Race. Racism. Bias. Discrimination. Privilege. Black Lives Matter. Blue Lives Matter. All Lives Matter – words and phrases that provoke powerful emotion in almost every American. The current social and political climate – defined by division and punctuated with insults – is creating an undercurrent of fear, sadness, and anxiety for many of us, and it’s becoming difficult to shake off.
In corporate America, where millions of U.S. adults spend the majority of their waking hours, we abide by behavioral norms. Those norms encourage an appreciation for diversity, mutual respect, the pursuit of common ground, and a general avoidance of traditionally controversial topics. Politics and religion are typically off limits. And race? We tell ourselves “it doesn’t matter” at work. Why? Because it’s simpler that way.
Except it does matter, especially now. We don’t cross cultural lines to talk about racial tension, because we fear it will create conflict. But the truth is, when we talk about the weather, business results, our kids’ recent triumphs, and our next planned vacation – everything but racial tension – we ignore the elephant in the room. Like any other important relational issue we ignore, it magnifies…until it separates us from each other. Race, in all its complexity, is a very real factor for a growing number of Americans. These concerns don’t disappear when we walk into the office, no matter how stubbornly we ignore them. If effective collaboration requires trust, and trust requires transparency, how do we open the lines of communication regarding topics that are difficult to address?
Recently I facilitated a conversation on race with 150 women leaders. I began by sharing a personal story of my own growing “racial insecurity.” To my chagrin, I’ve become increasingly aware of the real and perceived role of race in my everyday interactions. I’m not happy about this. If I – an informed and tolerant professional with friends and family who hail from every corner of the world – feel this way, many others must, too.
So what can we do about it? Well, courage and humility are required. Beyond that, here are a few practical strategies to not only talk about race at work, but to promote understanding, as well as joint responsibility for creating a healthy environment for all employees.
Reach out across boundaries.
My “racial insecurity” experience took place on a recent flight to Chicago. As I approached my row, I noticed multiple backpacks filling the overhead space. I asked those around me whom they belonged to, so I could make room for my roller board. The white men sitting nearby simply stared at me or looked away. Finally, someone behind me found room for my bag in first class. My emotional reaction? “If I were a white woman, you would be helping me right now, instead of staring at me like I have two heads.” Annoyed, I took a seat, considering whether to slip in my earbuds and play a mindless game, or engage in conversation. I chose the latter. For over an hour, my white male seat-mate and I talked about our work, our kids, our spouses, and our favorite places to travel. He gave me tips on where to go in Chicago, and what to eat. We had a delightful conversation, and I was glad I pushed beyond my emotion to make a personal connection. We all have biases, and some of those biases have legitimate roots. But I’ve long said education and real relationships are the best antidotes to division. Reach out, even when it’s uncomfortable. Even when you don’t know what to say. If your heart is in the right place, it will turn out for the best.
Listen to understand.
We’ve all been in conversations with people who listen to defend rather than to understand. When it comes to controversial topics, we often listen only for an entry point to express our point of view. This bad habit can have disastrous results when it comes to race. Mostly because, whatever your opinion, if you’re not of the race in question, you absolutely cannot speak for other people. A true desire to understand is the only path to cultural competence. Questioning whether someone should or should not be offended, afraid, angry, or sad is fruitless. People feel how they feel. The real question is, now what?
Don’t simply stand by when hurtful words are spoken, or when those around you engage in harmful behaviors toward other groups of people. If you hear negativity, speak positivity. If you see wrong, do right. Be a real and present force for good in conversations about diversity in general and race specifically. Leaders can’t afford to be silent now. We are the change – you, me, and every person who believes diversity is a strength, not a weakness. Your colleagues who feel the least bit marginalized need all the allies they can get.
Influence your environment; don’t let your environment influence you.
As I’ve already confessed, this tense social climate has had an impact on my own racial consciousness. But I’ve decided I will not be a willing victim of hate and fear. Instead, I will work harder to shift my surroundings by granting trust to others until they prove themselves unworthy. I will continue to give inspiration and encouragement when I can, however I can, and to whomever I can. We each have a part to play, and I commit to playing mine.
Keep the conversation going.
Talking about race at work can’t be a one-time thing. If we open the doors to courageous communication about that which connects and divides us, we have to keep them open. When something stands in the way of increased collaboration and results, we should address it – head on – with compassion and respect. Belonging and safety are foundational to employee engagement. Inclusion is a core value of many companies for a reason. It’s not about “being nice” to people who are different. It’s about ensuring – through culture, leadership practices, and policies – that every employee has a voice, and is able to contribute at his or her personal best. An open, honest, caring climate is critical to personal safety, and safety is critical to productivity and growth.
If you want to start a conversation about race in your company or workgroup, but don’t know how, use this simple structure:
-What are your hopes? (Group discussion)
-What are your fears? (Group discussion)
-What do you need? (Each individual)
-What do you promise to start, stop, or keep doing to create a healthy environment? (Each individual)
I hope more leaders will do the challenging, but necessary work and create space for a meaningful conversation about race in professional settings.
Tara Jaye Frank is CEO of TJF Career Modeling, Corporate Culture Advisor for Hallmark Cards, Inc., and the author of Say Yes: A Woman’s Guide to Advancing Her Professional Purpose, written to help women from all cultural backgrounds chart a career course they can believe in and achieve. Tara consults and speaks on women’s leadership and diversity and inclusion. Follow her on Twitter @tarajfrank, Instagram @tarajayefrank, Facebook at Facebook/tarajayefrank, or visit her at tarajayefrank.com.
If you need help facilitating a conversation about race at work, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.