White People, Are You Done “Listening & Learning” Yet?
Like open-concept workspaces and infinitely stocked snack bars, the latest trend in corporate culture is fixing racism through town halls and open dialogue. It’s not working.
The thing about whiteness is that it’s loud. It’s the obnoxious man in a boardroom yelling ideas that aren’t his. It’s Karens going viral for screaming obscenities in craft stores. It’s not-so-micro aggressions. It’s overarching oppression. It’s mediocrity stomping over meritocracy. Even its silence is deafening. So, after George Floyd was callously killed by police and the white world at large seemed to be waking up to its garish privilege, it’s understandable that comfort was to be found in the phrase “listening and learning.” Finally, white people were going to be quiet. They were going to see us, hear us, LISTEN to us. White influencers "muted" themselves in service of handing over their influence to creators of colour. Companies made vague pledges to “stand with” their Black employees. Historically racist institutions put out earnest video PSAs about their commitment to a “journey” of reflection. It was a global acknowledgement of a dire need for comprehensive anti-Black racism education, for media literacy, and for real empathy for marginalized communities.
That was the pitch, anyway.
In the past six months, organizations from tech companies to school boards to TV networks started hiring diversity and inclusion consultants en masse to lead these “listening and learning” sessions with their staff. The gist: execs, managers, and employees meet to hear from Black, Indigenous, and people of colour at their companies to learn about their racist experiences and listen to their grievances — most are overseen by a moderator.
Like open-concept workspaces and infinitely stocked snack bars, the latest trend in corporate culture became fixing racism through town halls and “open dialogue.” Didn’t you get the memo? These sessions aren’t new, and the problem isn’t exactly that they exist, it’s that they are the least a company can do. In the wrong hands, they exploit employees of colour who are called on to share their pain while white people look on passively. Often there is no real action attached to these emotionally taxing discussions. If you want evidence of passive white “allyship” can be, look at the support for Black Lives Matter, which has dipped significantly since June in the U.S. amongst adults (except for Black Americans). It’s infuriating proof that all this listening and learning hasn’t turned into significant change or action.
“I’m seeing people running town halls and asking their Black employees questions, and I’m like, Oh my god, you’re re-traumatizing individuals,” says Karlyn Percil, a Black Toronto-based certified emotional intelligence expert and leadership coach who runs Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) workshops for major multinational companies. It's not an easy line of work to be in. “It’s really dehumanizing to always be appealing to corporate Canada that Black lives matter, and to make a business case for it.”
Imagine how the employees feel. Black people are dying — we’re literally being murdered in our sleep. Our dreams are being stripped away and our livelihoods destroyed by the pandemic of anti-Black racism, and companies are hosting hollow meetings in which they pat themselves on the back for forcing employees to revisit and share their trauma while calling it a growth exercise. I’ve heard multiple anecdotes about a particularly horrible tactic in which (white) DEI experts say something offensive to a Black employee in a session as a test, just to see if their colleagues will stick up for them — like our pain is a game.
Our dreams are being stripped away and our livelihoods destroyed by the pandemic of anti-Black racism, and companies are hosting hollow meetings.
Many of the people of colour I talked to for this piece, who took part in listening and learning sessions over the past few months (most wanted to remain anonymous), detail an unsafe and unsettling environment. They spoke to me about having “painfully basic” conversations about race, sharing their frustrations in large Zoom meetings while their white colleagues remained quiet, and enduring the exasperation of tackling systemic workplace racism in hour-long conference calls without getting any sense that things would actually change. Serena*, a employee of colour at a Canadian media company, says she has not felt safe in either one of the two workshops she’s taken part in, which were instituted after her organization was called out for treating its BIPOC employees unfairly, and which her bosses also attended. “To be in those sessions with the people who have caused a lot of this trauma makes no sense,” she says. “[As an employee of colour], you already feel like you’re being watched and then [the executives] are there watching you. And we’re talking about creating a safe space? What the fuck? Why are those people there?”
Jessica*, a woman of colour working at a community newspaper in southern Ontario, has attended anti-racism sessions with her bosses too (a senior white colleague cried in one meeting), and says it’s “exhausting” to have to say the same things — like why they should hire diverse freelancers — to her superiors over and over and not see any progress or get compensated for her extra work. “I felt like I was explaining the same things to my bosses that I explained two weeks ago, six weeks ago, and eight weeks ago,” she says. “There are white people making so many thousands of dollars off of saying the same thing that I'm saying,” she says, referring to the white execs at her company and white DEI consultants.
And it’s big business. Companies will pay up to $450,000 USD a year for such “diversity support” and unconscious bias training, according to a New York Times piece from last November before Floyd was killed by police. And, as Jessica suggests, a lot of that money is going into white people’s pockets. “Broadly, in equity and diversity offices, it's rare that a racialized person will be leading [sessions],” says Monique*, a woman of colour who works in gender-based violence policy in Canada. “White women profiting from this makes me angry.” She says this happens often when these sessions are hosted by internal staff, who are mostly white and women or ill-equipped DEI experts looking to make a buck. She describes attending a listening and learning workshop on including anti-Black racism in conversations about sexual violence where white women in the session balked at talking about race because they said it “distracted from the issue that we need to be focusing on.” She ended up having to school her colleagues on intersectionality because the facilitator of the session — a white woman — did not.
