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Yes, You Must Talk About Race At Work: 3 Ways To Get Started

By Eboni K. Williams
June 16, 2020

Race is the single most taboo topic in most American workplaces. People would rather discuss the polarizing topics of money, sex, or even politics, before engaging in conversation about race or racism. It’s our country’s oldest and most problematic system — the social construction of someone’s valuation in our society based on the color of their skin.

For years, many American workers were encouraged and sometimes even explicitly told not to discuss race on the job. Most workplaces aren’t like mine. At REVOLT TV, on both REVOLT BLACK NEWS and State of the Culture, we publicly discuss race and related topics every week. This current moment of national unrest, and emerging revolution, now requires us all to do so. We must finally talk about the traumatic complexity of the Black American experience. This requirement includes having uncomfortable, difficult, and triggering conversations at work. To dodge discussions of your personal feelings, your company’s role of complicity, or your co-workers’ experiences in this moment would be a moral and ethical failure.

Tough talks can be scary. The hardest part can simply be starting the conversation. Here are three ways to start the necessary and important work of talking about race at work:

1. State Your Intention: 

To create a safe space to share and receive information on a sensitive topic, like race, you must first clearly establish why you want to engage a colleague on the topic. Now is not the time for any assumptions. While many recognize this moment as a reckoning point and opportunity for growth; not everyone feels that way. Therefore, in order to start a productive and healing conversation, take time to explain your goals.

“Clearly stating your intention for starting the dialogue requires vulnerability and transparency. Leading with that level of openness can yield a very positive, and even transformative result.”

2. Prepare Before You Talk: 

Doing just a little bit of prep work before starting a race-based dialogue goes a long way toward establishing your positive intention and authenticity. You do not need to be a critical race theory expert. Simply reading a few basic online articles, or watching a couple of films or documentaries, can put you in a better position to have a conversation. Coming to the convo with a basic understanding of history and the modern day impact of racial dynamics in our country, will help your colleagues to trust you, and maybe bring some guards down. This quick step of pre-convo preparation can lead to an open-hearted and helpful conversation. I’ve compiled a list of resources here.

3. Acknowledge You Don’t Have All the Answers (This Applies To Everyone

It may be easy to think that you’re the single authority on all things Black, White, Asian, Latinx, Native American or multi-racial, especially if you’re the only member of your group in a workplace. The reality is that none of us are the sole expert during these conversations. We are each experts in our own personal experiences. We must make space for this personal expertise to show up in these conversations. However, none of us is above asking questions and learning as our understanding of these issues and each other continues to grow.

I learned this particular lesson when I was blessed with the opportunity to hear from Racial Equity and Cultural Competence consultant, Joan Adams. Adams led an anti-racism training during a retreat for Safe Horizon’s Board of Directors, which I serve on. Our board is filled with people from diverse cultural backgrounds, but the majority of our board members are White. Since the vast majority of Safe Horizon’s clients and staff are people of color, we take our anti-racism work extremely seriously. Like many organizations, we’ve been pushed to form committees and build other infrastructures to lead and facilitate these difficult, sometimes painful, but always important conversations. Adams helped me realize that when I asserted my personal experience and even my advanced knowledge on race issues as the “gold standard,” I inadvertently shutdown the very thing I wanted most, authentic engagement and exchange of feelings and ideas on the issue that worked to advance racial justice and equality.

“In the year 2020, none of us can afford to ignore race in our workplaces. When we avoid the hard stuff, our challenges fester.”

Opportunities for miscommunications, micro/macro-aggressions, and discrimination are unnecessarily created when we fail to communicate about real life issues. Race is a complicated and intimidating issue for a lot of us. When we lean into these tough talks, we put ourselves in the best position to learn, reflect, and make the changes needed to create a more just and equitable society and workplace.

Safe Horizon supports victims of other abuse like racial discrimination in the workplace.

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