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[flagged] Ask HN: How are your companies addressing systemic racism?
29 points by haleymbryant 30 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 31 comments
I am a black leader at a startup. I sent a memo to our team on Monday to share how I'm feeling as a black person in light of George Floyd's death and the events of the last week. I've heard that many companies have shied away from directly addressing what's happening in the world and I know that that's due at least in part to lack of representation. Black people represent just 3.3% of senior leadership roles in our country (CNN). We're donating to charity and discussing D & I initiatives, but I know there are companies that will shy away from the conversations needed for change to happen.

What are your companies doing? Where are they failing? What's holding you back from speaking up?




How do you even show that systematic racism exists?

-edit to assuage the presumptuous-

Assuming systematic racism does exist in US industry(I'm not from the US or live there) and a solution is provided to lessen it. At what point can you say that it no longer exists?

I don't think there will ever come a time where the demographics of Executives In Industry will match the demographics of a nation. There are a million different factors at play that have nothing to do with race, I think its not a very useful measure. But without that, what else can you go by?


Qualitatively: By listening to employees and giving them appropriate channels to address incidences of bias.

Quantitatively: By looking for bias in employee advancement, hiring, etc.


Furthering the quantitative angle a bit, it's easy to overlook the decision-making power of the positions involved (ie: the number of people of color in leadership roles, versus in entry level positions).


How do you think?

I feel like step 1 is helping people care enough to slow down and understand what it is to be able to identify it in themselves, their networks and their organizations.

This short video does a good job of illustrating how it piles up over time: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrHIQIO_bdQ

I look at the amazing team I'm surrounded by that is largely void of people of color and think about our hiring practices, our exposure to communities outside of the majority and our customer base as well and see the direct and indirect ripples of systemic racism.


Unless a company is willing to do completely blind hiring and eventually promotions/raises anything they do internally to "address systemic racism" is merely posturing.

To illustrate this point, suppose there's Big Corp A - a company that's extremely racist. However they say they're not racist. To prove this they do everything you could imagine for their employees, seminars, diversity training, etc. All of the employees who work there conclude Big Corp A is not racist. However, suppose they actually are racist and simply do not hire anyone who is not of their preferred race. This would mean it's possible for the employees to feel that they're not racist, but also that they have racist policies.

Racism is something that can be viewed empirically. Without transparency, any company claiming to not be racist is lying. Blind hiring, transparency in wages, etc. are all things that a company would do to address systemic racism.

In any case, a company could make a large donation to many organizations trying to solve these problems I suppose. One would have to measure that impact vs. the impact they have that furthers the divide (e.g. a company whose existence might hurt individuals of certain races disproportionally).


Is there a word to describe a behavior e.g. doing just enough to look like you are actively trying to solve a problem?

It probably goes together with greenwashing and astroturfing.


Thanks for your thoughts.

Totally. Diversity and inclusion can end up feeling like and being a box to check versus a genuine effort to create change.

Process changes take time and can get easily derailed. I think about the small changes that can make a difference. Sharing resources written by black people, looking at your website to see if people of color are represented and giving solution oriented feedback if it isn't, asking for/demanding unconscious bias training for all team members...no act of inclusivity is too small. They all plant seeds of change.

Re: furthering the divide, it's interesting to look beyond the gestures of Fortune 500 companies esp to think about how their mission and model hurts or helps people of color broadly.


No racism at our company. Neverthless we have well-structured independent channels to addresss systematic issues and biases when they emerge which fortunately do not require protesting. The personnel holding the position of these channels rotate after a fixed time so that they do not become authoritative or fascist.


It's great to hear that there are structured channels for communication about racism and bias.

Your message is in conflict with itself though; you're saying there is no racism but that it is consistently addressed internally - racism and more broadly unconscious bias is everywhere. One of the things this time is reminding me of is that fixing this problem is not some one else's job, it's all of our jobs. Believing racism doesn't exist in our own networks/companies keeps us silent about the problem and slows the honesty and understanding required to make change happen.


Some people just want to make change happen in fields where there is no existing problem. Of course we face other issues that require change all the time but racism is not one of them in our company.


That racism somehow doesn't exist in your company is both unlikely and impossible to prove. It's almost certain that the situation is worse that you believe.


