Working with Black Equity Consultants 101 (Or maybe this is AP level for some)

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The purpose of this article is to invite, expect, and even require clients be accountable for their own readiness to embark on racial equity work. This is not an effort to convince anyone to work with us. It is not to sign off as perfect and above reproach every piece of equity consultation from Black folx. There continues to be a general lack of accountability for the harm and racism imposed on Black equity consultants when they are subject to degrading treatment. My hope is that after reading this the degrading treatment is recognizable by perpetrators and observers, and therefore disrupted and stopped.

I decided to write this after supporting white-led and majority white-staffed organizations through navigating their racial equity or diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) journey. Those of you familiar with my work, you know that my goal is never to be theoretical. Rather, I focus on providing insight that can be actionable. I do not invite navel gazing. I listen, assess, and provide concrete examples with recommendations on how to move forward. I hope that this post will accomplish this.

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There’s a saying that a fish doesn’t know it’s in water. This saying identifies how all-encompassing water is to a fish. It’s ever-present, so much so that the fish has no idea the water even exists. It just is. White supremacy is the water in which America swims. It’s toxic and it’s suffocating us, all of us.

After the murder of George Floyd there was a corporate rash of white-led/white-dominant organizations pronouncing that they wanted to “do the work.” White supremacy, anti-blackness, anti-racism… these terms became less taboo and were splashed across headlines, in CEO statements, and on the New York Times Best Seller lists for consecutive months. Equity consultants were inundated. Painful experiences of Black employees were being extracted for White learning, and perhaps as a cathartic exercise for the Black employees.

White-led/white-dominant consulting firms were beefing up their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) chops and rushing to add people of color to their teams. Then there were Us Black folx who were being approached to “help.” Many of Us are survivors of being “The Onlys” — lone people of color in firms or as private consultants. We have the scars to prove it. We also carry the scars of being Black in America.

This article is based on my notes from my run as a consultant. I initially divided this into two parts. Part I: Working with Black Racial Equity Consultants 101 (Or maybe this is an AP Level Essay), and Part II: Taking Care of Self When Working as a Black Equity Consultant. However, after reading The Hidden Cost of DEI Work- And What to Do About It, By Andrea J. Rogers and Tiloma Jayasinghe, I didn’t feel it was necessary for me to write Part II.

Working with Black Racial Equity Consultants 101 (Or maybe this is an AP level essay)

The factors outlined in this essay apply to hiring Black people period. However, I find how whiteness shows up with Black people who are hired by white-led/white-dominant organizations to support these organizations in their journey to be more racially equitable particularly interesting. I must admit that some of this should be expected, after all, an organization must recognize it has an issue with race if it’s hiring folx to support it with racial equity, right? Yet, we’re left to wonder about this when we consider both the treatment Black racial equity consultants are subjected to and the unwillingness of white-led/white-dominant organizations to learn and scrutinize the way they engage with Black racial equity consultants.

I’ll begin by defining racial equity: Racial equity is the condition that would be achieved if one’s racial identity no longer predicted, in a statistical sense, how one fares in life. This requires the elimination of policies, practices, attitudes, and cultural messages that reinforce differential outcomes by race.

  1. Make sure you know how to work with Black people. Know that hiring Black people to lead you or teach/educate you is counterculture. You will need to train yourself to disrupt default thinking so that you can see Us as the expert, respect Us, and honor our expertise.

Consider this thought exercise: Think back to the professional development workshops you’ve participated in at your company. Who was in front of the room? Have you ever reported to a leader/boss who is Black? Consider the teachers and professors you’ve had throughout your life. Who is put forth as an expert and a leader at your company? Right. Most, if any, are not Black. In fact, it’s likely that the majority were/are white.

Now, let’s compound this with media and other public depictions and narratives about Black people. We are depicted as the ones who are in desperate need of help. We are not depicted as the teachers and “professional” leaders. When Black folx lead in most media it’s in Black churches, in grassroots and social justice movements, and spaces deemed for “real talk.” The implication being that we cannot possibly lead in “professional” white spaces or truly “know” what we’re doing. We are the ones who are uneducated and cannot be trusted.[1] This is despite the fact that statistically speaking, we experience the largest disparities from mortality, college education, wealth, and even in the (in)justice system and mass incarceration machine, and thereby the most qualified to speak to and recognize these disparities and experiences.

