Diversity Diva

Time for taking a deeper look

Michelle T. Johnson, Diversity Diva columnist
Michelle T. Johnson, Diversity Diva columnist

As strange as it may seem, Black History Month is one of the hardest topics for me to speak about. It’s a complicated topic about a still necessary educational tool.

In recent years, people have begun to question the usefulness of singling out black history for a month of honor and celebration.

In the workplace, honoring it has always been an awkward addition, in part because it’s not an “ethnic celebration” revolving around food and fun.

No, Black History Month still requires people to be either thoughtful about what they don’t normally consider, or a bit resentful that the attention is squeezed into one month.

I’m not an advocate of getting rid of the month, but of the opposite. More special months celebrating others in our workplace — such as women, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community — should be considered.

But I also strongly recommend that people celebrate Black History Month by finding out more about the history of their particular workplace where black people are concerned.

Your workplace may not be the kind of place where you can openly and easily ask questions and investigate, but find ways to look beyond the obvious.

For example, if you have a supervisor who is black, find out if he or she is the first or second black person to have that job. If that’s the case, have you thought about what that might be like? Have you especially thought about what that experience is in a conservative industry or a workplace full of people who don’t have the most open minds?

Just because people are succeeding, or have a position equivalent to or higher than you, doesn’t mean they didn’t have invisible ceilings to burst through.

Look at your customer or client base, and whether your business has historically had a policy of not serving African-Americans. For example, Jim Crow laws were just abolished in the mid-1960s, so one of your older co-workers remembers a time when it was legal to not have to provide service to blacks.

Though studying great inventors and civil rights leaders and artists is an admirable area of focus, Black History Month can always be a time for gaining more personal knowledge.

Like all history, it’s living history if it affected people, and those effects continued through patterns, practices, habits, traditions and biases.

If someone in your workplace is the first black to have a certain job or level of authority, that person may not have faced a historic level of prejudice, but I guarantee you the person understands what it means to be a part of history.

Whatever affected the history of a workplace affects the future of a workplace. History isn’t always just historical.