Black history is American history. It should mean something to everyone in our nation.
Yet when February rolls around, it often feels like our conversations around Black history are relegated to surface-level commemorations. There is a persistent fear of digging deep, getting real, and being vulnerable.
The more we shy away from authentic dialogue, however, the less progress is made. Things stay the same. Conversations die off. And before we know it, we’re coasting along until next February arrives again.
Business For Good wanted to do better.
To honor the legacy of Black contributions to our nation, we hosted an honest conversation about the significance of Black history and allyship between two of our BFG members: Jason Roberts, co-founder and CEO of Frontline Careers, and Diolinda Monteiro, founder and owner of 5th Dot Studio.
Watch the full hour-long conversation, and read on to discover the most salient points of this insightful exchange.
Question 1: Black History Month should mean something to everyone. What significance does it hold for you? And how do you think it should be celebrated?
Jason Roberts: Black History Month has become so commercialized that we often forget what it’s even supposed to be about. We’re not celebrating it in the way that I think we should be.
If we’re going to celebrate Black history, let’s start with understanding and learning the history, first and foremost.
Black history is so much more vast than the “big figures” we talk about every year. It’s also about understanding the countless contributions of my people for the greater good of this society in which we all live. For instance, I think about how the civil rights movement led to the establishment of the EEOC, which has since benefitted so many Americans, not only Black folks.
On a personal level, Black History Month invites me to think about my ancestry—the legacy my own family left behind for me and my children. How they struggled in so many ways, and how they were the firsts in my lineage to do many things.
I wear this skin with immense pride. And I want that for my children, too. They come from great roots and should be proud of their heritage.
That is what tends to get lost sometimes in the commercialization of Black History Month: our centuries of Black contributions, and celebrating all of our differences and different communities together.
Diolinda Monteiro: Last February, BFG featured a spotlight on Black voices article. In it, I recall BFG member Katrina Oprikso of Earthwell Refill saying that Black history is American history. That really struck a chord with me.
For me, Black History Month is a time of reflection. I pause to consider how far we’ve come as a nation, but also how far we still have to go. Systemic racism is still very much alive in this country.
It’s a constant education process for me, and I have a lot more work to do. Where I am in my journey right now is studying Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad. I’ll be reading and reflecting on that book.
Question 2: What does allyship look like to you? How does an ally think, act, and react, and why is it important for allies to be anti-racist?
Diolinda: Honestly, I don’t call myself an ally. I think that would be like calling myself “enlightened.” Allyship is a long journey for me. I can say that I’m now more aware than I used to be.
When Trump was elected, I thought, “What is actually happening here?! Are you kidding me?” To be honest, as a white person who lived my life largely oblivious to the extent of racism, that was the moment the Band-Aid was ripped off for me.
I knew I had to start educating myself. I read some excellent books by authors like Robin D’Angelo and Ibram X. Kendi to start my self-reflection process.
When it comes to being an ally, it’s critical for me to understand that when entering discussions, my experience is not universal. I need to listen, and not speak so much.
Jason: That’s what I’m talking about right there, Diolinda. Let’s have some real conversations and be vulnerable. I applaud you for your honesty. That is how we break down barriers and increase our levels of understanding.
On that note, I feel the very first step to becoming an ally is understanding your privilege. Once that happens, it opens your eyes to injustices happening around you.
You begin to understand why the Black community is asking for help, and you recognize your privilege and use it to respond and render that aid. You try to put yourself in the shoes of others because you recognize your own shoes are different. And many times, they’re different in a beneficial way.
An anti-racist is someone who takes allyship to the next level. Anti-racists actively seek to undo the inequities that exist, even with the risk of blowback to themselves.
I’ll give you an example of anti-racism in the corporate world. Say that your frontline workforce is disproportionately Black. If you move up the corporate ladder and find no Black folk there, you know something ain’t right.
In this situation, anti-racism is voicing the question, “How can we have a leadership that isn’t reflective of our workforce?” As an ally and anti-racist business owner, your voice carries extra weight. By sharing stories of how diversity and inclusion have improved your own business, you breed more anti-racism among other business owners.
What I’m hearing from you, Diolinda, is that you’re seeking to listen and understand. Man, that is step number one! Sometimes it’s gonna be an uncomfortable conversation to talk about this stuff. But stepping into that discomfort is how we all grow.
When we enter these conversations seeking to understand versus being understood, then I think we can all wind up in a better place. Seeking not to be heard, but to listen, is a key trait of someone who wishes to be an ally and break down systemic racism in its many forms.
Question 3: What is the hardest part for you personally about discussing issues around race in America?
Jason: As I’ve said, it is an immense honor and privilege to wear this beautiful melanin skin. But it comes with challenges.
I need to remind my son that in certain situations, no matter what, the first thing people are going to see is that he is a Black man. And the cautions that he must now take into account as a result. The concerns we have sometimes when he goes out in different settings—that is real.
