233 : Black Equity and Power (w/ Mary-Frances Winters)

Zach has the honor of sitting down to chat with Mary-Frances Winters, the founder and CEO of The Winters Group, Inc., about black equity and power. Mary-Frances shares some of the top things she believes that majority leadership groups are doing today that undermine their own workplace equity efforts and explains her perspective on why chief inclusion/people/culture officers are typically white folks. Check the links in the show notes to find out more about The Winters Group!

Connect with Mary-Frances on LinkedInTwitter, and Instagram

Learn more about The Winters Group on their website

Check out the Inclusion Solution blog.

You can connect with The Winters Group on LinkedInTwitter, and Instagram.

Find out how the CDC suggests you wash your hands by clicking here.

Help food banks respond to COVID-19. Learn more at FeedingAmerica.org.


Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate, and look, it’s Tuesday. The day of this recording is May 4th, so May the 4th be with you. We have incredible guests every single time we come on, and today is no different, because what we’re trying to do is what we always do, right? Which is center and amplify marginalized voices in the workplace. Now, I would like to think Living Corporate is a little bit unique in that we’re having these conversations, but not only are we having these conversations that are centering marginalized voices, but we’re having these conversations with marginalized identity groups, right? So a lot of times when you think about this diversity, equity and inclusion space, it’s folks who don’t look like me using fairly esoteric, like, heady language to describe things that they really don’t experience, right? Like, not to put too fine a point on it. Just look… I’m just gonna be honest, right? Just gonna be a straight shooter, okay? And I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to have incredible guests that have not only the lived experience but have the practical knowledge and expertise to talk about real subjects, and so that’s why our tagline for Living Corporate is real talk for a corporate world. Now, look, some of y’all have been listening to us and been rocking with us for a while, but every episode is somebody’s first episode, so I just want to make sure I kind of level set a little bit. So with all that being said, I’m really excited to have our guest today, Mary-Frances Winters. Mary-Frances Winters is the founder and CEO of The Winters Group, Inc., a global organization development and diversity and inclusion consulting firm with over 35 years–count ’em, y’all, 35… more than I’ve been alive–more than 35 years of experience. She truly believes that diversity and inclusion work is her “passion and calling.” She’s been dubbed a thought leader in the field for the past three decades and has impacted over hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals with her thought-provoking messages, and her approach to diversity and inclusion. Ms. Winters is a master strategist with experience in strategic planning, change management, diversity, organization development, training and facilitation, systems thinking–yo, shout-out to systems thinking–and qualitative and quantitative research methods, and she has extensive experience in working with senior leadership teams to drive organizational change. My goodness, gracious. With all that being said, Mary-Frances, welcome to the show.

Mary-Frances: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. You’re definitely dating me, but that’s all right. I’ll take it. [laughing]

Zach: I apologize. I wasn’t trying to date you. I was trying to speak to the depth and breadth of the work that you’ve been doing, ’cause I think a lot of times it’s easy, you know–like, pausing on, just, like, this conversation, but kind of, like, thinking about generational tensions, right? So I think there’s, like, a lot of frustrations sometimes with folks who–like, millennials, you know, folks, like, in their early 30s or even, like, mid-20s to late-20s crowd who just think that, like, all of these frustrations that we’re seeing now are new, right, but there have been folks who have built foundations before us that allow us to actually move forward, so it’s just incredible that you’ve been in this space and doing this for a significant amount of time. I don’t believe that should be taken lightly at all.

Mary-Frances: Well, thank you. I appreciate it. I accept it with honor and respect, so thank you so much.

Zach: Thank you so much. So how are you doing during this time? Like I said, we’re recording this on May 4th. How are you and your loved ones?

Mary-Frances: We’re well, we’re well. We’re doing well. You know, it is unprecedented times. It’s very, very difficult times for the world, but, you know, we’re doing well, and thank you for asking.

Zach: So let’s get right into it. Diversity, equity and inclusion work is about marginalized identities, yet the loudest voices in this space tend to be those of the majority, right? So, like, when you think about these big, big organizations and you look at, like, the chief inclusion officer or the chief people officer or the chief culture officer, they’re typically white folks. Why do you think that is?

Mary-Frances: Well, I don’t think that the dominant group sees diversity and inclusion as being about marginalized folks. They see it as being about everybody. “We have to include everybody,” and so some of what my frustration has been, as you mentioned, 35 years, and so when we used to talk about it, you know, in the days of affirmative action, they were protected groups, right? So the initiatives were targeted towards those protected groups. When we started to talk about it as being diversity, then it broadened and everybody got included in diversity, and the group that gets least talked about now are black folks, because they don’t want to talk about black people. So I don’t think that the dominant group that controls the narrative, I don’t think that they see it about being about marginalized identities only, right? And so the focus may or may not be there, you know, depending, and so we did a session for a client not too long ago to talk about the relevancy of white men in the organization. So, you know, you’ve got to be inclusive of white men. [both laughing] Yeah, so that’s why I think–you asked me why I think that is? That’s why I think that is, yeah. Because in the corporate world, we don’t even use the word “marginalized identities.” So it’s not a new term in sociology, but let me tell you, 35 years in this business, it’s a new term in the corporate world. It’s starting to be used, and I think it is because of the influence of the millennials. We’ve been doing some work in some organizations that, you know, normally–some of these older, traditional organizations have been around 150 years and still got baby boomers at the helm, right? Some of these other organizations have been around 15, 20 years, they’ve got a lot of millennials at the helm. Those organizations are using this language, the social justice language. The traditional organizations? Not so much.