Everything in traditional society will tell you that Black folx cannot be the experts in white spaces. Yes, we can come in and talk about resilience, the hardships of being poor and surviving domestic abuse and all of the terrible traumas. But for us to come in and support the development and integration of strategic initiatives and to provide analysis and a theory of change for your organization — that is a leap. In fact, it’s like a leap into the Spider-verse. As Black strategic consultants and advisors we are just as easily perceived to be playing a futuristic role in Cosplay.

Ways to know you’re yielding to this inequitable and frankly racist perception of Us:

- You dig deeply into every aspect of the analysis and approach, more as a critic as opposed to as a learner which you would not do if we were white, think Deloitte/BCG.

- You are so arrested by a misspelled word in a deck that you now question the truth or validity of the full body of work.

- You are hung up on our hair not being “professional” enough or even our colloquial speech. (Meanwhile, if Bob presented in his Hawaiian tropic shirt you would think: This guy is pushing the system and bringing his whole self to work.)

- Your mind is constantly looking for what’s wrong and you defer to this thought process instead of disrupting it.

- You want to focus on personal experience and anecdotes of the Black consultant instead of knowledge of the work and focusing on the anecdotes and experiences of your employees.

- You speak to us and communicate to us in a way that reflects that you don’t honor our knowledge and/or honor us as people. (See No. 3 for more on this.)

- You change your colloquial speech when speaking with us.

- You insist on revalidating our data and analysis or insist on constant re-justification of the process or analysis. This usually occurs only after receiving the results of the DEI engagement.

- You don’t want to use our titles or honor our credentials. This is much more insistent when dealing with Black folx than white folx.

2. You are the learner. You are not the knower. The Black person is the expert. (See the framing for No. 1 above.)

Understand that you will never know what it is like to walk in Black skin in this country. You will not experience how the history of enslaved Black people has dictated this nation’s approach to protecting and valuing whiteness and property over the humanity of Black people. You will never own the narrative, nor the demeaning experiences. In fact, many of the narratives you hear will leave you saying, “I can’t believe it!” Or it will simply leave you not believing Us.

Commencing racial equity work is one incremental step for your organization, and possibly for you and much of your workforce. This is an event and not the actual transition into being racially equitable or anti-racist. This is one step in an everlasting journey. This can be one step to invite disruption of “the way things are” and “the way things have always been.” Or this can be another step in continuing to defend nostalgia and tradition that has yielded to the current state of racial inequity and its partner, racial trauma.

The very act of partnering with, listening to, learning from, and believing what a Black person says is a critical act in disrupting racial inequity and racism. It is radical and revolutionary. (Unfortunately, even selecting and hiring a Black person is a hurdle in and of itself.) It requires trust. It requires disputing your own beliefs. Disrupting what you, history, society, media, and many parents, grandparents, churches and other trusted institutions have taught you. It requires disrupting and questioning the very systems your organization relies upon.

Can you even begin to do that? Can you challenge yourself to do that? Can you take this one step towards racial equity AND commit to interrogation? (See below.) If you cannot, do not hire a Black person and do not pretend to take on racial equity work. You are merely signing up for performative promises a/k/a/ lies. And you’re wasting time and resources. Of course, the tradeoff of not pursuing this work is that you will not “feel good” about yourself and your organization can’t check a box.[2]

What does being a learner look like, specifically in racial equity work?

Learners are curious and open. We expect to get things wrong. We expect to be persistent in getting towards right. We question ourselves and our process. We question our assumptions with a desire to discover new, and possibly better ways to be. To embrace this, we are perpetually walking in a state of vulnerability, forfeiting the need to control the narrative so that it always aligns with what we Know.

A. Interrogation. Interrogation in this context is the ability to consistently question all systems and self. It is an openness to a new lens and new assumptions. Interrogation is what enables white folx to see the toxicity of white supremacy as the water we all swim in and the air we breathe.

Are you consistently questioning beliefs, community, assumptions, commercials, and your history of education? They are all steeped in white supremacy. Are there areas that you hold so sacred that you refuse to review and question? If so, ask yourself why you refuse, and consider what is underneath that refusal.

