Fighting racism in the workplace inevitably involves some difficult conversations.

In the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, corporate leaders have an important role to play. Activists are urging workplace professionals to take meaningful steps to establish anti-racist work environments, moving the world closer to real justice and equity. Conversations around racism in the workplace — which can be difficult and sometimes deeply uncomfortable — are a necessary step in driving progress and bringing those goals to fruition.

Especially for leaders who aren’t accustomed to confronting these issues, knowing how to approach conversations about racism can be challenging. In this article, we’ll share five guidelines for facilitating productive conversations around racism in the workplace that you should keep in mind as your organization works proactively to tackle the issue.

The State of Racism in the Workplace

Before we dive into recommendations for talking about racism in the workplace, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the current state of affairs and lay groundwork for understanding why the need to have these conversations is so urgent.

Here are some relevant and eye-opening statistics:

  • Racism in the workplace remains a persistent problem in 2020.
    Racism in the workplace remains a persistent problem in 2020.

    81% of college-educated Black Americans report that they have experienced racism in the workplace, and 17% report experiencing it regularly. 

  • Employers show a preference for white candidates with a criminal background over Black candidates with a clean record. 
  • Black Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed than white Americans. 

Of all the CEOs at Fortune 500 companies, only 3 are Black. Only 3% of all senior leadership roles are held by Black professionals (for context, Black people make up an estimated 12% of the American population).

These figures make it clear we have a problem. And yet, serious as this persistent professional injustice may be, keep in mind that the workplace manifestations of American racism don’t even come close to the worst consequences of this deadly problem. 

Thankfully, 2020 has seen Americans pursuing real systemic change with unprecedented voracity — The New York Times called the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement the largest in American history (at least by some measures). Corporate America is beginning to step up, and one of the first steps in doing so is engaging in real, thoughtful conversations about racism in the workplace.

You Can’t Fix a Problem You Won’t Discuss

It’s exponentially more difficult — if not impossible — to address a challenge if you’re not willing to speak frankly and listen openly about the current state of affairs. This is as true of America’s problem with racism as it is of any social issue. Hand in hand with that, the problem only worsens when left unattended. As one reporter put it, “bigotry is untended ignorance.”

Even so, people (and white people in particular) tend to shy away from conversations about race at the earliest signs of tension. This tendency is so extreme, one study reported people would sooner discuss money, sex, or politics before participating in a conversation about racism in the United States. 

Most white Americans aren't used to having conversations about racism in the workplace.
Most white Americans aren’t used to having conversations about racism in the workplace.

Why such strong aversion? Several factors underlie American’s reluctance to discuss racism in the workplace, or elsewhere. 

To start, because of the way American society is constructed, the average white person can spend their life mostly insulated from the worst consequences of racism. People in this privileged position might be dimly aware that racism is an issue, but it’s not one that affects the course of their lives. The consequences of racism in America unfold at a comfortable distance from this group’s immediate reality. Unsurprisingly, this has led many white Americans into complacent ignorance, which is much more comfortable than the alternative.

In this moment, a lot of people are making a new effort to take action against racism in the workplace and beyond in a way they haven’t before. Many find themselves ill-equipped to handle the discomfort that comes with this undertaking, which is yet another factor underlying white America’s general reluctance to talk about its problem with race. 

More often than not, conversations about race unearth implicit biases or subconscious acts of discrimination. Nobody wants to admit that they’ve been guilty of these mistakes because it directly conflicts with most people’s conceptions of themselves as generally good and decent human beings. However, it’s essential to see, admit, and reform previous wrongdoing to become anti-racist

We’ll dig into the importance of taking down your defenses when talking about racism in the workplace (and other tips to facilitate productive conversations) in the following section.

5 Guidelines for Talking About Racism in the Workplace

When it comes to talking about racism in the workplace, keep in mind that the highest level goal is to center, validate, and respond to the experiences of marginalized people who have endured unjust discrimination. This might sound straightforward, but it’s more complicated than it seems. These five guidelines can help ensure the conversations you have about racism in the workplace are aligned with this goal.

1. Make Your Company’s Position Clear

If you’re planning to invite employees to engage in professional conversations about racism in the workplace, set the stage by clearly stating a no tolerance policy for racial discrimination of any kind. Clarify to employees that your company understands the only way to become anti-racist is to take pointed action against existing institutions that intrinsically marginalize people.

Make it clear that no employees will be punished for speaking out against racism in the workplace.
Make it clear that no employees will be punished for speaking out against racism in the workplace.

Nobody in your workforce should be worried that speaking up about issues of racial discrimination poses a threat to their career or their person. Make that as clear as you possibly can from the beginning so that all members of your workforce — but especially underrepresented people — feel safe participating in the discussions that must be had.

2. Adopt a Learner’s Mindset

Inevitably, learning about racism in the workplace will encourage employees to reckon with times they’ve exhibited behaviors that supported white supremacy. These realizations are as difficult and uncomfortable as they are essential.