Zach: [laughs] So one, thank you. I’m really curious–that really is a good segue into the next question I have for you about just you showing up doing this work as a black woman, and not to, like–again, not to age you, we’re talking about the fact that–[Mary-Frances laughs] It’s not like you’re a black woman who just graduated from college and, you know, you’re in this space, or you just finished B school, like, you’re someone who has seen this space grow and evolve and change and shift and permutate, you know, various times over over the past three and a half decades, and so I’m curious, like, what does it look like for you to operate in this space, and then specifically going into the example that you just provided, how do you respond to narratives like that? That, you know, white men need to feel just as included as black men or other marginalized groups?

Mary-Frances: Yeah. So as a black woman in this work, a cisgender heterosexual black woman, baby boomer, there are different ways it impacts me. So one way that it impacts me is “Oh, yeah, let’s get Mary-Frances because she can bring the voice of black folks.” Um, no. Mary-Frances brings her voice, not all black folks, right? That’s one way. This other way is, “Gee, we really can’t hire The Winters Group to do this–” This is a black person talking now. “Because you’re black and I’m black, and, you know, the optics of it, it looks like we might be giving you, you know, preferential treatment.” The third way is when I stand in front of a group, to the question about, you know, white men, I do–if my question is gonna get across, I do in some ways have to disarm white men, because they’re gonna–they see me coming in with my sister locks and, you know, “This black woman is gonna come in and she’s gonna tell us, you know, how racist we are. She’s gonna make us feel bad,” and so what I’ve learned over the years is that you’ve gotta get them to like you first. No matter what they’ve gotta like you, right? And they have to think that the message resonates. So I learned the language. I learned the language of the organization. I connect my message to whatever their business plan is, whatever their business strategy is. You know, I connect it to that, because, you know, you’re already coming in being black, being a woman. So those are two, you know, marginalized groups, historically marginalized groups. And so yeah, so there are different ways. And, you know, we talk about code switching, right? So we have to code switch a lot of times in order to get the work done, particularly in corporate spaces. Now, I don’t know if you’ve noticed–well, I’m sure you’ve noticed because you know my colleague, Brittany J. Harris, who is the vice president of The Winters Group, and we’re doing a series right now in our inclusion solution blog on decolonizing DEI work, and, you know, part of that–and I wrote a couple of weeks ago about decolonizing particularly the corporate world with, you know, corporate speak. So you come in and they have to have a business case, and the business case has to be “How does this help my business, you know, perform better?” That’s, like, the classic corporate business case, and that’s kind of centering this capitalist narrative, right? We’re about the profits, and you can [show?] me by hiring black folks and hiring women, whoever else you want me to hire. If you can show me that that can help me to sell more whatever I’m trying to sell, then it’s okay. So I think that, you know, to some extent–you know, I was just talking to a very large client just before this–I will not name that client. Very old client, 150, 160 years old, you know, very old. [laughing] You know, middle of the country, and they’re just trying to get this stuff off the ground and you come in talking about marginalized groups and whatnot to a bunch of these white men, they’re just not gonna–it’s just not gonna happen. So it’s this delicate balance, Zach, of on one hand, you know, you have to be able to engage the groups that they listen, and on the other hand you’re trying to dismantle, you know, this dominant sort of narrative that doesn’t necessarily work, and it hasn’t worked. 35 years, 36 years, all of the same issues that I was teaching and talking about 36 years ago are the same. As a matter of fact, my book Black Fatigue will be coming out in February. Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit comes out in February, and I have a chapter in that book, Chapter 3, called Then is Now, and so I go back and I look at data from whatever point you want to take. You can take it from 1965, 1975, it doesn’t really matter what you want to take it. When you look at our data and our statistics, we have not made progress. We’re stuck, and we’re at this standstill. Brown vs. the Board of Education was 1954, which was desegregate schools. Our schools are more segregated today than then. You know, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. You know, all of this legislation, housing. In 1975, 43% of black people owned their own homes. In 2019, 43% of black people own their own homes. The net worth–and, you know, net worth is, like, what you’re worth, right? Net worth. A single black woman’s net worth is $500, versus the net worth of a white woman, single white woman, which is [$5000?], still low. The net worth of white people, at 150 something thousand dollars, is 10 times that of a black person, and it follows even if you look at college-educated. So somebody who has a PhD who is a black woman college professor with a PhD makes 20% less than a white man who has a PhD and 7 to 8% less than a woman who has a PhD, and so all of these inequities–and I’m using those just as an example–is about Then is Now, that we haven’t really turned the corner. So we’re fatigued. [?] And it’s particularly tiring for me because, like you said, I’ve been doing it for over 35 years. [both laughing] I’m tired.

