Silence and Inaction Allow Business Leaders to Sidestep Accountability

Silence and inaction have allowed business leaders to avoid accountability on injustice. But neither can coexist with an equitable society.

“Your silence will not protect you. When we speak, we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed, but when we are silent, we are still afraid, so it is better to speak.” 
―  Audre Lorde, The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, there have been more than 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidents. On March 16, eight people were murdered at spas in the Atlanta area; six were of Asian descent. Weeks later, on April 15, eight more people died in another mass shooting at an Indianapolis FedEx; four were members of the Sikh community.

The devastation of these events and others like them is a painful reminder of the consequences of silence and inaction on the issues that matter most. The Asian (South, East, and Southeast) and Pacific Islander (AAPI) diaspora consists of a multitude of cultures. Yet, in the U.S., both historically and in the present, too many voices, stories, contributions, and experiences are erased and suppressed. For too long, silence and inaction have served as an acceptable solution because people in positions of power permit and rely on them to sidestep accountability. But neither can coexist with an equitable society, inclusive workplaces, or transformative leadership.

Microaggressions Speak to Macro Culture

The anti-Asian sentiment in America is nothing new. Xenophobic anti-Asian rhetoric abounds in the U.S. “The Chinavirus” is a phrase in wide circulation. Hollywood caricatures persist. Stereotypes that sexualize and dehumanize Asian women are pervasive. Monolithic depictions of Asian people as meek, polite, law-abiding, servile, and high-achieving dominate the media. 

The affliction of silence and inaction brings on an active refusal to see injustices in the world and ignores racial differences through  “color blindness” and the denial of others’ lived experiences. It expresses discomfort by physically inching away from someone who does not look like you.

It’s talking down or slowly to people, assuming they do not speak English. It treats people as “less than,” regardless of the position they hold. It’s a slur muttered under the breath. It fails to see the humanity of others and calls harmful rhetoric “jokes” or “just words,” choosing to ignore their long-term effects. It is people standing by, watching without intervening, as an elder is beaten on concrete in broad daylight.

Silence and Inaction Are Embedded in Our Institutions and Workplace Cultures

That dystopian couple, silence and inaction, builds walls that keep communities from opportunities. It penalizes those who choose to raise families and creates barriers for those returning to the workforce. Not only does it fail to support staff in times of tribulation, but it also exploits labor and under compensates workers. It furthers the myth of meritocracy, defaults to favoritism, and allows only a certain few to hold positions of power.

It turns away from the lack of meaningful progress in building equity for 75% of BIPOC people. Silence sabotages talent pipelines when 50% of BIPOC don’t join companies that fail to speak on racial inequality. It slows efforts on building diverse boards. Inaction fosters retaliation against whistleblowers, the very people who dare to refuse silence. It spouts empty promises and pledges while business goes on as usual

Silence and Inaction Encompass Our Society and World 

Amid big, heartbreaking injustices are small, mundane instances of inaction and silence that compound. We avoid the person seeking shelter or sustenance and criminalize those without access to mental health resources by punishing them instead of caring for them.

Passive silence evolves into generation-defining harm upon the vulnerable. Flagrant police brutality, 190+ mass shootings since January, mass incarceration, recidivism, and reckless pollution are all vectors of repression. Individual inaction normalizes structures of inequality, colonialism, and white supremacy.

Voices are silenced, devalued by misogyny, ableism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and racism; this silencing, in the worst cases, results in death. The manifestations of silence and inaction are the symptoms and consequences of a system that must change. 

Silence Did Not Protect Me

Silence and inaction impact business leaders' accountability on injustices.

I recall  different occasions in which Fortune 500 and white institutional executives mocked “Asian” accents and mannerisms for my “benefit.” I recall my words and voice being whitewashed and rewritten by media companies, just as other stories/histories before mine.

As a Filipino American woman, I can speak to the silence and inaction of others in the workplace.
I’ve experienced the erasure of my work, due credit, and compensation. Unsafe work environments have forced me to advise BIPOC staff to leave. 

It might (or might not) be surprising to find out that some of these experiences involved leaders, founders, and executives now describing themselves as “changemakers,” “fighting for gender parity,” and “advocating for social justice.”  

I’ve witnessed how leaders quietly perpetuate harmful patterns and behaviors that reinforce unjust systems when it comes to these actions.  

My speaking out against these things brought anger, yelling, gaslighting, dismissal, and defensiveness in return. Being the only person of color in a room often feels like you’re fighting a battle alone, powerless and exhausted, or you’re simply too tired to bother.

I can answer “what can we do?” simply: to combat silence and inaction we must speak up and act. Whatever path we walk in life, we can all commit to live with intention, to be more conscious of our actions and words, and to shed our fear of speaking up when it’s the right thing to do (even if it makes us or others uncomfortable).

In business, we need an abundance of leaders less worried about looking good online and more concerned about checking unconscious biases, unlearning harmful behavior, and speaking out against injustice (and not speaking over others). We need leaders prepared to hold themselves and others accountable to the promises made on public platforms.

Silence will stop us from building the equitable and sustainable world leaders often talk about. And building that world is good for business: stakeholders are demanding a new level of consciousness and commitment to a more just world powered by as many emboldened voices as possible, a chorus unafraid to take action, together.

“Our challenge, as we enter the new millennium, is to deepen the commonalities and the bonds between these tens of millions, while at the same time continuing to address the issues within our local communities by two-sided struggles that not only say ‘No’ to the existing power structure but also empower our constituencies to embrace the power within each of us to crease the world anew.”

Grace Lee Boggs, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century
Trisha Hautéa

Published on May 26, 2021