Unity and Allyship in Leadership

Being a student at Tepper has certainly been an adventure. I’ve learned so much, and met so many new people. I have had so many wonderful opportunities to apply what we are learning in class. This past January, I competed with a team in the Inaugural John Lewis Racial Case Study. I’ll admit I was disappointed that this was the first major case study of its kind. It was the first case study to pose the question of business’s role in social justice, and to focus specifically on fighting racial inequality. This speaks to an overall flaw in the business world: the lack of discourse about inequality, and how businesses reinforce that inequality. A quick Google search will lead you to many articles defending the avoidance of politics at work. This is a very comfortable position for the predominantly white world of business to take. White people never have to feel uncomfortable. We can avoid thinking about racism in the US, and how business practices impact people around us. This hurts many of our coworkers and peers. During the case study, my team had the opportunity to do focus group interviews. One of the participants was our classmate, Ameer McMillan. He talked about his employer failing to address the civil unrest in Austin during the summer of 2020. The lack of discussion made him feel uncomfortable around his coworkers because he didn’t know where they stood. He also talked about code-switching  around white peers, and even silencing parts of his personality to avoid being stereotyped. These are problems many people of color face. It’s also something we can change. As MBA students, we are future leaders. We can uplift our coworkers and create an environment that values the voices of all our peers. As such, I’m writing an article talking about recent politics. I will also discuss potential paths to resolution. Without further ado, let’s jump in. 

Riding on the coattails of 2020, 2021 has been pretty eventful so far. Between the 1776 Commission, Trump getting kicked off social media platforms, the armed insurrection on January 6th, and CPAC, a lot has happened. One common thread links all these events together: White supremacy. During his presidency, Trump capitalized on fear and misinformation to whip up his voter base, reinforcing division and racial inequality through both words and policy. Despite the end of his presidency, the effects of his manipulation, and exploitation linger. We have seen politicians and prominent figures from every side of the aisle talk about “healing” and “unity” in order to move on, without addressing the need for accountability: from Biden claiming unity as the solution to white supremacy and domestic terrorism in his inauguration speech, to Ted Cruz tweeting “We must come together and put this anger and division behind us” after inciting violence himself without ever taking responsibility for his actions. I’d like to posit that instead, we must take the danger of white supremacy seriously. Unity with political extremists is one of the worst things we can do for our country. 

It is important for us, as a country, to take a strong stance against racial inequality and white supremacy. We must not treat these ideologies as valid opinions, and we must not give them a platform. Instead of playing whack-a-mole with racism and white supremacy, we should create an environment where such ideologies cannot persist. The first step to creating such an environment requires us to address the Paradox of Tolerance. Philosopher Karl Popper defines this paradox as “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.” (Source). This does not mean that we suppress the expression of intolerant views, but it does mean that we must confront these views, denounce them and defend our society against them. Tolerance requires mutual respect between participants, something also required for voluntary unity. Conversely, intolerance is defined as “unwillingness to accept views, beliefs, or behavior that differ from one’s own.” Intolerance is therefore incompatible with mutual respect between individuals with differing opinions. Thus, as long we continue to validate white supremacy and intolerance as a respectable platform, we simply cannot be unified.

This brings us to the question of responsibility- who should shoulder the blame of push back against intolerance? Historically, the ones fighting hardest against intolerant ideologies have been the people most hurt by those ideologies. Think of the Suffragettes, like Nina Otero-Warren, arguing in favor of women being able to vote; of Martin Luther King Jr. and his supporters pushing for equal rights in the 1950 and

A cartoon depicting Martin Luther King Jr. telling a reporter "I plan to lead another non-violent march tomorrow", with an unconscious man and city destruction behind them.

1967 political cartoon originally published in the “Birmingham News”

1960s; and of the many black abolitionists, like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Of course, they weren’t the only ones, but they were leaders that shouldered much of the emotional labor involved in explaining to predominantly white men why they should not be the only ones with the power to drive policy changes in the United States. Mind you, they were never popular. Many Americans actually hated Martin Luther King Jr. at the time of his assassination. Take a look at this cartoon, first published in 1967. Seem familiar? If it does, it’s because very little has actually changed since then. Minority groups are still pushing for equal rights, with some white allies here and there. It’s difficult to say how many of those white allies are there due to performative activism or genuine desire for progressive change. In this atmosphere, people of color are balancing the emotional toll of watching their peers be brutalized by police on social media; the social toll of many of their white friends looking to them for confirmation that they’re “not one of those white people”; and the weight of everyday microaggressions.  As a result, there has been a rise in articles like “I’m your black friend but I won’t educate you about racism. That’s on you”. People are tired. Many feel like that white people don’t care enough about these issues, and it’s true. We are simply not doing enough. And that’s exactly why we need to start caring, and take a stand for racial equality by driving change through our actions. If we really want to talk about unity, it is time we shared emotional labor with marginalized individuals. We must educate ourselves about the historical and current role of racism and white supremacy in the US, take a stand against its further participation in American lives. It is time for us to listen to and amplify the voices of our fellow humans, to do our due diligence to learn about American history, and unite our country around justice and equality. Now, you might be wondering why I’m specifically calling on white people to do the work. The answer is that as the race that that has long been the default in everything from medicine to business, it’s time for us to make changes to address inequalities in the US, big or small.  At present, we simply are not doing enough. Take a look at our role in this past election in 2020 :

