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Race & the Workplace: An Overdue Conversation

It’s no secret that having discussions about race and racism can be uncomfortable, to say the least. But neither is it a secret that such conversations must be had.

When I was first approached about writing this piece, a myriad of things went through my head: fear, anxiety, a certain level of awkwardness. While I have always considered myself an ally, could I really handle this with ease and sensitivity? As a white woman from the Pacific Northwest — one of the whitest regions in the United States — how could I ensure that I gave the topic the respect, even the accuracy, that it deserved?

Luckily, I had people who were more than willing to speak with me to share their own experiences and viewpoints. Over the course of nearly two hours, we gathered to discuss race and the workplace. Three questions served to direct the discussion, derived in part from Pearn Kandola LLP’s 2018 Racism at Work Survey. The interview was originally slated to be an hour — but the conversation was flowing so freely, honestly and organically that we kept going. Here is an account of that meeting.

The Panelists

  • Bailey C. Arnold, Specialist, Learning Support (BA)
  • Schemika Napolean, Event Coordinator (SN)
  • Ceré Netters, CMP, Director, Events (CN)
  • Emily Sharp, Accountant (ES)

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The Questions

Are you comfortable talking about race and racism in the workplace? Why or why not?

BA: I guess I'm comfortable with it, depending on the person I'm talking to. It's just, it's kind of like politics. That's just not something you talk about out of the blue unless you know that person or you just have that kind of compatibility.

SN: For me it would depend on the people, just because I'm very opinionated. So, it probably depends on the topic and the question and then how far I actually want to go in my answer versus how reserved I'm going to choose to be.

CN: It just depends, like if you can trust the person you're talking to. But it’s also how you think you’re going to be depicted after that, because often we get marginalized as the “token black person” in their mindset. So, then they go to this one person all the time for any questions about anything about being black. And I'm like, I’m not representing my entire race, I can’t speak for everybody, I can speak for myself. So, do I have confidence that I'm not going to be seen as that person after that? I don’t want to be that person or feel like it's going to be taken out of context and then you’re seen as a stereotypical black woman.

ES: I think we all feel the same. It depends on who the conversation is with. I also can be very opinionated. It’s a mesh of all three.

That's interesting. There are a couple points that I want to follow up on here. You said you can be very opinionated. But you have a right to those opinions, right?

BA: Well, it depends on who you are talking to.

ES: Which can be the problem. It's like everyone else can have an opinion but you can’t. And if you do have an opinion, it doesn’t matter.

BA: And if you’re passionate about that opinion, then you really are the angry black chick and that’s how people will see you. Or they’ll see you as…

CN: The “difficult one to work with.” And that’s the gentle word to use.

ES: Exactly. And you don't expect that opinion, you expect my opinion to be whatever yours is, to toe the line to some degree. But then again, that depends on the individual that you're dealing with. Because not everyone has that same perception. But there are those who do.

ES: But someone else that's Caucasian or whatever could have that same opinion and they’re a “strong person.” It's like, so where did that come from?

CN: They’re seen as a devil's advocate or having knowledge or being an expert in their field, so that’s why they’re strong. But when we do it, it’s problematic.

SN: We have to change a lot of things. I could have the very same opinion as someone else that’s a different race, but I have to say it differently. I have to write it differently. I need to think about it before I actually say it. There's just so many extras when it comes to it that I have to be conscious of before I respond.

CN: Like with the tone of your email.

BA: I've had people be like, “I want to see it before you send it.”

SN: And I find myself doing that even now. There are times where I will go to someone on my team now, like “Can you read this before I send it? Does it sound mean?” And not because someone has said that to me [in her current role], it’s just my nature now to have that guard of, “Wait, let me make sure I said that right.”

BA: If I’m even questioning it at all, I put a big ole’ smiley face right there, so then nobody can be like, “But the tone of your email…” I can just say “But the smiley face was there!”

CN: It’s like the professional version of LOL.

It’s hard to be told that you’re not black enough. And I think it’s different for women who are not from places like Detroit, where you’re seen as, “Well, why are you so different from what we see on TV?” It’s because not every black woman is the same, just like not every white woman is the same.

SN: I have what I call a “Becky.” I sound completely different on the phone. And it’s automatic. It’s so well-versed that I can turn it on and off.

BA: And then they’re surprised when they see you in person because they weren’t expecting a black person.

CN: I feel like for those of us with more complicated names, it makes it that much harder. They already see your name come across and it’s “Oh hey, you’re different.”

