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  • Writer's pictureSimone Williams

The epidemic of racial controversy firings (and why some companies are getting it wrong)

Updated: Apr 19, 2020

American journalist and political commentator Megyn Kelly became the center of controversy on Oct. 23. She was fired from the network three days after defending the use of blackface for Halloween costumes during a panel on her NBC daytime show.

NBC is not the only company to fire employees amidst racial controversy: Jonathan Friedland, former Netflix communications officer, was fired over two incidents in which he used the N-word. Amy Powell, former head of Viacom's Paramount Television unit, was also fired for allegedly making racist remarks on a conference call, during which she talked about black women being angry and black children being raised by single parents.

Companies are quick to fire people for expressing racial ignorance. The public often praises these companies for having a conscious and, according to a report by Edelman, 57 percent of Americans feel that a company’s stand on important issues would affect their choice to purchase.

These firings are not always a sign of corporate cultural sensitivity.

Some companies are genuinely aware; some are just deathly afraid of controversy. For some, like a Home Depot in Albany, New York, and an AutoZone in South Georgia, the fear runs so deep that employees have been fired after being the victims of a customer’s racist rant.

The 2016 presidential election is proof that there is a significant segment of America that feels ignored by growing modern liberalism and “PC culture.” In this country, which cherishes freedom of speech, these people know they can be fired for expressing their beliefs.

These knee-jerk firings are more about avoiding uncomfortable attention than promoting racial sensitivity. In fact, Florida State Attorney Jack Campbell warns that to ignore uncomfortable issues rather than address and discuss is “to all of our detriment.”

“If we get in a situation where people are scared to share ideas, how are we supposed to make the problem better?” Campbell asked. “It’s probably more important that we talk about the things that are hard than things that are easy.”

Campbell also pointed out that there is a difference between racism and prejudice. While prejudice is a belief that one group is superior or inferior to another, Campbell referenced the “prejudice plus power” definition of racism to highlight racism’s distinct potential for serious consequences.

He explained that for a prosecutor, who has significant power in judicial outcomes, a display of racism would be critically important to investigate, but job termination should not be the first reaction.

Rather than firings, a more impressive solution would be to see a company develop a more comprehensive cultural sensitivity program. Not just instructing people on what not to say, but explaining why and improving their company culture in the process.

Starbucks had the right idea when it closed all its stores nationwide for an afternoon to have racial bias training to address “unconscious bias” and  “conscious inclusion.” The curriculum was crafted with the help of “thought-leaders” from the NAACP, however a single day is not nearly enough time to fully explain cultural issues to an entire workforce.

So yes, it is annoying to hear Megyn Kelly whine that she “can’t keep up with the number of people we (the panelists) are offending just by being normal people.”

But, unfortunately, she’s right.

It’s normal for people to have adverse reactions to perceived differences. It’s normal to create beliefs and generalizations based on our own limited experiences. It’s normal to have a lapse in judgement and say the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong people.

Hopefully society will continue to promote open dialogues and cultural awareness to bring Americans closer together. Perhaps in the future, companies can develop more productive solutions to racial insensitivity that foster a growth in awareness, however uncomfortable.

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