Oct 13, 2020

Is LinkedIn ready for Black LinkedIn?

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Many Black workers are turning to the professional social network to talk about racism in the workplace.

LinkedIn has a reputation for being all business. But that has been changing recently, especially in the last four months. Workers, at home and trying to navigate racial upheaval in America, are turning to LinkedIn to talk about race and activism, especially as it relates to work.

Black workers say it’s great that these conversations are happening on the Microsoft-owned platform — especially because so many executives and company decision-makers are on LinkedIn. I spoke with Ashanti Martin, who wrote about this for The New York Times. She said Black workers are being their authentic selves on LinkedIn, and a lot of folks just aren’t sure how to react. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Ashanti Martin. (Photo courtesy of Shira Yudkoff)

Ashanti Martin: My first example in the article was that Aaisha Joseph [a diversity consultant] made a post about companies who bring out their “house Negro” to deal with the difficult Black employees. That’s a tricky conversation, because I could see how the word Negro could be labeled as inflammatory. But the fact of the matter is that among Black people, we understand — these are conversations we have about the “house Negro” versus the “field Negro.”

Molly Wood: Why does it matter for authentic Black voices to appear on LinkedIn, specifically, as compared to, say, Twitter?

Martin: A lot of the discussion that you’re seeing on LinkedIn is that — how Black people present themselves is often decided from a white perspective. And I think the authenticity factor is a pushback. It is people demanding to be recognized for their full selves. But it is a very hard dynamic to overcome, because you just see so much resistance to it. And I think LinkedIn exposes a lot of that resistance.

Wood: How has LinkedIn responded, as well?

Martin: I know one of the big problems that Black users were having was that their content was getting hidden, but they weren’t being notified. And it just led to a lot of questions that LinkedIn hasn’t really satisfactorily answered at this point. One of the things that give people cause for concern are the fact that LinkedIn is an absolutely not a diverse company — 3.5% of their employees are Black, 1% of their leadership is Black, and only 1.2% of their tech workforce is Black. Who is programming these algorithms, and what are these algorithms, and what is the machine learning to flag, as well as the actual content moderators? The important conversations, I think, that people are really learning from are conversations about racism in the workplace. And these people have a lot of followers, so what I think Black professionals do not want to happen is to miss the opportunity to actually gain allies and to make a significant change in the workplace.

Wood: I mean, obviously, it coincides with what is happening in the country. Do you think it also reflects conversations that are happening in the workplace, too?

Martin: I think it’s hard to say, because so much of the professional workforce is remote right now. In a way, LinkedIn is one of the only ways to have conversations with colleagues. You don’t have the chance opportunities to talk with your colleagues after meetings or during lunch breaks, so this is really the voice of professional life for a lot of people, especially when it comes to talking about these topics. One thing I think is important to note is that I think that these conversations are not ones that are easily had in the workplace, just because of the dynamic of working with teams, working face to face, and maintaining a professional environment. But I feel a sense of almost relief for a lot of Black employees, people of color, other people of marginalized groups, to be able to talk about these things and have their colleagues see these conversations that probably wouldn’t take place in the physical office.

Wood: I mean, that’s what I think is so interesting. In some ways, it’s about people on LinkedIn talking about workplaces and how they should be more diverse. But what you say is that people are being — what did you say — “Blackity-Black-Black”– on LinkedIn. What you’re really seeing is people being their true selves, bringing their true Black selves to LinkedIn in a way that didn’t exist before and is making some white people uncomfortable, right?

Martin: Yeah. One of the questions that guided me as I was thinking about the article and doing interviews and writing it was thinking about Black Twitter and the impact that Black Twitter has had on our culture. Just in terms of simply the language, the memes, but also the hashtags — #BlackLivesMatter, #OscarsSoWhite — and then the conversations that come up those hashtags. Meredith Clark, who I spoke to for my article, she’s probably the leading scholar on Black Twitter. She’s writing a book about it [and] she’s a professor at the University of Virginia. And she also talks about how Black Twitter really demands accountability. So in thinking about that impact that Black Twitter has had on our culture, American culture specifically, I started to think about what if that same model was applied to Black LinkedIn and how it might affect just the presence of Black people in offices across America.

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

Ashanti Martin mentioned that one of her sources, Aaisha Joseph, in her New York Times piece, wrote a Medium post last week outlining instances where LinkedIn removed speech about racism and Black Lives Matter, but allowed harassment and hostility toward people who had posted about racism and discrimination at work. Trust me when I tell you that her screenshots of the posts that remain on LinkedIn, compared to the ones that were taken down, will make you question a lot of things about its policies, and also humanity.

Joseph is a diversity consultant and activist. She writes that she had a long conversation with LinkedIn executives, including its CEO, but has seen no meaningful change. And when she asked to be paid as a consultant for future diversity education, she didn’t hear back from the company again. I encourage you to read the whole thing.

On the topic of content moderation and just possibly failing to understand, we have Facebook, which on Monday announced a new policy to ban Holocaust denial. The company pointed to a general ignorance among young people about the Holocaust and said it was responding to a well-documented rise in anti-Semitism globally. Facebook did not note that it may have played a role in allowing those sentiments to spread, but CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote that his thinking had “evolved” on the idea that hate speech running rampant online actually leads to hate in the real world.

On that note, Andrew Marantz has a piece in The New Yorker, also out Monday, on whether Facebook wants to get rid of hate speech and disinformation … at all. One of the company’s first content moderators, Dave Willner, is quoted in the piece. He’s long gone from the company and now a critic of Facebook. He said that while there is no perfect content moderation strategy, some of Facebook’s exemptions, including world leaders and political ads, are “nonsense,” and he added “they could at least try to look less transparently craven and incoherent.”

Ouch.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer