As the only person of color in my workplace, going to work has become increasingly uncomfortable since the police killed George Floyd. I’ve had to keep my mouth shut. To me, it was clear that police officer actions led to Floyd’s death. My coworkers, however, focused on Floyd’s violent history, and the time he served time in prison for aggravated robbery.
Things only got worse when his death ignited worldwide protests. I tried to explain to one coworker that Floyd didn’t behave violently during his arrest and wasn’t armed. When she said, “You just keep thinking that, honey,” I knew that anything I said would fall on deaf ears.
What has upped the ante is that my coworkers actively fear Biden will die in office, allowing Kamala Harris to become our president. I hear them talking about in the break room, but when I walk in, they hush. I feel like they’re “us” and I’m “them.”
If they’d talk with me, I’d tell them that Harris is a smart woman and ask them to give her a chance. I’d say that police are necessary, that criminals need to be caught, and that the handful of individuals who loot in supposed protests don’t represent my race any more than a bad cop represents all white people. But I fear anything I say will make things worse.
It’s understandable you don’t want to speak up for fear of making things worse. It’s difficult being the minority in any workplace. At the same time, I’m convinced that the conversations we don’t have create more problems than the ones we have.
When we initially meet coworkers, we see their race, sex, age and looks. Our stereotypes can blind us. When we get to know each other as humans, differences fade. We focus on each other’s personalities and behaviors until dramatic events hit. Sometimes events, like the mudslide that killed two people and destroyed homes in Haines, unites communities. Events that inspire fear and anger, like George Floyd’s killing and the protests afterwards and the Capitol invasion, can divide rather than unify us.
The problems you experience in your workplace reflect the racial and political divides in our country. You have two options; your best choice depends on your skills, those of your coworkers, and the amount of racism in your workplace.
You can address what you’re experiencing one person at a time. When you called me, you made it clear you hated violence as much as anyone. Say so. Although the first person you tried with didn’t hear you, another might. We have more that unites us than divides us. It’s time we realized that, and you might help dash some of your coworkers’ false assumptions.
You may need to question one of your own assumptions. Do your coworkers hush because you’re “them” or because they worry their words might offend you? That question itself gives you a starting point. You can ask, “Are you hushing because I’m here? Do you worry what you’re saying makes me uncomfortable? It’s more uncomfortable to have you hush when I walk in.”
In each conversation, respectfully take a stand against hateful, polarizing language. Listen with an open mind. Empathize with the concerns your coworkers raise. If you hear distorted untruths and one-sided information, ask questions, and present the other side. Communicating authentically frees you and creates trust because your coworkers begin to better understand you—as a person.
In the early 1970s, when I worked in Nome, Alaska, a divide appeared between the police, mostly non-Native, and teens and young adults, mostly Alaska Native. I ran a teen counseling center and the then police chief and I strategized to bridge the chasm. We flew two police officers, seven teen “ringleaders” and me fifty miles north of Nome. The ten of us walked back, camping, fighting mosquitos and talking as we traveled. Minds opened by the time we reached Nome’s outskirts.
Similarly, Wichita’s police and Black Lives Matter activists hosted a First Steps Community Cookout. Eight hundred people turned out to this event that replaced a protest march, allowing community members to candidly talk with police. When an attendee asked about weeding out bad officers, the police chief said, “Loud and clear, I have zero tolerance … for racial bias.”1, 2
Alternatively, contact HR or your employer’s senior managers, call out the racism you perceive, and ask them to initiate diversity training or teambuilding. The best diversity training has senior management’s full commitment to a respectful, nondiscriminatory workplace.
It also doesn’t focus on African American/Caucasian or Alaska Native/non-Native or other differences, but reminds everyone of commonalities and shared values. One favorite exercise is to ask every attendee to list at least five cultures that define them. By doing so, or an Alaska Native and non-Native coworker may learn they each grew up in villages of less than three hundred people and an African American and a Caucasian coworker might discover they each dropped out of high school and lives as street kids.
You’re not alone. Many fear saying the wrong words or that others won’t be respectful and civil if they voice their thoughts. Unfortunately, this keeps us from having honest, needed conversations about racism.
If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy https://workplacecoachblog.com/2021/02/6-steps-for-healing-our-polarized-divided-country/
© 2020, Lynne Curry
Lynne Curry, Ph.D., SPHR, is the author of “Beating the Workplace Bully” (AMACOM, 2016, https://amzn.to/30V5JO6) and “Solutions”, https://amzn.to/2GYlnAN (both books are rated 4.8 out of 5 stars on Amazon.com). Send your questions to her at https://workplacecoachblog.com/ask-a-coach/ or follow her on twitter @lynnecurry10. www.workplacecoachblog.com.
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