I recently took a six-week road trip in an RV. It was a lovely escape provided by the luxury of being able to work from anywhere. As we drove, I realized that my anxiety or relative comfort in an area was directly proportional to the prevalence of Blue Lives Matter flags. As a Black person, I’m clear that Blue Lives Matter is not a neutral statement; Blue Lives Matter means Black Lives don’t. You’re choosing a side.
When you say, “Blue Lives Matter,” you are directly appropriating and denying the call that Black Lives Matter while simultaneously upholding systems of state violence targeting Black life. As founding member of the Movement for Black Lives Alicia Garza has explained, we need to say Black Lives Matter because of the historically specific ways in which Black lives are “systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.”
As I saw bumper after bumper with thin blue line stickers, I thought about a recent decision we made at Code2040 to not partner with any organization that has decided to ban “political” conversations in the workplace. This choice to forbid these conversations is a direct reaction to the increase in conversations about race in the workplace, following the murder of George Floyd last year. Such a direct refusal to address racism is the tech industry’s equivalent of flying a Blue Lives Matter flag.
Why? It signals the choice to protect power and whiteness. Both are silencing tactics, maneuvers meant to uphold systems of power based in whiteness. Taking a “non-political stance” is, in fact, a political choice, poised to protect white culture at work.
Over the last year, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with some of the companies that have taken (or considered taking) this stance. And what I tell them is that when I hear “no politics,” I hear coded language for, “no talking about racism,” because it’s conversations about race that have inspired the fear that underwrites the implementation of a no politics policy.
I haven’t talked with a single other Black person about this who hasn’t rolled their eyes or said how unsurprising this move is. I’ve had leaders tell me they asked their Black employees about implementing this policy, and it didn’t bother them. Let me be the first to break it to you: Chances are they lied so that they could continue to pay their bills. When a company like Coinbase or Basecamp says that political conversations distract from the work at hand, it signals a choice has been made, and the choice is to protect power and whiteness. It’s clear where their priorities and allegiances lie.
I’m sharing this to give insight into how these stances may impact BIPOC people. There will be no engagement in so-called intellectual arguments about this point. This is an invitation for listening. Playing “devil’s advocate” or attempting to rationalize are tools to distance oneself from feelings and prioritize (white) comfort. In essence, these are the same tactics mobilized by no-politics policies.
Silencing conversations related to inequity protects the status quo, and the status quo at every workplace, no matter the demographics or intentions, is whiteness, white culture, white supremacy. White supremacy and systemic racism simply enshrine or codify the privileges of whiteness into systems and practices including professionalism, workplace culture, and a steadfast belief in the right to comfort. Because we live in a society where the default is whiteness, all workplaces committed to racial justice must actively embrace discomfort as a necessary component of dismantling institutional racism.
As racial justice organizers and facilitators Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones say, the right to comfort is “the belief that those with power have a right to emotional and psychological comfort, valuing logic over emotion, and scapegoating those who cause discomfort.” That leaders have gotten so uncomfortable with discussions about sexism, racism, and racialized sexism that they wield power to stop those conversations is an indicator that we are making gains in our work for equity.
But the idea that one can decree away the experience of oppression by silencing conversation reveals how little personal experience white leaders have with actual oppression. Silencing doesn’t mean folks aren’t spending work time thinking about that racist thing their manager said. It means they are doing it quietly while they update their résumé, rather than bringing it to all hands to invest their feedback in the health and culture of the organization at large.
Code2040’s work leverages direct service programs as a means to help companies identify and address systemic racism in their policies and practices, and this type of work necessitates a willingness to sit together in conversations about where the company is falling short. Often, conversations like these include well-meaning people who are truly doing their best with limited resources and understanding of the pervasive nature of systemic racism and sexism at work.
As a result, there must be a willingness on behalf of these staff to be uncomfortable, to wrestle with problems that current staff likely didn’t create, and may not have the power to solve. They must hear how seemingly inconsequential policies actively harm Black and Latinx colleagues, and commit to the laborious work of redesigning the workplace. “No politics” policies make those types of conversations illicit, enshrine the discrimination and exclusion of non-white workers, and silence attempts to shed light on and address inequity.
Creating a non-political workplace stance might seem tempting. The work of learning about racism is hard, especially for those who have never experienced it. Hearing that your best effort to build a company is falling short can be disheartening. But rather than ignore the fundamental problem, here are more productive ways to engage:
Bring in an expert
Workplaces are not neutral spaces that magically exist without systems of power. Power is extremely obvious to those who do not have it, and very hard to recognize for those who have it. Bring experts in for company wide-trainings and provide ongoing racial-equity coaches for company leaders.
Get comfortable being uncomfortable
You will be uncomfortable as you address your own internalized racism and/or superiority and the institutional racism around you. Your discomfort is an invitation to learn and change. Sit with it, listen, and refuse to fall back on defensiveness and fragility.
Create a protocol
Conversations about race and gender discrimination can feel overwhelming. Create a transparent process, agreements, or values for how staff, managers, and leadership will engage in hard conversations or with tough feedback. Guidelines can help folks who bring feedback know what to expect. Such a protocol should invite potentially uncomfortable or difficult conversations and provide a loose framework for how to collectively navigate those conversations.
Be explicit and transparent
If a “no politics” stance is actually the cultural and communications expectation, then don’t try to hide it. Instead, be explicit that this is your policy, and be specific about what “no politics” means. This way, existing and potential team members can decide whether to opt in or opt out. It also can help reduce feelings of gaslighting for employees who are encouraged to give feedback but then experience blowback.
Be open to feedback
Don’t assume that not receiving negative feedback is a good sign. If you are doing the work to address racism in your workplace, you will make mistakes and you will receive feedback. If you are not receiving feedback, it’s likely because inequity is so entrenched that it’s unsafe or unwise for those impacted to speak publicly. Remember that even if you are a “good” boss, you still have your employees’ livelihoods in your hands. Collect data anonymously and segment that data by race.
Do the work
Your most impacted employees are not responsible for stewarding this work. Looking to those most impacted by your racist policies to then do even more work is exploitative and harmful, as it both demands additional labor and subjects them to more racism. You will need to do the hard work of unlearning your own internalized racism and anti-Blackness, as well as addressing the structural racism in your workplace.