Vernā Myers joined Netflix as vice president of inclusion strategy in October 2018 but the Harvard-educated lawyer has been working on combating systemic racism for much longer, having run her own company—The Vernā Myers Company—which worked on that topic and others surrounding racism, diversity and inclusion for more than 20 years.
At the Promax Virtual Experience on Tuesday, she asked, “Is this a moment or more than moment?” and answered that question with “neutrality is no longer an option. We no longer can say ‘I’m a good person.’ We don’t need any more good people. Neutrality is complicity with the status quo and the status quo is racism.”
Myers laid out the four levels on which systemic racism occurs and how people can begin to address implicit bias within themselves, their peer groups, their organizations and ultimately, their culture.
“Most of us are not old-fashioned racists who are burning things and hanging things—many of us are subjected to unconscious bias against black people,” she said. “None of us have escaped this racist ideology, either we’re taught it or we feel it all around.”
To start to dismantle this, first we must recognize it in ourselves.
“Over and over again we have witnessed a certain picture and a certain analysis about who is good and right and capable and this means we are involved in replicating the same thing we’ve seen in the past,” she said. “One of the most pernicious aspects of implicit bias is in-group favoritism. We are looking for ourselves … without realizing that we are choosing from our in-group and excluding those who fall into our out-groups. The problem is that we are missing talent, missing opportunity. We are missing opportunities to tell different stories and to reach different customers.”
Being willing to grant opportunity and power to other groups is part of being anti-racist, Myers said.
“Any group can be biased against another group. No groups are better than any others when it comes to bias. Some groups have been positioned over a very long period of time to be designated as better than and because they have been seen as better than—and nobody was alive when this whole system was created, but it was intentional to make sure that power sat in one group and that group got to define what success looked like. If you give one group, over a long period of time, the access to opportunity, they are going to figure out how to use that to their advantage. More than that, consciously or unconsciously, they are going to make decisions to make sure they can keep that preference in place.”
Within the entertainment industry—and any industry, really—change comes from looking closely at who is being hired, who is being developed, who is getting opportunities, and then really scrutinizing how diverse those people are.
“If you write down the names of people that you have hired or promoted in the last two years, and then think about them through various identities—ask yourself how many of them are black? How many of them are black women? How many of them are from underrepresented groups? Then you get a better idea of where your out-groups and in-groups are and how you can disrupt that pattern,” she said.
Being willing to disrupt that pattern is “how we move from just you and I being good people to being anti-racist so we can move to dismantle the prejudices that have been built into all kinds of systems.”
After you examine the organization for which you work, the next step is to look at the institutions you partner with—like hiring from certain schools, for example.
“We are not acknowledging that the system that gets people to those schools in the first place is not fair. Education is not equitable. So much of it is based on neighborhoods, which for a long time have been determined by housing discrimination and red-lining against black people in particular,” said Myers.
“When Black people become the majority in neighborhoods, White people move out and housing values go down. [All of a sudden], you are showing up in places trying to find talent where talent has already been limited by these other systems. They all work hand in hand. We have to learn to bias proof the systems that we’re in charge of.”
“It’s a myth that we are all equal. We are not all equally positioned. Once you come to grips with privilege—you have to be prepared to do what it takes to offset unfair advantage and disadvantage. That’s what equity is about. I really believe in abundance. If people are given opportunity, the pie will grow for all of us. Figure out how to spend your privilege in order to create more equity.”
Finally, it’s time to look at the culture as a whole.
“Culture is the water we are all bathing in. If the culture works for you, you are like ‘what water?’ while other people are barely breathing. Until we are looking deeply at how our idea of culture is being shaped so much by white understanding, we won’t get to a place of cultural equity,” said Myers.
Myers finished with five things people and companies can do to dismantle systemic racism within themselves, within their companies and partner institutions and within the culture at large:
1) Hire a professional on inclusion, diversity and equity.
2) Do your own personal work to understand racism and the culture and the history of Black people. ‘I don’t know’ is no longer going to be enough of an excuse. People expect you to know. Google is free. There’s no excuse for not diving in and really learning.
3) Invite in voices that you are not accustomed to hearing from, such as employees, friends, organizations, thought leaders. But don’t expect folks to inform you. If people don’t want to talk, they don’t want to talk.
4) When you invite them in, listen and listen to believe. The more you read, the more you learn, the more you understand about racism the more you will be amazed that people aren’t angrier. The anger, the trauma and the frustration are all really reasonable responses.
5) Interrupt bias when you see it. This is not the time to be a bystander. We must move from neutral to active. It’s time to not be good people but to be anti-racist people, to walk in solidarity with black people and other underrepresented people. This is the time to imagine a new status quo. None of us are going to be as excellent as we could be unless all of us work to include all people. Anti-black racism hurts black people but it also damages the people who hold those beliefs.
As the Ray Charles (and others) song goes: “None of us are free when one of us is chained.”
Concluded Myers: “Let’s all take action to remove those chains and make this world a better place for all of us.”