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Commentary - Progress on diversity issues demands 'honest, intentional, and sometimes uncomfortable conversations'

Industry must work together to defeat deep-rooted but sometimes subtle racism, says DTCC's Keisha Bell

18 August 2020

By

Keisha Bell DTCC
Keisha Bell, Managing Director and Head of Diverse Talent Management and Advancement at DTCC

George Floyd was a breaking point for many black and brown people who had become accustomed to compartmentalizing their lives following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and countless others. In order to manage the impacts we suffer from systemic racism and the violence affecting our communities, we have gotten used to maintaining a sturdy wall between our work lives, home lives and life experiences. However, as the now-infamous video of George Floyd’s murder spread around the globe, I – like many of my friends and colleagues – found myself no longer able to successfully compartmentalize and maintain my “wall” at work. While previously I’d tuck away my emotions as I shifted into work mode every day, the haunting image of a man pinned to the ground as life was literally choked out of him proved to be too much to bear in silence.

So I talked to those closest to me – my wife, my family, my friends – and for the first time, I shared emotions with my co-workers, voicing anger, grief and terror I’d normally keep out of the workplace. Not only did I need to articulate the pain I was feeling inside, but I had to let them know they were safe to be their full selves, too. As we spoke, the wall between my dual worlds crumbled and real conversations started happening about change and allyship.

The explosion of activism and advocacy in recent months is not in response to a new catalyst. For their entire careers, black and brown people have lived double lives wherein we get up, get dressed, go to work, and perform with professionalism while silently dealing with whatever sorrow, frustration, pain and weariness we’re experiencing due to racism and injustice outside of work. In the very first few months of my career, I came across a stranger on the subway on the way to work. We bumped into each other, he called me the N-word, and rather than taking some time to emotionally deal with that shocking but sadly, unsurprising verbal attack, I had to mentally file it away so I could complete my commute and start my day at work.

Frequently, the racism faced by black and brown people in the workplace is often more subtle. For black women, this can take the form of complaints about our hair. Early in my career, I was told that my natural hair was unprofessional, and it was clear to me that if I refused to change it, I would be reprimanded and perhaps fired. Even more surprising was that this message was delivered to me by a black woman, suggesting that she had been indoctrinated into the racist belief that her hair had to mimic a white woman’s  hair in order to be professional and acceptable.

Control measures around black women’s hair are deeply rooted in American history, dating back to the early 1700s when white women forced enslaved Africans to cover or cut off their hair to distinguish them as enslaved. In the late 18th century, as enslaved Africans in Louisiana became freed, women of African descent began wearing their hair in elaborate styles adorned with feathers and jewels, which led to the enactment of the “Tignon Laws.” The new rules forced black women to cover their hair to demonstrate they belonged to the slave class, even women who were free.

Two centuries later, when I faced threats to my job security based on the appearance of my hair, I didn’t have the knowledge or tools necessary to address the issue, and it was important for me, economically, to keep my job. And so, at my own expense, I changed my hair.

Once I fully recognized and understood that incident, I decided that never again would I alter my hair to conform with the way white America expected me to look. I should be measured based upon my skills, capabilities and ability to contribute to business success. Although the conversation around racism evolved past the point where this decision was a threat to my career and livelihood, corporate appearance policies that include requirements for “professional” hair continue to disproportionately affect black women.

That is just one example of the reality for black people at work. On top of navigating our own careers, most of us navigate a web of discrimination that ranges from unconscious bias to overt racism from the moment we step outside of our front doors until we return home, every single day. The lifetime impact of this not only makes us feel vulnerable, but in the office, it forces us to constantly await a racist act that may or may not ever come. Until colleagues show they are allies, we can’t truly relax into a room.

Although I have always felt safe within DTCC, we still must acknowledge that for a portion of our employee population, everyday acts of living are complicated and impacted by a diverse and complex web of hundreds of years of discrimination. As a company, it is vital that we commit to building a community of colleagues who can have  honest conversations about race.

Following George Floyd’s murder, we created our Perspectives series to give voice to concerns, trepidation, vulnerability, and fear that  DTCC’s black and brown employees all share. The first session featured a cross section of black and brown men from all levels of the organization who had continually experienced negative interactions with the police. There was a moderator but no question and answer session – just men, talking and sharing their lived experiences with their colleagues. The next session was the same format, featuring black and brown women talking about how they have “the talk” with their children about racism and interacting with law enforcement, providing an opportunity for them to tell their stories, uninterrupted and unquestioned. Most white colleagues don’t need to fear an erroneous warrant will lead to an armed invasion of their home while asleep, and ultimately their demise.

We are continuing these conversations through BOLD, DTCC’s employee resource group centred around black employees, by facilitating smaller group conversations. It is undeniable that systemic and structural racism and violence take a toll on our community, and these discussions merely create space for employees to talk to each other at work. It’s a small step but also revolutionary, given how much effort we have put into keeping our professional lives separate from the catastrophic impact of racism that is still pervasive in our society.

In parallel, DTCC has launched ally to upstander training so that our employees of all backgrounds, identities and genders can become successful allies at work and beyond by illustrating the stakes of allyship and providing the skills to achieve it. It’s one thing to call yourself an ally, but how does that translate into action and becoming an upstander? This training addresses the need for DTCC’s employee population to have a discussion and the context to become effective allies, as well as actionable steps they can take to support their black and brown colleagues.

Real change begins with honest, intentional, and sometimes uncomfortable conversations about the everyday experiences of people of color. It has been comforting to know that colleagues who don’t look like me share my sense of outrage at the injustices we’ve seen and to hear them commit to supporting me and my community. While these discussions are just one step in a long diversity and inclusion journey, they are an important step. It is my hope that by facilitating these conversations, we are providing every DTCC employee with an equal sense of belonging and a way forward, a start in the right direction to creating a better and more inclusive future for all.

Keisha Bell is Managing Director and Head of Diverse Talent Management and Advancement at DTCC, where she is responsible for recruiting and retaining the best diverse talent and developing DTCC’s next generation of leaders through focused sponsorships and talent advancement strategies.

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