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​​“You Didn’t Mean Not To…”
peaceful protestors gathered for peaceful protestors gathered for

​​“You Didn’t Mean Not To…”

In a recent blog post on antiracism and social change, we talked about a reference to Martin Luther King’s famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which he states we are at the fourth step –  direct action – because “racial injustice engulfs this community.”   

Racial injustice still engulfs this community, whether we choose to see it or not. 

Many of us, corporate leaders in particular, chose not to see the injustice. We saw racial injustice as someone else’s problem, as something someone else perpetrated, someone who was racist. It certainly wasn’t our fault there was racial injustice … was it? 

When I was young and would get into trouble because I had crossed a line or behaved in a way that was disrespectful, I would often use the excuse:

“Well, I didn’t mean to.”

My mother, more often than not, would say quite slowly: 

“Well, you didn’t mean not to either.” 

Many of us in leadership positions are using that excuse when it comes to being anti-racist. We aren’t racists, but we aren’t anti-racists either. 

“We didn’t mean to.” 

But we also didn’t mean not to, either. Did we?

We know equity, diversity and inclusion are important and have become even more critical to an equitable society. Most leaders want to have more people of color on senior teams, as clients and as partners, but they’ve never made it a focus. They understand the value of a talent pool that is representative of varied backgrounds, but they haven’t made it a priority or a goal. 


Because it was a “nice to have” and not a “must-have.” And so because diversity was not a goal, it wasn’t defined, measured, managed or valued. 

But during the recent protests and widespread support of #BlackLivesMatter, leaders like me began to lift our heads. We began to see that because we were not part of the solution, we were part of the problem. We have to take responsibility to do better and be better. Not just in words but in actions. Actions that are measurable, and that we’re accountable for. 

In a recent article in The Atlantic, John Rice, CEO and president of Management Leadership of Tomorrow says, “Only when people align on what racist behavior looks like will we be able to take practical steps to make those behaviors costly.” 

Rice said his father gave him his playbook to fight racism 30 years ago. Emmett Rice  – an economist, a Tuskegee Airman, a Ph.D., a Cornell professor and one of seven governors of the Federal Reserve Board in the 1980s – fought racism his whole life. The underlying message of the playbook he gave his son? “Increase the cost of racist behavior.”

But the younger Rice goes further than that. In his article, he identifies first-, second- and third-degree racism, calling the third the most “pernicious” and the one which “undergirds the everyday black experience.”

When employers, educational institutions and governmental entities do not unwind practices that disadvantage people of color in the competition with whites for economic and career mobility, that is fundamentally racist – not to mention cancerous to our economy and inconsistent with the American dream. For example, the majority of white executives operate as if there is a tension between increasing racial diversity and maintaining the excellence-based “meritocracies” that have made their organizations successful. After all, who in their right mind would argue against the concept of meritocracy?

John Rice, CEO and president of Management Leadership of Tomorrow

So what can leaders begin to do “to unwind” these practices? And how can communications leaders support them?

It first begins with accepting the inconvenient truth that our silence is part of the problem and will continue to be if direct action is not a crucial part of our quest for social change. 

Lisa Borders, former Time’s UP CEO and President of the WNBA, will join me for a conversation on these and other questions during our next DC Communicators, hosted by Proof Strategies, on July 23. I invite you to register and join our conversation about the practical steps we can take, as an industry, to affect positive change.

The answers are not obvious, but they’re there. We just have to do the hard work to make sure we find them. 

Join us!