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Performative Allyship is NOT Enough

In the wake of the social reckoning post George Floyd's murder, America’s 50 biggest public companies and their foundations committed at least $49.5 billion to address racial inequality. As of this writing, less than $2 billion (4%) has been dispersed and with the majority of commitments ($45.2 billion) made in the form of loans or investments they could stand to profit from.

During the recent senate confirmation hearings for Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, Senator Ted Cruz made it a point to grill her on Ibram X. Kendi's children's book Antiracist Baby. His inquiry mostly centered around the ludicrous idea that white babies are born racist and whether or not (soon to be confirmed) Justice Jackson agreed with this notion and her role in the inclusion of such books on the curriculum at Georgetown Day School where she was a board member. Watching this painful exchange, I was struck with how little people understand the difference between the concepts of anti vs. not and how the people attacking the teaching of race in schools self-identify in the not group.

To be anti-something is to be actively engaged in the fight against a force deemed to be dangerous, toxic, evil, or denigrating something else of importance (liberty, freedom, purpose, progress). To be not something is to make a declaration and distinction that you should not be seen or judged as part of an undesirable faction or group. To be a not requires no further action than self-identification. But to be anti requires principled action.

Someone who declares they are not sexist simply is stating that the outside world should take them at their word on the matter regardless of what their actions have shown. Plenty of men taken down during the #metoo movement consider themselves as not sexist despite considerable sexism in their past. Plenty of other people who defend the actions of individuals found guilty of deplorable acts of sexism like R. Kelly likewise defend themselves as not sexist even as they identify as pro-sexual assault offenders like the serial pedophile.

Ibram X. Kendi chose his words and concepts wisely in the books How to be An Antiracist and Antiracist Baby. He was declaring that it is woefully insufficient to identify as not something while either remaining oblivious, ignorant, or obstinate to the suffering of disenfranchised groups.

To be anti is to up the ante from self-identification and issue blindness to activation and advocacy in service of eliminating the source of negativity.

By this measure then - one becomes antiracist only by actively advocating against racism in all its forms, facets, and functions in our society. A baby who is not taught, shown, and continuously reinforced that racism is evil, vile, and deplorable can never become antiracist - no matter how much their parents claim to not be racists. A corporation that states it supports antiracism and allocates funding but does not disperse the funds in a meaningful and impactful way has not fully joined the fight and as such does not deserve the positive PR, customer patronage, and investor loyalty they sought to gain by making these sweeping declarations of support.

As the old adage goes, you must be for something or you will fall for anything.

Many companies declare that they are for equal opportunity, fairness, and progress but don't actively fight against the inequities, injustices, and stagnating policies, procedures, priorities, and practices within their own walls and far less within the communities and societies that sustain them. This is at the heart of performative allyship which is even worse than being not something. As stated in a recent Forbes article on the topic, "the problem with performative allyship, is that it maintains the status quo and renders illegitimate, any attempts to change processes that support structural racism, and other barriers."

Companies and leaders are declaring and then only taking minimal action towards their goals. For employees, customers, and stakeholders - this lack of accountability should be punished even more than companies that have taken no action at all. At least we know where those entities likely stand. But it is the company that spends a few hundred thousand on posters and performative positioning that are truly toxic. Because they have no true intention to actually commit to doing the necessary work to change their stripes.

Unfortunately, there is no single entity holding these companies accountable for following through on their external and internal pledges and commitments. And companies are continuously dodging transparency and reporting because there is no benefit to declaring progress only to get dinged and criticized every time the numbers are released. But until companies hold themselves accountable and make continual strides in the right direction, they cannot be counted as anti the forces that make working and living so torturous for so many - no matter how many posters, commercials, pledges, and other acts of performative allyship they make.

We can begin to hold our companies accountable by contributing to the EquityPulse database - the only anonymous platform for employees to rate their employers against a standard measure of J.E.D.I. progress. I created this platform to be the social justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion doppelganger of sites like Check it out and rate your employer today!

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