Zach: You’re absolutely right, and we’ve had conversations about that on Living Corporate, and we cite the study Umbrellas Don’t Make It Rain that really goes into dispelling the myth that higher education will, you know, somehow close the wealth gap, and it hasn’t and it doesn’t. So let’s talk about this. There’s a variety of folks that we’ve had on Living Corporate who have said, you know, diversity and inclusion, corporate diversity and inclusion, is inherently [anti]-black, not just in its external doings but at the internal politics. Do you have any thoughts on the voracity of that position?

Mary-Frances: Well, society is inherently anti-black, so by extension the corporate world is inherently anti-black. We live in a society that has historically and continues to be anti-black. I don’t know–yeah, so I agree. [both laugh] I mean, right? So yeah, you know, D&I is inherently anti-black. It is because that’s the society–you know, when I wrote this book Black Fatigue and I was telling people about this, “Oh, please write about black and brown fatigue and, you know, all deference to indigenous people and native people and Latinos and everybody, right?” But the black experience in the United States has been different than any of those other experiences, and because of that the stereotypes and the marginalization plays out differently, and so I really felt a need–even though [?]–I show statistics for Latinos and Asians, you know, as well in the book, but I really wanted to focus on how this is playing out for black folks, because let me tell you. I say–you know, [?]–race is diversity’s four-letter word, and particularly when you talk about black folks, people don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to talk about the black and whiteness of it. “Let’s talk about Asians. Let’s talk about Latinos,” right? So this anti-black–so that’s one way anti-black plays out. You know, we have to include the other groups that we have [?]. I had a call with a client just on Friday, and they talked about how the psychologist or sociologist, whoever we were quoting–I forgot who it was–was black, and so we were like, “Uh, yeah,” and they said, “Well, you know, perhaps we need to get some other experts included in this data set.” What’s that about? “Are there some Asian people who have spoke on this too?” [laughs] So yeah, I mean, we live in an anti-black world, and by extension our corporations are anti-black. I mean, look at things like the recent legislation around the CROWN Act. Why does anybody freaking care how I wear my hair? Why do we have to have legislation for people to be able to wear their hair–for black people to be able to wear their hair the way they want to wear their hair. You know, the young man wrestler, right, and they made him–

Zach: Yes, made him cut his hair. His dreads.

Mary-Frances: His dreads, right. Exactly. Right there. You know? I mean, why do you care? You don’t have to like–what I say to folks is, “I don’t care if you like it. You don’t have to like my hair. I’m not asking you to like my hair.” [laughing] But, I mean, are we still in a slavery, there’s no freedom, that we can’t even wear our hair the way we want to wear our hair? You know what, I heard about hair 36 years ago when I was in the corporate world and I had a very short afro, and one day a colleague–wasn’t even my boss, a colleague–comes in my office and says, “Will your hair grow?” And I just looked at him and I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “Well, you oughta let it,” and he walked out of my office.

Zach: Wow.

Mary-Frances: That’s why I left corporate. One of the reasons anyway. But anyway, so yes, is it an anti-black world? Yes, indeed. Indeed, it is. Unfortunately, you know, it is. And when you say that–and the problem is when you say that to white people they think that you’re calling them a racist, and I’m not. I’m not. What I’m saying is the very foundation and structure upon which our various societies and the way we think and the policies and all those things are based on anti-black sentiments, anti-black beliefs if you will.

Zach: You know, I’m really curious about, like–because you’re right, we had Brittany Harris on the show some time ago, and we were talking about decolonization and dismantling and deconstructing systems, right? So it was more so about, like, kind of, like, trying to make some shifts and some headway in this work, because like you said, there’s a lot of conversations that have just been happening, they’ve been recycling for years, and I’m curious to know, what are you seeing some other, like, DEI groups or, like, kind of names, things that they’re saying that you’re like, “Man, we’ve been doing that.” Like, “We’ve been working on that,” or “That’s not new. Like, y’all think it’s new, but it’s not new.” Like, does anything like that stick out to you?

Mary-Frances: Yeah, I think that, you know, the whole idea of, you know, oppression, marginalization, privilege, all of those kinds of things I think have been out there for–you know, for a long time. You know, we can all remember–those of us in this work–Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege. Judith Katz, my colleague, did something on heterosexual privilege back in the ’90s, and the Peggy McIntosh book was back in the ’70s. You know, Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes, which shows, you know, bias. We now call it unconscious bias, but Jane Elliott, you know, put that out in, I don’t know, the ’70s, ’60s or ’70s. I was using that video–now that you’ve already dated me I’ll just keep going with it–but I was using that video [laughing]–

Zach: I’m so sorry. [laughing]

