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Dear white people: The work takes time

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Clarrissa and Leonard Egerton seem like lovely people. They own Frugal Bookstore, whose motto is “Changing Minds, One Book At A Time.” Frugal is the first, and currently only, Black-owned bookstore in Boston, and they are beloved.

But now Clarrissa and Leonard Egerton are besieged

In a recent email to customers, they describe a crush of orders designed to change minds — 20,000 requests for anti-racism books in a matter of days. Some 75% of the orders are for the same ten titles, all of which are in such demand that they’ve disappeared from bookseller shelves across the country. All are being reprinted now. 

For the most part, customers are understanding. But quite a few want to speak to the Egerton’s manager. 

“We are also receiving a number of disheartening emails asking us to cancel orders and refund payments, criticisms about how slow we are and that we have poor customer service because we have not answered an email,” they write in the email. “We have hired a fulfillment company to assist us with catching up, you will receive your orders. We humbly ask that you PLEASE bear with us!” 

Bradley Babendir, a Cambridge-based writer, posted about the customer backlash, including screenshots of the company’s latest update. “[I]f you want to support a black-owned business, part of that is not being a dick,” he tweeted.  It’s a sign of the times. “[It] feels indicative of the way people are wrongly thinking about anti-racism, like, ‘if i only had this book i would be an anti-racist but until then i am cursed.’ just read a different book in the mean time there are lots of books,” Babendir added.

There are lots of books. There are not a lot of people like Clarrissa and Leonard Egerton. Such a conundrum.

As I ponder the plight of the Egertons, lovely people whose early prospects during the still-ongoing pandemic became so dire that it took a generous GoFundMe campaign to keep them afloat, I am thinking about the thousands of Black employees across corporate America who now have a crush of unfillable orders on their desks for things that they are not prepared to provide related to anti-racism work. 

“I’m just not into the performance — the half-assed apologies, ‘I see you’ messages, or tactfully deployed emojis that only serve to help the sender feel as if they’ve done their part,” writes The Only Black Guy in the Office, a regular anonymous column on Medium. “I guess now Black lives finally matter, thanks to these racially ambiguous prayer hands! I don’t need you to reach out to say how much you’re showing up, just for you to go back to your regular M.O. once this movement is no longer trending. Let your actions speak. Contribute to overthrowing this racist-ass system.”

I am also thinking about the thousands of Black and brown employees and their worthy allies who are prepared to weigh in with data, projects, and anti-racism initiatives already in progress — and who are finding their budgets cut or work otherwise ignored by a leadership suddenly hellbent on scrubbing the stale racist residue from all the curtains without their help.  

I know these people — who have typically undertaken this important anti-racism work using their personal time and with little funding or support — because they write to me all the time. And now, they’re telling everyone.

Fortune’s Working While Black project is a trove of difficult truths about what it’s like for Black talent in corporate life. 

“We — Black people — are NOT a monolithic group of people, so STOP treating us that way. One does NOT speak for all.  Do the work to unlearn the ways that are currently ingrained into the fabric of who you are,” Adrienne G., 51, writes. “READ books [Editor’s note: patiently wait for them to arrive, please.] “LEARN from those that are doing the anti-bias, anti-Black work. Stop asking Black people how you can not be racist or anti-Black, that’s YOUR job to figure out.”

Now, Imma quote myself from my June 9 column on how to add anti-racism reading to your life in a way that’s sustainable: “I offer this word of caution for any white person who is frantically trying to put all of this material on their to-do lists. I appreciate you, but I’m worried that the urgency you may be feeling is more related to your personal discomfort, and not entirely a desire to be part of the solution. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t feel this way. But part of the work is staying in the discomfort long enough to examine it. If you rush, it won’t stick. If you do too much, you’ll burn out.” 

You’ll also destroy the spirits of Black booksellers who want to help you. (But these Twitter comments to Ibram X. Kendi, author of How To Be An Antiracist, will bring you joy.)

So here’s another piece of advice for corporate leaders, from me and Adrienne G.

Find the people in your organization who have already been working on these issues, even informally. They understand your culture. Listen to them. Embrace their data and findings and projects and find ways to amplify them. Give them credit and opportunities to lead and contribute, if they choose. And by all means, fund and support their work. They quite likely hold the pieces of the puzzle you’re looking for.

And Lord have mercy, please protect them from the newly woke masses looking for instant redemption. After all, that’s what a good manager is supposed to do.

Ellen McGirt
@ellmcgirt
Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

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