I recently decided to change careers. Up until a few months ago, I was (what I’d like to think was) a modestly-successful attorney, practicing largely within the higher education space, including a stint at Harvard’s General Counsel’s Office.
But I wasn’t fulfilled. My profession confined me. Despite the intellectual edification I enjoyed practicing law within that framework, operating within the implied and explicit restrictions of the roles kept me from being free. As an attorney, examining and assessing potential liability and representing the interests of these institutions, I couldn’t speak out about race and institutional equity, without risking harm to my clients, the institutions themselves.
I thought long and hard about what was truly important and what professional avenues would lead to fulfillment and, more importantly, palpable change. I examined the societal restrictions that were governing my professional as well as my personal behavior as a black man. I focused on getting free.
And I left.
I searched high and low for a professional position that would match my intellectual curiosity, one that would challenge me, one that would utilize the skills I honed as an attorney, but most importantly, one that would allow me to study race, bias, and institutional equity—issues to which I had decided to devote my life.
In the midst of my search, my sister and I started black&, a podcast on race and allyship, as a tool to expand the reach of our allyship and antiracism efforts. I continued to be very active, pushing out antiracism tools and sentiment on social media. I served as a diversity and equity consultant to a number of organizations. During that same time period, I continued to search for a full-time professional position that would allow me to explore these important issues and, to the appropriate extent, allow me to become a full-time professional practitioner of antiracism.
And I found it. But, enough about me.
Since most well-meaning, would-be racial allies treat antiracism and dismantling white supremacy as simply another so-called cause to which a certain discrete percentage of their time and energy should be devoted, I’d imagine most draw a dividing line between their profession and allyship efforts.
True, effective racial allyship, however, requires consistent, constant, and forceful action. It is not intuitive. It is not convenient. It isn’t something to be carried out in your spare time. It isn’t something to practice when you happen to think of it. True allyship must be incorporated into every part of your life—including your time spent at work.
So, I turn the questions with which I wrestled to you. Generally, what’s keeping you from being the most effective racial ally you can be? What aspects of your everyday life obstruct your desire/ability to speak out against even the smallest expressions of racism and white supremacy?
Specifically as it relates to your profession, important considerations relating to institutional equity and antiracism efforts abound: Does your employer see the need (as in, moral need as well as practical business utility) of affirmative action hiring and retention policies; thorough, published employee handbooks and best practices relating to race and diversity; internal diversity committee or affinity groups? I could go on.
These considerations naturally lead to others, specific to you, the individual employee:
If such affinity groups do exist, do you participate in them?
If your employer didn’t offer such policies or best practices , would you inquire about them?
If you detect institutional racism/white supremacy at play in the workplace, do you feel comfortable speaking out?
Do you speak out?
Are you nervous about drawing undue attention to yourself within the workplace setting?
Are you afraid you’ll be disciplined?
Are you cautious that speaking out would use up the precious social/professional capital you’ve accrued?
Again, I could go on.
Put aside antiracism’s important societal mandates for a moment: from an individual, moral perspective, if your employer hasn’t created an environment where its employees feel comfortable speaking out against racism and institutional inequity, why would you choose to continue to work for such an organization Intellectual stimulation? Convenience? Money?
Are your reasons for remaining with an organization that does not take institutional racism seriously more important to you than your commitment to being an effective ally?
Admittedly, in a racially-healthy utopian world, all institutions themselves would promote antiracist policy and culture, serving as major societal antiracist influencers. And of course, logically, in order for my utopian dream to become a reality, employees would have to work from within to transform their organizations into antiracist entities.
Ask yourself, if you’re committed to antiracism and allyship, but don’t see a need to leave an organization that does not actively support those values, are you instead carrying out the important (and I would argue, more difficult) internal work of transforming your company from within? Are you doing the most you can to convert your company into one of those utopian organizations we all imagine?
I must stress, I’m not suggesting that everyone up and quit their jobs and find occupations that allow for the explicit exploration of race and equity issues (although can you imagine how quickly white supremacy would be eradicated if, say, one-third of white people did just that?!).
I am stating as clearly as possible that would-be racial allies must question critically whether their employers embrace or refuse efforts to combat structural and institutional racial inequity. Allies must then decide whether to remain and carry out the difficult work of initiating those efforts where they don’t exist, working diligently toward improving those efforts where they do exist, or finding an employer whose moral framework aligns with and encourages antiracism and dismantling white supremacy—and make the reason for your career change known in their exit interview.