Jun 15

Responding to Racial Injustice: What I Learned From the Experts

As the nation and world demand concrete change in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and so many other people of color, I, like many, felt lost and unsure of what to do to help. The first thing I wanted to do was educate myself.

Two weeks ago, I joined a webinar hosted by the Public Relations Society of America about responding to racial injustice. The webinar featured four diversity and inclusion experts who also had decades of communications experience in higher education, consulting and municipal work. They shared their personal and professional experiences with racial injustice, provided direction for communicators to respond to injustice with change and healing, plus answered questions from the audience. In my blog this week, I want to share what I have learned.

A Packaged Solution Doesn’t Exist

As communicators, many of us have worked on a wide range of crisis situations and have developed a general playbook for how to navigate the process. The panelists affirmed there is no cookie cutter plan for how an organization can communicate about racial injustice. Every organization has different audiences, employees, customers and stakeholders with differing needs.

One consistent thing applies to all — as an organization you must have a clear understanding of what is unjust and unfair. In this climate of senseless acts of violence against people of color, it requires us to come together, work differently and most importantly, act. Beginning conversations around this issue of racial injustice is an important place to start.

Start Local

One of the most frequent comments panelists received from the audience during the webinar was about how people want to help but don’t know where to start.

Their advice was to start local. That can, and perhaps should, include starting as locally as yourself. Conduct meaningful outreach, research and approach this issue by educating yourself about the current events as well as the history behind them. Have dialogues with people of color in your inner circle and beyond to learn more and get these conversations started.

A mural by local artists in downtown Grand Rapids on the boarded windows of many businesses after riots on May 30.

Part of your research should include studying protests in your community. Find out about the individuals and organizations that have been organizing and how there may be an opportunity to support or work with those groups. Research and contact community or advocacy groups and learn about their needs.

As the panelists stated throughout the webinar, the best way you can help as an organization and individual is to engage. Social media posts about injustice are not enough. For real change, action is needed. Put your actions where your heart is and be an example of engaging with diverse audiences.

The Power of Language

A panelist who is a college professor with a background in diversity and inclusion spoke about the unconscious bias in language. As communicators, we use language as a powerful tool every day that influences attitudes and behaviors. Language can disrupt or continue the status quo; it can unite or divide, hurt or heal.

However, there is a distinct lack of diversity and inclusion in some commonly used words and phrases, which have offensive origins. To avoid using this type of language, she recommended referring to an inclusive language guide.

Inclusive language is free of stereotypes and divisive concepts. Published guides are most common in colleges and universities, but very few organizations outside of these industries have one. You can find many by doing a simple Google search. I included a few examples at the end of this blog to reference.

Other Helpful Answers

There were a number of great questions for the panel who delivered equally great responses. Here are a few I thought were helpful.

What is the most respectful way to address black people when we are communicating?

Panelists: There is not a universal answer to this question. African American is a broad umbrella term that includes many different cultures. While some are okay with African American, some may prefer “black” others may prefer “person of color.” The best thing you can do is ask. As a white person don’t be afraid to say something. Avoid thinking “I’m going to sound racist.” Have a real, direct conversation and engage.

What is tokenism?

Panelists: Tokenism is the practice of doing something, such as hiring a person of color or featuring them in an advertisement, only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly and the organization is diverse.

The three panelists of color unanimously experienced tokenism and had received inquiries in the past from organizations that, in reality, had very few employees of color on staff.

What is white privilege?

Panelists: White privilege is when a white person, by no earning of their own, has greater access to systems and opportunity, such as education, employment, buying a car, receiving a low interest rate, salary differences, etc. because of the color of their skin.

It’s okay if white people don’t have much knowledge about this because its often an invisible truth. Try and understand what others go through and how you can help change it.

What is the difference between Black Lives Matter, all lives matter, blue lives matter, etc.?

Panelists: When people use the term all lives matter, blue lives matter or any other variation, it distracts from bringing attention to the fact that black lives are being lost at a higher rate. If all lives truly mattered then there wouldn’t be the Black Lives Matter movement. You still must give people the benefit of the doubt that they aren’t trying to be racist when they use one of these terms. A lot of times they are simply uneducated about the Black Lives Matter movement and its focal point. Education is once again key in this situation.

Resources

Here are number of resources the panel provided that can help educate you more on this topic, along with one article I read recently that provides good information and a launching point to begin taking action.

She shares some more helpful tips and addresses the feeling of “I don’t know where to start.”

  • “What if I Say the Wrong Thing? 25 Habits for Culturally Effective People” by Verna Meyers.

This book addresses how you can continue the commitment of diversity in your organization. You can find quick answers to the common “What should I do?” questions, such as: “What if I say the wrong thing, what should I do?” or “What if I am at work and someone makes a sexist joke, what should I say?” Also check out some quick tips related to this in her blog.

  • “I Really Needed This Today” by Hoda Kotb

Kotb shares 365 sayings and quotes and writes about people and experiences that pushed her to challenge boundaries, embrace change and explore relationships. The book can be a good resource to stay motivated and inspired.

This podcast examines the fateful moment four hundred years ago, in August 1619, where the origins of slavery and racism began in the pre-United States English colonies. The audio series is a part of The 1619 Project from The Times that is observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery.

I would like to thank the panelists, Felicia Blow, Kim Clark, Deme Jackson and Anita Ford Saunders, for taking the time to help educate me and many other communicators on this subject. As they stated, these are not entire solutions for resolving racial injustice, but they are a good place to start.


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