How to Talk About Race at Work

The national response to the brutal killing of George Floyd, an unarmed 46-year old man, by a police officer has sparked global conversations about race and particularly how to talk about race at work.

For people not directly impacted by these events, the default response is often silence. Many Whites avoid talking about race because they fear being seen as prejudiced. Staying silent is a big mistake, so avoid making it.

Although talking about race at work can feel uncomfortable, thoughtful dialogue can acknowledge difference of perspectives while inviting empathy. This could be a starting point to validating that your colleagues’ concerns are heard and understood.

With that, here are a few ways you can approach the conversation about race at work.

Acknowledge

A good place to start a difficult conversation is to acknowledge its difficulty and validate the other person’s feelings. Whether it’s shock, sadness, anger, confusion or shared discomfort, it needs to be acknowledged.

Ask Open Questions

Second, get curious and ask open questions to better understand the other person’s viewpoints. Doing so with a compassionate tone can help the other party speak without fear of judgment, and by showing that respect.

Ways that you can phrase responses include, “it seems as though you feel this way,” “out of curiosity, why do you feel that way.” This would help break down emotional barriers to discussing uncomfortable topics. Correctly phrasing responses will help the other person not feel defensive in explaining themselves.

Affirm

Your colleagues are looking for affirmation of their right to safety and personhood, help them feel protected. This means offering continued opportunities for reaction, reflection, conversation, growth, development, impact, and advancement. You can affirm your colleagues’ feelings by creating a space for your colleagues to share.

Do Research and Act

Think critically about how you can use your power to effect change. Do the research to fully understand events, using data from reliable sources. Take the initiative to search beyond social media.

Ways of doing this include reading books to examine the role of systemic racism in the world. Supporting black community members through their businesses, donating to organizations that work to dismantle racist policies are other ways you can act. Talking about your own racism with family members or in therapy is another way to show up.

In times of disagreement, you should be mindful of use of language and what could be interpreted as insensitive to others during an emotionally stressful experience. Here are common missteps to avoid.

Avoid Becoming Defensive

A common misstep when approaching uncomfortable conversations about racial injustice is to react defensively. It is easy to do this when our worldviews, positions, or advantages are questioned or challenged. For instance, when learning about police brutality against unarmed Black people, one reaction might be to search for evidence about what the victim did to deserve abuse, rather than demonstrating compassion and empathy. Resist such a reaction.

Avoid Over Generalizing

When triggering events occur, it’s common to make sweeping generalizations about groups of people involved in the public conflict. Remember that though individuals may have shared experiences, there is diversity within groups that should be recognized. Instead of presuming that all your colleagues think and feel similarly and talking about what “everybody knows,” how “all of us feel,” and what “none of us would ever do,” leave room for dissenting points of view. When in doubt, ask colleagues about their individual experiences to honor their uniqueness.

Don’t Lean on Your Minority Colleagues

Don’t lean on your minority colleagues instead offer them a much-needed space to process their trauma. Avoid asking your colleagues of color for their “take” on racially-charged national events. It’s probably not a good idea to ask them to have coffee with you because you see them as low-hanging fruit to explain and help you process your own feelings.

Don’t Focus on Yourself

What you think or have done should not be the focus of the tough conversation with your colleague about race. Instead, listen to your minority colleagues and create space for them to express their emotions. Resist the urge to center on your own pain, suffering, fears, and challenges around race.

There are no easy ways to talk about Race especially with those who are hurting from it. We encourage you to do the necessary research before engaging, if you really want to have a fruitful conversation. Also think about, what it is that you would like to achieve with the conversation. Is it worth it? Then go for it.

This piece was written by Colette Bishogo, a Harvard Alumni with an Investment banking background and currently Senior Manager at GiveDirectly in the DRCongo. Colette spent her adult life living in New York and working on Wall Street, a journey that she has put together and created TheMoneyTea a financial wellness blog for millenials looking to live and work smartly. A strong believer in Diversity and Inclusion, Colette’s insights will definitely empower and uplift you.

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