Mary-Frances: No, no, no. You’re fine, I’m just teasing you. [laughing] You know, I was using that video in the ’80s, right? And now I hear people like, “Oh, do you know about Jane Elliott’s video Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes?” And that’s the other thing, [?] why I wrote Black Fatigue is because–and I’m not saying this is about millennials. This is not about generations at all thinking this stuff is new. This is about folks who are, like, in my age group to who this is all, like, a revelation, right? “We didn’t know.” So here, case in point. We know that COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting particularly black people, and when it came out, this disproportionality, it was like, “Oh, wow, we have health disparities?” This is not new. I mean, these health disparities have been–they have been well-researched, well-written about, and they continue. They have not improved. Even middle-class black women are twice as likely to die in childbirth. You know, these are not new, and so that’s what’s part of, you know, the frustrating thing. You know, I really respect some of the newer folks who are coming into this space, and I think that they’re doing remarkable work, and I’m hoping that perhaps they can put a different spin–I know Brittany, as a millennial, has brought definitely a different spin to our work. When Brittany came on board, which was, like, four years ago now I guess, we had started to talk about the intersection of social justice and corporate speak, because, you know, the language was all different, right? Everything was different. So we talk about mapping the intersection. What is the intersection of social justice and corporations? So corporations worried about the bottom line. Why should they be worried about, you know, social justice as well, and how do we get that languge? So I think at The Winters Group we’re a little bit further ahead of mapping that intersection of saying that it’s not one or the other. It really is a both and, because if you help to alleviate the social ills of this world or even of this country or even of the place that you operate your business, your business is going to be better.

Zach: No, I’m right there with you, and I really think that segues well into this next question, which is just, you know, what trends do you see in this work from a thought leadership perspective, and if you were to kind of look across the landscape of this work and when you think about workplace equity as a whole, you know, where are the biggest places you think we have to grow?

Mary-Frances: So where I see that we have places to grow in this work is fixing organizational cultures so that they truly are inclusive and we’re not just using the word, that we’re not just saying that we’re inclusive, because the surveys that we do inside corporations would suggest that the cultures are not inclusive, particularly–PARTICULARLY–for black folks. Particularly. Now, when we do surveys with Latinos and Asians, culturally they may not be having a good experience, but they’re not gonna tell us that because culturally they don’t talk ill of–and I’m stereotyping, I know I’m stereotyping big time right now, but for the most part Latinos and Asians don’t speak ill of their employers. That’s a cultural thing, right? And so they’re gonna say, you know, everything is good. We, you know, coming from a history of descension, a history of sort of laying it out there. You know, “No justice, no peace.”

Zach: Give us us free, yes.

Mary-Frances: Yeah, right. We’re willing to say, “No, this is not a good experience,” if we answer the survey. We did a big survey for a corporation recently, and not many black people answered the survey. So then I did a focus group with them and they said, “Oh, no, we’re not answering that survey. They can figure out who we are because there’s only about 100 of us in the whole company.” So the point is that organizational cultures, the traditional organizational cultures, are designed for dominant groups. They always have been. In the ’70s when I was in the corporate world, they decided to bring in a whole bunch of black people, a whole bunch of black professionals, because they didn’t have enough, and they just said, “Let’s bring ’em all in here.” Within a year, every single one of them were gone except one. There was probably about 30 people. Every single one of them left because the culture was not friendly, was not conducive. There were micro-aggressions all day long. [?] I told you about the micro-aggression about my hair. Here’s another one. So the company sent me to some banquet or something, and I was sitting there–and I got to represent the company, so I was sitting at the head table, and we had a little fruit cup, you know, as our appetizer or something, and so the person sitting next to me said, “Oh, look at that, you have more watermelon in your fruit cup than anybody at the table.” Now, why would you even say that? What would even make you part your lips to speak like that? Yeah. So you know what I did? I said, “Oh, you like watermelon? Would you like mine? I’ll trade with you.” [both laughing] So my point is that hasn’t changed in 30 however many ever years that is. That hasn’t changed. And so, you know, where we still need to grow is to really get at the culture, and the only way we’re gonna get at the culture is to hold people accountable, and because the experience that people have in their organizations are 1:1 with their direct manager, right, and so if the direct manager is not talking the talk, walking the walk, it’s not happening for that person. We often times focus on the top leadership, top of the house–“Let’s start at the top of the house.” I say that we need to focus on first-line leadership, those individuals who are most likely to have the greatest span of control. First-line leaders have more reports than the CEO. The CEO probably has six or seven direct reports, right? All the senior vice presidents, and then it goes down from there. So the biggest span of control and the biggest opportunity for change is at that first level, and we often times don’t work with that first level of leadership because they don’t have the budget for it or, you know, all of these other excuses. So I really think–and I’ve been saying this for years, so I don’t know if this is a trend or not, but I’ve been saying this for years, that we have to get to that level. The other places that we still need to grow is pay inequity. You know, pay inequity for women and, you know, women of color in that equation too. That’s an easy fix. You look at your data and you see who–if you have a disparity with women not being paid the same amount, then you fix it. You see, this is why if organizations wanted to do it, they could. Any aspect of diversity. If they wanted to do it, they would absolutely do it. So those are areas, I mean, in just terms of very tactical places, in terms of–cultures are really, really hard to change. So I had a call with a client this morning, and they had a question on the survey–they wanted me to review their survey. We have our own survey, but they got somebody else to do their survey, but they wanted me to review the questions. Here’s one of the questions. “I fit in well at this organization.”

