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Race Revolution: Fashion Insiders on the Power of Apology and How White People Can Support Their Black Peers Right Now

The footwear industry is at the center of important conversations about race, diversity and equality in the workplace, which have been reignited by national protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Today, FN continued the discussion with its virtual roundtable”Race Revolution: Apologies and Action — Why Brands Need to do Both”, part of the “Executive Smart Talk” series.

Offering insight was New Balance director of apparel operations Portia Blunt and retail entrepreneur James Whitner, who owns several boutiques including Social Status and A Ma Maniére.

The conversation was led by FN deputy editor Sheena Butler-Young, who tackled complex issues — such as the critical role HR departments must play, the power of public company apologies and how non-black colleagues can support their peers.

Below are some candid and solutions-oriented quotes from Blunt and Whitner from the conversation.

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On the critical role and responsibility of HR:

Portia Blunt: “We as managers should have these conversations with HR. We have prerequisites in place that eliminate candidates even before a hiring manager has the opportunity to vet a short list. That goes as far as prerequisites for college. If the job [requirement] says four years of experience or you need an MBA — or you need to have some affiliation with the outdoor industry or you need to be a past runner — those things are key triggers to exclude people. If we can get to a place where the job descriptions and [requirements] are more inclusive in terms of looking at more diverse pools, that’s where we can start to impact things. If HR is always going to a specific corridor for hiring, that’s not necessarily super diverse. Are we looking at West Coast schools? Are we looking at HBCUs? Are we looking at vocational training? Are we looking at different things because the world is different? You know, Gen-Z [applicants] are not necessarily going to take a traditional path. They might have an ample amount of experience through just working and building a business and taking an entrepreneurial path, and now want to come and contribute in a corporate structure.”

James Whitner: “It’s important for companies to get intentional about building their bench. If you know you have issues with a minority candidate pool and you know that there are really high requirements to hire people into the organization, go back to the high school level, get into some Title 1 high schools. What scholarship programs are you offering? What internship programs are you offering? Are you being intentional about building your bench through high school and into college to create what your future organization will look like? It’s the responsibility of all HR departments that are hiring managers to think long term and think about not just not just what we are today, but how will your future look.”

On creating an inclusive company culture:

Portia Blunt new balance
Portia Blunt, director of apparel operations, New Balance.
CREDIT: Courtesy

PB: “Hiring is the easiest part. Those are easy transactional numbers you can bolster to say, ‘We are doing what we’re supposed to do.’ Actually, you’re not, because when we start to look at the comfort level of our younger associates who are black or [people] of color — and they don’t feel comfortable speaking up in a meeting or they don’t feel like they have somewhere to go to share a view or to share experience — then there’s a problem in the culture. If there weren’t systemic problems in the culture across the board, we would not be feeling and seeing the uprising that we are currently. And it’s not just a moment in time, this has been years of voices and yelling out, ‘Please listen to us.’ These young associates want to know, ‘Where do I go? Are you invested in me? Do you care enough to develop me, show me your mentorship?’ Sponsor these young black associates so that their perspective of culture starts to shift because you’re showing trust in their abilities, you are showing a vested interest in their development and career path. That all adds itself to how culture starts to manifest itself.”

JW: “Most black people don’t trust HR. If you have an organization full of white people and then you have less than 5% or even less than 10% black people in an organization, there’s a disconnect to start. It’s important that there is some level of trust established and there has to be intent around a company to create a culture that helps the black employees better connect with their white counterparts. White people have to openly acknowledge the work they’re doing on themselves, the work they’re doing with the company and their privilege — and they have to be comfortable acknowledging that to their black peers. If not, black people are never going to trust them and the culture will never grow. Second, there has to be some level of professional development. Corporations have to be willing to spend dollar-for-dollar and invest in the black talent that they’re bringing in. If you bring in 100 new black employees, but you don’t have a [black] culture now or you have a culture that is significantly white who are really discovering what the privilege means to them, a lot of those people aren’t in a position to help develop the culture. So are you willing to spend more dollars to go out to bring in life coaches, professional development coaches who help create a North Star on what your organization is going to look like tomorrow so everyone can work toward tomorrow and not get stuck on today?”

On the power of apology:

JW: “Acknowledgment is very important, but I don’t think it’s realistic to get a huge ‘I’m sorry’ from a lot of these companies. I don’t think their leadership is wired or connected that way. Still, in a lot of cases it should happen. We’re seeing all these companies now, Aunt Jemima and some others in other industries, coming in and saying, ‘I’m sorry, we’re pulling these things off the shelf, we were wrong.’ But I think acknowledgment of the past is very important and you can’t get to the future without understanding why you were where you were. But we can’t dwell.”

PB: “The acknowledgment is necessary. It’s imperative to move forward. I don’t see that the community, the consumers are going to let it slide. I did a little bit of research and there were some recent studies done with YPulse. They are basically saying millennials and Gen-Zs, 69% of them say this is important to them and they’re holding firm on it. I don’t want to dwell on the past but as a black woman, that’s ingrained. We adapt and we are resilient, but it’s always there, so these apologies and acknowledgments in my mind really set the stage for going forward. What’s different about this moment versus others is that I am seeing a collective swell of non-black peers and leadership in it too. I genuinely feel that it’s palpable. We better encourage it because if we just cancel everybody for their past grievances, what are we doing? We’ve got to forgive, we’ve got to move forward because otherwise everyone’s just going to stay stuck. In my mind, that’s unacceptable. What the focus needs to be is you’re rooted in it, you acknowledge it. We know we are who we are because of your culture, because of your community and now we’re going to do the best that we can to do make right on that.”

On how non-black people can support their black peers right now:

JW: “I think everyone’s getting a slew of people who are hitting them up with some level of guilt. You don’t want to join the list of people who are reaching out because they kind of have some level white guilt or fear or guilt for what they have or haven’t done. … I saw an interesting quote earlier that said, ‘When I was when I was younger, I wanted to change the world. Once I got older and much wiser, I understood that I needed to change myself.’ I think change happens when you commit to changing yourself, and in that you’re going to find ways to help the people around you.”

PB: “These last couple of weeks have been interesting because a lot of people have reached out to me and I don’t want that to go away, they feel empowered to do that. But I personally am not going to take on the burden of anyone’s guilt or misunderstanding or lack of education. But I am going to foster them, encourage them and be that soundboard. Yes, please, come ask questions because the worst thing you could do is assume something or be so afraid that you say [the wrong thing] where you’re walking on eggshells. Don’t do that. I don’t need it. That’s additional stress that I don’t have time to manage.”

James Whitner social status
James Whitner, owner of the Whitaker Group.
CREDIT: George Chinsee

On cancel culture:

JW: “We’ve got to be careful who we cancel because allies are important for change. But if people aren’t moving forward and are not transparent about what their strategy is going forward — and they’re not and they’re not significantly changing who they’ve been — then hell yeah, we should cancel. And keep in mind, there are some corporations that are much worse off than others. If we’re talking about companies who have really drilled in and taken from us and been arrogant in their treatment of us then there are some people and some companies that probably deserve to be canceled. And I think they know who they are and I hope they are willing to do the work.”

PB: “We need to give everybody the opportunity to do what they’ve said they’re going to do. Come see me in a year in terms of what you’ve said and your promises. And at that point, if you haven’t made good on that, then you’re on the block for cancellation. But, I think we have to give everybody a chance to do right. But we see you, you’re on probation. This really should be the mentality there because we have to hold everybody accountable. But I do get weary about just jumping off and canceling everyone. I do think we’ve got to give everyone the chance to make good on the promises that they put forth.”

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