June 04, 2020 • All / Behind the scenes

I have not consistently shown up for Black people. In order to authentically stand with the Black community in this moment, I need to first acknowledge the ways in which I’ve fallen short—not in any way to absolve myself, but as a way to use my reach to bring a broader understanding of the systems I helped perpetuate. I built a predominantly white company, failed to hire Black people into positions of leadership, and created a culture that harmed Black employees.

This is not ok. My awareness came too late, and that lateness was a product of my immense white privilege. When Black employees, peers, and customers made me aware, I felt personally hurt and defensive, and it took me a long time to observe the situation critically and objectively. We didn’t establish a Black leadership presence, did not implement anti-bias/anti-racism training early on, and ultimately I didn’t truly serve, hear, and protect our Black employees as well as I should have. My white fragility in conversations, interactions, and leadership got in the way often, and prevented me from taking action when it was needed. Our core values that focused on energy and positivity were discouraging to employees that felt like they couldn’t bring their perspectives or authentic selves to work. By applying policies and structures to all employees equally in an effort to treat everyone the same, we failed to achieve true *equity*, which would have met each individual where they were at and provided a real opportunity for everyone to succeed. Our recruiting strategy was insular and referral-based, and without strong connections to local organizations in our community, we did not successfully seek out and welcome Black talent. By promoting internally (as a predominantly white organization) we limited opportunities for Black leadership. This isn’t exhaustive, but these are just some of the ways that I perpetuated white supremacy at ES. We were and are actively working towards change both as an organization and as individuals, but that does not undo the impact of my mistakes. Even in that work I have made missteps, and I will continue to—this will be lifelong learning and course correction. 

I’ve been learning from many conversations happening about performance activism, and the concept of brands engaging in social solidarity without the action behind it. I have not spoken openly enough about the whiteness of our workplace, my own inherent racism, and the consequences of it. That should have been a prerequisite long before expressing solidarity with the Black community. I will lose trust for this, as I should. While I will no longer have a team moving forward, I will be taking everything employees, this community, and the findings of our DEI audit (completed before COVID hit) have taught me to deeply reflect on where we went wrong and where we could have done better, and, most importantly, work to deconstruct my internalized beliefs that allowed for such mistakes. This work will never be “finished”. I’m committed to sharing money, space, resources, and information with Black designers/creatives/entrepreneurs. I plan to establish a paid board of advisors that represents communities I’m not a part of, to ensure I’m not making decisions on behalf of others. One of the first things I’d ask this group is how to effectively build ongoing, permanent reparations into whatever shape ES takes moving forward.

If you are reading this and thinking these issues don’t exist in your white organization, I thought the same thing for a long time, and I implore you to look again. We worried about sales, productivity, team health and morale—but failed to listen to the Black voices in our company and take swift action to address their concerns. In hindsight, our approach to anti-racism work was in many ways more focused on fixing issues rather than doing the deep unlearning that’s necessary to create real change. 

This post is taking up space, but it felt important to address before contributing anything further to the pivotal conversation happening in this moment. This acknowledgment in no way makes up for my failures; this is just one step towards lifelong accountability. I have failed in many ways, and I have to sit with that. I apologize deeply. I do not wish to distract from the imperative conversation at hand—I hope to further it by calling attention to the very real ways I have been a participant in the system that brings harm to the Black community every day.

Thank you to Elliott for leading so many of these conversations at ES and teaching me so much as an individual and leader. My gratitude to all of our employees present and past for challenging and pushing me to do better, to every individual that has had difficult conversations with me, inside our company and outside of it, to Deb of @clothedinabundance for doing so much work to hold all brands accountable and for providing diligent resources and labor, to Aja Barber for speaking out about performance activism, to Desiree Adaway for helping us through this work as a company, and to everyone contributing to this conversation. It should not be your burden to bear, and I am sorry that any of this work has fallen on you.

If you’d like to share any feedback with me you are welcome to email me at liz@elizabethsuzann.com