Question:

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.

Answer:

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/

 1 Black Lives Matter Protest Becomes BBQ And Real Talk With Police | HuffPost

2 https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/07/19/486581466/police-and-black-lives-matter-hold-a-cookout-and-praise-rolls-in

© 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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9 thoughts on “Racism in the Workplace

  1. Paulette Dale, Ph.D, Author, “ did You Say Something, Susan?“ How Many Woman Can Gain Confidence with Assertive Communication – Second Edition – March 2021 says:

    I read all of Lynne’s Blog Posts with great interest. I wasn’t going to comment on this one until I read her insightful observation that the “conversations we don’t have cause more problems than the ones we do.”

    As an advocate of assertive communication for women, I feel compelled to highlight the value of Lynne’s advice that you speak up about the situation. When you follow Lynne’s advice to query your coworkers, “Are you hushing when I walk in because you worry what you’re saying makes me feel uncomfortable?” you’re likely to be met with awkward silence. That’s Ok. Your next comment could be, “Please don’t feel uncomfortable. While I may not always agree with your points of view, I value them as I hope you will respect mine. The conversations we don’t have may cause more problems than the ones we do.”

    Hopefully, your assertive communication efforts will start a productive dialog. Regardless, you will feel much better about yourself for having taking the initiative.

  2. thanks for the supportive comments and sharing part of your story about working to heed racism and to work on countering it in the workplace and community.

  3. I appreciate this post, Lynne, because my experience was the opposite yet in many ways the same. I am a conservative who worked in a liberal office–and I felt so alone. I was ostracized for my beliefs and had to hear conversation that was both divisive, ugly and very ill informed. My immediate supervisor showed the bags she used to collect her dog’s waste when she walked him: they had a picture of Donald Trump with a pile of poop on top of his head, on each bag. I was expected to laugh and when I didn’t, that supervisor began a series of intentional slights that only stopped when she quit her job a month later. It was understood in the office that Trump supporters were not to speak about their beliefs whereas Democrats would openly comment and chat in groups and this included comments by board members. We had to hold back our ire when Maxine Waters advised restaurant owners to deny service to any member of Congress that was a Republican, when people wearing MAGA hats were beaten and had drinks thrown in their face, and none of us felt safe even sporting a Trump/Pence sign in the windows of our homes.

    That being said, I was ashamed of some of the comments that your caller had to tolerate. I hope she is reading this post now. George Floyd’s death was nothing short of barbaric regardless of his past criminal behavior–he was brutally murdered by someone who was supposed to protect and serve. I worked in law enforcement for five years and all of my former colleagues feel as I do. Not to mention that it is horribly insensitive to respond as these coworkers did. I feel badly that your caller had to experience this.

    One of my preconceived biases (and we all have them) showed up when I read your caller’s comment that that the handful of looters don’t represent the black race anymore than Chauvin represents mine. I viewed BLM as a group that felt the ends justified the means and supported the looting and burning of businesses. As a result of this honest conversation I now have a more open minded perspective on the situation.

    Racial divide in the workplace can only be solved by each of us being honest with ourselves about our preconceived biases and communicating with kindness and mutual respect. We also need to understand that there will be differences of opinion. The vast majority of Americans want the same thing–a safe and thriving country where we can raise our families, pursue our dreams and enjoy our lives. We have genuine disagreements on how to get there, though. For example, I have also concerns that Biden is too ill to serve and we may end up with President Harris. I have no problem with her color or gender and yes, she is definitely a smart woman. I do not agree with her views on what is best for America but I would assure your caller that I would never, ever use doggy bags depicting her head covered in poop.

    1. Karen, your thoughtful post is wonderful. I’ve heard from many conservative individuals who’ve felt ostracized by their more liberal coworkers. We absolutely need to fix this!

  4. First, as a liberal, I apologize to Karen OConnor for what she experienced in a liberal workplace where she was the minority. What those liberals did to her was ugly and disrespectful. I don’t understand why some liberals think that insulting conservatives will convince conservatives to vote liberal. They merely invited conservatives to be ugly and disrespectful to them.

    As for the situation in the blog post, minorities could also point out everyday benefits from people who are different. A Jewish man invented the television remote. A black woman invented the first home security system with cameras. Native Indians in Mexico extracted vanilla flavor from vanilla beans. A black/Native American cook invented potato chips. A Uruguayan man created controlled drug delivery. Arabs developed coffee. A black woman did the research to stop small planes from falling out of the sky when near big planes. A black man developed the techniques for heart surgery and taught them to all the first heart surgeons around the world.

    None of the coworkers would have the lives they live without the benefits from people who are different from them. Suppressing or segregating people who are different removes opportunities for further benefits.

    https://www.blog.speakingfromtriumph.com/?p=2457

    1. Paula, thank you for your kind words. I have been thinking about what you said and wondering why people–liberal or conservative–feel the need to be so unkind. I wonder if it was sheeplism (yes, I made this word up!) where everyone feels safe believing and behaving as does the majority. As you said, it removes opportunities for growth. Our experiences uniquely shape us and we can all benefit from learning from those who differ from us. I was raised by extreme liberals who taught me that Republicans were evil people who only wanted to be rich and support the military. Yet my uncle, who was the head of the National Security Agency under Ronald Reagan, was the kindest man I knew. I was raised to be pro-abortion but when I lost my son at age 20 I discovered a value in life that, although has not made me want to challenge Roe v. Wade, has motivated me to wonder what we can do to teach more responsibility before an abortion is needed. My own conservatism came from a three-decade career in Section 8 housing where I saw the tragic consequences of a give-away welfare system gone wild. On the other hand my five years as a Corrections Officer made me question our system of incarceration that simply warehouses people, then after long sentences, tosses them out into society with no resources and expects that magically they will fit in with law abiding folks. What I see here is extremism and lack of depth, with nobody looking at options that actually work to better society instead of just spending money, taking money away, or giving ideas lip service. It takes a melding of conservative and liberal beliefs as well as people of all races and walks of life to put our best foot forward and sadly, that is not happening.

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