Why White Men Are the Secret Sauce to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

How exactly did a Black Antiguan woman end up becoming a champion for white male allies, especially in Boston? Well, just let me explain.

Photo by Ken Richardson

As I built my PR company on the premise of helping companies understand and actualize the competitive advantage of inclusion, I realized something: You can’t have inclusion if you exclude the very people who have the power to make systemic changes at the corporate, societal, and philanthropic level—those who control who gets in the door, who moves up the ladder, who shares the wealth, and who gets treated like an equal. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, these people—the occupants of corporate C-suites; the major political movers and shakers; the gatekeepers who oversee policy, government, sports, arts, and entertainment—are white men.

I certainly understand why many white men feel threatened by diversity. In part, it’s because they fear they will end up being excluded and irrelevant as a result. But the longer I’ve worked in this business, the clearer it has become that there are also white men who see things differently.

Some white men use their power and their actions—in very public and very private ways—to both expand the circle of people in power as well as invite those who have been excluded in the past. There’s Lyndon B. Johnson, who transformed from a segregationist to leading the most sweeping civil rights reforms in American history. Or Wayland Hicks, a white male Xerox executive who mentored Ursula Burns, the first African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 company as chairperson and CEO of Xerox. And there are executives like Bob Rivers, the chairman and CEO of New England’s Eastern Bank, who made it his mission to make sure the next generation of Boston’s leaders don’t look anything like him.

I call them “White Men Who Can Jump,” playing off the title of the Ron Shelton basketball movie White Men Can’t Jump. They don’t play basketball, but I call them that because they are leaders who aren’t limited by their skin color, background, and self-interest. Contrary to stereotypes of white behavior, these men recognize the importance of diversity and inclusion to all of us—and they do something about it.

As you read this, you might ask yourself: “How exactly did a Black Antiguan woman end up becoming a champion for white male allies?”

Photo courtesy of BenBella Books

I’ve asked myself this question many times over the years. And I know it opens me up to accusations that I am an Aunt Thomasina—an apologist for racism along the lines of Candace Owens, Kanye West, or others who have found it convenient, for whatever reason, to make excuses for white male misbehavior. But if you know me and my life or follow me on LinkedIn or Facebook, you know that I call it like I see it.

I remember once, while shopping at a high-end retailer, I was waiting at the counter for a woman to assist me. She paid me no attention for a few minutes, but when a white woman walked up behind me, the saleswoman asked her if she needed help. Immediately, I said, “Excuse me. I believe I was here first.” When the woman in back of me agreed, I said to the saleswoman, “I am not invisible.”

When the saleswoman finally awarded me her attention, I made her work for the sale, showing me many different items before I made my selections. But when it came time for me to present my credit card to her, I paused and told her, “I don’t think I want to give you this sale.” I walked up to a different salesperson, handed her my items and my credit card, and had her take care of the sale. I had decided that there was no way I was going to reward bad behavior.

I’m not an apologist. But I am a pragmatist. If, as Black people, we want to shatter individual, institutional, and systemic racism, well, I don’t believe that can be accomplished by Black people alone. We need to engage white allies, and especially white male allies—those who occupy the seats of power and spheres of influence where decisions get made and policy gets created. If we want to end systemic racism, it’s going to take white men. Why?

Because they hold that power.

I’m also someone who believes her own eyes—and I’ve seen and experienced firsthand the power white men have to open doors and create access. I didn’t learn this from a captain of industry or a son of privilege but rather from two middle-aged gay white men who took me under their wing when I was in my mid-twenties.

Norman Pellerin and Mark Skiffington were longtime partners who lived together on Marlborough Street between Fairfield and Exeter in a lovely quaint apartment with wonderful bay windows that looked out on the Back Bay. Norman worked in design, while Mark worked in operations for John Hancock Financial. I met them while I was doing PR for the Girl Scouts—Norman worked for the company that published our monthly newsletter. He and I started chatting, and he took a liking to me. Before long, he introduced me to Mark, and they started inviting me to dinners and cocktails at their apartment.

Norman and Mark served on a number of charity committees and boards, such as for the annual gala for the Perkins School for the Blind and the Boston Lyric Opera. They would invite me to these lavish events, making sure I met people who were in their circle so I didn’t feel out of place or uncomfortable. People would stare at me and Norman, trying to figure out who this Black face belonged to and why she was standing alongside such a patrician, older-looking white man. Perhaps because they were gay men living in a society that was neither welcoming nor accepting of their sexual orientation, they had empathy for people of color—as I did for them.

