Addressing the Elephant in the Room: Talking about Racism in the Workplace
Dr. Patricia Arredondo and Dr. Courtland Lee
When we were in graduate school in the late 70’s and early 80s, there were three taboo topics that were never addressed in our Counseling and Psychology training programs. These were religion, sexual orientation, and race. Invariably, we had clients in psychotherapy who were of a visible racial identity, i.e., Asian, Black, and White. Intake forms rarely inquired about religion or sexual orientation signaling an invisibility of these social identities. Though some 40 years have passed, we know that conversations about race and racism in most settings are a challenge, however, it has become apparent that stories about racism are news headlines throughout the country. That is, we are all bearing witness to these reports about racial discrimination, law enforcement being called on a Black man suspected of some infraction, and the senseless assaults and murders of Black citizens. Though we may not be in Louisville, Minneapolis, or Chicago, racial discord and racism affect all of us. It is obvious that the country has entered a new period of racial reckoning that has spawned increased levels of dialogue.
There are two physical settings where individuals of differing and similar social identities are most likely to come together– classrooms and the workplace. We know that talking about racism at work requires courage and commitment to not have it be a one-time, often contentious, conversation, so we suggest a couple of approaches.
Suggestions for conversations
1. Plan to talk about racism in a controlled setting that is led by trusted individuals.
2. Plan for an educational session, one that will provide awareness and knowledge-building about racism and how it occurs in different work settings. One hour is long enough.
3. Engage participants through a polling process; we send out a couple of questions at a time. For example: I know how racism affects me in everyday work situations and, I consider myself color-blind when it comes to race.
- Polling questions are answered on a scale: Strongly agree to Strongly Disagree.
- Responses in the aggregate are posted within minutes of the polling, allowing everyone to see the extent to which participants strongly disagree or disagree with a statement.
- There are no correct or incorrect responses.
- The facilitators further discuss the items polled, offering insights from readings about unconscious bias, combatting racism, being color-blind, and white privilege.
Other polling items
- I recognize my racist thinking about others.
- When I experience a microaggression, I know how to respond.
- If someone makes a racist joke or comment, I ignore it.
Recommendations for actions
- Ensure that the organization leaders message about the conversation hour and rationale for providing the space to talk and learn together.
- Engage facilitators that are well-experienced in presenting about racism and its effects on everyday life situations in the workplace.
- Plan to host the conversations through Zoom or another online platform.
- Make the conversation safe by setting guidelines for the session. The Chat spaces have to be monitored or turned off.
- Allow time for Q&A.
- Ask for feedback with a organization-wide evaluation of the session.
Getting conversations about racism underway requires thoughtfulness and courage. However, to ignore individuals’ lived realities in a highly volatile sociopolitical climate may signal indifference on the part of management. Today, employees seek actions that go beyond making statements in support of BLM and racial injustices. They turn to organization leaders to guide and model engagement in the discussions. As bell hooks, author, lesbian feminist and spokesperson on diversity, inclusion, and racism noted:
Unfortunately, it is often easier to ignore, reject, and even hurt one another rather than engage in constructive confrontation (2002).
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Understanding Implicit Bias. (2015). Retrieved March 09, 2017, from http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/research/understanding-implicit-bias