The Role of White Leaders in Creating Racial Equity By Christine Hildebrandand Wendy Horng Brawer

Radical times call for NEW action. New action is stepping out of our comfort zones, challenging the status quo, updating our beliefs, and trying on new ways of being and doing. All of this comes with feeling unfamiliar, awkward, and distinctly uncomfortable. 

We are in a Racial Reckoning and Awakening in our country and,
for WHITE PEOPLE, it’s OUR time to take a STAND.

It is time to reinvent our social and cultural systems. The racial injustice built into our infrastructures and mindsets need to be addressed. The symptoms displayed are indisputable. As white leaders, we have a choice to be allies in support of a higher order or stand by and witness the descent of society into ever more chaotic states. 

Collectively, we ALL have a stake in creating a new order, yet question what our personal and collective roles need to be. What IS my responsibility as a white leader with influence? What is my role as a white male who manages teams from multiple and diverse backgrounds? What is my role as a white woman to spotlight women of color in order to share their voices and talents?

For hundreds of years, people of color in this country have not been given the same rights or advantages as white people. As a result, they have been and continue to be marginalized and experience challenges—invisible and visible—that require rectifying. While most visible with the Black Lives Matter movement, incidences of police brutality, targeted violence against Asian, Hispanic, Jewish, and Muslim citizens, racial injustice is embodied in the unconscious bias that affects the way that our infrastructures and systems impact the lives of people of color in America.

Whether we like it or not, there is a dominant culture of whiteness in American. As such, we have become the inheritors of a biased system that is not truly equitable to all. As white people, we have been the beneficiaries of these systems and have enjoyed access, opportunities, wealth, preference, and privilege not granted to our black, brown, and yellow brothers and sisters. 

Advocating for change can feel like
standing naked in the middle of Times Square!

As white leaders, taking a stand for change by advocating for people of color can feel vulnerable, daunting, awkward, and uncomfortable. Once we turn our minds to REALLY comprehending truth, learning history, listening to our Black, Asian, Jewish, Latinx, and other friends, and hearing their stories, journeys, experiences, joys, and hardships, our ability to hold the vastness of human experience expands. We are richer for new ways of treating each other and create opportunities for new systems and processes that support diverse voices and contributions to emerge. In doing this, we are activating our belief that we all benefit by having more authentic space for diversity at the table.

We hosted Karen Fleshman and Jared Karol, two white leaders who have been working in the DEIB field for decades on the most recent Intune Collective Salon. Below is a summary of recommendations discussed on what white leaders within corporations can do to consciously approach DEIB work and advocate for their BIPOC employees. 


Top Ten Insights for White Leaders Today

  1. Challenge the beliefs and stereotypes you grew up with. Explore what beliefs or projections your family or friends had about one race or the other. How did these shape you?
  2. Lead with empathy. Examine the thought, “What happens to everyone, happens to me.” Where does your mind go and what (new) hard truths are you willing to acknowledge?” What will you or do you want to do about this recognition and awareness? How can you make empathy a daily habit and allyship an act of mindfulness each time you are faced with a choice on your mindset, behavior, or thoughts? Small steps lead to big change.
  3. Be an active learner. Who are three people you can follow and learn from? Are there other white leaders who are visible and vocal in their allyship? As a start, consider following both Karen and Jared on LinkedIn and take time to read what they share. Who is someone else you can add to your personal DEIB Advisory Board? 
  4. Become fluent in the language of DEIB. Learn the terms and come to an understanding of what they mean for yourself. If you can teach someone else about them, you have acquired a great level of mastery. Each one, teach one. Really know what social justice, equity, equality, diversity, inclusion, allyship, bias, and belonging mean. Start here first.
  5. Improve your emotional intelligence. To become culturally and racially fluent, you need the skills of empathy, curiosity, vulnerability, and listening. Interestingly, these are exactly the skills leaders need most now in complex, fast-changing workplace dynamics. Take time to improve these skills within yourself and generate self-compassion as you practice, learn, and grow.
  6. Get proximate. Get to know and talk with people who are different from you. Hear their stories with an open mind; learn from them. Challenge your assumptions and biases (see #1 and #4) by getting to know the stories you are telling yourself about their Black, brown, Asian, Indigenous, or gender fluid experiences. Center the experiences of those closest to the problem when identifying solutions. Consider this a form of empathy mapping for designing processes, products, or services built upon the principle of design thinking.
  7. Stay current. Set Google alerts for current events that affect the diverse representation in your community. Add in background information and research and educate yourself on the different perspectives, both historical and present day. 
  8. Conduct a racial equity audit for your company. Look within and use honest eyes. What is the origin of your company? How have you profited from racism in the past or present? How have you treated your employees of color? What is the representation for racial (and other) diversity within your company? Have people left or been fired? Have you been sued for discrimination? How was this resolved? Do you have a budget allocated to equity and inclusion trainings and strategy? Who do you center when developing nondiscrimination policies or practices?
  9. Stop saying this: “I am not a racist.” One of the most anti-racist things you can do is to admit, recognize, and acknowledge when you’re being racist. It takes courage and you have the opportunity as a company leader to model this for others. Open the door to more authenticity and vulnerability in the workplace. By saying “I am not racist,” you are creating a block to progress, and real change.
  10. Talk about success stories. You will make progress! Celebrate successes within your company with one another. Set yourselves up for success by stating the context before engaging in deep work; by giving enough time to learn and then digest the learning together. Be patient and willing to go slow in order to go faster later. You are building the foundation for the future.

At Intune, we build a fabric of connection & belonging for all humans in organizations. We help organizations link DEIB values to their values. To elevate commitment, we help businesses build a culture of belonging and empathy. Foster belonging and fuel performance in your company, read more about our 4 Step DEIB Planning and Strategy Process here.   

Related Intune Resources: 

DEIB Lessons from the Frontlines
The Role of White Leaders Salon 

The Power of Branding: Our Inside-Out Approach