Zach: Hm, that’s a good question.

Mary-Frances: Huh? No, that’s a bad question.

Zach: Talk to me. Educate me why it’s a bad question.

Mary-Frances: Okay. Because it’s about fitting in. Fitting in is about assimilation. Fitting in is about “I fit in,” meaning that–

Zach: I’m adjusting myself.

Mary-Frances: I’m adjusting myself. I fit in, right? I mean, you still may get at it, but the whole idea of–even putting the language out there. So that’s, you know, colonizing language, “fit,” you know? Because what do we say when we hire somebody? We say, “Oh, yeah, they’d be a really good fit,” and what “a really good fit” means is what? “They’re like us.”

Zach: It’s interesting, because the reason I was saying it’s a good question is because I know a lot of–I know for me I would be like, “No.”

Mary-Frances: Right, exactly, and that’s what they’re hoping to get, but you see how the message could be from the other side, that you need to fit in.

Zach: It absolves the organization of responsibility and onus in creating an inclusive work environment for that person.

Mary-Frances: Exactly. So I said, “Why don’t you have the question “I feel included at this organization?”” Right? I mean, you’re gonna get the same answer, right, but you’re now using language that is language that’s about inclusion rather than fitting in, because fitting in is basically saying, you know, “Yeah, we need you to fit in. We need you to be like us.”

Zach: Okay, okay. Let’s talk about black male presenting identities in this space, right? I could be speaking selfishly, but it seems as if they’re still not highlighted with the same level of attention or nuance of some other people groups. Am I being fair? And, you know, if you agree with that, then could you kind of talk to me about why you think that may be?

Mary-Frances: Yeah. So, you know, this is so interesting, because the chapter in Black Fatigue, it’s called I Can’t Breathe: Black Men’s Fatigue, and I also have a chapter in the book called Say My Name: Black Women’s Fatigue. So for the black women’s chapter it’s almost, like, twice as long as the black man’s chapter, right? And I’m like, “Wait a minute.” I said, “Is it because I’m a black woman and, you know, I relate to the experiences more?” So yes, and I’ll tell you–this is the absolute truth. I am not kidding. I have been wrestling with this all weekend because I want to modify the chapter on black men to bring more of that voice. So with black women I could talk about, you know, #BlackGirlMagic, right? You know, what’s the analogous movement for black men?

Zach: There’s nothing that big. I would say, you know, you have Black Boy Joy, but it’s not as big, and there’s some tension in that because a lot of black men are like, “Well, I’m not a boy. Don’t call me a child. I’m a man.” You know? So I’m not sure. That’s a good question.

Mary-Frances: So I write in the book about two experiences, two stories I tell. One story is about somebody who actually now–he has a degree in human resources, but he prefers to work with his hands, and he comes over and he tunes up our air conditioning in the spring and changes the filters and all that kind of stuff. So he was over the other day, and he worked for a large heating and air conditioning organization and was doing really well. They had him in their commercials on TV and everything and, you know, he said he just couldn’t take it anymore. We would talk about entrepreneurship while he was still working there, ’cause he knew I was an entrepreneur and everything. So he finally left, and he’s been on his own for 18 months, and he works 14, 16 hours a day. Nicest guy in the world. Got a young family, you know? Just really very customer service-oriented. He said, “Yeah, you know, when I go knocking on the doors, I’ve got to know how I’m coming,” he said, “Because when they see that I’m black, you know, they get a little afraid.” Ryan is all of 5’6″ and, you know, maybe 150 pounds. He’s a slightly built man.

Zach: Slight guy, yeah.

