I was planning to write a post about the fast vs slow fashion this week, but decided instead to write on what has been on my mind for months now. I’m in a “put up or shut up” mind set after re-reading my LinkedIn profile the first sentence of which reads
“Business is about putting our beliefs to work. It’s not enough to talk about what you think is wrong; you must apply what you know best to create change.”
Also, I ran across Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he chastises white moderates:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is … the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice…..Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
I’ve been delaying writing about the place of racism in business for two reasons, neither of which I could be faulted for. First, obviously, racism is a controversial topic. As a small business owner, honestly expressing my opinion about it could potentially damage my business in multiple ways not the least of which is alienating potential customers. As you undoubtedly realize, small business owners have a very close relationship with the brand image of their businesses. It is therefore, fair to assume that the business would suffer if the views of the owner are seen as misguided.
And secondly, as a middle aged, middle class, white woman (the definition of a “white moderate”), what personal platform gives me the right to have an opinion that is worthwhile putting out there? I don’t write a blog to listen to myself talk. I write it as a resource for information and as a tool for discussion with the wider world. What content, in my personal life experience, would lend truth to my words, enough that they would be of value to readers?
Recent occurrences of the past years, most notably those of Ferguson, Missouri and Charlottesville, Virginia, have served to assure me that the status quo which I enjoyed in my narrowly defined world is much further from the situation that individuals of color experience than I thought. I now believe that we must accept racism as an underlying foundation of our society and hence our businesses. It is pernicious, stubborn, wily and wide spread. It appears in countless forms; loud and obvious, or, as just a fleeting thought, almost escaping notice. It is now obvious that my complacent attitude as a middle class white woman is no longer acceptable. I must take to heart my own words and those of Dr. King and then take action on those words. As Dr. King also said, “the appalling silence of the good people” should be at an end.
But what form should that action take? If you find yourself in the same position as myself, what would you do? Action could take many forms and I welcome suggestions. Obviously, I’ve started with some self-examination, but in my business United Sewing and Design, I choose to start with recognizing and avoiding the “white savior” route. This route assumes that the “other,” a person of seemingly lower means or education than the white savior, needs to be rescued from their plight by whatever means and methods the white person deems appropriate. The person of color need not be consulted because they “don’t know better.” It is surprising how easy it is to fall into this trap and how often it’s methods are still applied by well-meaning people. In my business I choose to conscientiously avoid this trap by simply enacting the following steps:
- Enter relationships with employees with unequivocal respect for them as individuals viewing them as equally valuable in their place on earth as yourself
- Inquire about what they need that will enable them to function at their highest level in your business
- Listen with an open mind
- Speak to them honestly
- View them as assets to your company as opposed to expenses
Now that I’ve put my practices out there, and I must say, they DO work, why should you give what I say any weight? I refer you to my LinkedIn profile again in which I call attention to my life history as a native of Virginia, and as a parent who has experienced poverty first hand. One can deal with ones heritage and the actions of racist white “good ole boys” abusing black women (among the many egregious actions I witnessed) by either ignoring it as acceptable or by allowing it to change you into an advocate for respect and equality. Living through poverty gives one a familiarity with the numbing despair, daily frustrations and lack of opportunities your fellow humans may be going through and can make you into an advocate for economic justice in the form of offering self affirming, well paid jobs. I genuinely look forward to your comments.
Mary Ruth, Owner of United Sewing and Design has over 30 years experience in the manufacturing of products by sewing and is author of “Industry Sewing Construction Methods” http://amzn.to/2yMxMmk. Her focus is on design, entrepreneurship; social enterprise; the connections between the environment, the apparel industry, and manufacturing; and how owners can leverage artistic methods to benefit their business.