Consider the assumptions, concepts, and institutions you see as so sacred you believe you must never allow yourself to interrogate them. It is likely that beliefs about the dehumanization of Black people will be one of the main or collateral assumptions you will need to accept.

Examples of Assumptions:

- Do you walk past centers of poverty and never question when you see a majority of Black people who are poor or are homeless? What is the assumption you make or blindly accept when you don’t question this? Common assumptions are Black people are poor because they aren’t willing to work hard. Fewer white people are poor because they are smarter, more talented, and/or work harder. These assumptions are evident in how we discuss, legislate, and ultimately care for poor and unhoused people.

- The mass industrial incarceration system and (in)justice system are fair. Black people naturally have more of a criminal disposition than white people. Black people are more willing to commit crimes.

- Fewer Black people graduate from high school and college. This is expected because Black people aren’t as smart, are lazy, and/or don’t value education as much as white people.

- Oftentimes, certainly prior to George Floyd’s murder, many white people failed to notice or see as problematic that their organization’s board of directors, executive leadership, and other “superiors” are all white. What is the unspoken assumption when this is okay or not noticed as problematic?

Often white people are only able to say- the problem is with “the system”, and/or “I didn’t build this system.” Perhaps you are stuck in the space of: Why are we even talking about race? Everyone is trying to play the race card. Only when you are open to persistent systemic and self-interrogation, can you ask: What’s my part in this?

B. Are you able to lean into conversations that require risk, uncertainty and emotional exposure?

This is a direct gauge of your willingness to be vulnerable.[3] Having a Black person in the front of the room who you are willing to validate is risky and filled with uncertainty because white-dominant culture does not perceive us to be knowledgeable. In many instances you may feel as if it’s unsafe. Your status and credibility may hinge upon how willing your white peers and leadership are to also validate a Black person and to self-interrogate. We know that this risk to safety of status promotes bias and discrimination.[4]

C. Curiosity v. defensiveness.

Curiosity is a component of self-interrogation. Are you able to seek to understand before you refute? Are you able to actively listen and remain engaged? Do you persistently engage in gatekeeping behaviors such as defaulting into behaviors that shut down vulnerability? This can often close our own self-interrogation process or that of others.

Examples of gatekeeping behaviors:

- Shifting a conversation that moved into vulnerability to a conversation about tasks, transactions and logistics.

- “Rescuing” others who may have become emotional- grieving, angry, tearful.

- Finishing someone’s thought or concept when they are struggling to find words.

- Injecting untimely humor.

- Leaving the room, withdrawing, disengaging to a degree that disarms others or disrupts a rumble[5] or a moment of vulnerability.

- Succumbing to emotions as a form of disengagement and avoiding disrupting your own vulnerability or self-interrogation. (Showing emotions is not inappropriate, but it is important to notice when it is used as a tool to withdraw or shift from vulnerability.)

3. Do not request an equity audit or assessment if you’re looking for a pat on the back. If you can’t handle the results, don’t ask for an audit, focus groups, or any assessment of your diversity, equity, or inclusion efforts.

An equity assessment is one of the most frequently requested services that organizations seek. The assessment usually provides a current state assessment of equity within the organization. The focus may be on diversity, equity, and inclusion overall or have a primary focus on racial equity. Unfortunately, organizations and their leadership are often ill-equipped to digest the outcomes, despite the preparation the consultant may provide. At times, at the outset of the work, the consultant may be told “We know we could do better,” or even “We know we have a problem.” Yet, when the results, quotes, and recommendations are delivered there is defensiveness, disbelief, and even anger directed at the consultant.

I have not only experienced this but have stood witness to other Black consultants (and even non-Black consultants) being discredited because a white-led/white-dominant organization did not “like” or did not “approve” of the outcomes of a DEI assessment.

This looks like:

- The client[6] demands why all of the “good things” they’re doing is not present in the assessment.

- The client discredits the full assessment solely based on the fact that all of the “good things” they’re doing were not included in the report or were not characterized in the report as good.

- The client demands that the majority of the employees don’t feel excluded or marginalized. The point of an equity assessment is NOT TO CENTER WHITENESS. So if 80% of employees are white, and of the 20% of Black or people of color employees, most indicate that they feel excluded or disempowered, that is what the equity assessment is going to center.

- The client fixates on a slight error as a means to discredit all outcomes. Minor errors such as a word is misspelled or some other slight error that does not at all inform the facts, outcomes, or recommendations of the report becomes the central focus.

- The client refuses transparency and will not share the report with the organization or board, often on the grounds that they will not understand the full context or the client doesn’t agree with the outcomes. This is often despite inclusion of a range of direct quotes from employees upon which the findings are based. This can sometimes come with the client wanting to write their own summary of the assessment to issue to the organization or board.

- The client continues to state and remain in a mindset of: I just don’t believe this. This can’t be true.[7]

- The client wants to breach the confidentiality of the findings by asking for or demanding names and identities of employees who informed the assessment.

- The client never moves towards accountability but remains in a space of self-righteousness, denial, and discrediting the consultant, the process, and the outcomes.

- The client has no evidence or standing to refute the findings but focuses on discrediting the process or the consultant.

- The client initially approved the data analysis and data gathering process, and once findings are shared, the client focuses on discrediting the process.

An organization should embrace steps 1–2 above to be better prepared to absorb and learn from an equity assessment.

Conclusion

I hope that in reading this, there will be more awareness and accountability for the way Black equity consultants are treated. The challenge of helping a fish see water is like performing a magic trick. The challenge is more evident when you appreciate the fact that the well-being and survival of Black equity consultants relies on clients seeing the water that both those very same equity consultants AND the client themselves are trying to survive (and hopefully disrupt and terminate) while they embark on this work together.

This is particularly evident when client’s want to double down on grilling the consultant on every bit of minutiae as opposed to considering the meaning of the outcomes or applying self-interrogation or accountability to better understand the sentiment that employees legitimately named as themes of inequity, exclusion, and feeling unvalued. Also, there is often the failure of organizations to sit with the outcomes of an equity audit and ask themselves: What if this is true? What is my part in this? If we believe this consultant (and our employee’s input), what must we change? Rather there is a rush to action that excludes accountability and thoughtful processing.

Again, I invite you to review the steps outlined and take them into consideration before you even begin equity work, and certainly before you commit to taking steps to become more racially equitable. This article applies these concepts specifically to hiring Black equity consultants, however, any DEI journey will be well-served by taking these concepts into consideration. In fact, any leader in an organization should read this because DEI work is leadership work. These unacceptable behaviors show up everyday within organizations and are imposed on actual employees as well. Figure out if you are guilty of any of these behaviors or mindsets.

[1] Statistically speaking, We experience the largest disparities from mortality, college education, wealth, and even in the (in)justice system and mass incarceration machine.

[2]Dr. Ibram X. Kendi discusses “feel good advocacy” in How to be An Anti-racist.

[3] Dr. Brené Brown defines vulnerability as risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure.

[4] See NeuroLeadership Institute’s SEEDS Model™.

[5] Dr. Brené Brown defines a rumble as: “a discussion, conversation, or meeting defined by a commitment to lean into vulnerability, to stay curious and generous, to stick with the messy middle of problem identification and solving, to take a break and circle back when necessary, to be fearless in owning our parts, and, as psychologist Harriet Lerner teaches, to listen with the same passion with which we want to be heard. More than anything else, when someone says, “Let’s rumble,” it cues me to show up with an open heart and mind so we can serve the work and each other, not our egos.” Let’s Rumble, Dr. Brené Brown (May 1, 2019).

[6] Note that the clients outlined in these examples primarily represent white leaders or a range of people of color who are afraid of the possible reactions of their white leaders and peers to an equity assessment.

[7] The ‘Not Here’ Syndrome, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Dr. Charlice Hurst (May 3, 2021).

Aiko is a writer, executive coach and consultant. She is Founder of RARE Coaching & Consulting. Aiko leads diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging work at Brené Brown Education and Research Group. She is also a senior director at Frontline Solutions, a Black-founded and led consulting firm.

Follow me on LinkedIn (individual), LinkedIn (consulting), or Instagram @rare_coach. Find me at: rarecoaching.net.

Thank you to Levon Williams for editing and reviewing.