February 1 signifies a new month and also the start of Black History month. And while I have my own longer thoughts about why this should not be just a month that are connected back to the original intent of what this month was created for, I also recognize that companies across the country are preparing to celebrate…and in sometimes ways that may actually not honor our history and/or what your team members would like to experience at work.
Sharing with you a few of my thoughts on what to consider if you haven’t already:
Ask first if Black employees want to celebrate at work…and be ok if they say no.
It can be hard enough somedays to need to show up at work each day being forced to carry your race on your shoulders but on top of this, being “asked” to lead Black History Month programming, the Juneteenth celebration, anything related to Black history and culture can actually be burdensome. So, while yes, it’s important that you ask, don’t assume that the answer is always yes and be respectful if the response is no. There may be staff who want to celebrate… but just not at work.
Now the critical exception to this if your Black team members say yes but don’t want to be burdened with the planning. This absolutely happens and companies should be prepared to take the lead if their team expects them too. If so, take the lead but still ask for some input. We don’t need any Pepsi fiascos happening because you took the lead and went too far.
For those that do say yes: ask them what they need and get out of the way.
Early on in my career, I remember being forced to be on a planning committee with every other race possible to plan what we should for Black History Month. I, along with the two other Black employees, quit after 2 days and they planned a whole series of programming…without our voices. Needless to say, I still have a few flashbacks and things to say about the whole experience but the point here is that if Black employees say yes, let them plan their programming, say yes to what they need (including budget requests) and get out of their way. The exception to this? See above.
Be mindful that the programming may not be for everyone.
I’ve personally appreciated in more recent years companies beginning to recognize that a celebration of Black history, heritage, and culture does not always need to include those who are non-white. It is not offensive to hold space for us that is just for us because the reality is, we show up to work spaces everyday that are never for us. Be mindful that every event does not need to be for everyone…and be mindful of this not just during February but all year round (looking at those of you who’ve created Black affinity spaces in your companies and then turn around and demand to know what your Black team members talk about. Let’s all say it together: None of your business.)
For non-Black people: this is NOT your moment to get educated.
It’s not called Black “ let me educate you on what you should already know” History month for a reason. Year after year, I’ve watched non-Black people show up to work events in February with pen and notebook ready to learn. You have the privilege and opportunity to learn all year round with the insurmountable amount of resources that are already out there for you. This month is not designed nor created for you or your learning.
Make sure your commitment to celebrating goes beyond February 28.
If you are planning marketing, events, partnerships (and all paid, yes?), or more to honor and celebrate, great! But what are you doing to honor your Black team members all year round through your actions? It is so hard to watch companies lead external marketing campaigns while internally, they have no one Black on the team or the one Black person is getting paid 5% of what everyone is being paid to do the job of 10 people. Check internally on what you proclaim you are honoring externally.
Remember that there are more people to celebrate than the ones you tokenize and uplift.
I appreciate Harriet, Martin, Garrett, etc. who have contributed to our history. Please learn to celebrate more than just the mainstream folks that are already uplifted. Talk to us about more than just your shock to find out it was a Black man who built the traffic light. And quite frankly, I think it’s important to acknowledge all of the folks whose back this country continues to be built on. If we are going to talk about history, let’s talk about the history.
These are my thoughts and I’m sure there are many others that could be added. Please note though that it’s important you ask your team as Black people are not a monolith and my thoughts do not reflect everyone’s sentiments. Here’s the other thing I think we should all step back and recognize:
The original intent behind Black History month was around all individuals understanding that Black history is American history and should be taught as such in schools…which we know is not. This month originally was never an actual month and started as a week (Negro History Week) during the second week of February that again was intended to ensure our history is taught and not only uplifted during a week or even during a month. This was in 1926…and here we are today still haven’t its intent (a long conversation for another day).
Why is this important? Because before any organization takes these suggestions and approaches, it’s important they understand that Black history, Black heritage, Black everything….should not be uplifted during a singular point of the year. Companies must learn to get beyond a performative practice of pretending it matters for 28 days of the year and yet demonstrating during the other day 337 that it doesn’t. The suggestions don’t matter if the dialogue isn’t rooted in what you are doing to uplift Black team members all of the time. So, let these suggestions be the start of a much longer dialogue that needs to happen in too many businesses.
Happy Black History Month.