Boston in the 1980s was very different than it is today. Long before the era of mergers and acquisitions, most of the companies that called Boston home were actually headquartered here. I didn’t realize it at the time, but these companies heavily supported the arts community—and thus the arts were a great way to get to know Boston’s corridors of power.

Norman and Mark were on the board of the Friends of the Boston Ballet—and invited me to join. The only requirement for sitting on this board was to be a season ticket holder and to help raise money for their signature opening-night fundraiser. I still remember that my seat was on the orchestra level, with a panoramic view of the entire theater. The feeling of being in the middle of all that was intoxicating.

Through the board and at these events, I met the wives of Boston’s most prominent CEOs. And I met a number of people in PR, like the late Carole Nash, the PR director for Sheraton Boston, and Patricia Petrocelli, who did PR for Filene’s, the big department store that sponsored the ballet. Patricia was clever—she got Filene’s to give away samples of makeup and perfume in swag bags. She used the Boston Ballet event to create visibility for Filene’s—an early iteration of what we today call cause marketing. I learned a lot about the power of public relations from Carole and Patricia.

But Norman and Mark didn’t just help me further my own career—they also introduced me to a number of inclusive movers and shakers, such as Diddy and John Cullinane, one of the great Irish power couples in Boston. John had made his money in tech. Diddy was from Dorchester, and both were well known in philanthropic circles for raising money for Catholic Charities Boston. In 1989, they formed Black and White Boston Coming Together—a 44-person committee with equal numbers of Black and white members. Even though my company was only three years old, Diddy asked me to be one of the 22 Black people to serve on the committee.

At the time, Boston was in the midst of healing from the lingering busing strife of the 1970s, an economic slowdown, and the horrific 1989 murder committed by Charles Stuart, who shot and killed his pregnant wife and tried to blame a Black man. For the next 20 years, the organization brought together neighborhoods like Roxbury, a mostly Black area, and South Boston, a largely white neighborhood, by encouraging participation from various sectors and people ranging from CEOs to students; supporting scholarships, speakers’ series, and awards; and sponsoring a golf tournament called Black and White on the Green, hosted one year by Boston Globe sports columnist Will McDonough.

Through efforts like these, I met white female leaders such as the late Doris Yaffe, a PR director for Saks Fifth Avenue, who hosted the first-ever event by a major retailer in Boston that specifically brought together Black business and community leaders and white patrons. She held it inside Saks’s Boston store on Boylston Street—which, until Doris’s event, was decidedly not a welcoming place for Black people in the 1980s.

It probably wasn’t a coincidence that I was introduced to this cross-cultural work by PR people, most of whom were women. Like Carole and Patricia, Doris showed me how you could use your PR hospitality position to affect change and make a difference—attracting attention for your business while also doing good in the community. This became a model for my Get Konnected! network later on.

Serving on boards also showed me early on how I could influence these issues myself. Because of Norman and Mark, I became the first straight woman of color to serve on the board of the AIDS Action Committee. That wasn’t just for show. As a Black woman with PR skills who had grown up Christian, I could engage with Black churches that were telling their congregations that AIDS was “God’s punishment.” In my mind, if I was asked, “What God do you serve?” I knew it wasn’t a God who loves Joseph and Mary but not Norman and Mark.

Together with nightclub impresario Patrick Lyons, the late Boston radio station Kiss 108 program director and disc jockey Sunny Joe White, and the late modeling agent Maggie Trichon, I worked to put on an annual Boston Against AIDS concert with the likes of Anita Baker, Luther Vandross (who would posthumously be outed as a gay man), and others to raise money for the AIDS Action Committee.

I have worked my tail off over the years. My friends joke that it seems like I must never sleep, but as a Black woman in business in Boston, I’ve perpetually felt that to achieve success, I had to work twice as hard, set a high bar for myself, and always have multiple balls in the air at once.

Ultimately, though, whether it was getting onto nonprofit boards, meeting peers and mentors in my field, or getting the chance to organize big cross-culturally significant events, none of it would have happened had I not crossed paths with my friends Norman and Mark. They were the ones who opened the door. I learned early in my career that white male allies can create access and opportunity.

The Includers: The 7 Traits of Culturally Savvy, Anti-Racist Leaderspublished by BenBella Books, is currently available to purchase on Amazon.com.

First published in the print edition of the February 2024 issue with the headline, “Diversity, Equity, and Includers.”