Black History Month? But I’m Not Black!

William J. Wiggins Culture, Diversity, employee experience

In years past I’ve had employees at my door every Independence Day, Memorial Day, Pride Month, Cinco de Mayo, and St. Patrick’s Day, even Movember, asking, “what are we doing?” “Is the office closing early?” All clamoring to offer ideas on how we would either celebrate, observe, or commemorate the most notable of events surrounding these days.

But when it comes to Black History Month, Dr. Martin Luther King Day, or Juneteenth, it’s crickets. When I have proposed, from my dedicated HR corner of the leadership table, that organizations pay the same respects and homage to events, historical persons, and Patron Saints that these days or months represent, Until recently, I always receive a plethora of responses including:

• Umm yes, maybe we can have a potluck, my neighbor makes great fried chicken.
• But we hardly have any Black employees oh sorry, African American, wait, which is it?
• Let’s bring pizza in for the staff, put it on your company card, I’ll approve it.
• Let’s do an email to staff encouraging them to volunteer at their favorite charity or something.
• But we must be careful, we don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable.

Some things you just can’t un-hear! I even once walked into the break room to find random cardboard cutouts of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, and others hanging about the walls with chips and salsa on the table, with a note printed with a fancy font of some sort, “Happy Black History Month” compliments of the white temporary receptionist, which oddly enough I found somewhat endearing.

While we are all expected to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, fly our rainbow buffs during Pride Month, deck our workspaces out in all things red, white, and blue, on Independence Day, and raise a margarita with our colleagues after work on Cinco de Mayo; all of which your Black employees are likely to participate in fully without blinking an eye; notably, holidays or observances related to Black causes or historical events and heroes go largely uncelebrated, marginally acknowledged, if at all, or approached with extreme caution.

When I have taken on the task of putting together events to commemorate our Black History Month White leaders will inevitably come into my office and shut the door, or pull me into a stairwell and ask me should I attend? Should we make this mandatory? Is this something for everyone? Are White staff included, are you going to be there, so I’ll have someone to talk to (again, the things you can’t unhear)? I even once had a leader tell me he had a dashiki that he thought still fit and asked if it was appropriate to wear it. My answer is always come one come all, Dashiki, button-downs. or pastel polo, Black History Month is not population-specific any more than another month of observance or holiday.

My Message-
To White leaders far and wide – Black History Month is for everyone because everyone has been impacted by Black History. Commemoration of Black History Month in your workplace shouldn’t be treated as taboo, or simply a task with a box to be checked next to it. Even if you have few to no Black employees your other employees may have varying levels of commitment to Diversity Equity and Inclusion. Some may have none but are simply curious and this may be just the right occasion to give them the opportunity to feel for just a moment what many Black people experience daily – entering spaces and places where We feel out of place. I need for you to stand up in moments that matter and be an ally!

I am calling for White leaders, to support us in making our organizations more racially equitable, inclusive, and safe environments to learn and be curious. I need for you to open up and show up, unafraid of getting it wrong. I need you to be willing to pause for a moment to understand what shapes the Black experience and how that shows up in the workplace. It is likely that your Black employees know far more about you than you know about them i.e. how you communicate and like to be communicated with, likes and dislikes; triggers, etc. Far more than you realize, because they, unlike you, have not been afforded the privilege of not knowing, or not caring, because they are typically have been the ones called upon to adapt. That’s Black History!

I need your commitment beyond approving the invoice or simply providing space. I need you to dig deep and try to understand that the journey your Black employees took to be there may be very different from yours; something you will never understand simply by reading Caste by Isabelle Wilkerson.

I need White leaders to use Black History Month to connect and commit to really exploring your diversity and inclusion initiatives. Make the effort to invest in and promote networking and collaboration events that bring employees together that otherwise would not cross paths.

So, your company has never hosted Black History Month and you’re wondering what to do? I say start the cycle of change by asking “why?” Participating in Black History Month is one of many steps you can take in breaking this cycle of mass marginalization of all things labeled “Black.” and simply pausing to understand, and pay respect to how other’s might experience the environments we share.

Happy Black History Month!