Support for Black Lives Matter has dipped significantly since June. It’s infuriating proof that all this listening and learning hasn’t turned into significant change or action.
Stories like Monique’s are common and showcase what happens when white fragility goes unchecked in these sessions. White people rarely speak up, and when they do, they are often defensive. “People want to defend themselves instead of listening,” adds Amanda*, a white teacher in New York, who has witnessed this within sessions at her school board, and also heard whispers afterward from white colleagues saying they felt “attacked” by these conversations. “You see people getting flustered, frustrated, angry, and defensive as our Black colleagues are telling us what they see, feel, and hear.”
In her experience, Serena, the Canadian media professional, says her colleagues give shoddy excuses for their silence. She recalls a white male senior employee expressing his concern that “people are very afraid to say the wrong thing.” After his comment, “The session then turned into ‘How do we make this a safer space for white people if they say something racist?’” she says. “I’m afraid of losing my job if I say something. They just keep wanting the space to fuck up and to get away with hurtful things.” She adds that she wishes her white peers would say something — anything — in these sessions. “When you are seeing the people with the most to lose speak up and you remain silent, then you’re not learning.” The fact that these sessions, which are designed to make safer spaces for BIPOC employees, can end up protecting the feelings of white people speaks to how flawed and damaging it is to base an inclusion strategy on the emotional labour of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour employees.
Worse, since these sessions prioritize “listening and learning,” they absolve white people from action. It reminds me of when Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement gained momentum in 2017, a reckoning that was also met with promises made by companies to “listen and learn.” It's the ultimate cop-out, a writer who goes by Your Fat Friend, wrote for Medium at the time: "Like offering thoughts and prayers after a mass shooting or natural disaster, listening and learning become ways to offer condolences without committing to the messy, crucial work of preventing tragedies before they come to pass.”
So, when can listening and learning sessions actually work? It comes down to how they are being run, who is running them, and what is done afterwards. A good start, says Avery Francis, HR executive and founder of Toronto-based Bloom, a consulting firm that focuses on building diverse teams and inclusive workplaces, is that every employee “should have foundational understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion. What does bias mean? How does it manifest in the workplace? What is privilege? What is anti-Black racism? Does it exist? Is it a thing? You need to set that baseline understanding first.”
Francis says white employees should be educated on anti-racism before moving into conversations with their BIPOC peers, and those seminars are best led by racialized consultants. People like Karlyn Percil or Larissa Crawford, a Black-Indigenous founder and managing director of Future Ancestors, a youth-led organization which focuses on anti-racism, climate justice, and equity. Crawford, who is based in Calgary, offers a rigorous, multi-step course that can end with a 40-page report on how to move forward. “When companies are not open to changing behaviour and acknowledging their harm and impact, then I can't move forward with them,” she says. “And I choose not to.”
Systems don’t dismantle themselves. People do. If you do not address the attitude and behaviour of the decision-makers, the people who have the power and need to do better, it means that all the listening and all the learning won’t go anywhere.
LEadership & DEI coach Karlyn Percil
Crawford’s work uses restorative sharing circles that focus on companies acknowledging their harm and being held accountable for past actions. All of the DEI experts I spoke to stressed the importance of such accountability so that these sessions can be effective. “Systems don’t dismantle themselves. People do,” Percil says. “If you do not address the attitude and behaviour of the decision-makers, the people who have the power and need to do better, it means that all the listening and all the learning won’t go anywhere.” Serena has already seen that happen in her workplace and fears these sessions, in isolation, are just a distraction, and far too short. “Near the end, it felt like people were finally being more open and real and then it was like, ‘Okay, it’s over!’ she sighs. “It’s doing the bare minimum masquerading as doing the work.”
“It’s about what leaders are going to do with these listening and learning sessions versus what’s wrong with these sessions,” adds Dr. Patricia Hewlin, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at McGill University, who has seen healthy conversations happen in companies during her sessions, which she views as positive and necessary. She will often hold separate calls with only BIPOC employees and without senior staff, and gives employees of colour the option to connect with her outside of meetings. People I talked to who have attended Hewlin’s sessions say this method is effective, but many are still waiting for real action from their superiors.
Like Francis and Percil, Hewlin thinks these sessions are “an important step” before the real work begins. “This is a step. Not an antidote,” says Hewlin, a Black woman. “It’s a critical component to a larger, strategic plan.” The plan should vary from workplace to workplace, Hewlin says, but it must involve evaluating hiring and promotion practices, content decisions, and restructuring businesses to be more equitable by addressing wage discrepancies or appointing an internal ombudsperson who employees can take future concerns to.
The real work is messy. The real work is pulling up your colleagues publicly when they send racist emails. It’s not participating in an all-white women panel and calling it groundbreaking. Sure, it’s listening, and it's learning, but it’s also hearing the Black women (and hiring them!) going through the exhaustive labour of running these sessions or speaking out from behind their webcams in front of the colleagues who have bullied them. It’s implementing their suggestions. It’s publicly acknowledging your mistakes. It’s dismantling and deprogramming. It’s long, tedious, frustrating, humbling WORK. Until companies are willing to do that, they may as well hold inattentive and ignorant sessions. And leave us out of it.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.