Mental Warfare (with a Capital M)
Content warning: white gaslighting, white deflection, white guilt[?]
The following is a real conversation between employee and CEO. Black, working class femme and wealthy, white businessman.
For context, the initiator of the conversation was the CEO's company wide announcement and celebration of a new, diverse board. The two new members who were added to the board were white women, replacements for two white men who stepped down.
The conversation took place in a dedicated portal for feedback and was submitted anonymously for the preservation of safety in a white space.
Names and identifiers are redacted because it isn't about airing out the company or the CEO or any of that. Really aint about them at all. It's more about the fact that shit like this goes down literally all the time behind these closed fake progressive/white liberal doors. White folks, especially those in positions of power, would rather gaslight, deflect, pick at syntax, get personally offended, and attempt to shut you down rather than actually sit down, shut up, listen, reflect, and level the fuck up. It's so textbook. It's so tired. It's so violent.
And not everyone has community to help them get through.
Too often, moving in white spaces as a non-white person means that you have to sacrifice something in order to do what you need to do. There's this expectation of you to be thankful for having some small space in some metaphorical corner carved out for you. To be thankful for the bare minimum. To be there as a face of diversity and to quell white folks' guilt, whilst at the same time be quiet, not ruffle feathers, and provide labor. It is isolating, it is exhausting and it is VIOLENT.
So this is a release.
I'm writing in regards to last week's announcement of the company's new board.
I am truly perplexed.
"...we’ve boosted the board’s Diversity (with a capital ‘D’), and our board’s gender and racial mix now roughly reflects the population of our company, customers and community at large."
What is the racial mix?? What I see is a board comprised of 7 white people and 1 Black person. Whose "community at large" does this reflect exactly? Certainly not mine.
As for being more reflective of the population of the company and customers, now, that seems accurate from what I can tell. But the follow up question then has to be - well, what is the problem with this?
If a board comprised of 7 white people (4 white men, 3 white women) and 1 Black man (no Black women or women of color period for that matter) is reflective of the company and its customer base, then there is a very very serious problem. But instead of acknowledging that and the company's serious need to continue to improve and truly diversify (real, actual, intersectional diversity. White women do not account for diversity.), what I saw in the post was a call to celebrate what, quite frankly, is the below the bare minimum.
I mean do women of color not exist? It’ll feel like an appropriate time to celebrate when there are women of color serving on your board.
What I'd like to know:
What is the data on the current and historical racial and gender demographic breakdown of the company? I'm especially interested in how things breakdown racially, in regards to leadership.
Is this information available publicly? If so, where? If not, why not?
What was the company's strategy in the developing of the new board? What is the company's plan and vision for the board moving forward?
What are the tangible steps the company is taking to:
Examine all of the ways in which it is currently upholding white supremacy, internally and externally?
Address the long standing disparities and inherent anti-Blackness upon which the [redacted] field was built?
Truly be the progressive, revolutionary game changer it claims to be?
I really appreciated your note. It’s evident that you are thoughtful about these issues and I’m grateful you took the time to share those thoughts. I will try and share some thoughts of my own here, though the format is limiting, and I’d really welcome an in person exchange of ideas - are you up for that?
I believe it’s great to have a diverse board - it makes for a stronger, more creative, and talented team. But the intersectionality you called for has some ethical complexities, and some mathematical obstacles. Let me focus on the latter.
We have 6 outsiders on our board, for a total of 8 (together with [name] and I). About 13% of the US population is Black - that’s about 1 in every 8 Americans. So one Black member of a 6 or 8 person board (depending on how you count it) is roughly reflective of our “community at large.” That’s what I meant by that phrase.
I’d be thrilled to have a Black woman on the board too, and I made sure to meet several during our search, but the people who joined us at the end of the process were the best fit in terms of skills. I do make sure our candidate roster is as diverse as possible, but then also make sure that we don’t use skin color when making the final decision.
But even if that weren’t the case, the intersectionality ideal you reference becomes tough to implement in many contexts, but especially on a small scale (like our board). Think it through with me. Half of our outside directors are women, and 17% of the outside directors is Black. (That’s an unusually diverse and representative board to be honest.) But what about Black women you ask? I get it. But intersectionality isn’t just about black and white, right? So what about Asian Americans (6% of the population), or a Hispanic board member (18%)? And intersectionality explicitly seeks to go beyond race and ethnicity. So what about people with disabilities (25%)? Or LGBTQ+ representation? And intersectionality is really about ensuring there’s representation for how these groups intersect (Black women, gay Hispanics etc.) How many permutations can fit around one board table? Then there’s diversity along other axes. Do we need to ensure Republicans have representation? Or poor people? Or the many religions in the nation? Ideally ‘yes’! And what about how these intersect with race? (e.g. poor Whites, Muslim Blacks). After all, true diversity isn’t about people who all look different but think the same.
I’m not trying to caricature anything, but just to make the point that America has over 300 million people with tremendous differences and diversity along many important axes - that no 8 people alone can possibly reflect.
And, I’m not even sure that the US, alone, is the relevant yardstick. After all, our company has employees, customers, and shareholders in Germany, Holland, and France…
I have other issues with the direction you’re proposing but without getting philosophical, I think the right thing to do is to ensure the board isn’t uniform in terms of gender and race - ideally that the number of women and Black people is not at odds with the broader population - and that there are diversity of backgrounds and skills. That's what we have done. I am not sure that going much further down the intersectionality path is all that possible or all that desirable.
