I am firmly in favour of there being a designated Black History Month.
Especially now. We need this moment of extra attention no differently than cultural industries that enjoy the amplification of awards shows and sports communities benefit from All-Star games. I appreciate those who ask why Black History Month should be a thing because isn’t Black History Month every month? They are not wrong. However, I understand this moment.
Especially this year.
The Black community and other “underestimated” communities (a term I have recently read from Myles Worthington) are facing increasingly more difficult times. DEI is under assault. Affirmative action has been assailed and disbanded. Agency over oneself, especially for women, is being outlawed. Businesses have de-prioritized inclusion.
You can feel the sense of dread as the underestimated start to see the gains and progress being eroded and ignored. Suddenly, the concept of one step forward and two or three back feels inevitable and depressing.
The official Canadian theme for Black History Month is rooted in excellence, and the future resonates with me yet raises the issue of how. Consider this direct quote from the theme description – “This theme celebrates the rich past and present contributions and accomplishments of Black people in Canada while aspiring to embrace new opportunities for the future.” Inspiring words, but for whom?
Will these words stimulate action, commitment, and investment from the current cohort of power brokers? Do those in power believe that the Black community needs new opportunities, or does it deserve them? Is the talk of the past few years becoming a muted whisper, accompanied by the ghostly silence of eliminated roles and budget cuts?
The argument for diversity has been that it is good for the bottom line. That diversity is what customers, clients, and future employees have come to expect. Unless your organization embraces diversity, it will face adversity and brand tarnish, or so we people claim.
These arguments, in my opinion, have failed to endure for the long term. Despite the economic upheaval, which is felt more dramatically by the underestimated than any other groups, companies are generally doing just fine, thank you very much. There may not be the massive activity in the venture capital world that businesses have been accustomed to recently. Still, the growth has been solid on many other measures, including market cap, stock gains, and profits. When the stock market has been revving, and unemployment is still at record lows, who needs to stay committed to diversity? Besides, there are other weighty and worthwhile issues to contend with – wars, climate, mental health, terrorism, politics.
I don’t believe the Black community will achieve the new opportunities it deserves if we continue to expect corporations to do the work for us. I am not suggesting we give up, but while I believe diversity is excellent for the bottom line, the argument is insufficient. In contrast to giving up, I urge the Black community to double up.
To realize the opportunities we all want for the Black community, we must equip tomorrow’s Black leaders to succeed. Whether those new leaders are young or old, their future success or failure will have more impact on combating racism and prejudice in the work world than any policy will. Committing to supporting Black leaders during Black History Month can be an ideal launchpad, assuming it continues throughout the year.
Being an ally to the Black community will require those collaborators to assist and support the development of these future leaders and not merely be the people who say DEI is important to them. Success in any sector requires resilience, self-management, capacity, savvy, and smarts, among other traits. We can cultivate, nurture and bestow those traits when our community commits to those who wish to grow.
Racism is systemic and, unfortunately, entrenched in our legislative, educational, and social systems. Long-term change will be enacted by those with influence and impact, whose faces will continue to look the same unless we elevate Black talent. The distinction between being a decision-maker and a stakeholder is significant and perpetual.
Diversity should not be your objective for Black History Month. Nor should equality. The end of racism should be your objective for Black History Month. We will achieve this goal by including Black voices in writing all future narratives. Those voices will come when we accelerate leadership development at scale and realize our full and just potential.