While no one has a precise prescription for how to eradicate racial injustice in the workplace, I firmly believe that a critical first step is embracing the difficult conversations and uncomfortable truths that we’ve become too accustomed to avoiding. The baseline uncomfortable truth is that blacks and whites in corporate America often maintain their own subcultures – including very different informal conversations in the workplace – with surprisingly little overlap at times. To be perfectly honest, as a black woman who has worked in and around corporate America for nearly 30 years, I’ve typically only been privy to the black side of the conversation, but I think in this moment where everyone is looking for opportunities to either teach, learn or grow, it’s instructive if not necessary to break down the traditional siloes and speak the unspeakable. So in this vein I’m sharing five critical “truths” that I feel many black people in corporate settings would vehemently discuss in “private” but not necessarily assert in “public.”
In this new Black Lives Matter environment with heightened racial sensitivities, many white people may approach their workplace with some hesitancy and anxiety about not knowing exactly what to say, but it should be similarly acknowledged that for many black people, they may want to speak boldly but feel constrained, muzzled or just completely exhausted and therefore choose to instead simply fume on the inside. In this historical moment though, this natural hesitancy and pull towards political correctness (on both sides) may collectively cost us desperately needed collective progress, so it’s worth the risk to stop whispering and start sharing.
Truth #1 – Racism doesn’t just show up in its most extreme form. There is indeed a continuum (of racist thoughts and behaviors), and you may be on it.
This truth highlights one of the reasons why white people are so quick to insist – “I’m not a racist!” It’s because the word “racism” has been so bastardized in our culture that we only recognize it in its most extreme form. The truth is that most black people (thankfully) won’t encounter the “Derek Chauvin knee on your neck” brand of racism. Instead, they’re much more likely to have their comment dismissed or ignored in a meeting, have difficulty as a seasoned entrepreneur getting the lucrative clients that their less experienced white counterparts might receive or have an Amy Cooper type boss and spend their days walking on eggshells trying to figure out how to be most effective in their job while appearing non threatening. To only be able to see racism in its most blatant and egregious form renders one unable to detect it in their daily actions or broader belief system.
Truth #2 – Even if you personally haven’t offended anyone (that you know of), you may indeed be part of the problem.
My previous article, “Dear White People: Here Are 10 Actions You Can Take To Promote Racial Justice In Your Workplace” concludes with the Martin Luther King quote, “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Arguably, the bigger threat for racial justice in the workplace isn’t the rampant, overt racist who is more likely to be an obvious, easily detected “enemy”, but instead the more likeable workplace “friend” who just chooses to look the other way, not get involved or rationalize inappropriate behavior or unjust systems or processes (“Well, we’ve always done it that way.”) As executive director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center Ibram X. Kendi insists, “There’s no such thing as being ‘not racist.’ We are either being racist or antiracist.” In business parlance, I like to say that you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution. The truth is that if just one of those other three officers had decided to act, George Floyd would likely be alive today.
Truth #3 – Every black person on your team is not your “friend.”
While genuine friendships that cross racial lines absolutely develop in the workplace (thankfully), there seems to be a tendency for white people in particular to misinterpret work or project specific affiliation with broader friendship with black colleagues. The truth is that many workplaces are “socially segregated” meaning work projects and teams may look pretty diverse, but an interesting thing often happens once focus shifts from work to social time (e.g. break room discussions, lunch rooms, conference socializing, drinks after work). People will tend to self-select into groups where they feel most comfortable and at ease, and for black employees this often means huddling or chatting with other black employees. This in and of itself is a pretty normal process and not at all problematic in my view, but I think it’s a very tangible demonstration of the fact that working on a task or participating on a team with someone doesn’t necessarily make you “friends.” To be clear, I’m not suggesting that there’s a correlation between the number of black friends a white person has and their likelihood to be racist (or anti-racist for that matter), but I do think that oftentimes workplaces can give us all a false sense of security in terms of how diverse or racially balanced our lives actually are. I actually think it’s fairly natural for humans to seek out others with similar experiences and backgrounds (which is the premise behind many corporate Employee Resource Groups), but I do think that we often need to make more of an effort than we might think to truly develop friendships in the workplace with those who don’t look like us. For more on the psychology of self-segregation, consider reading Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All The Black Kids Siting Together In The Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race.
Truth #4 – Gender and race discrimination are not “essentially the same.”
I certainly don’t want to compare or prioritize collective trauma and oppression. As I often remind my kids – it’s not a contest – I do, however, think it’s important to draw a distinction for anyone who might be tempted to conflate the two. To state the obvious, all discrimination is horrific and should be abolished, and one isn’t inherently “worse” than another, but I raise the issue because sometimes in the workplace there’s a sense that “Well, we’ve got three women on the board (or executive team, etc.) so we’re doing well with diversity.” According to Fortune, the number of female CEOS in the Fortune 500 is 37 (per their 2020 stats), but the number of black CEOs on that same list is a dismal four. (Don’t even ask about black women. Yes, you guessed it – zero.) The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the following breakdown in weekly earnings by race and gender for 1Q 2020.
Recently, CNBC published an article entitled, “Employers face reckoning from the George Floyd protests—pressure to close the racial wage gap” which stated, “Regardless of education, white workers earn more on average than their black colleagues.” Arguably, white privilege – powerfully described in this video – is a root cause of some of these historical disparities.
Truth #5 – Even though there may be one or two black faces in leadership, your organization may indeed have a rampant racial injustice problem.
One of the biggest mistakes companies can make in trying to address systemic racial discrimination is to reflexively add one or two black people to a board/leadership team and think the problem is fixed. There are many complicated reasons why simply adding one or two black faces to the executive team (albeit a positive step) won’t act as a panacea. First, depending on the size of the group (to which they’re being added), they may not have any real power – which often leads to diversity without inclusion which some DEI experts liken to being invited to the ball but having no one ask you to dance. Even worse, if they begin to view themselves as tokens (being used to check off a diversity goal) there’s a morale decreasing boomerang effect. To make matters worse, sometimes the one or two black people on the board/leadership team somehow get charged with the least desirable work or are assigned all “diversity related” problems – essentially holding them responsible for single handedly solving the organization’s decades old systemic racial problems. This glass cliff type scenario (traditionally associated with women leaders) can be both career limiting and emotionally exhausting. In this New York Times article, “Corporate America has failed black America”, Darren Walker president of the Ford Foundation and a black member of Pepsi’s board explains, “We are put into these positions that are honorific, because they want our presence, but we are not given authority and resources.”
Bonus Truth #6: You can absolutely be part of the solution.
As workplaces tackle racism with a renewed sense of urgency amidst the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, it’s imperative that they approach the problem of racism as they would any other serious business problem – methodically, intensely and with a sense of urgency and conviction. The first step of problem solving is generally better understanding the problem and in this case that also means confronting uncomfortable truths. In this pivotal Black Lives Matter moment, corporate leaders and ultimately everyday workplaces have an opportunity to do something different. Instead of nibbling around the edges by pursuing the path of least resistance, we can push into territory that’s both uncomfortable and transformative – to truly dismantle systemic racism and transform organizational cultures in a way that invites everyone to show up at work as their authentic self.