Last year, many organizations spoke out against racial injustice. In my opinion, that’s a good thing. Now those same organizations need to find ways to turn those words into anti-racist actions. When we’re talking about taking action, we need to do more than read articles and books on being anti-racist. Don’t get me wrong, those are ideal places to start learning on an individual level. It’s time to think about organizational learning because what happens in our communities, also happens in our workplaces.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Denise Branch about the topic of anti-racism education. Denise is an anti-racism educator and activist who was named by Forbes as one of “7 Anti-Racism Educators Your Company Needs Now”. In her role, she advises organizations on how to develop anti-racist people, programming, partnerships, purchasing, philanthropy, policy, and practices.
Denise, thanks so much for being here. Let’s start with a definition. What does anti-racist mean?
[Branch] A quick synopsis is a person who opposes and challenges individual, interpersonal, institutional, structural, or systemic racism and works to change their own personal racial biases and racial blind spots. Being anti-racist is rooted in action. Anti-racists take deliberate everyday actions in dismantling systems, privileges, and everyday practices that reinforce and normalize racism along with fighting for policies that advance racial equity and racial justice.
What is anti-racism education? And why should organizations make this a priority?
[Branch] Anti-racism education not only teaches on diversity in the context of race and ethnicity but also educates on the power imbalances between racialized people and non-racialized people and the real history of this country with and between those people. Anti-racism education is the most valuable tool to dismantle racism in the mind. Racism is a mindset. Anti-racism education helps learners dismantle racist behaviors in themselves and each other.
Racism in the workplace and world place has dominated the headlines for the last 4 years, prior to the insurrection and domestic terrorist riots at the U.S. Capitol in which CEO’s, human resource leaders, and employees in every profession of every industry of organizations across America participated. If January 6, 2021 is not enough to make anti-racism education a priority in the workplace, I don’t know what is, unless employers are waiting for it to happen in their workspaces. The American Medical Association (AMA) announced that racism is a public health threat in America last year.
On January 6, 2021, we clearly and painfully witnessed the threat of racists and white supremacists storming the Capitol. What happened isn’t the end, it’s the beginning. That means that the very health of our workplaces and worldplaces are at stake. Racism kills.
You don’t have to be racist to unlearn racism.– Denise Branch, Anti-Racism Educator
Again, racism is a mindset and it only takes one racist mind with the power or who weaponizes their privilege to jeopardize the lives and livelihoods of one to millions of people. Over the last 4 years, we witnessed one man with power and privilege whose actions and inactions affected the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans. With so much at stake for all organizations, their brands, and their stakeholders it would be better to prioritize funding anti-racism education over funding politicians, policing, and prisons. Racism is America. Racism is in Americans. Anti-racism education is the beginning of ending racism in America.
For those organizations and individuals who are trying to understand more about anti-racism education, can you share a story from one of your coaching or training sessions?
[Branch] It is in the best interest of every white HR professional’s career to take the lead on not only unlearning racism, but learning about the origins, ideologies, forms, and consequences of racism to survive being canceled by it. Here’s an anti-racism coaching testimonial by a senior project manager at a Fortune 5oo technology company who wants to become an anti-racist leader and build anti-racist teams.
“I learned that it is completely within my power to improve my behavior and become anti-racist leader. It is amazing that a few anti-racism coaching sessions from Denise can be so mind changing. Her anti-racism work for me is like she altered my states of mind and unlocked previously locked areas in my mind that prevented me from being an empathetic, inclusive, equitable, and anti-racist leader. I really wanted an anti-racism coach who could challenge my mindset and push me without sugar coating. I’m so happy to have found Denise.”
In preparing for this interview, I saw a quote on your LinkedIn profile that I wanted to ask you about. When you say, “You don’t have to be racist to unlearn racism.”, what does that mean?
[Branch] The reason Americans continue to reproduce racism is because most Americans don’t think they’re racist and think they have nothing to unlearn or learn. If nobody is racist where is all the racism coming from?”
My quote was born out of so many clients worrying about being labeled racist if someone finds out they’re unlearning racism. I literally started saying “You don’t have to be racist to unlearn racism” to them. The quote is so self-explanatory that clients began to understand that it’s not about if I think they’re racist; it’s about you don’t have to be racist to unlearn racism. I think it has broken down barriers of shame and discomfort for some people that prevented their unlearning on their own to start.