You ask several more questions, and I’m happy to talk these through with you if you’d like. Let me say here though that I don’t accept the premise that our company is “upholding white supremacy” in any way, and find the suggestion a jarring to be honest. Not sure if you meant it, but white supremacy is a full-fledged ideology embraced by racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, not the likes of the [REDACTED] community. Three of my four grandparents were orphaned by white supremacists. Nothing that we are doing in our company, leadership, product, or brand comes close to ‘upholding’ the bigotry and racism white supremacy represents. I hope that’s self evidently true.
In terms of how [field] can be made more fair I’ve published two proposals about this, have a read and LMK what you think:
[Link to some blog post that I'm never going to read.]
[Link to some other blog post that I'm also never going to read.]
I’ll also be talking to the group about some of these issues at the anti-racism-education, 11am Eastern this morning.
Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, and let me know if you’d like to continue this important conversation on a Zoom call sometime.
Hi [REDACTED]. Thanks for taking the time to respond.
While I appreciate your invitation to a Zoom call and too have interest in continuing to converse and hear more of what your thoughts are as well as share mine, based on your response, I do not feel confident that it would be very conducive for me to participate. As someone who sits on a diversity committee for a white-led organization and who has had to navigate this sort of thing in countless white spaces, it takes more of a toll and is more labor than I can safely give outside of this particular medium at this time.
So for now, I can just share a few of my most pressing thoughts.
Not sure where to begin but I can start at the points you’ve made around intersectionality. I made sure to use the word intersectional in this context as I already well understand what intersectional means, as someone whose identity converges at quite a few intersections and whose entire community is made up of folks who also sit at several intersections between ethnicity, nationality, gender identity, sexual identity, abilities, etc. I meant exactly that when I chose the word. I made sure to say "Black women and women of color in general for that matter" as I am equally interested in why there are no Indigenous, Brown, Asian, Latinx, etc. folks represented. My exact words were “It’ll feel like an appropriate time to celebrate when there are women of color serving on your board.”
What I commented on - what the context was - was the fact that adding two (presumably) cis white women to the board is not in any way something I understand to be an accurate representation of “Diversity with a capital D” as it was put. This is why I specifically focused on women, since white women being added to the board was what was being celebrated; and since race and gender was brought up in the post. So the time that was spent in your response to break down the meaning of intersectional to me feels frustrating, reductive, and overall like the point was sort of missed.
It feels too easy to pull out statistics about the racial demographics of the United States and to reduce this to numbers without talking about 1 - the historical context of why the breakdown is the way it is and 2 - the subsequent ramifications of that.
It also feels troubling and contradictory to be okay with simply recreating the current racial make up of the country on your board and in your company when all that pans out to in reality is tokenism and the perpetuation of marginalization - whilst simultaneously saying that you’re committed to diversity and representation. You’ve broken down to me all of these ways in which intersectionality exists and how things aren’t just Black and white… yet have settled for just that. Also, from what I understand, the majority of the company’s employee and customer base is in the United States, so I’m not entirely sure what to make of the mention of the other (European/predominantly white) markets. Please do correct me if I’m wrong on that.
I often find that people in privileged identities and positions of power first respond with why something can’t happen or is too difficult or too idealistic instead of putting that energy into figuring out how something can happen and why it is, in fact, a necessity.
Everyone on the planet has the job to do of examining the ways in which they have been conditioned by and have internalized ideas of white supremacy. Everyone. In a world that was literally built upon white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, anti-Blackness, anti-brownness, anti-darkness, ableism, etc etc etc, there is literally no one - especially no one white - who is exempt from this. It is interwoven into the fabric of our society. So I meant exactly what I said.
The idea that white supremacy and racism is exclusive to the KKK and Nazis is incredibly narrow, lacks nuance and is exactly the reason why so many things continue to fall under the radar about the experiences of those who are not cis, het, white, and in a position of privilege and power; and is exactly why many conversations are unable to be had. It is also an idea that has been disproven, countered and discussed by many folks whose entire bodies of work center anti-racism.
To be quite honest, without that base level understanding and willingness to acknowledge that, I’m not sure what all else can truly be said, because that is the root of being able to address any and everything else.
Thanks again for your thoughtful comments, though TBH I really don't follow why "recreating the current racial make up of the country" on the board is "tokenism and the perpetuation of marginalization". We have no tokens on the board, honestly we don't, and I'm not sure how increasing diversity is perpetuating marginalization.
I also don't feel comfortable with the notion that I'm defined by the color of my skin, or that being male and white makes me answerable for "white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, anti-Blackness, anti-brownness, anti-darkness, ableism". I don't think racism is only to be found in the KKK, but am not aware of it - or white supremacy - at [REDACTED], and am not OK with being accused of it without any evidence or examples, just by virtue of my being male or white. I take racism particularly seriously, and have experienced a great deal of it myself growing up (yes, people of all colors can be victims as well as perpetrators of racism) - which is why it's not enough to point to "the fabric of our society" as evidence that [REDACTED] supports white supremacy.
I understand that you don't want to jump on a zoom. It's a shame, because it is obvious to me that you are thoughtful, informed, caring and have a perspective I could learn from. Please LMK if you change your mind.
By the way, about a third of our employees are not based in the USA.