An Open Letter to Managers of Black Employees

Jason Smith Jason Smith

May 30, 2020


This year has indeed been a stressful one for many reasons. I empathize with anyone who has dealt with these issues. Many people have written about the pandemic, the election, Hong Kong, the economy, and everything else going on in the world. Right now, I want to take this opportunity to talk about something that really hits home for me.

I wish that I were able to say that this topic is as current as many of the other topics but the reality is that it’s 400 year old in American history. Unfortunately, with our attention span, we tend to forget about it until it shows up in the news again.

I am talking of course about Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Christian Cooper, and Breonna Taylor.

To many of the people in America this may be another crazy news cycle but for we Black Americans, this is life. We don’t have the option to change the channel or close the YouTube video because we are “uncomfortable” or “tired of hearing about it”.

This is life for us. We all have our own horror stories of being mistreated for no other reason than the color of our skin and the inherit biases that exist in many people.

I live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area but prior to this, I lived most of my life in Texas. I had this idea that San Francisco was this haven of liberalism and that racism wasn’t rampant like it was back in Texas. I was wrong.

Last year I was at a conference and I lead a table discussion on how to improve diversity in tech and I made a comment about how San Francisco kind of reminded me of the movie “Get Out” and the table was filled with knowing laughter.

It is no secret that Silicon Valley has a poor record with black people. If we are being honest, this is just corporate America, not just tech. Also, no company’s hands are completely clean. I will not pick on any one company or group of companies because this is a much larger issue than brands and stock symbols.

The fact is that there is a vast under representation of black people in leadership positions in Silicon Valley and a major over representation of white men in particular. Because of these facts, I am writing a letter to all the white managers on what we need at this time.

NOTE: I am not the official spokesperson for black people in America. That being said, I am active in many black groups and have noticed some trends. I have noticed that there seems to be a culture of fear for speaking out about what we need. I have noticed that a lot of hurtful words have been thrown around during this stressful time. I am writing to hopefully address these overarching themes more so than specific issues.

Right now there seems to be a gap between black employees and chains of management. The only way we can move forward at this point in time is together. I will always fight for change in leadership demographics but since that isn’t where we are today, let’s work together to improve the situation.

NOW IS NOT THE TIME TO DISMISS NEWS I get it, you are tired of hearing about black people protesting and this person being shot and racism and what not. Well if you are tired of hearing it, imagine how tired we are of living it. We don’t have the option to shut it out of our lives. What’s going on matters and can be distressing for black people because it reminds them that the social contract is broken and that in 2020, we are still facing these issue. For every news story we see, there are hundreds of similar stories that don’t get press. You are literally seeing just the tip of the iceberg.

Realize that the news may be stressful and be sensitive to the fact that this is reality. This is happening. This isn’t something that’s an inconvenience, this is about people’s right to exist.

On the flip side, be mindful of the news source. Sad to say, we have many people and news personalities who want to use this event and the protests as ways to further demonize black people. I will not name them because I refuse to give them real estate on my blog or in my mind.

Context matters and if you want to learn the context of what’s going on, talk to black people, not talking heads.

NOW IS THE TIME FOR COMPASSION: This one can be difficult. After all, we are all products of our environment. Studies show that a significant number of white people do not have friends of color. If you spend your whole life in a racial echo chamber, it is hard to relate to people who lived in a different reality. Just because their experiences don’t match yours does not mean that they are wrong. Now is the time to listen and learn, not defend and counter-argue. Psychology Today Provided a great article explaining some basics. White managers, I encourage you to listen to the concerns of your black employees now and take it seriously. Listen with an open mind and heart. You may hear things that make you uncomfortable but again, if it is uncomfortable to hear it, imagine how uncomfortable it is to live it.

NOW IS NOT THE TIME TO SHARE YOUR “WOKENESS” CREDENTIALS: I am going to tell you right now, your employees of color do not want to hear how “you don’t see race” or “have a black friend”. That doesn’t help and has never helped. It comes across as disingenuous. Color-blindness is a myth. We are all different colors and the reality is that it had real world implications. You cannot pretend that someone is walking through the world as a gray blob. When you use that language, what you are really saying is “I am a good white person, you can trust me”. My retort is “Actions speak louder than words”. Don’t try to convince us that you are a good person, just be a good person. It starts by listening, understanding, and not making it about you.

