At my former startup, my female white CEO said and did all the ‘right’ (performative) things to appear to be anti-racist. This included:
- Paying out of her own pocket to attend the Anti-Racism facilitated sessions we ran (and was vocal about investing her own money).
- Confirming repeatedly how happy she was to be nudged by and educated by us, for free, whenever she messed up (which was often).
- ‘Publicly’ owning her mistakes though ‘public’ was only ever to the team, never externally to her wider (and very large) network…and it appeared a source of great pride to her that she ‘owned’ this.
And she also failed to see the other acts of racism she enacted almost daily on me, and the harm it caused. What did this look like?
Wholly Unequal Division Of Labour…
While she held the role of CEO, I was officially the COO and unofficially the CFO, CTO and CPO (people). When I asked to be paid more (than her) on account of the numerous hats I wore, she grudgingly agreed to adding 50% of my existing salary on top, so essentially being paid half the salary of one of the additional roles I performed.
How did this persist? She was the master of verbal platitudes…”I’m all in; I know you are too. I’d work for free until this thing takes off”. It was masterful verbal and emotional manipulation at its finest.
This division of labour is not uncommon in partnerships between white people and those of the Global Majority.
It’s also a consequence – and an ongoing driver – of the tension between white fragility (or, as we sometimes refer to it, white incompetence and/or white mediocrity or even a form of learned helplessness) and Black/Brown excellence…when they both increase together, as they do when this division of labour persists, so does the divide between them and instead of convergence towards equality for each side, the gap ever widens.
Laziness And/Or Incompetence…
Almost 100% of the CEO’s outputs required numerous edits and amends by me to ensure they did no harm to team members or customers (frequent incorrect pronouns, inaccurate descriptions of our own product, incorrect use of the language we’d agreed to use). Her drafts were 50-60% of the way there on a good day, with the expectation I’d finish it up and polish it to completeness. My outputs? Rarely required her to do anything.
How did this persist? Given my work overload, she would offer to ‘help’ to take work off my plate, only for the help to require more (re)work in the long run…and distracted by my busy-ness, some help felt better than none. Sigh.
Lack Of Performance…
A CEO has a wide variety of responsibilities and, ultimately, the buck stops with them. Specifically, however there are 2 main tasks that fell to my former CEO:
- To build good relationships with the Board and our investors – to keep them up to date, leverage their expertise and ask for support when the company needed it.
- To expand and grow the business through sales; she was the primary salesperson, showing up to the meetings, making cold and warm intros, and – ideally – sealing the deal.
The CEO did none of the above….
The company’s corporate governance structure – which was firmly in her remit – was weak. The primary board member was her best friend, the other board member was our former co-founder who also left for poor performance reasons and had asked to step back from the board when she left (though this was never actioned). It left us with an ill-experienced, poorly qualified board to fall back on when needed which, ultimately, cost everybody involved the entire company.
The updates to and relationships with our investors was an after-thought and never a priority; nowhere was this more evident than in her handling of the demise of the company in asking the shareholders to effectively say goodbye to their own investments by voting to dissolve the company; a good CEO would have been working with the investors to figure out a way forwards – and decent investors may have suggested the way forwards was without the incompetent CEO whose only solution was the dissolution of the company!
And on the growth of the company…
After 12 months and around $20k worth of high impact ‘professional connector/networking’ support from a company in NYC who hosted monthly meetings to introduce us (via our CEO who attended)…how many contracts had she brought to the table for us to sign? None.
During this time, she’d also failed to bring in ANY new actual customers/students to our core service. A 12-month funding runway doesn’t go very far when there are ZERO sales coming in.
Related to the point above, lack of performance is rarely about lack of ability or competence…if they believed they could, they would. It is, as far as I’ve seen, driven by a chronic fear of not being good enough so instead of doing the work to get good enough, all the energy is put into doing ‘just enough’ and then covering up the gap instead of filling the gap.
Protection of Her (White) Power…
The CEO’s primary goal was to protect her own power; the updates that she shared with the board and investors were designed to obfuscate and paint a rosy if muddy picture and while her ego may have been being protected, it wasn’t what the company needed.
We needed help and support from those invested financially in the company and it was her job to seek that…not to protect her ego, position and power by clouding the truth of the situation.
Nor was it my job to manage her performance as CEO, it was the board’s…
In the end, they accused me of not alerting them to the lack of performance when – if they’d been doing their job properly and she’d been doing hers by updating them regularly – the lack of performance and growth of sales/company was obvious and should have been queried by them far sooner. This was all protection of their white power – not just hers – and a covering up of not doing their jobs properly. A classic case of DARVO if ever there was one.
Again, related to the above…put in the work, put in the energy and direct it to learning how to do the job excellently (as we folks of the Global Majority have to) instead of using it to cover up the mediocrity and divert the blame and focus elsewhere. If – when – that happens, everyone wins.
Self Centering And Holding (Hogging) The Mic…
Given our roles, hers was innately front and centre with mine behind the scenes. She shared the platform only when it became obvious that not doing so might be harming the company, its image and our assertions of being an anti-racist company.
She had just enough self awareness that the optics of the white woman front and centre and the Brown woman behind-the-scenes was not exactly ‘fair’ or ‘equal’.
And so began a loud (on her part) push to have me up front and centre with her. But still, the inequalities persisted…
- All people of perceived power were instantly in her sights, while I still remained behind the scenes building the company and the product too busy to connect, leaving her a free run.
- She quickly inserted herself as the ‘best mate’ of the biggest potential corporate client we were chasing (who’d come from my professional network).
- She’d centre herself and her own actions in any successes, while also taking credit for mine. “Ah yes…[insert influential/powerful contact] contacted ME”. Never ‘us’, always her. Unless of course it came to taking responsibility for something we’d got wrong – then it was almost always ‘we’.
[Side note: I recently learned about the concept of “communal narcissism” and a communal narcissist (check out that inventory!). Without wanting to detract from the racism issues, the description fits so well.]
Performative anti-racism can be sniffed out – usually in one whiff – by folks from the Global Majority; we can be gaslit into thinking it didn’t happen, it isn’t racist, it “isn’t as bad as you think”. The truth? Racism is racism, no matter when and where it happens.
Racism at the top – at the very top – is as rife as racism is everywhere else.