OPINION: Shaun R. Harper is a Provost Professor at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, and executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center.
Monday’s staff meeting began with Meg making sure everyone knew she spent a portion of her weekend protesting police brutality and racism in America. She proudly passed around her cell phone for colleagues to scroll through photos of her and a group of self-declared white allies marching for Black lives. Meg and all her friends look so happy. The album includes a picture of Meg creating her poster before taking to the streets. It says Black Lives Matter. This was not her first time making such a seemingly courageous pronouncement. She had done so the week prior in an email to colleagues in her division. “Black Lives Matter” was in the subject line, which is why none of the Black employees who’ve worked with her for years could even bring themselves to open it. As an act of emotional self-preservation, they weren’t at all interested in reading anything Meg had to say about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, or anybody Black.
Obviously, Meg was unaware that no Black co-worker read the email she sent. She did wonder, though, why none of them responded to it. Twelve minutes after sending it, she went to Raheem’s desk to ask what he thought of it. “You did a really great job,” he replied. “All us members of the Black Employees Network appreciate you valuing our lives in an email.” Meg missed this shade. Because Raheem spoke on behalf of the entire network (he was, after all, its president) Meg felt confident that all Black employees really liked her statement. She was therefore especially eager for them to see her protest photos in the staff meeting. Meg was visibly most excited when her phone landed in black hands. While swiftly swiping through the photos, every Black employee offered some version of, “wow, Meg, terrific.” But truthfully, every one of them were frustrated with Meg and her failed, ironic attempts at being an ally. Nonetheless, they couldn’t be honest with her in the moment. In fact, they had long held back their true feelings about Meg. She thought they all really liked her.
Why couldn’t Black employees let Meg know that her Black Lives Matter poster and paradoxical protest participation were seriously offensive to them? Because she would get defensive. She would point out how her division has the company’s highest percentage of Black employees (which, in raw numbers, is 6 out of 65). Meg most certainly would remind them of how Jasmin, a Black woman whom she supervises, was first in the company’s history to be promoted to director. Meg considers herself a mentor to Jasmin. Yet, Jasmin didn’t bother reading Meg’s Black Lives Matter email. And of course Meg would respond to honest feedback from Black colleagues by reminding them that her sister is married to a Black man, and theirs is such a multicultural family, which is why she has such deep appreciation for diversity and social justice. Black co-workers were sure Meg would respond this way because she’d done so too many times in the past.
If these colleagues attempted to share honest, deeply painful insights into the realities of their daily experiences as Black people in the division Meg leads, she’d somehow find a way to make it about her and her own views of her advocacy of them. She’d also cry. Then she’d go hassle Raheem for specific examples. She’d go next to Wendy and Julie, two white co-workers who’d most assuredly remind her of all she’s done for Black people. Her brother-in-law is the next person she’d call for validation. Meg would return to her Black colleagues and tell them all the reasons they were wrong. She’d also give them a copy of the Rosa Parks essay she wrote in college; her Black professor really liked it. One more thing: Meg would express her disappointment with the implication that she was not committed to inclusion, and insist that anyone suggesting this is divisive, perhaps even themselves racist. Then more tears.
As Ebony, one of the division’s six Black employees, braced herself to quickly swipe through Meg’s photos, she couldn’t help but think about Maisha, the Black woman whom Meg violently undermined to get the division VP role. Maisha left the company for a Senior VP position elsewhere. She also remembered when the Black Employees Network asked for $100 to buy pizza for their February 2020 Black History Month event. Meg said no because she’d then have to do the same for Chinese New Year, Hispanic Heritage Month, LGBTQIA+ Pride Month, and all the other diversity events. “I just don’t have it in my budget,” she explained. And then there was that time the Black Employees Network brought to the division vice presidents’ attention that 98.7% of Black workers across the company were in the lowest-paid, least-powerful roles. All the other VPs at least pretended to appreciate the feedback. But Meg got defensive. More tears. Ebony also recalled the time there were two finalists for a director-level role in the division, one of whom was Black. Everyone agreed the two women were equally qualified, but Meg ultimately hired the white finalist. “I just think she’d be a better fit for our culture,” was Meg’s explanation. Ebony most definitely couldn’t forget the multiple times that Meg had problems with her work, but chose to talk with Wendy and Julie about it, who then told Jasmin, Raheem, and Maisha. Ebony wasn’t exactly sure what specifically her direct supervisor, Meg, found problematic about her performance because all reports of dissatisfaction always came to her from others. Given all this, Ebony could offer just one response as she held the cell phone and scrolled through dozens of happy Black Lives Matter protest march photos: “wow, Meg, terrific.”