Why you and your business need to tackle the hard work of change

The Managing Director of HP Africa on how we can’t let this moment to fight racism and xenophobia pass us by.

By Elisabeth Moreno — June 9, 2020

Many headlines have called COVID-19 an unprecedented event of human history. That’s not true. As humans have spread across the planet, so have infectious diseases. Even in this modern era, outbreaks are nearly constant  — though not every outbreak reaches a pandemic level as COVID-19 has. Malaria, tuberculosis, HIV-AIDS, SARS, and other viruses appeared during these early years. And they mainly impacted the so-called emerging countries.

The current racial incidents happening in the U.S. also has a sense of deja vu. In fact, I have just read the speech Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered in Oslo, on December 10, 1964, on the occasion of his award of the Nobel Peace Prize. This speech could have been written last week.

I wanted to share with you because, as an African, these events are heartbreaking. But as MLK stated in his speech, I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history.

The reality is, I hate feeling, deep inside, the discomfort of seeing the color of my skin as a target. But I don’t want to let my thoughts dwell on negative things and break my humanity. I don’t want to put my energy on the drama of these long-standing injustices. I don’t want to anticipate the worst case scenarios and stay paralyzed by fear.

Although it is difficult to ignore the noise in my head and the pain in my heart, I have chosen to concentrate my energy and change what I can change.

Whatever I will do, nothing will bring George Floyd back. And the best way to honor his death is to keep calm and use our unique capacity to change things along the way. And we can all start where we are, with what we have.

Serve yourself ...

Every life, by virtue of being a human life, is equal in value. No matter how young, old, weak, or poor a person may be, his life is just as worthy of respect and protection as any other. No one should be excluded from the opportunity to live freely and contribute to society because of the colour of his skin, her culture, or religion. Still, it happens all the time.

Central Press/Getty Images

Black American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) addresses crowds during the March On Washington at the Lincoln Memorial, where he delivered his ’I Have A Dream’ speech.

This profound need that humans have to dominate their fellow beings remains a mystery for me. The thing is, whatever you do, whoever you become, there will always be somebody smarter, stronger, prettier, faster, taller, richer, thinner,... than you. No matter how hard we will try, we will never please 100% of people. And we will never find people who are 100% exactly the way we wish them to be. No matter how hard we try, there will always be people who will judge us, reject us, hate us. People will treat us badly, consciously or unconsciously. Ignorance and frustration are part of being human. And there is nothing we can do to change this.

So, do yourself a favor. Serve yourself. Be convinced that you have dignity and worthiness. Just become the best version of yourself, wherever you are, whatever you do. Be bold and courageous and always seek for the best.

As MLK, Jr. said, “Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you are nobody […] If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving.”

I refuse to let hatred, anger and resentment stain my heart. I have worked hard to shift my anger and terrible feeling of helplessness and worries from long term consequences of certain circumstances on my two daughters. Instead, I am taking every action I can to protect myself and make my children strong. I take daily actions that make me feel good, valuable and worthy. I do what I can to develop my consciousness and control my thoughts. I focus on my skills, my abilities, my competencies, strengths and achievements to remember that I am as worthy as any human. And I improve every day. Not for others. Just for me. I keep moving.

“I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

We may not have control over what life throws at us and what people think about us, but we can control how we react to these events.  Rework your self-talk and make it sound more like this: “I can feel it, I can make it, I will change it, because it’s important for me.” Do not let the negative feelings —within you and from others — stop you. Concentrate your energy on the present, ground yourself, and go after your life with courage.

And finally, keep faith that things will change and take action.

... and serve others

Last week our Chief Diversity Officer, Lesley Slaton Brown, organized a brave and bold conversation on racial equality. It was the first time in my 20-year career that I saw a multinational company taking such a decision. Because talking about race, racism, and xenophobia in the professional environment is not an easy thing to do. But it is becoming necessary.

When our fellow African-American colleagues shared their thoughts and feelings about what is currently happening in the Americas, it brought me to tears.

My takeaway from that meeting, was that, as a Black leader, I couldn’t stay silent and wait for these things to pass. I had to raise my voice. I had to bring my contribution to build a more inclusive and respectful society. And businesses can be a large force for structural change and structural good.

The Guardian published an article stating that Black people are more than four times more likely to die from COVID-19 than whites, according to stark official figures exposing a dramatic divergence in the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in England and Wales. “These results show that the difference between ethnic groups in COVID-19 mortality is partly a result of socio-economic disadvantage and other circumstances, but a remaining part of the difference has not yet been explained,” the ONS said.

People have been prompt to blame Black people for their lack of discipline and sense of responsibility. But the reality is different. Many of the front-line workers who couldn’t work from home and had to keep things going during the pandemic are minorities. For once, cleaners, warehouse and delivery workers, grocery store stockers, truck drivers were considered as “essential.”

Every life matters, every human being has value and is worthy of protection and care. But we can not ignore the deep-rooted discrimination that is still unquestionably present towards the African-American and Black community across the world. Too many injustices, too much discrimination, too much racism, underrepresentation and rejection. This is not only disgusting, unethical and immoral, but also dangerous for the world’s peace.

The task is heavy and the change will take time

Racial discrimination is no longer a question of laws, regulation, and policy. Since 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris, fundamental human rights were universally protected as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations. It states that every human has the right to life, and to live in freedom and safety. That everyone is equal and must be treated equally. That no one has the right to discriminate against you based on your race, gender, sex, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language or birth, among others. This noble ambition is still very far from being reality. 

Talking about race, racism, and xenophobia in the professional environment is not an easy thing to do. But it is becoming necessary.

The problem is profound. It’s historic. It’s psychological. It’s human. It’s a question of institutions, history, and power.

But here again, as Nelson Mandela said, “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Where do we begin?

1. Look at the people around you, people who look different from you, and tell them who you are, and listen to who they are. Forget about the stereotypes, forget about slavery and colonialization. Listen to their story, you will realize that beyond the color of their skin, their culture or religion, they are just as human as you are. They suffer the same, they share joy as you do, they raise their arms to the sky to express their joy when they win and they cry often for the same reasons as you do. When they have cancer or they lose a family member, they feel the same pain and they grieve, just like you. When they fall in love, they feel the same butterflies ... hopefully just like you.

2. Racism, like any discrimination, is not only the problem of the person discriminated. And like any discrimination, nobody should tolerate it. It's illegal and it’s immoral. Do not stay silent when you feel that something is wrong or not OK, whether you are a victim or just a witness. Just feeling that we are not alone in this battle is priceless.

3. Most of the people I know who are considered racists have inherited their family’s attitudes and behavior. When our family members or friends express racist opinions, it’s common that we will take on those views ourselves. The problem is that, unless we do something about it, they can stay with us for a lifetime.

Other people are just scared about the difference and they are trying to protect their identity, their lands, their culture. Those worries are often not justified. Try to educate yourself on these patterns and understand where these fears come from.

I never dared before to address publicly how I felt as a “minority,” as “diverse,” as a person coming from an “under-developed country” and naturally “excluded from”... but George Floyd has involuntarily given his life to open these conversations. Let’s not waste this opportunity to improve our way of living together, with the respect due to each other.


Read about HP's CEO on diversity, equality, and social justice.