Also, some people feel shame about the racism of their ancestors and even feel ashamed of their own race’s current behavior. People need to not think of becoming anti-racist or unlearning racism as something to be ashamed of. It’s a privilege to unlearn racism than to experience racism. Not naming it and saying, “I’m unconsciously biased, and your unconsciously biased, and nobody is racist” is the wrong language in the fight to end the racism and white supremacy that we’re seeing in this world today. We must name it. What goes unnamed goes unchanged.
One of the challenges that organizations face is that they want to do more to promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) in the workplace but regularly hear that DEIB programs don’t work. How does anti-racist education differ from traditional DEIB training?
[Branch] DEIB work has been about numbers, quotas, checking boxes, and the ‘illusion of inclusion’. Anti-racism work is about discussing root causes for the lack of racial DEIB with root cause leaders. Most DEIB work hasn’t done things like challenge racism or teach anti-racism inside their organizations. Similarly, a lot of DEIB work has been about saying we have more work to do and has excused racism. Anti-racism work includes actively identifying, challenging, and changing the values, structures and behaviors that perpetuate systemic racism within an organization and it doesn’t excuse racism. I don’t know of many organizations admitting their DEIB programs don’t work or even taking accountability for not doing the work on DEIB. Companies spend more sponsorship dollars to make good places to work lists when they have not been good places to work for racial diversity.
DEIB work and Anti-racism work has never been the same. Anti-racism professionals can work together with companies’ DEIB professionals to help them strategize for an anti-racist future and help with dismantling any systemic racism withing their organizations. There has to be anti-racist education for employees, without exception! Employers can only be as anti-racist as their employees. Companies must name it, title it, hire for it and train on it, because every DEI professional is not an anti-racism professional, has done anti-racism work or is anti-racist.
There are many organizations that want to support anti-racist education. But they don’t have the resources. The pandemic has impacted their bottom-line. What’s the business case that HR can use to get the resources to make this happen?
[Branch] Just an illusion. We have been immersed in the same illusion for decades regarding DEIB and lack of resources. As I mentioned earlier, it’s ‘the illusion of inclusion’. Unfortunately, there weren’t many organizations that wanted to support anti-racist education prior to the pandemic.
Most organizations have always been anti-talking about race, racism and only interested in doing unconscious bias training. For any organization or HR leader still asking what’s the business case for anti-racism education? My response would be January 6, 2021. Every domestic terrorist caught on video was an employee of a workplace. And those workplaces made the headlines too. What organization wants to make the headlines due to racism and white supremacy? There needs to be anti-racism education today or the same racists and white supremacists will destroy their workplaces and bottom lines with the same racist and white supremacist behavior.
To leaders who aren’t concerned with the human case of why anti-racism education matters, I want to know why anti-racism education hasn’t mattered after all their Black Lives Matter, standing against racism statements and commitments to becoming anti-racist organizations? Seriously, what’s the business case for risking their bottom lines for racism and white supremacy? And social media backlash along with the stain of racism and white supremacy forever attached to their brand?
Organizations can play a huge role in helping eradicate racism and white supremacy in this country. Even a racist and white supremacist doesn’t want to lose his or her job, that’s why they wore hoods in the past. The financial impact that racism has had on companies and this country over the last two decades for doing nothing about it is over $16 trillion dollars. HR leaders and organizations should check out this study by Citi Bank titled “Closing the Racial Inequality Gaps”.
Last Question, is there any other advice you would like to give the HR community?
[Branch] My advice would be that the department where racism gets reported gets anti-racism education. There is a growing disconnect between what Black and Brown employees experience and what HR leaders think they’ve experienced. This disconnect is due to the lack of racial competence, intelligence, literacy, and never experiencing racism. That type of conscious or unconscious ‘racial gaslighting behavior’ can leave those same employees reporting racism feeling re-harmed with the same feelings of experiencing racism all over again when reporting it to HR.
Employees who report racism in the workplace complain of, at best, ignored and, at worst, may be pushed into leaving. Equally, racism remains a serious problem within the HR profession and organizations. Anti-racism education and practicing empathy can help HR leaders bridge that disconnect and build anti-racist workplaces. HR must push for anti-racism education funding to deprogram conscious and unconscious racist mindsets within their organizations including their own.
I want to extend a huge thanks to Denise for sharing her knowledge with us. If your organization would like to learn more about Denise’s anti-racism strategy consulting, you can reach her directly at [email protected]
One of my most embarrassingly eye-opening moments over the past decade was the realization that we’re not further along where racial equity is concerned. I know that I’m still on my journey to being more anti-racist and I’m thankful that I can have conversations like this one with Denise to help my learning.7