Mary-Frances: So he said, you know, “Why is this? Why do I have to exist like this, where, you know, I’m just trying to live and I’m just trying to, you know, run a business?” And he ran into–while he was in the corporate world, they told him one time that he couldn’t get promoted because he was so good at his job that they needed him to stay in that job. That’s why he couldn’t be promoted, ’cause he was so good. [both laugh] Another time he was told that–he was promoting a particular service that they had, the air conditioning or whatever, and they said, “You’re selling too much of this service.” That’s why he couldn’t be promoted. So that’s one. Another black guy, who had been with this organization for over 30 years, very well respected externally because he was in manufacturing and he has this particular knack for–he was called the turn-around man. He has a particular knack for going into a manufacturing operation and being able to, you know, whip it into shape, you know? The key performance indicators, the KPIs and all those kinds of things. I mean, he’s a guru at that, right? [Lead?] manufacturing and all of that kind of stuff. And they would always send him to the place that was performing the worst, and he would go. So then they decided they were gonna put him in D&I, and this was after 30 years [?], so he’s out of his element in D&I. He’s gonna do his KPIs, he’s gonna do his, you know, manufacturing operations. I think he turned just a few people off, right? So he ended up retiring early. No retirement party after all this. He’s doing so well on the outside because he’s got articles, he’s got–he’s well-known in this space, but he was kind of forced out of the organization because somebody didn’t like, you know, what he said. So I think, you know, black men, one of the [?] chapters in my book, I have Tall, Dark, and Handsome, right? So when a white man is tall, he’s paid more. When a black man is tall, he’s actually paid less. The darker-skinned the black male man is, the less that he gets paid, right? Lighter-skinned black men get paid more than dark-skinned black men. So you take a black man who is tall and dark-skinned, you know, that feeds a whole lot of stereotypes, right? You know, and the handsome, you know, like I said in my book, black women [think they’re handsome?, laughing] but the majority group probably doesn’t. Not so much, right? But you’re penalized. You know, black men are penalized, you know, for being tall. Black men are penalized for being darker-skinned. So my son, who is–he went to Harvard, Duke and Princeton, he studied under Cornell West. He is now a tenured associate professor of religion at Duke University. So when he was a kid he was always big. Joe’s about, like, 6’5″, so he was always big, and they always told him, you know, “You’re gonna hurt the other kids. You gotta, you know–” So he’s this gentle giant now because he was told, you know, “Don’t be too aggressive.” Up until the fourth grade there was something wrong with Joe all the time. We had to see a psychologist. You know, he just wasn’t adjusting right, and he just da-da-da-da. All of these things. You know, he was in a white school district and usually the only black kid, one of two in his class. So in the fourth grade he had a teacher, he was a white male teacher, who said, “You know what? I think the only thing wrong with Joe is that he’s brilliant.” He said, “That’s the only thing I think is wrong with him.” And as soon as Joe started to see himself as brilliant and everybody else started to see himself as brilliant, guess what? Joe become brilliant, and voila, Harvard, Duke, Princeton grad, but if somebody hadn’t told him that he was–[?], right? And so Joe writes about hip-hop and religion. He writes about the African-American experience. His book is–you might want to interview my son. His book is called “Hope: Draped in Black,” and–

Zach: I’d love to interview him, yeah. Let’s talk about it offline for sure.

Mary-Frances: Yeah, but what he talks about is how you hold hope in the wake of, you know, all of the oppression and whatnot. But, you know, we talked this weekend about black men and about, you know, the hip-hop culture and the gangster and, you know, the rape culture, and we talked about all of that and how that plays out and, you know, why that is, and yeah, it’s–black men are very complex, very complex, and they have been, you know, obviously treated the worst. So it’s tied up in self-concept. It’s tied up in a whole lot of–and what one study found is that black men who have a good self-concept and are also able to figure out how to navigate, you know, the system, they do well in a corporation, but you’ve got to come first with a good self-concept, and I think, as quiet as its kept, all that bravado sometimes with black men, you know, “Show me some respect” and all that kind of stuff, you know, and “I’m all of that,” I think underneath is really a lot of trauma.

Zach: Oh, I agree with that. I think you’re 100%, I mean, just spot on, and I also think, you know, when you think about black men in this space–it’s interesting because black men and white women have something in common, where black men are black, yet they benefit to a much lesser degree, but they still benefit to a degree, from patriarchy, and white women are women of course, but then they benefit from white supremacy. So there’s some dynamics there that are nuanced, and yet in a way that black women don’t. So black women are women and they’re black, right? So it’s like, okay, there’s no pool that you can pull from or there’s nothing that you can really pull from a position of privilege. Of course you have able-bodied privilege, and if you’re cisgender and all those things, but I’m talking about, like, just at a high level. So then–but I was gonna say that, you know, it’s hard to talk about that because black men benefit from patriarchy, but it’s like, “But it shouldn’t be hard to at least try to engage in the subject a bit more intentionally,” because, I mean, it hasn’t stopped white women from being the center of attention for diversity and inclusion efforts for decades.

Mary-Frances: Right, exactly. Yeah, no. I think you’re right, and so in the book Black Fatigue I question whether, you know–so to a certain extent yes, I guess I would agree that black men benefit from patriarchy, but it’s more intra-culture than it is inter-culture.

Zach: Right, ’cause black men ain’t out here about to just be out here disrespecting white women at work.

Mary-Frances: Right. Yes, there you go. Yeah, not unless [?]–nobody better know about it anyway, right? [laughs]

Zach: Well, shoot. [laughs] Well, and that’s the thing that blows my mind. Like, I had a conversation. I’ll never forget. This was some years ago. I had a conversation with somebody who tried to, like, insinuate that the reason why I spoke so much at work was because, you know, I was the only man, and perhaps because as a man I’m used to dominating conversations. And I said, “Look, I might be the only man in this space, but I’m also the only black person in this space, and certainly the only black man,” and I said, “So if you think that the reason why I’m quote-unquote dominating this conversation is because I’m a man and y’all are a bunch of white women, that’s false.” I said, “I would actually be more akin to being quiet,” as it took me time to find my voice as a black man in white spaces. I said, “I would challenge you to ask why you would use the language that I’m dominating anything by simply raising my voice in a meeting,” right? But there’s, like, this–I agree with you. I think that there’s a, like, lack of nuance when we talk about even how patriarchy is mobilized for black men. I think black men are benefiting from patriarchy with other black people. They don’t benefit from patriarchy, like, from–like, if it’s me or Karen, Karen is gonna win out.

