, client relationships, etc.

  1. Sustaining ongoing conversations to Rewire our thought process and actions in changing workplace culture. For example:

  • Nurturing our high-trust culture of open, honest and authentic communication.

  • Asking “what is my contribution to this movement?” And, “how can I leverage my access to address privilege and white supremacy culture?” to keep the dialogue always alive.

  • Learning how to respond to and interrupt bias when we see it show up.

What We’ve Learned and How We’re Changing

We are committed to this journey with no finite destination. We have learned that when we are engaging in DEI and anti-racism work, our job is never done. There is always more to learn, perspective to gain, empathy to give and action to take. And that’s the beauty of continued learning and growth. Our avenue to change starts with learning and awareness and continues with open and high-trust conversation.

Here are a few of the things we’re actively changing (using the NSR tool):

  • Annual and Quarterly Rocks (Goals), Metrics and Process are focused on and include our DEI and anti-racism work, which is largely intangible and not quantified by simple numbers. Initiatives that are given elevated visibility get actively worked on and improved. (Notice)

  • Our mission, purpose, values and client proposals and contracts all reflect our commitment to DEI and anti-racism change. (Shift)

  • Our job descriptions and hiring process reflect our commitment to DEI and anti-racism change, and we have removed the qualification requirement of a college degree. We realize that access to higher education is not a definitive marker of success or the future ability to succeed. Many brilliant candidates have had difficulty gaining access to “professional” jobs without a degree, but have tremendous potential and talent. We want to find and unlock that potential. (Shift)

  • We are committed to facilitating our high-trust culture of open, honest and authentic communication. (Rewire)

In the end, we love our team, community and clients, and this is our commitment to becoming the best and most authentic partner possible. At Avenue, it’s about finding a delicate balance between building and growing a healthy company that generates profit, while focusing on the inclusive and anti-racist business and culture pillars that matter. As we continue on this journey, we are noticing when white supremacy culture tendencies arise, we are shifting our actions and we are rewiring for change through continued conversation and open, high-trust dialogue. For more DEI and anti-racism resources from our team, we invite you to visit this page.

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