As we observe Black History Month, it’s a good time for businesses and individuals to reassess just how well they are living up to the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace and to explore how they can improve.
Studying history is one way to do that, even if the connection to DEI might seem at first glance tangential to what’s happening in your offices and conference rooms today.
But really, when you think about it, it’s not that difficult to make the connection. The lessons we learn from history – or don’t learn because we are never taught them – affect us in many ways, sometimes including how others in the workplace see us.
Just recently on my vlog, “Intentional Conversations,” I discussed this very subject with Emmanuel Kulu Jr., an author of historical fiction and founder of the Ancient African Antiquities Research Institute of America.
Kulu made the point that when a marginalized group’s contributions to history are ignored or diminished, others can start to see the people within that group as having less value, even if this is subconscious. That can then lead to the idea that you have nothing to contribute now, that your ideas can be dismissed, that you aren’t really needed or that important to the operation.
The situation may even color how you see yourself. In many ways it can feel like erasure, as if you are invisible.
There is so much more to say and think about on this topic that I wanted to further explore it here.
History Helps Us Understand Others
First off, you don’t have to be African-American to benefit from learning the lessons of Black history. The more that any of us learn about other people – their history, their challenges, their dreams – the better understanding we will have about obstacles they face and the better allies we can be for them.
Being an ally is a part of the vernacular of DEI, but it’s sometimes misunderstood or misused. Sometimes people or businesses will do something minimal – post a meme on social media, add a statement of inclusion to the company mission page – and they see themselves as an ally. Those are certainly nice things to do, but they also allow someone to feel good about themselves while leaving the heavy lifting to others.
True allyship is about useful action. It’s not just saying you think that everyone deserves full opportunity. It is actively deciding how you will help create those opportunities and how you will strategically align your thoughts and strategies in collaboration with those you’re allying with and advocating for.People can do that in a number of ways. It might be by educating others. It could be by being a voice for others or by being a mentor. As an ally, you are leveraging your power, influence, and privilege to help someone else overcome hurdles that exist because of their situation, whether what they are facing is sexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism, classism, or ageism.
In a roundabout way, that brings us back to history, Black History Month, and the need to develop a greater understanding of those around us who are in some way different from us. Because if you’re trying to help marginalized communities overcome these systems of oppression with useful action, it’s helpful to understand the history that got us here.
And let’s face it. These days we have access to so much information that there’s no reason for any of us to remain ignorant about what those who came before us did to overcome oppression, fight to change laws, or make inroads in corporate boardrooms and the workplace in general. Black History Month should serve as a reminder that we can learn more about these things at any time, not just during 28 days set aside in one month of the year.
We all can use a broader knowledge of history because that will give us more insight into how we fit into that history and how others fit in as well.
With any luck, that knowledge can help teach us a greater respect for each other – and for ourselves – both in the workplace and outside it.