Almost a year on from the George Floyd protests that swept the world and resulted in a collective (re)awakening to racial injustice and inequality; how much has changed since?
It’s a question I’m asking myself now while reflecting on where we were last year: witnessing the outpouring of corporate and organizational solidarity statements, the race to fill feeds with black squares, buy all the books listed on every anti-racist reading list, and hire Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) consultants for anti-discrimination and bias trainings. How many of those books have been left unopened or bookmarked only a couple of pages? How many people took a training course? How many people are still having those conversations today?
Anti-racism work doesn’t come without personal responsibility and accountability. The problem is, most people (and especially corporations and organizations) tend to conveniently bypass that part. They’re quick to post but lack the commitment that is needed to do the inner work first — because it’s ugly. It’s hard to look at yourself and take responsibility for the harm you’ve caused, as much as you are a well-meaning person otherwise. And no one is exempt from this type of work — even someone like me, a practically certified human rights activist advocating for justice and equality on a daily basis, needs accountability for the times I mess up. I examine my privilege and biases. I keep myself up to date on the shifting language and discourse in activism. I practice being an ally and an accomplice. I take time to read and re-read on what I think I already know, and educate myself on what I don’t. But I still get it wrong. When I’m called out or called in, it’s deeply uncomfortable and not easy to acknowledge. But I acknowledge my actions, and take a step back to listen to how the other person feels or to examine why what I’ve said or done is harmful. I’ll apologize and ask how I can remedy the situation. I’ll work on my own understanding either by reading more about it, talking it out with friends, or practicing my learning so that I don’t continue the pattern. It still doesn’t mean I won’t mess up, but maybe next time I’ll just mess up a little bit less.
For change initiatives to be sustainable, accountability needs to be a key cornerstone of any corporate, organizational, or personal plan to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion. Without holding ourselves accountable now and building in pathways for accountability in the future, much of the anti-racist work becomes performative and makes the fight for equality and justice harder. That might mean examining more than the why, but how you got to an organizational leadership primarily made up of white men, or how you ended up in a room with mostly white faces.
So how can you ensure that your actions won’t unintentionally hurt others?
You can’t do better if you don’t put in the effort to know better (to paraphrase Maya Angelou). Attend those book clubs, webinars, seminars, online courses — and engage in them. Don’t sit on the sidelines but participate in the conversation. Even if you get it wrong, someone will be there to correct you. And someone else will be there, grateful you voiced what they were thinking too. It’s a valuable learning experience that you get to be part of and the opportunity is an act of care. You can’t sustain anti-racism work if you’re too afraid to have the conversation. Don’t be afraid to get it wrong, be grateful that you have a chance to get it right. And just attending book clubs isn’t enough — go beyond the reading list, watch videos, attend talks and events, and talk to people. There is no accountability without showing up.
Pause and reflect.
As we saw last year, people have a tendency to dive headfirst into anti-racism work, burning up all that outrage and indignation in a hot, white ball of fire that is there one second, and gone the next. This time, before you get started, I propose you wait. Pause and reflect on what you’ve learned and investigate why you want to do the work of anti-racism. Do you see the value of it to your organization, company, yourself, and society, beyond some invisible obligation? By reflecting, you give yourself space to ask and answer questions like: are you equipped to do the work? Are you ready to commit to a long and uncomfortable process? Are you addressing real needs and ills in your company or organization? Will you unpack your privilege and biases, and hold yourself accountable for how you’ve been complicit or unintentionally harmful? And if you do decide to move forward after these questions, then who will be leading the process and how will you participate or support them?
Be transparent and inclusive.
As much as you should be cultivating an inner sense of accountability, you also need to have systems and structures of external accountability in place. Transparency enables that external accountability piece, and brings more people into the conversation for greater benefit to all. Be clear and open about how much anti-racist work has been done (or maybe not done), and the challenges that you’re facing. It’s good to keep employees informed of the decisions that are being made and why, who is involved in the work, the plan of action you hope to undertake, and changes that employees should expect to see. There should also be an option for people to consult and provide feedback at every step of the process. You will still mess up, but treat it as a lesson for yourself. How will you show that you are taking action to build a more equal and inclusive environment, if you are afraid to show your efforts?
Acknowledge and apologize.
When you do get it wrong, slip up, make a mistake or hurt someone, acknowledge the harm and apologize. Which is harder to do than you might think. You might think you can apologize and be forgiven or absolved just because you apologized, but apologizing without substance or as a symbolic gesture is tokenistic. Apology involves reflecting on what you’ve done, understanding what you’re apologising for, making the appropriate amends, and a willingness to change your behaviour for better next time.
As much as it’s about holding yourself (and being held) accountable, the cycle of accountability grows when you also hold others accountable for their harmful words or actions. This can be done through the calling in approach, which is favourable as it provides an opportunity to hold a reflective conversation with empathy and respect to discuss someone’s behaviour. The calling out approach often takes place in a public space and has been considered divisive and discouraging, causing further harm and hurt. Accountability grows if we can show care and understanding when addressing another person’s behaviour.
Accountability is a necessary step in the journey towards equality, and it cannot be side-stepped because it makes us feel uncomfortable. If we could re-imagine accountability, see it as a privilege to sit in the discomfort and know what we know so that we may make sustainable changes, then perhaps we can make progress in building a world that is just and equal.
Written by: Farah Bogani
Farah Bogani (she/her/hers) is a human rights activist, writer, and research consultant specialised in addressing human rights abuses in emerging technology and business through an anti-oppressive framework. She is passionate about reimagining DEI for the future and is an alumna of the London School of Economics and University of St Andrews. Read more about her work at www.farahbogani.com.