The world saw how the life of George Floyd was snuffed out of him by the white police officer who had his knee on his neck. To say it was outrageous is an understatement, and people immediately condemned what they saw. For me, I felt it on a deep, personal level because I have a husband, a son, brothers and nephews.
But, here’s one uncomfortable truth: after the dust settles, the invisible ‘knee-on-the-neck’ of black people in the workplace and in our schools will continue, unless some things change.
The Peel District School Board that has long ignored the cries of black parents about the treatment of our children was forced to acknowledge their knee-on-the-neck behaviour after parents, community members and two trustees decided enough was enough. It took the intervention of the Minister of Education to shake things up.
Being quiet is comfortable. Being silent serves no one, and I am done with both. For anyone who watched that white office kneeling on the neck of George Floyd until he breathed his last breathe, I would like you to envision the same thing happening to black people’s careers in their places of work.
Highly-qualified black people are being denied opportunities solely on the colour of their skin; having their careers stifled because they are not a ‘good fit’; being passed over for promotions or being told “you were a close second”. How do I know this? I am a career coach who often hear from my black clients about their experiences, and I believe them because I have my own personal stories. The emotional tax they are paying in the workplace is equivalent to having a knee on their necks, and it’s suffocating.
Although I have long left the corporate arena, I have experienced having a knee on my neck when a less-qualified white woman who had joined the company as a temp three months prior, was given a job in the corporate affairs office, a position for which I was interviewed. I was with the company for three years at the time. When I asked HR for an explanation, especially when I had had two certificates in public relations and had previously worked in the field, I was told I was ‘a close second’. How could I be a close second when the woman neither had the experience nor the education for the role?
A highly-qualified South Asian woman was also interviewed. We compared notes. She was with the company a bit longer than me, but she said she didn’t want to ruffle feathers. I told her I would speak up about my situation, and if it benefited both of us, so be it.
Another experience when I had the knee of racism on my neck was when a white woman at a well-known non-profit told her staff that they shouldn’t hire me for a workshop because people “won’t show up”. Well, people used to show up when I delivered the workshops for free. Nepotism got the better of her and she chose her friend for that paid opportunity. I am looking at her right now with the smug of perceived superiority on her face, probably still denying black people opportunities in that same space. It was not long after that I was asked by the YMCA in Windsor to deliver a keynote to 400 new immigrants for which I was paid.
Prior to the COVID19 lockdown, I was in a Tim Hortons waiting to be served when I overheard two middle-aged white ladies talking. One told the other that she had applied to work at that same Tim Hortons and the manager told her he would get back to her if he didn’t find a qualified candidate. Her friend asked her if she had heard back. She said “No, but it’s probably because I am white!” I was a bit taken aback but thought to myself, “How the tables have turned!”
As I said in a previous article when I was zoom-bombed during an online workshop in April, when black people tell you about what’s happening to them, don’t be too quick to judge. Believe them. Not only believe them but make a concerted effort to become an ally. A true ally does not keep silent. Begin by authentically reaching out and building relationships.
Let me hasten to add that having a ‘knee on the neck’ in the corporate workspace is not only a black and white issue. This means I am not going to give a pass to other people of colour. It is easy for you to say, “I am not one of them!” because that makes you comfortable, but many of you exhibit the same behaviour. Remember, what lessens one of us, lessens all of us.
It is heartening to see people of all hues protesting because they saw what happened to George Floyd, thanks to a cell phone. That is what fair-minded people do. But it would help if some of those same people would step up and challenge those with a biased mindset, or those who spread misinformation in the workplace. Here are some ways you can help your black coworkers cope when a knee is on their necks:
- Don’t let fear hold you back. Decide to wade into uncomfortable waters and speak up when you notice inequities at work.
- Don’t be afraid to rock the boat, because sometimes to steady the ship, you need to rock it.
- Don’t just invite them to sit at the table (that’s optics); make sure they are contributing to the discourse in meaningful ways (that’s inclusion).
- Don’t be another Amy Cooper. Use your position of power and privilege to help not hurt.
- Don’t pass off casual racism or micro-aggressive behaviours as jokes. It’s hurtful and insulting.
- Don’t imply it’s because of quota or lowering of standards when a black person gets a promotion. Check their credentials.
- Don’t accept the status quo at work; act. Inaction is not only the result of fear, but the cause of fear.
COVID19 has laid bare the stark realities of institutionalized racism on all fronts, but black people and people of colour can’t do it on our own. When the dust settles, let’s not return to business as usual in the workplace and in our communities. Prepare to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
The quotes below speak directly to what leaders in the workplace can do:
Minda Harts, author of The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table said, “…it’s extremely hard to constantly hear your leadership talk about diversity and inclusion and take no real steps toward hiring and retaining diverse talent.”
Darryl White, CEO at Bank of Montreal said in a recent LinkedIn post: “There can only be one response to racism and violence and that’s to deepen our commitment to making change. There is no easy path, we all have very hard work to do.”
It’s time to hold your leadership accountable to what they say they will do. When we do that, racism, bigotry and ‘knee-on-the-neck’ behaviours cannot thrive.