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Felicia Joy
Felicia Joy

The renewed attention to racial justice that began in 2020, following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, has prompted business leaders and individuals to consider how they can go beyond drafting abstract statements of support to take purposeful action.

Making concrete decisions to change—and examining the feelings that arise along the way—were the subjects of the latest discussion in Chicago Booth’s D&I Dialogues series, featuring activist and TEDx speaker Nova Reid. She is a consultant on inclusion, creator of an anti-racism course, and author of The Good Ally, published in September 2021. She previously spoke at a 2021 D&I Dialogues event on confronting systemic racism and leading change in organizations.  

The latest event was moderated by adjunct assistant professor of strategy Felicia Joy, who co-teaches the Booth course Culture as a Competitive Business Advantage. She is also executive vice president of business transformation in Edelman’s corporate advisory practice, and the company’s US head of behavioral science.

During their hour-long, virtual conversation, Reid and Joy explored the painful but necessary process of collective healing, the importance of unlearning patterns of behavior that sustain racism, and the steps to shape workplaces that enable Black employees to thrive.

Nova Reid
Nova Reid

Becoming Anti-racist

Reid chose the term ally for her book title to speak to those who want to see an end to systemic racism. But if people think about allyship only as something they do part of the time, rather than as a journey of evolving and growing as human beings, they can fall short of making meaningful change, she said.

Instead, she challenged individuals who have benefited from whiteness to look inward and “have the courage to look at parts of our behavior that we pretend aren’t there, or deny, or perhaps don’t even quite know.”

Reid calls this process unlearning, one of the four stages of anti-racism—listening, unlearning, relearning, and taking action—that she outlines. She describes unlearning as not only examining patterns of behavior, but also gaining a wider understanding of history and how past events still manifest today.

It can be tempting to skip unlearning, she said, because it often stirs up emotions of shame and grief. It’s easier to think of racism as an external force, rather than a system that an individual bears responsibility for perpetuating.

“The very foundation of racism is built on so much dehumanization,” Reid explained. “Human beings aren’t designed to commit such atrocities to one another. We’re actually designed to be in connection with one another. And in reconciling that, big feelings of shame come up.” But by processing these emotions and learning new behaviors, she explained, collective healing is possible.

“There are so many studies that show that people who are able to engage in civil behavior and experience psychological safety are more able to innovate, more able to create.”

— Nova Reid

Bringing Empathy to Work

One knee-jerk reaction that Reid saw frequently during the 2020 racial reckoning was large companies asking their Black employees to serve as their D&I consultants, piling on extra responsibilities during an already stressful time without additional compensation or training.

“Experiencing racism is trauma,” she said. “Everyday racial stress can show up in the brain in the same way as a war veteran who is experiencing PTSD.”

Joy added, “It is a point that is not well understood that someone is not a D&I expert because of the color of their skin.”

A better approach, Reid recommended, is to make every department within a business responsible for meeting D&I targets that align with the organization’s values. This way, the work doesn’t fall on only one person or a small group.

Business leaders who are committed to retaining Black employees can recognize that Black people are much more likely than others to face an official warning for simple mistakes that their peers would not be reprimanded for, Reid said. Some ways that leaders can counteract this pattern include being open and accountable for their own failings, and providing mentors who allow Black employees to show vulnerability and ask for help when they need it.

“There are so many studies that show that people who are able to engage in civil behavior and experience psychological safety are more able to innovate, more able to create,” she said.

Investing in Change

In her anti-racism course, Reid advises students to think about how they can participate in reparations to counteract long-standing practices of racial discrimination. This could look like donating time to a Black-led business to provide expertise around strategy or fundraising, offering mentorship, or contributing a skill such as social media marketing.

For those with the financial means, this also could be investing in Black-owned businesses. In the United Kingdom, where Reid is based, a study on venture-capital funding by Extend Ventures, a nonprofit working to diversify access to finance, found that Black entrepreneurs received only 0.24 percent of the total sum invested from 2009 to 2019. A tiny 0.02 percent went to businesses with Black female founders.

“Be strategic with the societal advantage or privilege that you have,” Reid said. “Ask yourself: ‘Where is my influence? Who are the people that I know that I can connect somebody with? What can I personally do to add value?’”

Explore More from the D&I Dialogues Series

Booth’s D&I Dialogues is a program series for Booth alumni to connect with the broader business community and examine aspects of diversity in work and in life. Led by Booth faculty, alumni, and industry experts, the series is an important component of Booth’s 2020 Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan. Previous discussions have covered leading with inclusion, building Black wealth, and driving technological innovation.


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