Messaging about equity and racial justice

It has taken me a very long time to achieve even glimmers of understanding of how I feel about my own racial/ethnic identity (Korean-American); I now recognize that this will be a lifelong and continuous evolution of thought and feeling and understanding. My parents emigrated here in the sixties, after living through hardships and war in Korea, and throughout my childhood, their charge to me was clear: assimilate, assimilate, assimilate, and achieve, achieve, achieve. Incidents of racism—and there was always at least one a year, in rural Bucks County, PA where I grew up—were to be ignored and largely forgotten. Speak softly, and carry a perfect GPA and an admissions letter to an Ivy League school, were the general principles as I understood them (although I didn’t always follow through).

Not talking about racism and intolerance became an ingrained habit; when I eventually carved out a career path in social sector communications, not talking about racism and intolerance was the norm there, too. At the foundations and nonprofits where I worked for the majority of my career, a very few mentioned in the fine print that they were committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion in their hiring practices, and then there was an awful lot of talk about “underrepresented” or “disadvantaged” populations, and how to close racial/ethnic “gaps” in services, representation, etc.

I guess we all assumed that we were good? That whatever unequal gaps existed, they could be closed; that whatever was causing those inequities was not to be found in the hearts and minds of human beings, but instead could be addressed through greater awareness of the problem and multiple strategies and solutions focused on the symptoms, not the actual problems.

Looking back, I feel like my communications career has been shaped by two cataclysmic shifts: one, the digital transformation of content and stories, and two, the dawning awareness, on some of our parts, of just how unequal things really are in America—especially so for Black people, but also for Muslim, Latino, Asian, gay, transgender…the list goes on. We are living in the midst of a racism and intolerance boom. Fueled, no doubt, by an openly white supremacist President and his many devotees.

Just several years ago, when I was still working full-time in an office, we were agonizing about whether we should comment publicly on devastatingly tragic situations like the Charleston massacre, or the killings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Our agonizing came from a simple place: if the organization’s focus was on issues having to do with the environment, we didn’t know whether we were qualified to say something about equity and racial justice and hatred and intolerance. Many of us in the social sector writ large assumed that only organizations that were actively working on these racial justice and equity were the ones that were supposed to speak up.

What we didn’t know, then, was that all organizations should be commenting on these issues, because all organizations need to be actively working on racial justice and equity. It has become painfully clear to me, as a communicator, and as a long-time observer of and participant in public interest work, that it is everyone’s responsibility to dismantle systems and structures that feed and nourish intolerance and injustice, and that until more of us call out and name that responsibility, we’ll still get people telling us that, you know, the shooter in Atlanta was “just having a bad day.”

I’ve been working as a writer for the past few years, and these days, I’m glad that with increasing frequency, part of the client brief is to address themes of equity and racial justice in the writing. Sometimes the request is catalyzed by current (and tragic) events involving violence against Black people; other times, the client wants to announce a new project or piece of content and they want to signal that the new something-something is part of their commitment to be anti-racist and to promote equity across systems, institutions, and practices.

I thought I could offer a few thoughts on what I’ve observed and learned from writing about racial justice and equity, with the usual caveat that these are just my observations—I’m not offering them as “best practice.” I am not an anti-racism expert, although thankfully, there’s a growing number of people who are. What I am is a writing expert, particularly for leaders and for organizations. I know how to figure out what a client might want from a piece of writing; what they are hoping to accomplish with it, who they want it to reach. I think I’m skilled at sussing out not just the factual components of what they want to say, but also the emotional and narrative components of what they want to convey. So with that in mind, here are some bits of advice:

The starting point is humility: There is no one way to do this type of messaging well, and messaging will land differently with different groups of people—there are generational and cultural differences, for example, in how different racial/ethnic groups receive language and messaging. (My Korean parents took a hella long time to let go of “Oriental” as a way to describe themselves.) So if leaders at your organization are interested in speaking and communicating more about their commitment to be anti-racist and support movements like Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate, then the starting point is humility—the humility that comes from understanding how much you don’t know, and how you are as likely to get things wrong as you are to strike the right note. If I sense that my client doesn’t get that—if I sense that they are looking to virtue-signal or pat themselves on the back, I will not hesitate to give them the feedback that their messages are likely to, er, not land well.

You need to put meaning into the words you’re using. Terms like “diversity,” “equity,” “inclusion,” “racism,” and “justice” encompass a whole lotta history, attitudes, beliefs, practices, events, policies–and past failures. So if your organization wants to communicate about commitments or actions with respect to any of the above terms, you need to go well beyond saying that you care about these concepts and actually talk about what you’re going to do. What is going to change about your organization’s work, and about your organization’s policies, practices, and culture, as a result of your commitment? What will make this commitment you’re communicating about meaningful and real for your organization and for your audiences?

Leadership has to own the messages. People often forget that organizations are not singular people, so when they talk about organizations “saying something” or “taking a position,” they forget the complicated structures within organizations that require inputs from different stakeholders (Board, leadership, staff, customers, supporters) and what a challenging process it can be to make decisions. This is not an excuse for organizations that don’t take a position; it is just recognition of the reality that goes into organizational communications. I would say that for organizational-wide messaging on equity and racial justice to have any chance of being heard, those messages need to be fully owned and felt by the top brass. People can absolutely tell when leaders at organizations are issuing pro forma statements versus when they are saying something real, meaningful, and true. And, I’ll go further: I think it’s necessary not only for leadership to own messages on equity and racial justice, but also to drive the organizational changes and practices and behaviors that will fulfill the promises and commitments underlying the messages. I think it’s unspeakable how often the work of anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion are put on Black employees and employees of color, regardless of whether they are a member of the C-suite or not. (Sadly, too often they’re not.)

I will end by saying that while much of writing comes easily to me, writing about an organization’s stance and values on equity and racial justice does not. These are often painful, triggering subjects; people inside and outside the organization may feel that the messages are insufficient or hollow, whereas others may feel the messages are too radical or polarizing. I always start with my usual process of figuring out what messages, actually, are most important for them to get out there; but the final product is often determined by thinking about what I would really want to hear from organizations I care about and support. And these days, I want to hear a lot. I want to know that we’re truly past the days of not talking about equity and racial justice at all and not only talking about these subjects, but actually, doing something about them.