If you don’t have that same concern, that he may be the “next story” in this horrendous cycle of violence played out over and over again, then you don’t understand your privilege.
That’s what I find hard sometimes when discussing race. It’s so difficult to really portray how Trayvon [Martin] and George Floyd hit me differently. They hit hard.
In the case of George Floyd, we all saw a man dying, with a knee on his neck, asking for his mother. That helped people understand, in a way, how Black people feel.
In corporate America, the same kinds of inequities are being played out. And it’s hard to not get disgusted by the whole situation and throw your hands in the air.
But I am finding more and more, there are people who want to understand what this feels like. They see injustice and recognize it ain’t right. They want to educate themselves, ask questions, and know how they can help. That’s what is making these conversations today easier than 15 or 20 years ago—people are genuinely interested in helping.
Diolinda: For me, the hardest part of discussing race is worrying about saying the wrong thing.
As a woman, and a mother of a daughter, I only get a little taste of what Jason is saying about the concerns for his son. When my daughter goes out, I tell her to watch where she parks, don’t have too much to drink, use the buddy system, and so on.
But that concern is so far expanded with the Black experience. You have to worry about your daughters, your sons, your wife in childbirth, even going to the grocery store in broad daylight.
I have heard people say, in terms of facing law enforcement, “just do what you’re told and everything will turn out alright.” Well, we know that’s not true. We know that doesn’t work. So, then what?
In having conversations in the past, I’ve made mistakes with my thoughts and my words, and I can’t claim I won’t make mistakes in the future. So, that’s the hardest part for me.
Jason: That’s so real. Because it’s fear that keeps us from doing a lot of things we should do, in general. The fear of saying the wrong thing, and showing up in the wrong way, is very real for all of us, even me.
But having these safe circles—like Business For Good—where you are free to express yourself is so valuable.
We need to have more conversations like this in safe environments, where you can say what you’re thinking. And if it does come out as offensive, at least you’ll know why that could be viewed in a certain way.
It’s when we don’t communicate how we’re thinking or feeling for fear of blowback that we don’t grow, learn, or build allies to become anti-racist. It’s really important to step into that fear and have safe environments where we can say what’s on our minds. I appreciate you being honest about your fear, stepping into it, and owning it.
Question 4: What one action do you believe other local business owners could take to support Black-owned businesses in San Diego (and beyond)? And could you also share some of your favorite Black-owned businesses and brands?
Jason: The single biggest thing you could do as a local business owner to support Black-owned businesses is to use them! Buy from them. Find their products and services, use them yourself, and then promote them. Advocate for their continued use within your business, company, and community.
Some of my favorite Black-owned brands include:
- Rise Urban Nation: They do outstanding podcasts that feature folks who contribute in many beautiful ways to the Black community. I’ve been honored to be on one of their podcasts. They also do DEI consulting.
- Rue Kitchen: Amazing vegan sauces—cajun, jerk, and BBQ. Absolutely wonderful!
- Exhort Healthcare: Medicine has gotten away from being patient-focused. Exhort is a wonderful start-up focused on patient outcomes in health care instead of the bottom line. They also aim to address the disparity that exists in health outcomes on a community basis.
Diolinda: I’m in 100% in agreement with Jason. Vote with your dollars.
Some of my favorite Black-owned brands include:
- Earthwell Refill: It’s right up the street from where I live, and when they opened, I was so excited. Earthwell has helped me keep so much plastic out of the landfill. I take my jars in and get refills of deodorant, dental floss, laundry detergent, shampoo, the list goes on. It’s incredible. For months, I hounded Katrina, the founder and owner, to join BFG and she finally did!
- Muzita Abyssinian Bistro: We love their food. Always delicious!
- Sharon Cooper: Sharon is a dear friend of mine and a full-time author of romance novels. Her books got me through the pandemic when I just wanted to read something good and happy instead of terrible news! I highly recommend her to anyone who loves romance fiction.
Question 5: Jason, could you share a bit about your journey as a Black business owner and entrepreneur? What are you most proud of? And what do you feel have been your biggest challenges?
Jason: I’ll say the biggest stumbling block was starting a company just a couple of months before COVID hit; it just wrecked everything.
But when I think of our journey as business owners—our company has three founders, myself, Tie, and Ari,—one of the things I’m most proud of is the progress we’ve made. We went from being a bare-bones start-up with nothing to having real products and services that people are asking for.
What’s been especially rewarding, as a Black man and a Black founder, is finding communities that are extremely supportive of me and what we are doing.
For example, I met Alexis Villanueva (BFG Board of Directors Vice Chair) at Village Up, an amazing local organization that helps BIPOC start-up founders. Another example is the group of folks right here at Business For Good.
It’s all about community. When I think about allyship and anti-racism, it’s all about expanding this community of helping and serving each other.
Let’s have the difficult conversations. Let’s seek to understand versus be understood. Let’s talk to each other, and follow up that talk with action. Because that’s what a true ally and anti-racist would do.