Mary-Frances: Right, exactly. And for reasons like I was saying earlier. These studies show, you know, a tall–you know, you’ve got your stature if you will, that’s a negative. You’ve got the color that’s a negative, right? And so yeah, in white spaces, I think that it is an intersectionality in white spaces. You’re black and you’re a man. It’s a marginalized identity.

Zach: So, you know, your colleague Brittany Harris, VP of learning and innovation at The Winters Group, who we’ve had on in the past, has said that power is the silent P in this work. I’d love to hear more from you on the concept of power and how it fits into this engagement of workplace equity.

Mary-Frances: Yeah. I mean, it is very much at the center, and it’s complex, and when folks have power, why would they want to give it up? So I am not a proponent of power and privilege discussions with novices in this work. So folks who have not–I’m talking about people who are trying to teach, people who are trying to teach who have not had years of kind of understanding how all this plays out, I’m not in favor of going in and telling them that they have power and privilege. Yeah, I have it and I want to keep it. [laughs] Right? I mean, why would someone want to give that up? [?] Black people standing in front of a bunch of white men talking about, “You have power and privilege.” Yeah. And so [they’re?] like, “Yeah, what’s wrong with that?” [laughs] I mean, they don’t say that, but. And the other thing is how do they relinquish that power? I mean, that’s really difficult to do. And the other problem that I have with that–so yeah, there’s this inequitable power dynamic, but the other problem that I have with that is that we are accepting that we don’t have power. We’re rendering ourselves powerless, right? And so in the corporate world what is the key term? Empower. We want to empower our people. E-M, right? Empower, right? That is somebody giving you their power. So this is part of the corporate speak, you know, that I don’t like, right? It’s part of the dominant culture of corporate speak. I should have written about that one in my book. I might still. Anyway, I want to turn that around, that E-M to M-E. Me power. I have power. And so we have agency, but we don’t take it. We don’t use it because we have internalized that we don’t have the power, we don’t have power, and we cannot continue to–this is one of the trends I’d like to see, not to continue to talk to folks about power and just use our power, not to magnify the inequities. So everybody knows that if you’re a white man in a corporation and whatnot and you’re the manager or the leader or the director or the whatever, everybody knows you got power, right? [laughs] You know? You gotta tell me you have power? Why you gotta tell me that? Right? And so I think that there are other ways to claim power. I think that part of that is just the confidence that we come with, the self-concept that we come with. I think that we have to be ready to leave spaces, because there are consequences for us exercising power, and we have to have some safety nets, more safety nets than we have. So I left, you know, some 30 something years ago. I just stepped out on faith, I mean, ’cause I have a strong faith, and I didn’t know what was gonna happen, but I just knew I couldn’t stay there. We do know that black women, they’re 40% more likely to start their own businesses than any other group, right? Because we recognize that it’s traumatizing, and so this whole idea of–so who came up with the idea of power and power and privilege? White folks. To tell us that there’s a power inequity… Surprise, surprise. And you know what? We’re not gonna change that by telling white people that they have power. That is not gonna change that. The only thing that’s gonna change it is for us to claim our power and to recognize that we have it.

Zach: I love it. No, I’m right there with you.

Mary-Frances: Right? [laughing] Stop telling white folks what they already know, that they got power. They already know that.

Zach: No, that’s true. Like, them not, like, screaming it from the rooftops doesn’t mean that they don’t know that.

Mary-Frances: Well, exactly. Why would I scream it from the rooftops? Again, the dominant group, it’s not something that they probably even–even when we call their attention to it, there are many who will want to say, “Uh-huh. And let me figure out how I’m gonna maintain it.” There might be others who are curious. “Hm, there is this dynamic. Maybe I should, you know, do something to work on that,” but the forces are so strong and entrenched, right, over 400 years of entrenchment, that it’s not gonna change. You know, two or three or the small groups that you might get who are all for shifting that power dynamic, they’re not strong enough to overcome that larger group who wants to maintain the status quo. So we just have to take it. We have to grab the power. We have to first of all understand we have it already. It’s not grabbing anything. We already have it. We just have to use it and accept that there will be consequences sometimes for using that power, and if we don’t have the strong safety nets in our community to, you know, accept and to protect those folks who, you know, get fired, you know, are out there, you know, being called out on social media because they’re telling the truth or, you know, whatever it might be. We as a people don’t support and protect our own as much as we should.

Zach: Man, that’s, like, a whole separate [?], and what we need to do is make sure we bring you back on when your book is closer to being published and talk about that, because I do think that, you know, how we–so, you know, we had Robin DiAngelo on some time ago, and she talked about white solidarity and the concept of essentially the formal or informal closing of ranks that white folks do to protect one another, often times at the detriment or harm of black and brown folks, and yet I don’t–you know, because of colonization and because of just internalized oppression, you know, we don’t have that I don’t think in the same–

Mary-Frances: We don’t, yeah.

Zach: And that’s created so many challenges for us. I mean, since antebellum to today, right? Like, we’ve had so many issues because we don’t necessarily practice to the same degree, protection of one another. So let’s do this. You know, as you look across these leadership groups, especially during this pandemic, what are some of the top things you believe that majority leadership groups are doing today that undermine their own workplace equity efforts?

