Gerdau Employees: Empowered to build a diverse and inclusive environment.

by Shai Johnson

The killing of George Floyd, and many other racially motivated incidents, left Gerdau employees, particularly Black American employees, in a state of distress and hopelessness.

But what could Gerdau's leadership do to help?

By simply asking, the company learned employees were not okay, and they wanted to be heard. 

Employees expressed that police killing unarmed Black Americans was a too familiar occurrence, with roots deeper than a singular event. And it demonstrated how systemic racism has drastic and deadly repercussions on the black community.

And so, a series called "Conversations About Race" was born. In this safe space, Gerdau employees shared their personal stories and perspective on the black experience, through special panels in which all employees were invited to attend.

Below are excerpts from those discussions.

Conversation About Race- Shai Johnson
Panelist: Shai Johnson, Communications and Public Affairs

Topic: The Mental Health Impact of Negative Police Encounters 

Why I chose this topic: As a child, I was taught to respect law enforcement. When the police visited my elementary school, I looked up to them in awe and immediately felt safe.

Unfortunately, due to unsavory encounters, my perception changed.

When I was a young teen, a distressing event led me to call the police. The result, I was called an animal.

As an adult, I have had to show an officer my license to prove my residence while another questioned what my brother was doing in "such a nice neighborhood," referring to the location of my home.

What I learned: Black Americans make up 13% of the US population, yet 23% of those fatally shot by police.

But what about non-lethal encounters? Data is limited, but studies suggest negative police interactions can result in emotional trauma.

Stress, PTSD, depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts should not be associated with dealing with police – but they are.

I wanted to know why.

According to civil rights attorney Alexis J. Hoag, America’s history of enslaving people attributes to the disregard for Black Americans today. To hold people in bondage as property, you had to look at them as less than human.

As an appellate attorney, Hoag read a lot of transcripts where prosecutors state that the defendant was “circling” and “hunting”. What hunts and circles? Animals. Simply put, it is a combination of the dehumanization of black people with the presumption of dangerousness and criminality.

Furthermore, a 2016 George Washington University study states that while individual members of a police force may not be racist, the system itself is available to white citizens in a way it is not to nonwhite and particularly black citizens.

For black citizens, age, gender, or where one resides does not matter.  

Biggest take away: I have renewed hope.

Despite my experiences, I understand the critical role of law enforcement in our society.

Talks of structural reform, including annual sensitivity and anti-racism training, should lead to decreased unwarranted negative encounters.

Conversations About Race Will Friend
Panelist: Will Friend, Sales

Topic: Redefining Racism and How to Overcome It

Why I chose this topic: I have a mixed-race child who will be adversely affected by her skin color – that is entirely unacceptable.

Even in the age of information, far too many people have negative perceptions regarding races different than their own.  While some progress has been made, I refuse to be complacent and allow my daughter to grow up in fear due to ignorance.

This is why I welcome conversations about race. When speaking with other White Americans, I hear flawed perceptions. Some are resistant to the topic of racism and how widespread it is. Some become defensive – hostile, even – when confronted about their discriminatory tendencies. I believe this is because they believe racism ONLY means hate.

What I learned: Racism is not confined to explicit hatred of people with different skin tones, although that is a part. Racism encompasses a wide range of thoughts and actions; even ones many consider benign.

By stripping the label, “all hate, all the time,” racism can be easier to analyze, approach, and combat.

While most people do not understand the depth and breadth of racism in America, people can overcome racism. I am a perfect example of this growth and the constant process of realizing my prejudices.

Biggest take away: We can persevere over racism.

We cannot “stop making everything about race” when, in fact, most things are influenced heavily by race.

Race affects everything from hiring practices to interest rates on loans. It affects job opportunities as well as educational opportunities. It affects homeownership and even access to adequate healthcare. Until these inequities are discussed, we cannot effectively address racism and other injustices.

I understand there is no simple resolution. However, I believe the challenge would be exponentially easier if more white people invested in open and honest dialogue and a willingness to learn, accept, and change.  

Conversations About Race- Richard Williams
Panelist: Richard Williams, Production Planner, and Scheduler

Topic: Raising a Black Family in a White Society

Why I chose this topic: It is post-Jim Crow era, six decades in fact. Yet, Black Americans continue to struggle to support our families and safely raise our children.  The reality is that due to the color of our skin, we face barriers to reaching the "American Dream."

I have personally and professionally received degrading treatment from those who felt I was somehow "less than." The comment "I don't see color" does not shield individuals from knowingly or unknowingly demonstrating racial bias.

In some ways, I felt prepared to deal with racism. However, no matter how hard my wife and I tried to protect our children from the ugliness of bigotry, it still found its way to them.

Racism is entrenched in American society. And its claws have even seeped its way into the black community.

What I Learned: Colorism, or prejudice within a racial group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin, is an example of how racism affects black families.

I was not aware of the pervasiveness of colorism until it affected my daughter.  When she was a child, she struggled with her dark complexion.  She thought she was ugly and would be prettier if she also had her mother's lighter skin tone. At one point, the toll was so immense she cried. That is when I learned there are levels of "blackness," and society treats darker individuals differently. It broke my heart to see her in pain because she is beautiful to me.

My daughter now accepts how God made her. I asked what brought about her change of attitude, and I learned that in her early 20's, she started to embrace her dark skin, not apologize for it.

Biggest Take Away: My daughter's revelation sparked something in me too. I recall many occasions I went out of my way to make people feel comfortable around me – but no more. 

If you "don't see color," you do not see me. So instead, I offer to accept Black American's uniqueness and treat us as equals and individuals.