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5 ways to talk about race at work

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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 that, for many of us, is 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, our kids and our upcoming vacation — everything but racial tension — we ignore the elephant in the room. And like any other important issue we ignore, it grows until it divides us.

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.

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 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 seatmate and I talked about our work, our kids, our spouses and our favorite places to travel. We had a delightful conversation, and I was glad I pushed beyond my emotion to make a personal connection.

Education and real relationships are the best antidotes to division. Reach out, even when it’s uncomfortable. 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?

Speak up. 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 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.

If you want to start a conversation about race in your company or work group, 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? (Individuals)
  • What do you promise to start, stop or keep doing to create a healthy environment? (Individuals)

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 founder and CEO of TJF Career Modeling LLC. The former Hallmark executive has served as co-designer of the NEW Executive Leaders Forum, and is the author of Say Yes: A Woman’s Guide to Advancing Her Professional Purpose

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.