18 Jun 2020

Community Conversation on Race: June 11, 2020

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“We must use this moment to galvanize a greater sense of urgency and a greater sense of solidarity. Promoting anti-racism is a project that all of us must take up personally regardless of our skin color. We have to work together to develop plans and take action in how we can better educate leaders, how we can become a living example of progress and possibility at Harvard Business School and how we can influence the business community and world more broadly. HBS has a tremendous capacity to make a difference. At this time, we must mobilize this capacity to make a difference in creating a more just and anti-racist society. Let's together make sure that Black Lives Matter.”

With those words, Dean Nitin Nohria welcomed more than 2,500 participants to the June 11 event led by Senior Lecturers Andy Zelleke and Tony Mayo. Following the Dean’s introduction, HBS alumni, staff, and students—Mia Mends (MBA 2003), George Ellis (MBA 1984), HBS CIO Ron Chandler, Chichi Anyoku (MPP/MBA 2021), Ronnie Wimberley (MBA 2021), Priyanka Chaurasia (MBA 2021), and Mike Klain (JD/MBA 2022) —shared their lived experiences in reaction to and in reflection of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and those before them.

Mends was seven years old, newly immigrated from Ghana, when she first realized that she would be defined by the color of her skin. From derogatory chants to being denied access to gifted classes, she saw her heritage as a burden instead of something to be celebrated. As an executive at a global organization, her authority has been questioned and her knowledge discounted. Race-based insults are part of her daily life experience. “We are fighting for our children, and for those that do not have a voice or hope. As a Harvard educated Black woman, I can see my privilege. Do those of you who are not Black see yours? And if you see it, what will you do with it?” asked Mends.

As a 6’6” Black man like George Floyd—and with sons just a few inches shy of that—police brutality is personal for Ellis, knowing that his very existence is seen as a threat. “I feel the challenge on my life, and on the life of my children, every single day,” he said. “When I hear about 6’6” George Floyd with a knee on his neck, I say there but for the grace of God go I.” He called on Harvard to act as a pipeline for premiere Black executive talent, and to make a true commitment to executing that goal.

For Chandler, acts of overt racism are compounded by constant, exhausting microaggressions. “I reflect on the many conversations that I have with my two sons. I tell them that they have to guard their minds and their hearts to deflect any notion that anyone is superior to them, or that they are inferior to anyone. We talk about not letting their regular exposure to systemic racism change their bright outlooks, their hopeful perspectives, or their self-confidence,” said Chandler.

Anyoku described multiple instances of overt racism that she has experienced as a student, from a classmate declaring white men as the true bearers of oppression in the US, to non-Black classmates singing the “n” word in karaoke, to repeatedly having her hair touched. Challenging the notion that HBS creates leaders who make a difference in the world and decrying private acknowledgements of racism, Anyoku closed with a clear directive, “You do not get the privilege of disengaging from racism. Address the racism directly, and call it as you see it.”

Wimberley has been at a loss for words to describe their feelings. “The very fact of having to say that my life matters; that I deserve respect, and care, and love, and support, and to be believed in, is utterly absurd, profoundly dehumanizing, and deeply isolating,” they said. Stop questioning whether you are a racist, urged Wimberley, and ask instead what you are doing to dismantle the legacies and institutions of systemic racism.

Chaurasia and Klain then shared their reflections and advice on being effective allies. Chaurasia, who has challenged anti-Black sentiment within her own Asian community, urged those seeking to support the Black community to not give up. “You will make mistakes and your ego will get bruised. If a Black person calls you out, listen—without arguing. Ask questions that seek to understand, process it, and grow from it. Like the rest of us, Black people don't agree with each other on everything. It's going to be complicated. Talking with people is the only way to get through it.”

Klain reflected on the privileges granted to him as a white, straight, cisgender male, and their inherent responsibilities. “Rather than denying or minimizing my privilege, I must use it to help make universal the opportunities that I have too often taken for granted. I must use it to disarm the threats that I never have to consider: police violence, workplace discrimination, poverty, and so much more. I will use it to amplify voices that are too often not heard, change the very institutional structures that have benefited me, and do my best to call those like me to action,” pledged Klain.

Zelleke and Mayo then opened up the call to participants, who shared their own reflections and experiences. Ann Fudge (MBA 1977), mentioned the words she saw on a poster in Minneapolis, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, then you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” She called on participants to acknowledge that the strand of racism has penetrated their spirit—one can no longer be neutral. Lillian Lincoln Lambert (MBA 1969), the first Black woman to graduate from the MBA Program, recalled her sense of isolation at HBS, a campus and population that seemed unaffected by the civil rights protests and activism across the river in Cambridge; of experiencing the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. alone in her dorm room—and having it not mentioned in any of her classes the following day. She had hoped, she said, that we would not be talking about this subject 51 years later. Lewis Long (MBA 1991), asked the administration for specific action plans, citing the static number of Black HBS students, faculty, and case protagonists, and the scarcity of Black graduates in C-suite roles. The HBS community, stressed Long, is the one in which we can all make a difference.

Craig Robinson (MBA 2002) introduced the Business for Racial Equity Pledge crafted by the Leadership Now Project—an organization co-founded by HBS alumni. The pledge, said Robinson, aims to mobilize the business community to take concrete actions toward racial equity—to compel and drive accountability around three components; biased policing, electoral disenfranchisement, and economic exclusion.

Senior Associate Dean and MBA Faculty Chair Jan Rivkin concluded the 90-minute conversation with a reflection on his own experience growing up in the racially divided South of the 1970s, and a vow to work harder to make HBS—and the MBA Program specifically—a more just, equitable, and anti-racist institution. “The economic brutality directed against Black Americans has often been at the hands of business people. The slave trader, the plantation owner, the blockbusting real estate executive, the prison entrepreneur, the banker who won't lend to Black businesses—these were and are business people. As a place that prides itself on being the center of business education, we've got to own that,” said Rivkin. “Business can be one of the most powerful forces to lift up the Black community, but it has too often exploited Black people and excluded them from the benefits of opportunity. I commit to do my share to change this. My hope is that this can be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to look the past squarely in the eye, to act vigorously in the present, and to create together a more just future.”

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