Expanding on the Importance and Current Climate Surrounding Black History Month

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Black History MonthDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion

As a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) consultancy, we’re frequently approached with questions on how to discuss racism or celebrate Black History in the workplace. While we’ve offered several insights in the past, we’re taking a more personal approach. This Q&A format features the perspectives of two of our team members, Fatima Dainkeh, Director of Training, and Rachel Sadler, Senior DEI Facilitator. As Black women in the DEI space, Dainkeh and Sadler share their insights on Black History Month, strategies to foster inclusion for Black employees, navigating challenges, and offering actionable steps for organizations. 

1. How do you personally interpret the significance of Black History Month, and why do you believe it’s important to continue honoring and celebrating it?

Fatima: Over time, Black History Month has become a diasporic celebration for me. Whether someone is from the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, or the United States, I like to celebrate all of us. Most Black people understand that being Black overseas (outside of Africa) carries a certain weight and history that’s not just connected to slavery and colonization but also a birthing of new cultures and resilience amid havoc and suffering. There’s a deep connection there for many of us– whether we’re new to the Americas or have been here for hundreds of years. For me, it’s essential to continue to honor Black History Month because Black people haven’t been recognized enough for their contributions to society, especially those who were enslaved (or are descendants of those who were enslaved) in the Americas. Furthermore, because we continue to be impacted by both subtle and explicit forms of racism, there’s a need for us to affirm ourselves, even when others do not. 

Rachel: For me, Black History Month is a chance to reflect on the erased stories of incredible individuals who paved the way for us and to celebrate the vast array of Black achievements that enrich our world. But it’s much more than a month in the calendar; it’s a catalyst for ongoing education, a reminder to challenge biases and uplift Black voices, and a call to action to build a future where Black history isn’t just resigned to the shortest month on the calendar, but actively revered and acknowledged every day of the year.

2. In your experience, what key elements contribute to fostering a positive experience for Black employees?

Rachel: Fostering a positive experience for Black employees goes beyond lip service and requires a holistic approach. It starts with visible representation, seeing Black faces in leadership and across teams, not just on posters. It’s about psychological safety, ensuring zero tolerance for bias, and providing safe spaces like ERGs for support and connection. Professional growth must be equitable, with access to training, development, and opportunities regardless of background. Ultimately, it’s about building a culture of belonging where Black voices are heard, valued, and empowered to contribute fully. This isn’t just about checking boxes; it’s about creating a workplace where everyone can thrive.

Fatima: I encourage people to ask their employees what they need to have a positive experience because the truth is, we’re all not a monolith. However, based on personal experience and research, one of the key elements to fostering a positive experience for Black employees is allowing us to be who we are, especially if it doesn’t impact our ability to do our work. For example, many of us feel safe, seen, or heard when we don’t have to change our hairstyles to look more “professional” or don’t have to constantly code-switch so that we are viewed as “intelligent” or “capable” of doing the work. Another pivotal element that can foster a positive experience for Black employees is receiving credit where credit is due and being promoted. Research shows that Black employees are less likely to receive raises or be promoted compared to their White counterparts. Accept us and pay us. 

3. What challenges have you encountered in promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion for Black employees? How did you overcome/approach them?

Fatima: I’ve noticed two large themes related to challenges in promoting DEI for Black employees; one is that there seems to be an inherent distrust about the ability, capability, or honesty regarding Black leadership and overall work ethic. The second is that there is a practice of paternalism in many organizations, where Black employees may be in positions of power but are never the official leaders in the final decisions being made within an organization. Overcoming this would require an awareness of our subconscious beliefs because these beliefs or practices are deep-seated biases that even the most well-intentioned employer has. This is also a viewpoint that other Black people and non-Black people of color have internalized. Anti-Black racism doesn’t exclude Black people from perpetuating the ideology that Black people can’t be trusted and that Black people are lazy or unable to lead. Sometimes, we also believe the negative narratives being told about us too. It requires us to consistently interrogate how we show up at work, how we interact with Black employees, who we provide promotions to and who we don’t, and fully trust the Black employees we’ve hired. Why hire us if we won’t be trusted to do the work or lead?

Rachel: There are so many hurdles on the road to diversity, equity, and inclusion for Black folks in the workplace. People are socialized with so many biases against Black people, so many ideas of how we supposedly “show up” at work that flies in complete contradiction to the reality of the hard work and perseverance we demonstrate daily. And then when you name something, when you say out loud that there are systems and structures that are intentionally put into place to keep us from achieving at the rate of our non-Black counterparts, we’re told to “stop playing the race card” and accused of crying wolf. People want to perform DEI but rarely want to live it because living it requires change, dismantling existing structures, and giving up privilege. When you’ve never been asked to give up anything, the mere mention of it can cause people to panic and resist. And when that resistance is on a larger scale, it can be hard to counteract. We overcome by continuing to do the work, to lead from a place of love and hope, confident that things can be different…by reminding ourselves and each other that this is necessary, to honor our ancestors before us, and pave the way for those that come after.

4. Following recent reflections on figures like Dr. Claudine Gay and Antoinette Candia-Bailey, what thoughts or questions have arisen for you as Black women and employees?

Rachel: What happened to these women and countless others is a reminder that most workplaces are not safe spaces for Black women. We have to work twice as hard to be seen as “meeting the mark,” we have to parse through microaggressions with grace, and we have to constantly prove ourselves as intelligent, capable, talented, worthy, etc. Because the biases about Black women are so firmly ingrained in the collective consciousness of people the world over, it feels like a constant battle– no matter how much you achieve, the accolades you accrue, you’re still reduced to the stereotypes and biases of your race and gender. Where can we be safe to learn and thrive? Where can we go to just be and not have to constantly deal with the mountain of expectations that we must perpetually climb? Where can we go where people see us? Not just perceive us, but really see our inherent greatness? How can we create this for all Black women? 

Fatima: Rachel covered a lot of what’s vital for us to reflect on. How can we create spaces for Black women to be seen and treated as humans? Ultimately, that’s the question. 

5. What actionable steps would you recommend for employers looking to actively engage and contribute to the celebration of Black History Month? 

Fatima: Take a moment and ask yourself the following questions: “Why is it important for me as a leader or employer to celebrate Black History Month?” and  “Why is it important for employees to celebrate Black History Month as an organization?” Sometimes, we’re not aware of our why. We do things because everyone else is doing it, and I think that if we’re going to transform workplaces, we have to start with the question we started this Q&A with. From there, we can allow our whys to be a guide as we get curious about the overall work experience for Black employees by asking, collecting data, and doing something with the data. Next, perform audits. Reflect on who is represented in your organization, who isn’t, and at what levels. Review your pay scale and ensure a clear and transparent method that supports employees and managers in understanding how to give feedback, performance reviews, promotions, etc. Finally, amplify the achievements of and celebrate your Black employees. 

Rachel: I think Fatima summed things up beautifully.

As we navigate the challenges and triumphs of creating inclusive workplaces, let’s ensure that celebrating Black history extends far beyond a designated month. By fostering genuine understanding, actively engaging with diversity, and advocating for equity and inclusion, we pave the way for a workplace where every Black employee feels valued and empowered to contribute their best.