I Got Your Accountability for Racial Equity Right Here
Amy Cooper isn’t sorry after all.
Remember her? She is the White woman who threatened a Black man who asked her to leash her dog in a public park, with Assault-By-Cop. Amy did this with the knowledge that a Black man would probably suffer grave consequences if accused of harming a White woman. As we’ve seen time, and time, and time again — when White women cry, Black people die. When Amy Cooper called the police, she did so hoping her victim, Christian Cooper (no relation), would be harmed because he angered her by asking her to control her dog.
But all that was short-lived. Amy got her dog back. The memory faded of what she had done, and her name wasn’t part of the gossip mill anymore. And now she’s suing — claiming she was “frightened to death” of the Black man in the park. Really, Amy? I guess you changed your mind and what you did wasn’t as “unacceptable” as you said it was a year ago.
I can’t really blame Amy (although don’t worry — I do). The United States as a whole STRUGGLES with holding White women accountable for the racial harm they do. We are collectively conditioned to center their comfort and their humanity first — even when they are the perpetrators of the harm. Even Christian Cooper went easy on Amy Cooper a year ago.
It’s a pattern I see often in my work. I co-founded an organization that supports companies and individuals to move beyond conversations about race to actions for racial equity. At work I sometimes help teams navigate conflicts and find a path towards repairing relationships when harm has happened. Like clockwork, in these spaces intended to repair racial harm, White women’s tears will shift the focus from caring for and restoring the person of color harmed to comforting the very White women that caused the harm. Every. Single. Time. This pattern is especially present when that harm is inflicted on a person of color, particularly a Black woman. The Black woman’s harm and hurt is shoved aside so we can all attend to the distraught White woman. It can be exhausting to experience and to witness.
Black people, in particular, have learned that we must center White women’s tears because we know we are in danger when White women cry. No wonder Christian Cooper decided to exit stage left and let Amy off the hook — I’m sure he knew what was up.
The lack of accountability means racial harms at work are never really repaired. It also means that without accountability and consequences that stick, White women repeat their harmful behavior over and over again. Look at Amy Cooper. A year ago, Amy was sorry she harmed Christian Cooper and recognized she did something wrong. Now a year later, she’s terrified of the Black man in the park again. Society will likely comfort her with monetary rewards for her “trauma.” This story is so familiar. Accountability for White women never lasts long. Harm — Cry — Mild Consequences — Reverse Consequences. Round and round we go. Rinse and repeat.
We experience hyper-surveillance.
We work to overcome the hyper-visibility/ Invisibility paradox — the phenomenon of being constantly surveilled but never remembered for our accomplishments.
We are hemmed in by double-binds: sets of expectations that are impossible to satisfy.
I have experienced every single thing on this list at work. I have witnessed other Black women experience every single thing on this list. These experiences are not imagined. These patterns exist and have been documented and researched. Black women are not delusional. The patterns we are identifying are real, and mean that, yes, we do actually have to work twice as hard to get half as much. Again, it is truly exhausting — and our work experiences likely takes years off of our lives.
In summer 2020, company after company pledged to change to improve the work life of their Black employees. These companies were inspired by the racial unrest that exploded in the country after George Floyd’s murder (And Ahmaud Arbery. And Breonna Taylor. And Atatiana Jefferson. And… the most devastating part for me is that list never seems to stop growing. Rinse and repeat. And we’re expected to just show up at work like this insanity isn’t happening — but that’s another post entirely.) These companies put up black boxes on social media, saying over and over again a version of, “We hear you. We stand with you.” These companies claimed they were going to put initiatives in place to make workplaces better for Black employees.
A year later, what has happened beyond the black boxes and the statements? Not much, really. Racial harm abounds, with little efforts to change policies and practices that would actually make a difference for Black people.
As MLK said, “the arc of the moral universe is long and it bends towards justice.” If we work towards social change — change will happen, albeit slowly. The path towards racial equity is not an easy one, nor is a path that started last year. This work has been happening for centuries — our ancestors fought for racial justice since the concept of race was created to oppress and separate us from each other and our sense of shared humanity. We won’t achieve racial equity overnight. I know that change takes time. Progress can feel too slow at times. But, y’all, what these companies are doing is not just going at a glacial pace. Many of them are not moving at all. What they’re doing is stalling. They’re standing still. And I believe one of the things holding progress back at work is the unwillingness to hold people who cause racial harm accountable for their actions and for learning to do better.
There is a pattern in organizations of avoiding holding people accountable for racial harm. When racial harm happens, there might be a restorative conversation or a mediation. The person who did the harm probably cries and says they’re sorry. They make commitments to do better and change their behavior. But that’s usually where the actions towards restoration stop. I’ve seen manager after manager fight tooth and nail to block real consequences from happening when someone is a serial bad actor causing racial harm.
“We weren’t clear about expectations.” “We didn’t give them perfect feedback about their actions.” “We should have supported them better.” “Yes, this is the third Black woman this person has derailed and harmed but we really should give them another chance so they can learn to do better.” These statements are demonstrative examples I’ve heard in multiple organizations. I’ve even said some of these things myself as an organizational leader. It was bullshit when I said it. And it’s bullshit now. We need to stop it. We have a duty to center the comfort of those experiencing racial harm at work.
It is not fair or just to expect Black women specifically, and people of color more broadly to be harmed by people over and over so they can learn to disrupt their oppressive behavior. If you want to follow through on the commitments you made to your staff about “standing with them” then you’ve got to hold people accountable for causing harm. And that accountability can’t just be holding a conversation. It means being clear about expectations that we create an inclusive environment free from oppressive behavior. It means holding managers accountable for the environment on their teams. It means holding organizational leaders accountable when there are disparate outcomes along lines of race — like pay inequity, inequity in promotion opportunities, and inequity in attrition rates, etc. It means not tolerating microaggressions. It means not promoting the bad actor who repeatedly causes harm. It means preventing the bad actor from managing others so they can’t derail the careers of staff of color. It means firing the bad actors when necessary. Without real consequences, these patterns of racial harm will persist at work.
While we all have a lot to learn to disrupt the patterns of oppression we’ve been taught and internalized, we must all commit to this learning and unlearning, unequivocally. For some, learning new ways of working to achieve more equitable outcomes will require learning new skills. Just because something is a new skill doesn’t mean we are not accountable for learning that skill. If a company implemented a new computer program, a manager wouldn’t make excuses for an employee who refused to learn that new program. Why then, do we excuse people from learning how to act more equitably — especially when the consequences of not doing so are dire?
Black women continue to raise the alarm that these patterns at work make us feel unsafe, undervalued, and like we don’t belong in our workplaces. It isn’t just a feeling; these patterns are real and actually hold us back at work. The racial harm we experience not only affects our careers but it also adversely affects our health. When company leaders give someone who repeatedly causes racial harm more and more chances to learn — it comes at the expense of the people they are harming. When company leaders do that, they are essentially acting in solidarity with the people causing harm.
So much for those black boxes of solidarity, huh?
It is not okay to continue to ask Black women to be social guinea pigs while we wait for our colleagues to get it together and stop being oppressive at work. Accountability is essential to restoration, and restoration is essential to achieving racial equity.
It’s time to follow through on your commitments to standing solidarity with your Black team members. Words are not enough. Do better, Corporate America. Our very lives depend on it.