OPINION
02/18/2021 18:56 EST

Why Corporate Canada Unsurprisingly Failed To Show Up For Black History Month

Where is that black-square and “we-stand-against-racism” energy from last summer?

I think back to June 1, 2020 often. We were collectively grieving the loss of yet another innocent life when members of the company’s Black employee resource group received an invitation to a video call. My employer at the time wanted to know how we were feeling, and offered her support. She also asked what the company should do next to address the growing racial tensions and protests.

I logged on, clad in the armour that I had forged over seven years of corporate communications and a lifetime of being a Black woman in Canada. I had a list of messaging tactics at the ready, but I didn’t get to them. Instead, I cried — ugly cried. There was no amount of code switching or armour that could save me from the trauma of watching innocent people who look like me get murdered, time and time again.

Arindam Shivaani/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Many Canadian companies, large and small, responded to the Black Lives Matter protests last summer by promising to support diversity and anti-racism initiatives.

When Canada’s biggest brands condemned racism in perfectly worded Instagram posts under black squares, at first I wanted to scream: “Racism is bad. We know!” But the public acknowledgement and commitment to do better felt like the dawning of a new era. Companies were finally admitting that racially profiling BIPOC customers was not OK, and neither was concentrating their team’s diversity at the entry level. Having been on the inside, I saw how uncomfortable it made some executives to talk about racism and say, outright, that “Black Lives Matter.” But they did it.

Our company formed a task force across departments, led diversity and inclusion training, created employee resources and scrutinized hiring practices and policies. The change had begun — and I admit, it felt great. I was receiving support in a way I never dreamt possible. It was the first time many Black employees had felt seen in their corporate career. I thought: Black history, Black lives and Black futures would be celebrated all year long, no longer limited to the brevity of February.

It’s no surprise that many of Canada’s corporate diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives seem to have lost momentum.

Summer faded into fall, and the emotional fatigue of the pandemic collided with the burden of trying to unravel a system built over decades. Much of the work unacceptably fell on Black employees. Our task force was pulled in countless directions, and our business priorities (our actual day jobs) were demanding every bit of our time. Meetings were rescheduled, deadlines dissipated and the check-ins with leadership grew infrequent. I was tired. We were all tired. Our important work fell by the wayside.

It’s no surprise that many of Canada’s corporate diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives seem to have lost momentum. Red tape, shared responsibilities and closed-door conversations are difficult to navigate on a good day. The challenge is even greater when it’s a topic many don’t understand, or aren’t willing to. When DE&I aren’t recurring topics at town hall meetings or formally tracked as a business objective, they don’t get off the ground.

PeopleImages
Without clear goals and accountability, companies are unlikely to achieve lasting change on diversity and inclusion.

At the time of this writing, flagship Canadian brands like Hudson’s Bay and Joe Fresh have seemingly plateaued in their DE&I commitments with no mention of them since their initial Summer 2020 anti-racism posts — having Black models in ads isn’t enough. Meanwhile, others are doing what they do every year: lazily and selectively joining the Black History Month (BHM) conversation as if to check a box on their content calendar. For example, Sephora recently released a commissioned study on U.S. racial bias in retail and shared multiple DE&I posts through February on their HQ account. Yet, when it came to its Canadian counterpart, the BHM box was ticked with a single Instagram post spotlighting Pat McGrath, focused on her damehood from Queen Elizabeth II — never mind that she is known as one of the world’s most influential makeup artists

It begs the question, was this a movement or a moment for corporate Canada?

BHM is a chance to show up and “do better,” like they promised they would.

If large brands set the bar this low, others will follow suit. We need the Hudson’s Bays and Aritzias of the country to help raise expectations on what it means to address systemic racism head-on. Without internal and public accountability for change — not just diversity and inclusion pages filled with jargon, but no specifics — nobody is applying the pressure to do more, or even the bare minimum. BHM is a chance to show up and “do better,” like they promised they would. Corporate Canada, let me break down how you can add fuel to the movement and meaningfully celebrate BHM:

Start from the inside out

Audit internal routines and culture to see where the gaps lie. Do you have biased hiring practices? Find out! Professors Elizabeth Hirsh, UBC and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, UMA, explained how to use metrics as the first step to increase diversity and reduce bias.

Set intentions

Now that you’ve listened and have data to back it up, set clear goals and create accountability by sharing progress. When Toronto jewellery brand Mejuri created an empowerment fund for Black women and Black non-binary people, it had a clear first goal — support higher education — and detailed how and when it would distribute its US$120,000 in scholarships.

Be authentic, know yourself

Work within your wheelhouse and celebrate the movement through your brand’s lens, while respecting Black culture. Bookseller Indigo naturally took an educational approach this month by featuring Black authors and a Black board member, and explaining the significance of BHM. I found this simple, effective and authentic.

Mo’ money, mo’ voices

Invest in the cause and use your platform to amplify others. Apparel brand Roots Canada did both by launching a limited-edition T-shirt designed by the Black sister-duo behind Révolutionnaire. Proceeds were donated to The Black Academy, which combats systemic racism in Canada. The $44 T-shirt sold out in a single day, proving that DE&I isn’t just doing good, it’s good for business.

It has now been almost nine months since the devastating murder of George Floyd. While some companies seem to be standing firm in their commitments, too many others are noticeably absent from the BHM celebrations. Where is that black-square and “we-stand-against-racism” energy from last summer? Where is the vocal and material support? The performance is over, and I fear the allyship that came with it is, too. I was rooting for you, corporate Canada. We were all rooting for you.

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