An image depicting voting demograpicsThe table here shows the breakdown of how several different races voted as per exit polls conducted by Edison Research for the National Election Pool. As you can see, the majority of white folks voted for Donald Trump. Politicians spend a lot of time trying to “mobilize” the black or latino vote, despite the fact that white people make up a larger percentage of voters. White voters are also much more likely to vote Conservative. As you can see, white people have a lot of voting power, so we should wield that power to bridge inequities and stand up for racial justice. The point here is that whether we like to admit it or not, it is our silence and our inaction that created the environment from which white supremacy could persist. It is for this very reason that we must break that silence to fight against racial inequality in the US. Keep in mind, white supremacy isn’t always yelling slurs or explicitly excluding people of a certain race; sometimes it’s implicit bias against people of a certain race and the “jokes” we make. Sometimes, it can come out as microaggressions. Being allies is more than just voting for the “right” candidates; it is also taking active steps to fight racial inequality. This is especially important in situations where the person on the receiving end of racism is in a position where they cannot safely say something. For example, imagine a scenario where a project manager tells a junior developer, “Hey, you’re really good at coding for a black girl.” A junior employee is unlikely to voice their discomfort with such a comment. for several reasons: the power dynamic between the manager and junior employee, or the junior employee might fear retaliation from peers and superiors. In this situation, it is important for another manager, or even a fellow employee, to step in and say something. There are many ways to approach giving such feedback, but it’s important for that feedback to be given. One tactic is asking “Why is that funny?” if the microaggression took the form of a joke. Another tactic asking for further explanation if it’s a comment. In the above example of the software engineer, a coworker might say, “Why the need to mention her race?”. Calling out these behaviors will help convey that racism, even if subtle or covert, is unacceptable and unwelcome. In other words, it’s not enough for us to only be “non-racist.” In the words of Ibram Kendi, “One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist.” Doing so will help make not just the workplace, but the whole world, a safer and more tolerant place where everyone, including anyone from marginalized backgrounds, feels comfortable speaking up. Everyone being more comfortable expressing their views will help unite individuals around shared goals, creating a more diverse and better functioning group. 

This is a good time to reflect on what we can do to drive change. It seems like a daunting task. After all, we’re just individual people, and there’s only so much we can do as individuals; however, small changes can have a big impact. We should challenge ourselves to be more self-reflective, and to implement those small changes in our lives. At home, that might mean having these conversations with family members. This may include the painstaking process of convincing family members that institutional racism is a real thing, and how it manifests itself today. At work, it might mean discussing subtle racist or discriminatory workplace policies with HR, like the way “professional hair” is defined or enforced. At school, it might mean publicly calling out a peer who keeps making racist “jokes.” Sometimes, it might be a much smaller action, such as noticing you say something that can be offensive and making the change to no longer say it. These actions may seem insignificant on their own, but if we all did something to make our surroundings more inclusive every day, we would move closer to an inclusive future. Each one of us can make a difference. Each one of us can help this country denounce white supremacy and unite our peers around inclusion and diversity. 

Unity has been a buzz word since the 2020 presidential election. However, we cannot afford to unite with political extremists and white supremacists. In order to ensure the survival of democracy and equality in the US, we as MBA students must take steps to publicly denounce these extreme ideologies and must focus our energy around creating a diverse and inclusive country that not only hears but also listens to every voice. As future leaders, it is imperative for us to support fairness since we set the tone for the companies we work at. For those of us who are white, it is especially important for us to ensure we are not reinforcing institutional racial inequality. As a white person myself, I want to make a commitment to my fellow classmates and coworkers. I will listen to you, stand up for you, and support you.  As an ally, I want to ensure that I am empowering the people around me to achieve their goals. As your classmate, it is my goal to create a safe space for the people around me. Together, as MBA students and future leaders, we can make a difference. We can be the force of true unity through diversity and inclusion. 



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