I recently participated in a writing group. It was a multi-racial group of women that spanned a range of ages, stages in life and professional backgrounds.
What we knew about one another was based on what we chose to write; our critiques of other’s writing; and the occasional story about an unusually frustrating day.
I do not remember what started the conversation, but one evening we landed on the topic of race. This was the summer of protest over the murder of George Floyd. It was the summer when social media accounts and the news were filled with the daily trauma of videos showing African American men, women and children being humiliated, brutalized, and even killed by police.
Whatever the reason, the polite dam preventing the roiling sea of emotions and questions about race from overflowing gave way that night. Our fears, anger, and pain rushed out. We began to sort through the muddied wreckage together- gently, gingerly, and carefully.
It was a turning point. After that conversation, we had a feeling of sisterhood. That feeling of sisterhood remains even though we no longer meet. That night we were seen, heard, and supported in understanding that these questions about race were not the burden of some in our group to bear or fix. We left with a sober understanding that addressing our country’s history, culture and legacy of racial oppression was a collective enterprise.
Here is what changed for us. Here is how a conversation about race can be a turning point in your workplace too.
A conversation about race can force you to confront your assumptions about people and allow you to be in relationship with real and not imagined people.
I tried to avoid the topic of politics in the writing group, hoping not to illicit a comment that might shock or offend me. I was hiding as much as I was trying to protect myself. It is the same reason that I bypass those quaint little restaurants in an unfamiliar town when I am on a road trip. It is that dim childhood memory of being told a rural gas station did not have a restroom when one was plainly in sight. I did not want to put myself in a situation where, an unfriendly stare from another patron or an uncomfortably long wait at a diner that is just not that busy, might ruin my otherwise mellow vacation vibe.
I just wanted to enjoy the company of talented, creative women. I did not want to risk having to respond to an off comment and somehow sour the evening.
When we started talking about race, we started to choose our words more carefully. We were fully engaged in the process. Each of us was earnestly trying to understand. We were stunned when we realized that despite our proximity in education and interests, we were indeed, living in vastly different worlds.
As disturbing and challenging as the conversation was however, it gave me hope. What had been a burden borne by some of us in the group was now understood and, to some extent, shared. That sharing lifted some of the weight.
Do we see eye to eye on politics or questions of race in every regard? Likely not. However, we learned that we have tools to communicate constructively about difficult issues–including race:
- We took deep breaths.
- We listened and tried not to interrupt.
- We tested for understanding.
- We created space where it was safe to share discomfort; ask questions and sit in silence.
A conversation about race and the preparation necessary to have the conversation about race in the workplace can teach and reinforce ways of communicating that help people solve problems constructively.
A conversation about race fosters empathy among people and co-workers and provides a basis for trust.
A conversation about race provides an opportunity for people to share resources, books, and popular culture that expose them to new perspectives and experiences. This sharing can create a common base of experience for employees living in a world that is still largely segregated. We can begin to build a common vocabulary and appreciation for the way that others see the world.
A conversation about race can build a work culture that causes us to think about the impact of our words and actions on others.
When the topic of workplace discrimination comes up, we often think about a co-workers or bosses using racial slurs; someone being denied a job or promotion, or blatant harassment based on race. While we might recognize the harmful impact of rules, systems and practices that disproportionately deny opportunities to people of color, more subtle aspects of the work culture “keep people in their place”. Consider dress codes prohibiting natural hair styles as unprofessional; inside jokes mocking the way people speak or office gatherings limited to certain sections of town. While these things might seem neutral to some, they can make it challenging for others to thrive.
A conversation about race and the subtle ways it insinuates itself into everyday activities can make us think more carefully about whether our actions exclude people and make them feel unwelcome.
A conversation about race, with the appropriate professional support, can encourage employees and managers to think more carefully about how an off-hand joke; a choice for social gatherings and personal interactions can affect the work environment and experience of others.
A conversation about race can be part of our broader work to make our workplaces accessible and create an environment in which people of different abilities, genders, gender identities, and religious and non-religious can thrive.
When we talk together about race and start to tackle the structural and cultural barriers to equality, we discover that there are likely also other issues of inequality. It makes sense. Employment practices that are skewed by the arbitrary factor of race, whether intentionally or unintentionally, are not based on sound business judgment. What reasonable business would intentionally exclude or hinder a talented and productive segment of its workforce?
When we dismantle these outdated systems, we find that companies are better able to be successful. Their policies and practice are based on solid empirical data. The work environment is designed to attract, recruit, and promote the best talent without regard to arbitrary, irrelevant factors unrelated to success.
A conversation about race can help build a common set of values that can ground the culture of your organization and company.
A conversation about race is a cornerstone of building a company culture that is based on internal values that match the external image you want to project. During that long, difficult summer after George Floyd was murdered, companies and organizations rushed to declare that Black Live Mattered. Advertisers told us that their brands stood with the struggle for equality. This was a start.
In many cases the real work began internally when, for the first-time, employees of color were asked for their views. New centers of influence were created as CEOs and line employees grappled together with the precise wording of statements. Many were forced to confront the gap between the words on their websites and their day-to-day work experiences.
For some companies it was a first to consider a work culture centered on racial equity. For others, it was a first to connect equity and productivity. A conversation about race can be a turning point in building a workplace that is centered on the well-being and health of employees. A conversation about race can demonstrate that a commitment to equity and fairness, is not only the right thing to do, but good for business.
One Last Caveat
The level of intimacy and vulnerability that we could have in our writing group may not be appropriate for a work setting. It is not always safe. Employees may not be comfortable sharing their feelings of being traumatized because of discrimination and police violence.
Discussions about race that spill over into discussions about politics can run afoul of the balance between allowing employees to show up as their whole selves and conversations about politics that end in grudges and hard feelings about colleagues.
While the impromptu conversation about race in our writing group netted real benefits compared to the risks. In the workplace, the risk to reputation; the legal implications and the impact on team cohesion and productivity are real. This means that conversations about race in the workplace, require careful planning and structure to yield the turning point we hope for in our companies.
In the workplace, conversations about race are likely best managed within a framework where employees have clear ground rules and boundaries for the discussion. It is especially important that employees of color not be made to feel as if they must speak for and defend an entire race. It must be clear that employees of color are not required to educate, mentor, or awaken their colleagues in addition to their other duties.
A conversation about race can be a turning point because having these important discussions requires companies to do things that benefit the work environment over all:
- Create a culture of candor and transparency with structures that foster constructive conversations.
- Provide employees with training and opportunities to practice active, listening and empathy when others express themselves.
- Create intentional opportunities for employees to get to know one another and build trust.
A conversation about race can prompt efforts to reexamine the way things have always been done. It can encourage business leaders to take steps to create a workplace that is equipped to build success for the future.
- National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC)
- Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC)
- Woman Owned Small Business (WOSB)
© Multi Learning Solutions