ES: And then they see your face and it’s “Oh, you’re really different.” I remember one company I worked for — again, I'm doing accounts payable, same thing I'm doing now. And I talked to this individual on the phone or via email. And, it's so funny, I remember when he walked in, and my boss introduced us — I could just see the expression on his face change. You could just tell that he probably thought I was someone white. It’s unfortunate that you just can’t be someone who did go to school, who is educated. I was raised in the projects. But that doesn't mean the projects is me. I mean, it's me, to a certain degree, but you have to know how to act. So, it's sad and unfortunate that we have to come in with a different expectation of what even our employer expects from us because we know we’re being looked at, we’re being viewed differently. And that's unfortunate. It's frustrating, it does make you angry. It's frustrating because there's no one else who walks around in this office that has the spotlight that we have.

CN: Black women are almost the minority of the minority. We're just seen almost like the bottom of the totem pole. Even in the workplace, a black man can be seen, depending on how they present themselves, they can be seen as a minority, but strong, educated and opinionated at the same time. But a black woman, she can have that job, but she’s difficult, combative or angry, she’s the “b.”

BA: I have been told that I’m whiter than most white people. I love country music. I drive a pickup truck. I love NASCAR. I love Pearl Jam and all the grunge bands and things like that. It’s hard to be told that you’re not black enough. And I think it’s different for women who are not from places like Detroit, where you’re seen as, “Well, why are you so different from what we see on TV?” It’s because not every black woman is the same, just like not every white woman is the same.

ES: I think it’s easier for the media to focus in on that and everything else that goes along with it. I mean, you can pick up a story any day of the angry black woman, but if a white woman did that, it’s “Oh, you don’t understand the kind of day she had.” Why is her day any different than mine? If I have two kids and she has two kids, how is it different? It’s very annoying and like I said, you try to really not think about it, and then one day you have that one thing that is said to you and you think, “Really? You did not just say that.” And especially in the workplace. I think that if something happened to one of us as a black woman, and we went and said something, it’s not going to be taken as seriously as a white woman going in and saying the exact same thing in the exact same scenario. Which is why you probably do see so many angry black women, because why is it OK for her to come in and say the exact same thing as you, but they didn’t act on it [for you] and for her, it’s something different? It has nothing to do with race, it’s that we are all human beings that want to be treated same. I don’t want to be made to feel special because I’m a black woman. I want to be made to feel special because I am a woman and a human being. Don’t put the race in there and expect me not to act differently.

SN: To have an African-American female who is your direct report or your supervisor, it's very different. And you have to be very conscious. I am conscious of what my team thinks: Are we closer? I have to make sure we don’t have a connection where someone else will feel like “Oh, they’re always talking about this,” or “She goes to her first.” So, it’s a conscious behavior every day. Although this is new for me, it's like “OK, I don’t want anyone to think that she's favoring me because we're the same race.” So, it's same workload, same this, same that, talk less, don't always be the first person to talk in a meeting, don't always raise your hand and say, “Oh, I'll do it.” That has never been an issue for me until now, only because I've never had a person like me be my boss.

Diversity and inclusion efforts have become prevalent in the workplace. In your opinion, are these efforts working? What are some ways organizations can do it better?

SN: For me, it’s pointless.

CN: [laughing] She’s like, “It’s ridiculous!”

SN: It’s the same way I feel about people going to marriage counseling. If you’ve not been married before, you cannot counsel people on marriage. If you’ve never been a parent before, don’t tell me how to parent. If you’re not a grandmother, don’t tell someone else how they should grandparent their children. So, when it comes to diversity training, for me — and there have been 12 that I've actually had to go through in my lifetime — it’s never been a diversity person standing in front of me. You have no diversity background or story or history of anything that’s ever happened to you. It’s just what you think this should be or what this class should teach other people. And then, we talk about outdated things that have nothing to do with what people actually deal with in the workplace now. So, if it’s done right, then great. But I can honestly say, I’ve been to 12, and I’ve never seen it done right.

It has nothing to do with race, it’s that we are all human beings that want to be treated same. I don’t want to be made to feel special because I’m a black woman. I want to be made to feel special because I am a woman and a human being. Don’t put the race in there and expect me not to act differently.

CN: I think too that there’s so many — being that we work in Events — there’s so many speakers and people that are of diverse backgrounds that are speaking on it, why aren’t you looking at people like that, why aren’t you looking for those resources? But if they do it internally, then they ask the black people, or the Asians or the LatinX, to speak on this and it’s like, “We’re not the professionals, we’re speaking from personal experiences.” And it’s probably not getting delivered correctly. There was a [diversity] event I went to recently, it was more of a conversation. There were different facilitators that worked with small groups in the same room. People could pick whatever group they wanted to be in, and they had some questions that could spark the conversation. Then the group just starts talking about it, talking through issues about LGBTQ, being black, being Asian, etc., or different struggles people have, or challenges for people that identify as allies, and how they perceive things. We need less formalized training and just have a conversation and hear what’s going on. I think that’s really how to create the most change, when it’s small, centralized and more natural. Somebody isn’t just standing up there with a PowerPoint talking about “Here are the five things you can’t say this year,” “Here’s what we did 10 years ago,” “Make sure you go make a black friend after this, “Don’t ask to touch anyone’s hair.” It’s useless. Then, as a minority, you leave the room and everyone’s staring at you and asking, “Well, how did you feel about that?” If you feel you got something out of that, great, but it’s not going to change my day-to-day. And they’re probably going to be a little bit more awkward around me than they were before.

