Some Do’s & Don’ts of Celebrating Black History Month at Work

Each February, Black History Month celebrates the contributions, achievements, history and culture of African Americans throughout the history of the United States. Originally a weeklong celebration planned to correlate with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass (February 12th and 14th), what was known as “Negro History Week” grew over time into what we know today as Black History Month. In recent years, it has become common to see public messaging commemorating Black history, but sometimes this can feel like calculated corporate tokenism rather than anything meaningful. While many organizations use Black History Month as a catalyst for reflection and systemic change year-round, in other cases the outward messaging can feel at odds with the internal culture, and feels inauthentic, contrived, or even tasteless.

Perhaps your organization already has a full plan for Black History Month. But if not, here are some Do’s and Don’ts to help your BHM be done in a way which is received positively while forwarding equity both inside and outside your organization.

This week’s tips:

Do:

  1. Amplify and elevate Black voices. This month can serve as a reminder of work that needs to happen year-round. Use this time to reflect on how you and your organization treat Black voices. If your organization has a Black Employee Resource Group (ERG), leaders should be listening to and incorporating the work of the ERG all year, but this month might serve as an impetus to seek and incorporate their feedback on an ongoing basis. On a personal level, notice how you listen to Black colleagues and team members, and seek to elevate any voices you currently minimize.
  2. Use Black History Month to celebrate the multitude of Black leadership and contributions beyond the obvious. It cannot be disputed that leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks made enormous contributions to history. But Black leadership in history and within your own organization go way beyond these towering figures.
  3. Involve Black-owned businesses. Order materials, food, or apparel from Black-owned businesses, or host an event at a local Black-owned venue.
  4. Recognize the diversity and complexity of the Black community. Being Black in America is not one-dimensional, and no one person can speak on behalf of the entire Black diaspora, just as no one food represents the Black experience in America.
  5. Use Black History Month as a catalyst for lasting change, and a time to look in the mirror and have an honest reckoning. We all, as individuals and as organizations, can do better. Change shouldn’t take place only in February, but it can be a good milestone to see your progress and the road ahead. An honest reckoning may not be pretty, but it might be necessary.

Don’t:

  1. Don’t throw plans together last minute. While something can be better than nothing, a something that is thrown together last-minute runs the risk of sending the message that Black community and culture is less important or not worth spending time to honor.
  2. Don’t assume it’s just for Black employees. Following the mosaic model of organizational culture, some activities or events specifically designed for Black employees might be appropriate, but others should be for all employees. This gives a chance for everyone to be involved in conversations and experiences that honor Blackness and Black contributions.
  3. Don’t assign all responsibility for BHM activities to Black employees. Black voices should be elevated and respected, but that doesn’t mean all the work should be done by Black employees. This is not a performance or showcase for Black employees to present to a consumer audience.
  4. Don’t celebrate BHM publicly if you’re not honoring it internally. If your organization’s public claims aren’t matched by internal actions, your employees will notice. If your organization – and/or you individually – is not doing anti-racism work internally, focus on that rather than posting Black History Month messages on social media.

Let us know your plans for Black History Month in our Facebook group! We’d love to hear from you.

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Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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