I said we have well structured channels to address any kinds of issues. I never said they were being used to address racism internally but they could be used for it though, but like I said, we don't have this issue. You have misunderstood my comment to support your own worldview into mine.


I'm not sure that your conclusion here is correct - you may want reconsider before you accuse someone of unwholesome motivations ;)

The problem is that you have categorically stated that you do not have racism. Unless you're a one-person-band (and maybe even if you are a one-person-band), you cannot possibly prove the absence of something, especially something as pervasive and insidious as bias (any bias - including racial).

You can say we have no reported bias. You might even claim to have no biases worth reporting.

But absolutely zero bias? That would be an amazing thing to behold, even in an individual. Certainly something to strive for, never something to claim categorically.


People can be discriminated against for all kinds of reasons and lack of great reasons. So I think you bring up a good point, and additionally it can also be generalized to be aware if we are doing enough to be inclusive of everyone.


Our CEO and ELT have taken a clear stance against racism. They've expressed sadness and anger at events that have unfairly targeted African Americans and other people of color and made it clear such injustices are not to be tolerated. Since May 27 we've had weekly company-wide sessions to discuss this. In our weekly team meetings and in smaller chat sessions we've shared thoughts, personal experiences and ideas on what we should do. On June 1 our CEO announced Cisco's purpose is to power an inclusive future for all. Public versions of our internal messaging are available yet but some is touched on in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kcIUDwpI66Q


I would view racism as a marketing problem. Some (most? all?) people associate certain races with bad traits. That's the underlying issue, and to a certain degree it is also a subconscious thing that people can't easily change, even if they want to. Protests won't make any difference, nor will public statements. Riots only make things worse. The best, and maybe only thing you can do is to show black people in a more positive light. You need marketing. It may sound stupid, but promote that you are a black leader at a startup and do valuable work for society.


Minorities are not responsible for the racism perpetuated against them. It's not a "marketing problem" that minorities need to solve, it's a racism problem that the perpetrators need to solve.


Don't disagree, but the poster asked what he/she could do. Also, it won't work without the help from minorities.


Minorities have been trying to prove their worth to the US since the inception of the country (which was built on their backs). It hasn't changed anything.

And why isn't it that the non-minorities shouldn't be the ones who are groveling and seeking to be model citizens? Remember that if a white police officer hadn't killed a black man in the street, we wouldn't be having this conversation right now. By your logic, shouldn't all white people now be tainted by his actions and forced to acquiesce to cultural standards set by non-whites?

If I disparaged your race, would you say the onus is on you to prove me wrong?


Perception is mostly shaped by frequency. It doesn't matter that much what most people of the minority do. It matters what the others see.

To give you an example: if you have little personal contact to a specific minority, and over 50% of the people of that minority you see on TV are either criminals on local news, or musicians and actors playing gangsters, everyone who doesn't have a lot of contact with them in real life is getting scared every time they see someone who fits the profile.

It's up to the majority to give the minorities opportunities to present themselves in the best light, but you can't force someone to be not racist. Even those who don't want to be have an unconscious bias. You need frequent positive impressions of that minority to get a good overall impression and avoid that bias.

By the way, this is not limited to race, but also for example applies to people with tattoos. If all tattooed people you see are criminals, you are scared by tattooed people as well. It works with every property of people that's easily visible.


> To give you an example: if you have little personal contact to a specific minority, and over 50% of the people of that minority you see on TV are either criminals on local news, or musicians and actors playing gangsters, everyone who doesn't have a lot of contact with them in real life is getting scared every time they see someone who fits the profile.

Yes, I agree that the portrayal of minorities in the mass media in the Western world is incredibly racist. Part of the reason for this is the racism inherent in the US justice system -- you're currently witnessing worldwide protests over it.

However, I also see many representations of non-minorities portrayed in negative light -- why is it that only minorities are forced to atone for fictionalized representations of themselves and are not regarded as individuals with their own agency, lives, dreams, hopes, pains, and instead must be lumped into the same group and called to account for the actions of someone that happens to have the same skin color?

> By the way, this is not limited to race, but also for example applies to people with tattoos. If all tattooed people you see are criminals, you are scared by tattooed people as well. It works with every property of people that's easily visible.

People choose to be tattooed.

