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What is Culture? 

If you’ve been having a hard time being productive for the last week or so, it’s understandable. Drake and Kendrick Lamar’s ongoing beef has captured much of the public’s attention as two of our time's most famous and prolific artists battle it out. 

Who won or is winning is up to you (unless you think it's Drake); there’s plenty to critique. But more than anything, at the heart of this feud lies critical questions about culture, specifically Black culture. There are critical lessons that the field of diversity, equity, and inclusion can glean from this moment. 

Culture, Not Color 

A video clip of Denzel Washington speaking during the press run for the 2016 film Fences has been recirculating in light of the beef. During the interview, a reporter asks Denzel why playwright August Wilson would only allow a Black director to lead an on-screen adaptation of his award-winning stage play. When comparing why Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorcese were best suited for directing Schindler’s List and Goodfellas, Denzel replies: “It’s culture, not color.”

Culture is a set of shared beliefs, values, practices, expressions, trends, and ways of life that a group of people generally accept. When it comes to Black culture, it’s something that has historically been picked apart, stolen, and profited from, leaving the Black folks who have created said culture—and its substantial impact—with little to nothing to show for it. 

picture shows Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Minouche Shafik, and Jeffrey B. Maddrey

In the workplace, culture is shaped and upheld by leaders for better or for worse. White Supremacy Culture has made it so that regardless of skin color (see Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Minouche Shafik, or Jeffrey B. Maddrey) of said leaders, anti-Black practices can still be upheld. 

Contemporary work culture has never been compatible with Blackness or Black culture because America still desires free labor from Black folks. Black people are still discriminated against for wearing their natural hair, using slang or African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), and not hiding any other social cues about their Blackness. The last few years have also exposed the disposability of Black culture for corporate gain. Now that the spark from the second Black Lives Matter uprising in 2020 has died out, it’s clear that many of the DEI pledges made around that time and Black folks placed into positions of power in predominantly White spaces did little to shift the culture of working. 

Culture, not color, is how a Black leader at a company can cause just as much harm to their team as their White counterparts do. When the playbook is White Supremacy Culture, the script will always be the same. Shifting from a culture that only tauts Blackness when it is convenient or profitable requires a DEI strategy that pushes a business to think critically about questions that include: 

How is culture shaped? 

Is your company run from a top-down approach? Are you open to feedback and sharing power across all organizational levels and roles? Honest reflection on questions like this can help you gain new wisdom on how the Black folks on your team are faring in the environment. 

Workplace dynamics—both harmful and positive—don’t happen spontaneously. Culture is built through a series of practices and decisions (both conscious and unconscious) that determine how work is conducted. 

Businesses with an active DEI strategy are committed to consistently and honestly reflecting on workplace culture, identifying where to double down on what’s working or make improvements. Shifting culture takes time and concerted effort. 

What happens when flaws in your workplace culture are exposed?

Is your workplace culture potentially harming your Black employees? You’ll know by going directly to the source. Stakeholder interviews and other opportunities to securely provide feedback can quickly reveal how policies and practices are making their work experience less safe. 

Black woman in wheelchair sits at desk

Becoming defensive, deflecting, or denying critical workplace culture issues are roadblocks to making workplace cultures more equitable. Being open to being wrong and retaining a willingness to learn at all times is crucial for honest reflection and growth. 

Hip hop and beyond, culture is the pulse that keeps the world running. In the workplace, culture is weaponized against Black folks, and their own culture is used without their say for profit. ShiftED Consulting today to begin your journey. 

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