February 1, 2021 5 min read
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“I’m not Black,” a white leader whispered to me last year in the hallway. “Should I attend the Black History Month events?”
In some form or fashion, white leaders will quietly approach me as we enter the month of February. Can I attend? Am I invited? Should I attend? Do I come alone? Or do I ask my team to attend as well? Is it mandatory? Who else will be there?
My response is always yes, you should absolutely be attending Black History Month events, which is typically met with a few follow-up questions: “What if I am the only white person attending? Won’t that be strange?”
To all of the white leaders reading this who have the same thought running through their heads and are reluctant to say it aloud, let me share with you what I told that leader.
I certainly hope you are not the only white person attending your company’s Black History Month events. Because we need anyone who is on their journey to be an ally to show up. And if you are the only one, it will give you an opportunity to feel for just a moment what many of our Black colleagues have experienced for much of their lives: entering spaces and places where they are the only one.
Why should you attend Black History Month events?
Because we need white leaders to go beyond signing public pledges, posting #BlackLivesMatter on their social channels and reading Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. We need white leaders to understand the experience of being Black in your organizations. Participating in Black History Month is one of many steps you can take in showing up for your Black colleagues:
1. Start educating yourself
It’s not the job of Black colleagues to continuously educate us on the racial inequities that exist in our communities and our workplaces. To continuously place this burden on them without doing work on your own is insulting and exhausting for our Black colleagues. As someone who leads DEI efforts, I consistently get asked to provide resources, education and coaching to leaders. I remind everyone I work with that Black History Month events provide a great moment for you to understand the importance of the month, celebrate your Black colleagues and learn about issues and challenges facing the Black community.
2. Bring others along in the journey
Invite others to attend Black History Month events with you. If you are leading a team, ask them all to attend. Block off the time on your calendars and ensure not to schedule other meetings for those who do attend. It’s a great opportunity to learn together as a team, continue the dialogue after the events and build team camaraderie.
If you aren’t managing a team yet, ask your peers to attend. Let your manager know you’re attending in hopes they might join you as well. Rather than simply forwarding an invite, send a personalized note that says: I am on my journey to learn how to be a better ally and educate myself. Please attend this upcoming Black History Month event with me. Look forward to seeing you there.
3. Expand your networks
There’s a growing focus on building strong external talent pipelines to attract more Black talent onto our teams. Organizations are trying to understand and quickly implement the The Rooney Rule, diverse panels and so many more recruiting processes.
And yet, how often are we getting to know our internal Black talent? Do we make the time to meet talent outside of our immediate teams and our networks? Use this as an opportunity to meet Black talent at events and expand your networks. Although many of these events are no longer live, reach out and continue to build those relationships with colleagues after events.
You can send a thank you note to those who organized the event sharing what you learned, then ask for a virtual coffee connect to continue the conversation. Once you have met with that colleague, ask them to recommend more members of your company’s Black employee resource group to meet. Be authentic and intentional about continuing to build and grow these relationships.
4. Support the Black employee resource group
Use this as an opportunity to get to know the leaders of your Black employee resource group. Go beyond attending events. Spend time getting to know them and help build the group. Step up with your budget and offer to host the next event. Step up and lead logistics and coordination for that event. Finally, step up and connect them with other leaders in their organization they might not have access to otherwise.
What if your company has never hosted Black History Month? What if there are no events to attend? What can you do? Start by meeting with leadership and your people team. Ask why there are no events, and ask what you and they together can do to change that.
5. Remember that Black History Month is only the beginning
Black History Month shouldn’t be treated as a check-the-box exercise. Being in attendance doesn’t mean that you have fulfilled your commitment to support the Black community for 2021 — it’s just the beginning. Show up every day, stand up in those moments that matter and intervene when you witness Black colleagues experiencing racism.
White leaders, we can’t make our organizations more racially equitable without you. If this Black History Month is the very first step in your journey, we will take it. Because we need you to start somewhere.