Just five days into Black History Month, a story appeared in the Ogden, Utah, Standard-Examiner about a local charter school that allowed parents to "exercise their civil rights to not participate in Black History Month at the school." The news took many by surprise, and within a day, the school reversed course.

In the midst of celebrating Black History Month, leaders must not only consider why it was created, but also its relevance today and the lessons from this particular incident. 

After 2020's year of awakening, a month-long celebration is not enough to make meaningful change. To effectively confront anti-Black racism, leaders must understand, in the words of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, that "the source of racist ideas was not ignorance and hate, but self-interest." Kendi argues that our strategies must focus "on policy change over mental change." Now is the time for leaders to create a movement beyond the celebration, and transform it into a lifelong journey. 

The past is in the present

According to Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard University, education "starts with being honest about our history, which we've never done." Doing so will empower people "to be more vigilant about not repeating the mistakes of the past." Unfortunately, we are not yet there. 

Black representation among Fortune 500 CEOs is 0.6 percent--only three. As sociologist Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield points out, our tendency is to see talent only when it's in the same package or replicates the same image we've seen in the past. In the case of CEOs, it's typically white men. In other words, our historical template of success limits our current ability to see the talent of people who are not of the same race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, and status of those who came before.

Further, barriers that prevent us from seeing Black talent also block Black people from joining and thriving in our organizations--both in the past and present. Today, research shows continued bias against Black candidates: Job applicants who delete references to their race on résumés are twice as likely to get an interview as those who do not. And once in, Black employees are likely have their competence questioned by colleagues over and over again.

Finally, stereotypes continue to unfairly characterize Black people in negative ways at work, causing even greater harm when intersecting with identities including gender, age, disability, and socioeconomic status. On the job, Black employees face undue negativity, or macro- and microaggressions; in fact, new research shows that Black Americans are subject to twice as many microaggressions than any other racialized group. Women of color are asked to do more work that is not considered mission-critical--this "inclusion tax" that Black employees must pay to fit in at work is costing companies and employees productivity, innovation, and well-being.   

That brings us to our work now: putting the lessons of the past into our work in the present.  

As Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt writes in Biased, "We've learned that diverse groups are more creative and reach better decisions, but they aren't always the happiest group of people. There are more differences, so there is apt to be more discord. Privilege shifts, roles change, new voices emerge." She offers, "Success requires us to tolerate that discomfort, as we learn to communicate, get to know one another, and make deeper efforts to shift the underlying cultures that lead to bias and exclusion." 

How can we apply lessons of the past to address these present-day challenges? During Black History Month, we invite you to do so by leaning into the future and becoming an ally.

Allyship starts with you

The foundation of being an ally is action. We invite you to start your own companywide initiative. By exploring your relationship to and understanding of racism, you will not only be a more effective leader, you will also be a more authentic one.

Allyship is a journey, not a one-time act or destination. To support leaders in taking first steps, our team at Stanford Graduate School of Business developed the 7-day Anti-Racism and Allyship Journey, a free online resource that provides practical ways to put allyship into practice. Some of the recommended steps include:

1. Learn. Start by educating yourself on the historical context while taking advantage of resources such as this 18-minute video made by white allies with the intention of sparking allyship. 

2. Reflect. Before you jump into action, take a moment to reflect on your own thoughts and experiences about race. What impact has race had on your life? Why do you think that is? How does talking about race and racism make you feel? When are you least equipped to engage in conversations about race?

3. Act. Experiment with the Race Card Project, a platform that enables people to explore and express their ideas about race in a six-word card. Also consider taking additional actions as a leader such as engaging with the Racial Equity Playbook

Some might argue that allyship benefits the few at the cost of the majority. Shouldn't a CEO focus their attention on supporting the entire employee base? The answer is "yes, and." Yes, you are supporting the entire employee base, and you are doing so by breaking down barriers and creating an inclusive culture. The endgame is creating a workplace that benefits all, but the route is not the same one that got us here.