When this happens, it’s natural to feel defensive. This instinct is sometimes referred to as “white fragility” and it refers to white people’s tendency to avoid or deny the ways they’ve been complicit in racist systems. Journalist and editor Chidozi Obasi  brings up an important point about the subject, stating, “What we must remember is that accusing someone of white fragility isn’t character assassination, but an opportunity to address behavioural concerns.” This is helpful for people — especially white people — to keep in mind if they feel themselves starting to get defensive in conversations about race.

When learning about racism in the workplace, be prepared to make mistakes, learn, and move on.
When learning about racism in the workplace, be prepared to make mistakes, learn, and move on.

The process of developing an anti-racist workforce requires a huge amount of unlearning, so you should prepare to make mistakes along the way. Anti-racist educator Monique Melton explains, “It’s going to take a lot of discomfort, a lot of asking questions and being honest, dealing with your feelings that come up … it’s not about how you feel about this work, it’s about you doing the work and sticking with it … despite how uncomfortable it is.” 

Encourage everyone in your workplace to adopt an attitude of learning and moving forward as quickly as possible, without getting defensive.

3. Center Marginalized Voices

One of the many harmful effects of centuries of institutional racism is the fact that white voices make up the most predominant historical narratives, see the most representation in the media, and enjoy the privilege of having their own cultures and traditions regarded as the “norm” by default. White voices are everywhere, which is why you must proactively work to center and amplify minority voices when discussing racism in the workplace.

Discussions about racism in the workforce should primarily be lead by BIPOC voices.
Discussions about racism in the workforce should primarily be lead by BIPOC voices.

When looking for reading material to educate yourself and your workforce, select works with Black authors. If you choose to work with anti-racism educators, hire Black educators and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color). Share the stories, concerns, and needs of the BIPOC members of your workforce who choose to speak up about their experiences. On that note, if you’re using this article as a resource for learning how to handle racism in the workplace, keep in mind that it was authored by a white person who has studied the works of Black educators including Rachel Cargle, Ibram X. Kendi, and Layla F. Saad. It’s extremely valuable to explore these resources for yourself.

4. Point to Specific Educational Resources

A necessary precursor to productive conversations about race is establishing a base-level understanding of the current state of affairs, as well as the history that has brought us up to the present day. Encourage members of your workforce to own the responsibility of educating themselves on traditions of white supremacy in America and urge them to think critically about the implications of these traditions in modern society. Employees should regard this learning process as a form of professional growth.

Encourage employees to own their own anti-racism education.
Encourage employees to own their own anti-racism education.

It’s worth noting that people frequently lament how although they would like to take on this kind of work, they simply don’t know where to begin. If you’re interested in making company conversations about racism in the workplace as productive as possible, try to make it impossible for any member of your workforce to make this claim. Equip them with specific, accessible resources that can help them establish this baseline of education.

Here are some good places to begin:

  • Talking About Race: an online portal created by the National Museum of African American History and Culture with resources to facilitate productive conversations about race
  • The Great Unlearn: a curriculum curated by activist, author and educator Rachel Cargle to help unlearn America’s racist traditions
  • Any of the podcasts/articles/books/documentaries listed in this extensive compilation or resources. From full books to brief interviews, there’s an option for any learning style or schedule.

5. Set Clear Goals

This is admittedly difficult work, but it’s critical to remember that rewards do exist and they are quite profound. Outline clear, trackable goals for your organization both to incentivize employees with something clear to work toward and to hold yourself accountable in a tangible way beyond a vague feeling of progress.

As you continue your own anti-racist education, continue to expand on this list. As much as you can, select resources and educational materials created by Black educators and BIPOC experts  to ensure you’re amplifying the right voices.

Examples of tangible goals you might set are:

  • When fighting racism in the workplace, it's best to outline clear goals.
    When fighting racism in the workplace, it’s best to outline clear goals.

    Achieve equitable pay across races and genders

  • Diversify the company’s senior executive team by X%
  • Diversify the company’s employee base by X%
  • Establish ongoing sustainable programs to support an anti-racist work environment
  • Allocate X% of resources to programs that actively work against racism in the workplace
  • Commit to paying all employees a living wage
  • Create an employee relief program to support victims of racial discrimination

An ethical organization will also invest tangible resources in the undoing of white supremacy via donations, reparations, and volunteer work. As with any investment, you should keep a close eye on returns.

Supplement your conversations about racism in the workplace with real action and tangible contributions to the cause.
Supplement your conversations about racism in the workplace with real action and tangible contributions to the cause.

Talking Isn’t Enough

We’ll end by emphasizing the point that having conversations about racism in the workplace is only a first step. These conversations are next to meaningless if they’re not accompanied by action and tangible contributions to an anti-racist workplace and an anti-racist world. These guidelines are intended to help you facilitate the kinds of conversations that establish a thoughtful, impact-focused roadmap for achieving those ends and fighting racism in the workplace in the most effective way your company possibly can.

Katerina Mery is a Marketing Specialist at Fond with a background in cognitive psychology and a passion for improving the way people live and work. She especially enjoys learning about how to accomplish this through rewards and recognition. In her spare time, you can find Katerina running outside, admiring art, and exploring the latest and greatest local restaurants.

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