Mary-Frances: They have not educated themselves, so they are not–they think that they know, they think that their good intentions are good enough. So I’ve heard leaders say, “I don’t care if it’s the right thing to do for business,” you know, the business case that we talked about earlier, “I just think it’s the right thing to do, so now go forth and do it.” However, because they don’t have an understanding of the history or they know the history that was told wrong, they really don’t know what to do. So they’re making wrong decisions based on ignorance or, you know, a lack of information. I think the second thing that majority leadership does, particularly in the corporate world, is that they still have to speak to and answer to shareholders, and so they’re not going to do anything that is going to, you know, jeopardize that. And so even when you’re looking at board members, and what I hear often times is, you know, “Oh, the board won’t go for that,” or “We’ve gotta satisfy the board.” Well, you need to change the board then. The board may not be–you know, you may not have the right people, because boards are tokenized [when] they have one token black person and one, you know, token woman on the board, right? So those are two things, and I think during the pandemic, I think because of this ignorance they are just not aware, big companies are just not aware of the world that some of the folks on the lowest rung face, and so when you say, you know, “shelter in place, stay home,” that home may not be safe. That home may be filled with violence, right? You know, you make decisions about “Who are essential workers and who are not essential workers?” and you don’t–you know, are you thinking about the health–again, talking with a client today, you know, talking about some of their contingent, you know, workforce, and they were saying, you know, “Well, are we gonna pay the sick pay or aren’t we gonna pay the sick pay?” You know, [?], and so all of these kinds of questions, and they realized that “Yeah, we absolutely need to do that,” and so I don’t think that there’s enough understanding of what marginalized groups face regardless of their socio-economic. So they’re making decisions from their own lens, from their own–I’ll use the word privileged–from their own privileged lens, and they’re missing things. It’s coming to light, right? A lot of this stuff is now coming to light, but some of the earlier decisions missed just the horrific impact that this is having on everybody, but particularly those who are in the lowest low end of the economic chain.

Zach: Mary-Frances, this has been an incredible conversation. You know, I’d love to make sure that I give you space to talk a little bit more about The Winters Group, what you’re most excited about, what you’re looking forward to, even during times as uncertain and extraordinary as these. I’d love to just give you space to talk a little bit more about your company.

Mary-Frances: Yeah, so we’re looking forward to, you know, transforming ourselves as we always do, but this pandemic has made it absolutely imperative, and we’ve already been doing virtual learning, but we are looking at innovative ways to do virtual, ways that other people are not doing virtual. You know, we have whiteboards, and we have ways that we can break people out into groups. Like, the technology allows that, but I think the ways that we’re doing it–we’re doing simulations, and so I think this is an opportunity for us to be really, really innovative in terms of how we deliver our message. I did a virtual keynote, you know, a few weeks ago. I think it’s also an opportunity for us to continue our [?] of the corporate message and the social justice message, because they have certainly come together with COVID-19 in terms of just what I was just talking about, how we see how marginalized people are even more marginalized. You know, as the saying goes, “When the world gets a cold, black people get pneumonia. When the world gets pneumonia, black people die,” and so we’re seeing that now, and I think it’s the opportunity for us to even more strongly advocate for the intersection of social justice and corporate.

Zach: Man, thank you so much, Mary-Frances. This has been phenomenal. And y’all, that does it for us on the Living Corporate podcast. You know we do this every week. Coming to y’all with real talk in a corporate world. Make sure you check us out everywhere, okay? So you pull up your Google or your, I don’t know, Bing, or your Yahoo or whatever search engine machine you’re using, and you just type in Living Corporate. We’re gonna pop up there, okay? Make sure you check out the show notes. Make sure you check out The Winters Group. Check out all the work that they’re doing. Shout-out to The Winters Group and all of their incredible work. Shout-out to black women out here holding everybody down per usual. Thank you for all of your work. And shoot, ’til next time, we’ll catch y’all. This has been Zach. You’ve been listening to Mary-Frances Winters, CEO and founder of The Winters Group, leadership, diversity, equity and inclusion consulting firm. Been out here laying the groundwork for y’all, setting legacies, and [they’re] probably your favorite consultant’s favorite consulting agency, okay? They’ve been out here. They’ve been doing the work. ‘Til next time. Peace.

Support Our Mission of Amplifying Underrepresented Voices...

Living Corporate’s mission is singular in purpose, but diversified in approach. From our podcasting, to live events around the US, to our giveaways. 

Through Our Podcasts

Our podcast garners over 10K downloads a week and reaches black and brown executives, millennials, college students, creatives and influencers. 

Through Our Visual Media

We host a variety live, interactive web series for Black and brown early, mid, and late careerists that have a global reach. 

Through Our Resources

We connect our audience with valuable resources from resume services, certification prep materials, conference,  attendance sponsorship, and Living Corporate merchandise. Join our newsletter to learn more.


Select Payment Method
Personal Info


Donation Total: $10.00 One Time


Join Our Community

You have successfully subscribed to the newsletter

There was an error while trying to send your request. Please try again.

Living Corporate will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide updates and marketing.