Joseph West first felt the sting of racism at age 7.
While out shopping with his mother, West wandered away and started playing with another little boy. Moments later, that boy—who was white—was yanked away by his mother, who scolded her son for playing with West, whom she called the n-word.
“It was so jarring,” he says. “The thing I remember the most was the look on that other kid’s face—that realization that he had that there was something wrong with me. And I think I internalized that for years.”
West, now the chief diversity and inclusion officer at international law firm Duane Morris, recalls that incident as a precipitating factor for his parents delivering “The Talk”—the harsh introduction many Black parents must give their kids about racism, discrimination and police violence. It’s a conversation West has now had many times with his own children.
“As the father of Black children—with all of the other challenges we have in this day and age of raising our children—the fear that they might lose their lives, particularly at the hands of people charged with protecting them, is such a frightening thought,” he says.
In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, those fears kept West up at night—literally. A few weeks ago, around 3 a.m., he decided to put his thoughts to paper and penned a personal reflection on his experiences with racism, the pain of having to pass that onto his children and the role the business world plays in shaping future conversations.
“My intent wasn’t to publish it; it was just cathartic,” he says. “I wrote it because I was hurting. I felt for George Floyd, for his family and for so many other families who have experienced what they all did. And I felt for my kids and other Black kids and Black people who frankly received the message that their lives are trivial.”
After re-reading it later that day, he decided to share the article more broadly among his Duane Morris colleagues and the firm posted it on its website.
While West didn’t set out to share his story, he realized the power it could have, particularly in showing white readers the unspoken struggles their Black colleagues may face on a daily basis.
“A lot of people think what we’re seeing now is the reaction to what happened to George Floyd—that was certainly the spark, but so much of the reaction from people of color is the collective accumulation of years, if not decades, of frustration, anger, the feeling of being diminished,” West says. “I was in pain but I published this piece because I knew others were too and perhaps some people could gain some greater understanding from realizing that.”
As more non-Black individuals are reckoning with the damage that systemic racism has wielded on society, West sees the potential for the rising intolerance of racism to actually be sustainable. That these conversations are happening in the midst of a global pandemic, West says, could be a positive.
“The pandemic has illuminated to everybody what it feels like to actually fear for your lives when you walk out of the house. I think that’s created a level of empathy for the daily experience of people of color that didn’t exist before,” West says.
He says he’s known since he was a teen—when his father delivered another incarnation of “The Talk” after he got his driver’s license—that he faced particular risks simply because he is a Black man.
“And now in the last few months, everybody on the planet knows what it feels like to fear for your life. You can die just from going to the grocery store; most people never knew what that felt like,” he says. “But I’d wager every Black person in America has known what that feels like.”
The budding empathy comes on the heels of several social justice-oriented movements—the fight for LGBTQ equality, the #MeToo effort—that gained rapid traction. He sees #BlackLivesMatter heading in that direction as well.
“We’re in an era where a moment can metastasize into a movement,” West says.
In corporate environments, a confluence of stakeholders—employees, customers, boards of directors—are holding business leaders’ feet to the fire. And the “accountability buffer” that used to exist between grassroots employees and leaders is gone, as the workforce is far more activist-oriented, and supported in those efforts by the power of social media.
“CEOs used to have the luxury of saying, ‘There may be a few disgruntled people but we can continue doing whatever we want as long as we’re making money,’ and that’s changing now,” he says.
Peer pressure is also a motivator. The recent explosion of companies honoring Juneteenth is an example, he says.
At the beginning of that week, few large law firms had anything planned for the occasion and then, “there was a cascading series of firms that announced they would close on Juneteenth, make it a holiday, do programs,” West says. “And within about a 48-hour period, you realized that, if you were a law firm, you did not want to be on the list of firms not acknowledging this. It was stunning to see how rapidly that happened.”
Duane Morris marked the day with a webinar featuring Laurence Fishburne, a star of TV’s Black-ish. Also recently, the firm launched a series of town-hall discussions about racism—germinating from West’s article—featuring West and chairman Matt Taylor. Discussions were segmented by employee level—staff, associates and partners.
“We wanted a no-holds-barred, open discussion where people could share what they were feeling; we didn’t want a secretary afraid to say something because the boss was on the call,” he says. That approach proved successful—West has fielded hundreds of emails about the sessions, most from staff.
“That made me realize that so much of what we’ve been doing on D&I wasn’t filtering down to that level,” he says. “That was a huge mistake on our part. And the staff has been very appreciative of the fact that they feel included now.”
The sessions will now be held monthly.
While public—and corporate—consciousness of racism is spreading quickly, there’s still ample work to keep that momentum going, West says. Policy nimbleness—the ability for an employer to keep its finger on the pulse of rapidly changing sentiment and change course—is key for organizations looking to become leaders on the issues of diversity and inclusion.
“If a moment metastasizes and you get caught flatfooted and not being able to respond in a nimble fashion,” he says, “you’ll be in trouble.”