NOW IS THE TIME TO BE AN ALLY: “Allyship” is a term that is thrown around a lot. I am sure that half of the general population has no idea what it means. The reality is that most minorities and women do not have a seat at the table. Without that seat, they remain voiceless. You, as a manager, are in a place where you can make a real difference. You can be a voice for the voiceless.

There was a memo that circulated a while back from a black employee at Google. In it, he calls out how he felt during the Eric Garner murder. He had to deal with insensitive talk from his team and questioned whether he would be retaliated against for joining the movement. As a manager, if you want to be an ally, stand-up for your black employees and let them know that it’s okay to feel this way and that you WILL NOT tolerate any insensitivity on this issue from your team. Make it clear to your team that this is a sensitive time and to be considerate to your black team members. I am not saying to be a White Savior. I am saying to stand up for what’s right. Not because it earns you “wokeness tokens” but because it’s the right thing to do.

NOW IS NOT THE TIME TO EXCUSE BAD BEHAVIOR: This one is key and realistically, it is not unique to black people. Corporate America has a habit of trying to minimize the effect of sexist and racist behavior within their company because someone may be a very good producer and are good for the top-line. This requires a real gut check. What matters more to you, doing the right thing or protecting someone you like?

We have a culture of not believing women or people of color when they raise complaints. Stop doing that. Take everything they say seriously. Don’t dismiss them or say “We’ll handle it” and never do anything.

Just because you can’t imagine someone being a certain way doesn’t mean that they aren’t. Amy Cooper was reportedly a self identified Liberal Democrat. I guarantee that someone’s sweet grandmother who baked pies and bought them birthday presents also spat on Ruby Bridges. It is possible to be a good employee and affable to some people while being problematic to others. Sometimes it is intentional and comes from a place of malice. Sometimes it’s just due to tone deafness. Either way, it is destructive.

I fully believe you will see more and more people speak up about racism in the workplace in the upcoming weeks so now is the time to prepare yourself for those conversations and decide what actions will need to be taken.

NOW IS THE TIME TO ASK “HOW ARE YOU?” Don’t assume that someone is okay. A simple “how are things going” will suffice. If they want to open up then great, if they don’t, that’s fine too. Just be available to talk when the opportunity comes. I know that I feel better when someone takes a genuine interest in my well-being and many others will too.

NOW IS NOT THE TIME TO QUESTION LEAVE: Mental Health is as important as physical health. Unfortunately, we as a society haven’t fully accepted that reality. It is very possible that your black employees may need to take a day, a week, etc. off in order to process this. COVID-19, family stress, work stress can all compound. Throw in recent racial unrest and it could break anyone. If someone says they need to take some time, don’t make them justify why the recent news is stressing them out. If anything, provide them with the steps they need to take to be in compliance with policy.

NOW IS NOT THE TIME TO ASSIGN EDUCATION WORK TO YOUR BLACK STAFF: Now you will have employees who will be happy to share and lead conversations on race and how we can improve. That being said, that’s not the job your black employees. If they want to educate your team or organization, then great, but don’t force them. It is not the responsibility of the black people that you know to educate you. Again, if they want to then great. However, don’t force them to do it as there are ways to educate yourself. This actually leads me to my next point.

NOW IS THE TIME TO EDUCATE YOURSELF: Okay, so what do you do if your black employees aren’t in the mood to share? These days, there are a ton of resources to learn. If you are a reader, let me recommend “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo or “How to be AntiRacist” by Ibram X. Kendi. If watching documentaries is your preferred method of learning, I would recommend “13th” on Netflix.

I hope that if you read this you share this. It is important to help everyone and the only way that happens is by communicating. No more walls between groups.

Now is not the time for judgment and fighting. Now it the time for love and understanding. We can do better and we have been given an opportunity to prove it. Let’s make this happen.

I want to leave this video from Trevor Noah as I think he provides a very great perspective.

June 3, 2020, I added additional educational resources for readers

image courtesy of Christina Morillo