The death of George Floyd and the protests that have followed sparked a national dialogue about race in America. For many, discussions about race and the reality of living in America as a black person happen daily. But many households, communities and workplaces are having these conversations for the first time. How can employers and colleagues better support employees of color? What is the most productive way to talk about race in the workplace?
Watch this discussion in the video player above.
Raël Nelson James, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion at The Bridgespan Group and the PBS NewsHour’s Stephanie Sy took viewer questions on navigating discussions of race at work.
The traumatic events of the past few weeks can be a “catalyst” to kick off discussions about race, diversity and inclusion in the workplace, James said, but cautioned that employees should be sensitive about how they approach it.
James stressed that “allyship is not a destination,” and employers will have to put in the work to learn and think deeply about how they can reform their workplace dynamics to better advocate for and uplift diverse talent within their workplaces, as well as commit to pursuing racial equity.
Here is some advice from James about how employees can start to think and act on this in the coming days and weeks.
What do employees of color want to see in their workplaces?
While workplaces may see the events of the past week as a prime opportunity for rethinking their approach toward race, James cautioned against pursuing too much, too quickly.
“If your company or your organization is new to multiracial dialogue, I would posit that this week, emotions are too raw to kick off that effort,” she said.
“What folks, I think, need this week is psychologically safe spaces to process this without putting a burden on people of color to be educators,” James said, noting that asking black employees to educate, process and absorb the emotions of their white colleagues during a moment of immense social unrest is akin to assigning them a second job. While building multiracial dialogue in the workplace is a valuable goal, James said, “It’s not something to just dive into this week when tensions and emotions are running high.”
“Multiracial dialogue is a complex, nuanced thing that takes skill to do well,” she added, saying that companies should start thinking about hiring a professional who can guide their office to a path toward racial equity before pursuing these efforts on their own.
How can white supervisors advocate and make space for their brown and black staff?
James said that white supervisors checking in on employees of color should be cautious of asking questions such as “are you okay?” While it may be well-intentioned, “No one is okay, and it comes across as tone-deaf,” James said of this approach, particularly during this moment of national crisis.
“Model some of the vulnerability and some of the empathy that one would hope is extended to you as well,” James said, noting that while this is “a collective moment of grieving and of sadness for black people,” it should be a moment of grieving, sadness and outrage for all people.
James added that managers and supervisors should think about how they can give their employees of color space to process the traumatic events — in both the short and long-term — as they move forward. On the short-term, for example, they can be more flexible with granting employees leave. In the long run, they should think about how they can “root out and eliminate the manifestations of structural racism” in their office by supporting and promoting employees of color, diversifying their boards, and bringing in experts specializing in diversity, equity and inclusion to help them in doing so.
How can you advocate for racial equity if not in a position of leadership?
James said that employees who are hoping to see their office pursue racial equity should seek out colleagues who will identify themselves as allies and work on this alongside them. At James’ organization, The Bridgespan Group, they did something similar after the death of Michael Brown in 2014.
“It was a similarly difficult time where black folks and other people of color were navigating this sort of grief and wondering if anyone else was having a similar experience in the workplace,” James said. After gathering together, James said, Bridgespan formed a racial equity working group to help shepherd their commitment to racial equity.
She encouraged employees seeking this in the workplace to create a space where others can “raise their hand, identify themselves as allies, identify themselves as other people who want to work on this with you.”
Are there ways employees can engage beyond their social media accounts?
Asked about the recent surge of posts circulating on social media in support of the black community, James said that while she understands people may be processing this moment in different ways, the best way to support black colleagues and friends is to reach out in person to those with whom you already share an authentic relationship.
“Intellectually I understand why the deaths of George Floyd and Tony McDade and Breonna Taylor have created a crescendo in this moment,” James said of the recent flood of interest in Black Lives Matter and other movements against police brutality on social media.
But she said that reaching out to a colleague simply because they are black and especially if you don’t have a preexisting rapport with them “is unhelpful and it’s draining during a time when we are already exhausted.”
Instead, James said, you can reach out to comfort and support black colleagues with whom you feel close. Alternatively, she said you should ask yourself, “have I done the things … to build relationships with the black people in my community at my job, do I have that kind of trustful relationship?” If you haven’t, consider making a personal commitment to donate money or take a class on inclusive management, for example.
James said that making a commitment to do better by colleagues of color will mean more for this community in the long run than emails, texts, or other performative displays of support such as social media posts.
Why color blindness misses the mark
While it may be tempting to shift the focus away from race in an effort to boost unity at a moment like this, James cautioned against doing so.
“Color blindness fundamentally misses the mark by erasing something that’s fundamental to people’s identity and people’s self-love,” said James, noting that being black is a centering and central part of her identity and she wants people to appreciate her because of that, not in spite of it.
She added that black Americans have spent their lives learning about whiteness and what it means to be white in the U.S., but said that white people might be hesitant to reciprocate that.
Instead of pushing the issue away, James recommended that workplace employees “lean into the kind of discomfort it might take to become an ally” to marginalized communities and devote themselves to pursuing that path.