ES: And that will last for a while, then it will be back to business as usual.

BA: I think diversity training is tough because everybody has different experiences. You can't take everyone's diversity in an hour and make that good. With me growing up with all white people, literally the last black friend I had was in the seventh grade — I'm 42. And I’ve always worked around a lot of white people. So, my diversity is so much different than most of the black people I've met. Even as an adult, I don't really have any black friends. It's just how my life went and because of the things that I enjoy doing. I mean, there's not many black people that like NASCAR and rodeos.

The group agrees that rodeos are, in fact, fun and much laughter ensues.

CN: See, now we’re finding stuff out about each other!

SN: I get it, it’s hard. I was in bell choir. I played soccer. I was a cheerleader. I was a cheer coach. All of those things are not typical things for a black girl to do. Everyone would look at me like, “what?!” I did all of those things that I didn’t see “me” in. There was no other cheerleader my color except me. We went to competitions, nothing. So, to your point, I completely understand and it’s not until you talk to people that you learn. I always tell people, “Everyone has a story.” It’s not just because you’re black, it’s your history. It’s how you grew up, where you grew up. It’s all of those things and how they factor into what you do. I get it from my mom. She was hard on us about that. She wanted us to have the best of both worlds or cultures, so she felt like we knew how to act in the workplace.

When it comes to dealing with/handling racism in the workplace, what questions should we be asking that we’re not? Or more generally, what should we be doing that we’re not?

CN: That’s a good one.

SN: So, here’s my big opinionated view: The only real black holiday that actually exists is Martin Luther King Day, which we never get off. So, as a black person, I always have to automatically take it off because I always tell people: I don’t work that day. That’s number one. Two, there is Black History Month. It’s a whole month — it’s the shortest month, but it is a whole month — and nothing ever happens. But I see stuff for Chinese New Year. When we do Christmas, we make sure that we celebrate Hanukkah. We make sure that there’s diversity and inclusion things for LGBTQ. All of these things happen, but then February comes and it’s like, “Oh, there’s only a few of them, they’ll be fine.” It drives me nuts. So many things could be inclusive that never happen. I have been working for 25 years and I have never been in a room with someone saying, “Hey let’s have a conversation to see what your thoughts are.” Never. So, for me, that was the first step. It was like, please do that, because it’s never happened. And you will actually see, all four of us have different opinions, we have different backgrounds. But that one thing that ties us all together is having the conversation. There has to be a conversation. And someone has to be willing and able to say, “Hey let’s have a conversation.”

ES: I would agree.

BA: I agree.

CN: Definitely.

It’s not until you talk to people that you learn. I always tell people, “Everyone has a story.” It’s not just because you’re black, it’s your history. It’s how you grew up, where you grew up. It’s all of those things and how they factor into what you do.

SN: We have to change the way we do things. And for me, it’s not just even for black women. It’s [for] Hispanic women, it’s [for] Asian women, it’s the same thing. It’s a conversation that we can have that will be different [depending on whom you’re talking to], but we definitely have to change our conversations and stop calling it what we’re calling it [i.e., diversity and inclusion] just to make it sound better. It’s not making it better.

CN: Anytime you use the word “diversity,” the first thing people think of is black people. For most of us, just having the conversation is — I mean, for this purpose, I love that you pulled this group together — but outside of this, company-wide, it would be better to ask everybody so it’s not targeted at perceived minorities. We don’t know what your racial background is and you might not identify as white or anything else, but because your skin is light, we think you’re white. So just ask the questions, like in a survey or something, so you’re bringing everyone into the conversation in a way where no one is targeted so that they can truly represent their authentic selves, without feeling like “I have to speak for black people, but I don’t want to speak for them.” I can speak for my generation or my background or my industry or whatever else, rather than just me being black. There’s a bunch of other things that I can speak on, like me as a woman, that I don’t think are being represented currently. Don’t just ask me to speak on Black History Month or Martin Luther King Day.

ES: Again, it’s treat people as humans. That’s the one thing that I think is wrong in our society, in the corporate world and outside of it.

I can speak for my generation or my background or my industry or whatever else, rather than just me being black. There’s a bunch of other things that I can speak on, like me as a woman, that I don’t think are being represented currently. Don’t just ask me to speak on Black History Month or Martin Luther King Day.

 


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