A complete guide to how to talk about racism at work right now

The Black Lives Movement roared through cities throughout the world this week, as people of all races were outraged over the unnecessary killing of the Black American man, George Floyd, on Memorial Day. Though all four of the officers involved in his death were arrested eventually, peaceful protests have alerted everyone—yet again—for the vast need to change systematic racism in America. 

Often, the way to being is with introspection and personal investigation of our own inherent biases, many of which we may not be aware of. Then, conversations need to happen at every level: our homes, our friendship circles, our relationships, our communities, and our workplace. But for white Americans, it can be uncomfortable to speak to their Black counterparts, for fear of offending or saying the wrong thing.

Black professionals may also be afraid to put their employment at risk to address racism head-on. Here, inspiring—and powerful—Black leaders shed insight and guide how to talk about racism at work, right now. And more importantly: why the discussions need to start and continue ASAP:

White professionals should foster a safe working environment

Entrepreneur Sherri Doucette, the founder of Litehouse Wellness, says safety and culture should determine if you’re about to talk to your boss about racism. Since historically, these conversations have been off-limits, and they are a heavy burden to bear, she says they’ve often fallen ‘squarely on the shoulders of Black leaders.’ But here’s the thing: it’s not their problem to fix. 

White professionals should do all they can to create safe spaces for Black members of their teams. Doucette says they can do this by sharing the weight of racism by calling it out when they hear or see something. “They should also Inquire about their Black colleague’s well being and listen to understand,” she continues. “They should Intentionally make space for their input in regularly assessing the diversity and inclusivity of the workspace.”

Provide solutions

As the president and chief operating officer of OneUnited Bank, the largest Black-owned bank in the country, Teri Williams says approaching the topic of racism at work requires professionals to be authentic, as well as cautious. This means expressing how you’re feeling and sharing your experiences with biases, but also being prepared that some co-workers will disagree with you or downplay your emotions. A smart tactic to ignite transformation is to provide solutions. These include books, podcasts, and company-specific ideas to improve diversity. “Provide specific suggestions on how the company can help, including creating a culture of inclusiveness, increasing diversity in the workplace, organizing affinity groups in the workplace, and getting involved and contributing to community organizations that address racism,” she recommends.  

Set a goal for your communication exchange

If you are ready to discuss race, entrepreneur, and founder of Outtasight Hair, B. Fae Harris, suggests having a goal in mind for the communication exchange. This will help you stand firm in your values and your fight toward equality. You can do this by preparing concrete examples, so your point is clear and concise. Then, you can ask your co-workers what you expect and hope to see from them. “Stay mindful that you are not responsible for changing the mindset or heart of others. You can only do that for yourself. Your workplace responsibility is to establish your reputation and boundaries for productive, respectful productivity,” she explains.

Remember, listening is just as crucial as your argument

Let founder of Soeurs Media Group, Nikki Fowler repeat that in case, ahem, you didn’t hear: listening is just as important as your argument. It’s one thing to be an activist who repeats mantras and posts on social media, and it’s another thing to ask questions and, truly, seek answers and perspectives. All professionals and leaders should aspire to the latter. “We are really at a point in history where many are standing up for what’s right, and silence means that your complacent,” she continues. “From my experience, I’ve always spoken up for what’s right with confidence, and it’s always served me well. If something is fundamentally wrong, do not waver.” 

Recognize and accept the conversation may be uncomfortable

If you want to bring up issues of race within your workplace with management, Harris suggests tying the conversation back to your performance or the team. Since you are hired to performed tasks, any inquiries with your boss should be to improve company culture, maintain productivity, and so on. And since he or she may feel put on the spot with this discussion, prepare yourself for the possibility he or she will appear and act uncomfortable. To be effective, Harris suggests using the sandwich approach: start with a compliment, bring up an area of opportunity, and close with optimism for the future. 

Document racism as you see it.

If there is no record of injustices, it’s more difficult to prove it. That’s why Fowler encourages employees of all races to document racism as they see it. It’s important to have a record of anything and everything because it can be both big and small, systematic, and occasional. “The topic of racism can grow quickly into a long drawn out conversation with lots of grey areas,” she continues. “When you document it, you can list the offensive behavior, explain why it’s racist, and list resources to suggest solutions on making your workplace safer and healthier. It puts all parties on the same page before entering into a verbal conversation.”

Consider hiring a professional multi-cultural, anti-racism coach.

If you own your company and aren’t sure how to approach the conversation or identify areas of improvement, Williams suggests hiring a professional to help you. “Most companies have tremendous blind spots about how their culture deals with racism,” she continues. “Senior managers need first to assess where the company stands before taking any action.”

Use email and video messages if you can’t meet in person.

Due to COVID-19, many offices remain closed. Without meeting in person to discuss these critical topics, some leaders may feel paralyzed to make moves. They shouldn’t be, though, according to Roshawnna Novellus, the CEO of EnrichHER. In fact, she says in some ways, bringing up racism through email or other remote communication tools may be easier and provide less stress or anxiety than asynchronous conversations. “Co-workers should share articles about recent events and not shy away from media addressing racial topics to bring awareness, start discussions, and provide knowledge,” she continues. “During a time such as this one, where racial tension is extremely high, the administration should be providing support through solidarity statements, constant communication, and lists of concrete actions being taken to support employees of color.”

Encourage employees to share their cultures and passions

Getting to know your colleagues helps to foster friendship and allyship and breakthrough racism. That’s why entrepreneur Sabrina Bradley encourages employers to create an open environment that encourages respectful conversations and learning sessions through company-hosted, multi-cultural events. At a previous job, every 90 days, leaders organized an employee exchange event where they could bring meals, art, or share a tradition with the staff. “This encouraged a family-like atmosphere that built trust,” she shares. “They implemented a committee that oversaw the event, and employees really liked this idea and looked forward to having them.”

Investigate all areas where racism is present

Racism involves many different types, levels, and concepts. Some are small yet, impactful. While others can direct a company in the wrong direction. To wash away these preconceived notions, though, president of Protect All Kids, Chieastre Chigoretti, suggests having an open discussion at work where you identify personal prejudices. “Admit that there is a significant disparity that reflects in employment, political power, criminal justice, income, housing, health care, education, and generational wealth in white communities compared to that of black communities,” she continues. “Understand and agree that our government, as a representative of the American people, have collectively failed to equitably distribute enough resources to people because of their color, culture, or ethnic origin.”

Once you can talk openly about these topics, you can come up with a game plan that moves the Black community forward. She says to look for solutions where this population can gain economic liberation. “Hatch a plan on how to implement those solutions or find established charities and civil rights groups on a mission that aligns with your proposed solutions,” she adds.

Don’t go back to business as usual.

Most importantly: don’t host one session, post a social media message, and then forget about the Black Lives Movement until another protest erupts. Board member to various Silicon Valley companies and author Shellye Archambeau says the worst thing a company can do is go back to business as usual. Instead, leadership should develop a gameplan, with actionable steps that focus on fighting racism. These include supporting Black colleagues, hiring Black professionals, using Black supplies, and using all voices to highlight injustice and unfairness.