Their Truth Is Not Your Truth: Why Corporate America Is Highly Adjusted to Injustice
In the wake of last year’s BLM riots, countless corporations claimed solidarity with the Black community. Unfortunately, when Sharon Chuter’s Instagram campaign Pull up for change looked under the hoods of their cars by examining the levels of diversity within those organizations, it was obvious that, for most corporations, the work they are doing is mostly body work. In other words, while they may have Diversity and Inclusion departments—one of the few departments in which Black executives can attain leadership positions—the corporations themselves are still functioning from a Eurocentric, biased perspective when it came to hiring, training, and promoting non-whites. For the majority of American corporations, Blacks are still seen as worker bees with little chance to reach positions of true authority, never mind the C-suite.
As of this writing:
· Fewer than 10% of senior executives that operate business units are African American.
· Just 3.3% of all executive or senior leadership roles are held by African Americans.
· Approximately 1% of board members in the S&P 500 are African American.
· 37% of boards do not have a single Black member, according to an analysis by Black Enterprise magazine.
· Fewer than 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs are Black.
· There have been only 3 African American women in history to run a Fortune 500 company.
In my new book, The Silent Agreement, I go deep into the factors that protect, promote, and propagate racism in corporate America, and I attempt to uncover the emotional, psychological, and cultural damage Black professionals sustain every day as they fight for the equal opportunity and compensation.
“Research conducted by McGill University’s Patricia Faison Hewlin shows that many minorities feel pressured to create “facades of conformity,” suppressing their personal values, views, and attributes to fit in with organizational ones. As Hewlin and her colleague Anna-Maria Broomes found in various industries and corporate settings, African Americans create these facades more frequently than other minority groups and feel the inauthenticity more deeply.
The major disconnect for Black men and women in corporate America is that they experience racism and micro-invalidations in the workplace every day, even as they are told that “everyone” is on board to combat these corporate conflicts. Many times, when Blacks point out race-related problems, they are punished in ways large and small by white group-think that seems to say, “We knew you would cause problems. We’re letting you be here. Isn’t that enough?” A noted psychiatrist once summed it up this way: “Those Black executives in the potentially greatest psychological trouble are the ones who try to deny their ethnicity by trying to be least Black—in effect, trying to be white psychologically.” (The Silent Agreement, 2021).
Why Black Truth Matters
65% of Black professionals say that Black employees have to work harder in order to advance, but only 16% of their white colleagues agree with that statement. This is a major disconnect that illustrates the Sisyphean task African American executives face navigating the imaginary narratives of corporate America. Blacks are told daily that their companies and colleagues do not tolerate or engage in racist behavior even as they experience a very different reality. This leads to a sort of cognitive dissonance that is sometimes resolved through psychological contortionism. Black executives convince themselves that this corporate speak is true, and if only they could conform, all would be well.
The Black experience is overrun by a white narrative that says corporations are reasonable, equal opportunity employers, and any attempt to disprove this narrative can result in job losses or an inability to rise through the ranks. This dynamic of muffling Black truth happens all the time and at all levels of organizations. Black professionals may be left out of conversations that affect them because white leaders want “like-minded” (aka Eurocentric) perspectives represented. They may be put on the “Black track” to head urban initiatives or D&I. Or they may be so under- or overutilized that they can’t possibly excel at one thing in order to prove their worthiness for promotion. From white corporate America’s perspective, these sidelining tactics are legitimate opportunities. From the Black perspective, they are more false obstacles to overcome.
Black Executives Can’t Hide Who They Are
To climb that steep hill to the C-suite, African American men and women have to work harder than their white counterparts to prove that they are “part of the team” and able to blend into the dominant culture, which is often very different than their own. This leads to what is called “code switching,” a double consciousness which is the need to change how one talks and acts around people of other ethnicities in order to fit in or to cover or downplay aspects of one’s true identity at work. Among black adults, 48% of those with at least a four-year college degree say they often or sometimes feel the need to code-switch.
To be clear, code-switching is the equivalent of covering up one’s own truth to accommodate the opinions of others. It is subservience. And, in the case of corporate American culture, it is a prerequisite for advancement if you are African American.
In Chapter 7 of The Silent Agreement, I compare this battle with that of a boxer engaging with an outsized opponent:
“To engage, survive, and win a toe-to-toe fight, a boxer must shed all bad habits that might be used to win on the street, but lead to certain defeat in the ring. Boxers simply can’t win through sheer brutality or force alone. Defense is critical to their success. The smart boxer must maintain a solid defense while acting on offense, because once boxers stop thinking about protecting themselves, drop their gloves, fail to bob and weave, fail to recover, or stand winded and panting—POW! They may take a straight jab to the face followed by an uppercut that leaves the boxer in a cloud of uncertainty as the referee starts counting down.
When Black executives go toe-to-toe against the powers that be in corporate America, they would be smart to adopt this same approach. Unfortunately, many cling to strategies that do not work and lead to repeated failure. This lack of discipline often stems from fear. Some Black executives are so fearful of losing what little they’ve been given by white-led corporations, they pull punches, fail to cover themselves, or react in an unseemly manner out of weakness rather than strength. Such reactions give corporations control over the flow of the fight, and when it eventually wears down the boxer, leaders are free to change up their fighting style and go for the knockout.
Unfortunately, adhering to the rules is not always possible for Black executives, because the rules of engagement in corporate culture are different for different people, making fighting while Black a considerable disadvantage. Black executives may see white leaders hit below the belt and think it is fair game. They only find out they are wrong when they are reprimanded or dismissed. If, over time, they manage to decipher the unspoken rule that white is might and might is right, they may adopt a more defensive posture and avoid throwing punches to remain in the ring. Even if these fighters are disciplined enough to shed their bad habits, their opponents never will. This is why they must tap into the fighting spirit.” (The Silent Agreement, 2021).
If diversity and inclusion is ever going to be more than a corporate buzzword, Blacks will have to go toe-to-toe with corporate America and refuse to be treated as PR props rather than being duly compensated for the diverse insights, experience, and game-changing ideas they bring. Meanwhile, corporations need to stop being so highly adjusted to the injustice, and dig deeper to understand how they can recruit, mentor, and value Black professionals to reap the benefits of their contributions. Right now, it’s an unfair fight in which Black professionals must bob and weave or endure blow after blow from racist colleagues who see them as projects or distractions rather than assets within the business. This is Black truth, and whether or not corporate America recognizes that truth, there will never be true workplace equality until it is incorporated into company cultures.
All sides can win in this epic battle, but the rules of the ring have to change. This is what the true goal of diversity and inclusion should be, because our truth—Black truth—is the truth of millions of consumers with a $1.4 trillion in buying power. Corporate leaders must stop treating Black executives as their opponents or as featherweights who aren’t up to the challenge. Black champions are waiting in the ringside seats for a chance to win a title. It’s time to give them their chance in the ring. It’s time for the gloves to come off.