Numerous institutions have felt compelled to respond to the highly publicized killings of black men and women by police. Without seeking guidance from BIPOC DE&I consultants, the institutional leaders have directed all their departmental heads to create anti-racism plans for their respective units. Each department head is expected to develop an anti-racist plan for the department. This is a very tricky endeavor. The departmental heads are the same white leaders who manage units where BIPOC members have encountered limitations on their careers due to the actions of these leaders, as well from the actions of other white co-workers in those units.
From a change management viewpoint, there are multiple deficiencies in this approach. For one, the institutions have not defined what the successful endpoint is. An anti-racism strategy can be anything from an emphasis on avoiding any discussion of how race plays out among colleagues to policing what language is used by departmental staff. Without a measurable endpoint, it is not possible to determine how you will be successful. It is like an anti-poverty program that fails to define what poverty is. These programs have a lot of activity, but no way to determine whether poverty is actually decreasing. Furthermore, without a defined endpoint, it is also impossible to calibrate where the department is and how far it needs to go in oder to achieve success.
A second deficiency is the lack of support for departmental leaders. The endeavor also begins without giving the departmental leaders training or consultation that prepares them to navigate a difficult and emotionally-loaded path toward better inclusion of people who are currently feeling discounted, devalued or excluded. Today, most whites still live very segregated lives. True, they do mix with BIPOC people in the workplace, but their neighborhoods, houses of worship, and social networks are overwhelmingly composed of other whites. This means that these leaders do not develop cross-cultural skills. They are able to run their workplaces using white norms and white styles of communication. The institution is asking the people who are maintaining the racial status quo to solve the problem of which they are a major component.
Nor have these leaders been trained in how to facilitate conversations where the issue is conflict between two or more racial groups. That topics in this kind of interaction may range from very different experiences of what it is like to work in the department, to grievances on the part of BIPOC employees about how they are treated by people of another race. Without training in how to facilitate this type of conversation, the departmental leaders will steer the discussion in the anti-racism meetings away from any conversation about what BIPOC experience in the department.
The department heads also feel caught in a very dicey political bind. They are very aware that one of their key responsibilities is to shield the institution from legal liability.
How does this requirement make any room for acknowledging that acts of exclusion or prejudice have occurred in the department? When the top leaders are given no guidance in this matter, prudent departmental managers will usually choose to protect their careers by taking pains to protect the institution. I speak regularly with BIPOC folks who have to attend or, worse yet, support these anti-racism strategy sessions. They quickly grasp that their leaders are avoiding any acknowledgement of past or current acts of racial exclusion in these anti-racism planning sessions. This avoidance only strengthens cynicism of BIPOC staff and further alienates them from the white leadership team in their departmental as well as those at the top of the organization.
Lastly, departmental leaders are ignorant about important dynamics of difference. Since they lack sufficient training in intercultural skills, they revert to their white cultural socialization. This drives them to reject and discount any perceptions that do not match the perceptions of the whites. Feeling uneasy and somewhat vulnerable to accusations of racism, the departmental leaders will send covert, but clear, messages that they do not want to hear anything about their own behavior or the behavior of other whites in the department. Acutely sensitive to this message, BIPOC employees see no reason to share painful experiences with whites, who will only minimize or reject what they say. The whole endeavor ends up being an activity that yields no change in how the department treats its BIPOC members. Having consumed a great deal of time and energy, the entire project only reinforces the racial status quo of avoiding dealing with the elephant in the middle of the room.