"Be more visibly obedient to the cultural norms of racists" is not a valid suggestion for addressing systemic racism.


> Part of the reason for this is the racism inherent in the US justice system

What's the root cause of that? A long time ago it was an economic incentive, but that incentive doesn't exist anymore. Today, I think, it's bias.

> instead must be lumped into the same group and called to account for the actions of someone that happens to have the same skin color

Because that's how the human brain works. It classifies things based on previous experiences. It is biased by design. You need to change the input to change the outcome.

Luckily, today, media is a huge part of the input and thus it is relatively easy to change.

> People choose to be tattooed.

Yes. But you are arguing on a different level. You are arguing in terms of fairness and guilt. I would agree with you on that level if that would be all there is to it. If there was a way that the majority could overcome racism by just wanting it enough, I would also agree with you. But in the real world you can not change the perception of other people without at least some cooperation to create an impression that creates a positive experience.

Some people chose to be part of a visually distinctive group. Others are just born into it. But independent of how you got into the group, the consequences are the same. Not because it is fair (it isn't), but just because that's the way humans work.

> "Be more visibly obedient to the cultural norms of racists"

You can change the cultural norms to avoid elements of racism, and you can change the norms to find a middle ground, but I don't think you can live in a world without bias without also having common cultural norms. People are always biased against those who live outside their cultural norms.


You don't think black leaders are already doing that, and have been forever? You defeat racism by defeating racists: removing their power to advance their ignorant agendas.


Your are assuming that there is someone in power or large numbers who has/have an agenda of racism. Who is? Have you ever seen any sane person who,for example, disagrees with the notion that Black Lives Matter? Some people may argue that there are other lives that matter as well, but no one seriously disagrees that Black Lives Matter.


My employer instituted a form of the Rooney Rule[0] several years ago.

Our compliance with this rule is audited biannually by a third-party and diversity is important to our clients.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rooney_Rule


We are trying an approach where for every new hire we must get a diverse set of qualified candidates for the last round of interviews.

The idea is that we don't want our employees to feel they were hired because of their looks, but because they were the best candidate for the job. At the same time, we hope that as a company, this will make us work harder to ensure equal opportunity for underrepresented groups.

What's been challenging is to figure out how should we set the bar to measure our performance on this. Ultimately, it comes down to the representation among our employees, but I believe that setting specific goals earlier in the hiring process would help us get there.


Love this approach and the thoughts on goal setting to measure success.


I work for a ginormous monster huge bank. Diversity and inclusion are incredibly important values at all levels. It’s not just lip service as the leadership goes well out of their way to impose these values.

> What are your companies doing?

I have been away on military assignment since the chaos caught fire, but before that the company strongly encouraged people to socialize outside their comfort groups and treat people as family (the kind you like). The company didn’t especially focus on race as this is factored into diversity.


Thanks for sharing and for your service. Love this. Does the company have any structure to help facilitate people socializing outside their comfort zone?


The two most common things that come to mind are social events and extracurricular work meetings associated with awareness of other areas of business. It’s such a big company that employees really are encouraged to take time away from their scheduled responsibilities to learn about what other people are doing.

The social events are sponsored by leadership which sometimes provides funding but team members are encouraged to be the driving force as a leadership building opportunity. Usually these are just things like potlucks or games at the office which require almost no spending or travel but there are also recreation days to entertainment locations outside the office.

Some of the events require a bit more effort for me to participate because I commute 45 miles to work one way where most people live close to the office.

The company is so big and diverse that I honestly don’t even notice race there. The thing that sticks out most for me are accents of employees where English is not their birth language, which requires more effort to parse during long phone meetings.

What I have noticed about this company is don’t be shy about meeting people. People are always nice and eager to meet. For some reason I am really shy in the corporate world and this is really hard for me. I find that I don’t want to be seen as pushy, superior, or impatient. I find that quite humility I learned from the military dominates all my social engagements around new people in the office to my limitation. I find that so strange because in the military I have been a platoon sergeant and managed large numbers of people in a high confrontation environment.


I see "isms" and "phobias" as regrettably rampant in America. Perhaps more now that at any other time in my life. This is a huge community problem.

That said, I feel these are not discussions that belong in the workplace particularly as you are a workplace leader, I personally think that sending a memo to your team to talk about your feelings was inappropriate.




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