Knowledge Center

Anti-racism training isn’t enough. Here’s why.

Mitch Shepard

I once swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco, in a swim event that was aptly named “Shark fest.” To be an excellent swimmer, and to make it the entire way without burning out, technique and consistency are critical. Slow and steady wins the race. To be an excellent swimmer, one must combine many motions at once — a strong kick powered from the hips, an arm stroke powered by the shoulders & back, a smooth and efficient rotation of the body to avoid drag, side breathing for efficiency of oxygen intake, and of course, the ability to pace yourself so you don’t burn out halfway through.

To be an effective athlete, swimming or otherwise, you’ve got to focus on many things simultaneously. Business isn’t any different. Neither are our diversity goals.

To be effective at creating more diversity within our companies and also creating the inclusive & equitable cultures that sustain it, we must focus on several things at once and pace ourselves. However, I see a trend that threatens our progress. For the past decade or more, “diversity” was essentially code for “women,” and not just women, but “white women,” although nobody was saying that.

Two to three years ago the pendulum has swung over to anti-harassment training (fueled by #metoo, lawsuits, and high-profile firings). Since June 2020, the pendulum has swung to Unconscious Bias & Anti-racism training (fueled by the death of George Floyd and the subsequent reaction across the USA). Corporate America has gotten the memo: Enough is enough.

Let me be clear — these are ALL steps in the right direction. It is fabulous that companies finally have a willingness to openly discuss issues of race and racism at work, and do more to correct the injustices that are present in our systems.

When you think “anti-racism,” what comes to mind? Take a moment and think about that before you continue to read on.

As a company, it is in your best interest, when your teams are making decisions together — innovating together for the sake of your customers — that everyone around the table feels a sense of: I’m important. I’m valued. My voice is needed here. I am respected. I belong. When people feel this way, they perform better, they work harder, they care more, and they stay longer. The result: your business performance skyrockets and you have happy humans at work!

THAT is what we are shooting for, right?

But sometimes we get so caught up in pivoting to address the urgency of the moment that we forget that all these systems need to work together. If black people feel more empowered & are treated more justly, but Asian employees, or LBGTQ employees, or white female employees, or anyone, starts to feel less valued or important, we all lose. Our humanity and our success are intertwined.

I worry that we are less effective than we could be in this fight for racial equity & gender parity because we are over-simplifying the solutions. I have recently heard Native American employees, Pacific Islander employees, Asian employees, older generation employees to name a few, ask questions like,

“What about me/us?”

“Aren’t we important too?”

Some groups, who have suffered their own hardships, are  beginning to feel invisible or further marginalized, as we shift our focus. To be most effective in reaching our diversity, equity, and inclusion goals, we must swim using our arms, legs, side breathing, rotation, and pace. You cannot choose one over the other.

Corporate America must focus on several levers at once. We must continuously educate and build awareness not only about the perils of being female or black in corporate America (or both), but also broaden the lens to include other marginalized identities (and the intersection of many) — LBGTQ, visible and invisible disabilities, ageism, working across generations, understanding and working across cultures (given our global economy & workplaces), gender and gender identities, and yes, race & racism. But “race” does not only mean “black.” Just like “women” should never have meant “white women.”

Pride Parade

Let’s not lose sight of the forest through the trees here. When I competed in the Sharkfest swim, I had but one goal in mind: make it to the beach in San Francisco (as fast as possible). The kicking, arms, rotation, side breathing, and pacing all contributed to my success in making it there.

Let us not forget that our diversity efforts are all in an effort to create workplaces that are fit for human habitation -- that are fair and equitable. Workplaces where people (all people) feel valued, heard, and empowered to do their best work. Workplaces that drive great decision making & innovation. If we leave certain races or genders behind, we inadvertently limit our progress. It’s like kicking & moving your arms but forgetting to breathe—how long would that last?