A Fresh Look at Black History Month: Representation Matters

2022 black history month dei diversity membership outreach willette neal Feb 14, 2022

In 1976, Black History Month was officially recognized by the United States. In a recent Black History web search, I noticed a unique description of Black History Month by The World Economic Forum www.weforum.org: "This month-long observance in the US and Canada is a chance to celebrate Black achievement and provide a fresh reminder to take stock of where systemic racism persists and give visibility to the people and organizations creating change." As I was preparing this article, I chose to highlight these three points for this conversation. Last month, I expressed my desire and goal to have deeper conversations at SIETAR USA around diversity, equity, and inclusion. DEI and black history are intricately linked. Black achievement is the first item mentioned by the World Economic Forum that offers several opportunities to celebrate black achievements that are not as prominent as others. A view of black achievement in my career field, aviation, may look different than other fields. You may have seen or heard someone mention that representation matters. As I consider black achievements, I link them to representation and how representation matters. But what do these two words mean to an interculturalist of color? Representation matters has an underlying meaning that resonates with giving voice in situations where previously there was silence or apathy.   

Aviation, my career field, has a documented lack of diversity in its workforce in critical areas. Representation matters as a component of black achievement mean that even when I am not in the room, there is someone who can give a voice where there was otherwise silence. Someone who has shared experiences and/or deep knowledge of these experiences. Yes, representation is a heavy load, but at this moment, it's required. I recently participated in a three-day steering committee workshop on federal government diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA). Representation matters. There were several opportunities to share with the panel about inequities that were experienced, some of them personal--all needed to be heard. I expressed our organizations' excellent track record in recruiting minorities for opportunities in critical careers but how we have failed to intentionally ensure that hiring managers are knowledgeable about our DEIA goals and are held accountable for their implementation. 

Representation matters. The crux of black achievement for the steering group was the first time this entity had reserved space for this conversation. Our organizations' deputy administrator is a person of color. Representation matters. In over thirty years with the federal government, I often overlook or, better yet ignore public personnel announcements in my organizations because these positions are generally not diversely represented. But, last year, the deputy administrator, a person of color, was announced, and my phone didn't stop ringing because representation matters. It's hard to explain or express how profound it is to believe that there is someone in the room when you aren't there.  This person should represent your concerns. Black achievement comes in so many forms and has so many tentacles. It's not always the out-front ones who are working to dismantle systemic racism. There are others as well. I see black achievement in so many spaces. I don't want to celebrate black achievement in and of itself but black achievement as a tool to dismantle systemic racism. This leads me to the second part of the definition. Where does systemic racism exist?  

Undoubtedly, this article will not do justice in identifying all spaces where systemic racism exists. Still, I think this article can elaborate on ways we, as interculturalists, can all contribute to the dismantling of systemic racism. How can intercultural intentionally seek to dismantle systemic racism in this current moment? We begin with conversations. My first SIETAR USA conference was in Atlanta in 2019. We were given a break-out room, and I was amazed by all the interculturalists of color present. We needed extra chairs, and I clearly remember the speaker standing in a chair for voice amplification. I also recall that there wasn't enough time to finish the conversation. There was a buzz in the room, a feeling of hope and unspoken possibilities for change.

Interculturalists of color are in the field, and—as I previously stated—representation matters. I recently read How DEI Firms Replicate, an article by Janice Gassam Asare, PhD, in which she wrote that DEI firms repeat the same biases they seek to dismantle (January 2022). As interculturalists, we are seeking to engage a broader audience on the exchange of information, knowledge, and expertise in the intercultural field. But my initial assumption from being in the room with interculturalists of color is that some barriers exist to hinder their desire to enter the field. It was if they were missing the link to the inside or the way to find an opening for opportunities for people of color to thrive in the intercultural field. Maybe we need to start a conversation centered around these challenges and use the current years of experience to ensure that doors open for practitioners of color. 

It's not always these huge gestures of change that break down systemic racism but tiny chips in the processes that can truly make a difference. Intentionally sharing access to information is an excellent way to start the conversation. Mentoring is a huge and effective manner to chip away at systemic racism. I believe you need more than one mentor, and mentoring depends heavily on purpose. As we seek to mentor and intentionally focus on increasing the number of people of color in the intercultural field, we need to have real conversations about the potential barriers and the lessons learned. Practitioners of color can't let this conversation become one-sided. We must be open enough to share our challenges and express where we need assistance. 

Finally, during this month of Black History recognition, I want to credit people and organizations for creating change. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are at the top of my list for creating change.  

There are 106 Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the United States, and they are all committed to the dismantling of systemic racism. These 106 HBCU's account for only 3 percent of all colleges and universities. Yet, this 3 percent account for "twenty-five percent of African American graduates in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.” Approximately eighty percent of students attending HBCU's are African Americans (www.uncf.org). HBCU's are credited with educating the following celebrities: Spike Lee, Taraji, P. Henson, Oprah Winfrey, Vice President Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams, Michael Strahan, Toni Morrison, Sean "Diddy Combs, Samuel L. Jackson, Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshal, W. E. B Du Bois, Tiffany Cross, and Joycelyn Elders (former Surgeon General)—all just a few of the more famous people who attended an HBCU. HBCU's as an organizational unit have contributed substantially to creating change. 

As we move to acknowledge black history this month, let us intentionally create spaces to use our chisel to chip away at systemic racism. Until next time let’s be committed to intentionality.

Willette Neal, Director of Membership Outreach and Diversity