Seizing the Moment: Having Difficult Conversations about Race

Stephanie J. Creary
The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

Conversations about race in the workplace have long been silenced. Recently, though, leaders have begun to fervently embrace such conversations. Drawing upon academic research, Stephanie Creary provides a framework for having difficult conversations about race in US workplaces.

In US workplaces, society, and around the world, calls for racial equity, justice, and inclusion have become ever more common and forceful. Countless companies have spoken out publicly against racism and other injustices and have begun to enact plans to tackle these issues, both internally and externally.1 Yet before they can make any substantive progress, leaders must first understand how deeply racism is rooted in our institutions and systems. Having a framework like mine, for facilitating more effective conversations about race in the workplace, is also invaluable.

A Brief History of Systemic Racism in the US

The history of racism, injustice, and discrimination in North America long predates the United States itself. For Black people, it perhaps began in August of 1619 when a ship dropped anchor near Point Comfort, Virginia and sold more than twenty African captives to English colonists as slaves.2 Another two hundred years passed before the movement to abolish slavery and other acts of violence toward Black Americans began. At its inception, this movement was led by Black abolitionists whose efforts hardly appear in US history books.3 The US Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th and 14th Amendments to the US Constitution, which abolished slavery and granted Black Americans full citizenship and equal protection under the law, respectively, did not, however, ensure Black Americans full civil rights. Slavery was replaced with a system of laws, referred to as Jim Crow laws, which structured a racial caste system which required all public facilities including businesses, schools, colleges, hospitals, and prisons to be racially segregated and which provided protections for state-sponsored lynchings and other violence toward Black people.4

The formal end of racial segregation in the US was the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. But legally banning discrimination has by no means ended racism and discrimination, nor has it created racial equity in US workplaces.

The formal end of racial segregation was the passage of the US Civil Rights Act in 1964. This legislation also banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. But legally banning discrimination has by no means ended racism and discrimination, nor has it created racial equity in US workplaces.5 In July 2017, Bass Pro Outdoor World settled a class-action lawsuit, agreeing to pay more than $10 million to Black and Hispanic workers who were allegedly discriminated against in the hiring process. In response to a sex and racial harassment investigation, which included claims that the company retaliated against employees who complained about harassment or discrimination, the Ford Motor Company agreed, in August 2017, to pay more than $10 million.6 Indeed, the Supreme Court has unanimously upheld the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which states that it is unlawful to retaliate against applicants or employees who assert their civil rights even if the allegation is unsuccessful or untimely.7

The myth that we now live in a post-racial society and that America’s reprehensible history of racism has ended, a notion to which ever more white Americans succumbed after the election and subsequent eight year presidency of Barack Obama, was left in tatters by these shocking events.

So what is different about this moment? Why are corporations around the world responding to the call for racial justice and equity?8 The senseless killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Elijah McClain, and many more, and the disproportionately high rate of mortality suffered by Black Americans infected with COVID-19 have certainly contributed. The myth that we now live in a post-racial society and that America’s reprehensible history of racism had ended, a notion to which ever more white Americans succumbed since the election and subsequent eight year presidency of Barack Obama, was left in tatters by these shocking events.9 President Obama stressed this danger in his 2016 farewell speech: “After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.”10 The thorny issues of race and racism in the US have been sharply exacerbated by the subsequent election of a president who not only expressed racist ideology during his candidacy, but has continued to do so in office.11

What Management Research Reveals About Systemic Racism

Research centered on race in the context of management and organizations has long been marginalized, if not silenced.12 The limited research that has been published to date on the experiences of Black employees in the workplace nonetheless reveals several recur-ring themes which demonstrate that the workplace is often toxic to Black employees, and that they are discouraged from sharing or protesting their negative experiences.

The workplace is often toxic to Black employees, who are also discouraged from sharing their negative experiences.

First, Black employees often contend with everyday racism, which can contribute to depression, anxiety, and social isolation at work.13 Everyday racism includes microaggressions or “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to people of color because they belong to a racial minority group.”14 These may include referring to a Black employee as a “diversity hire” which invalidates their qualifications or “articulate” which signals surprise that the Black employee is intelligent. Managers and peers may undermine Black employees and treat them as inferior.15 They may also simply ignore or dismiss Black colleagues.16 Black workers may find that companies tokenize and showcase them in marketing materials and diversity events in an effort to prove a commitment to diversity which does not exist.17

Second, Black employees are often asked to live in two distinct worlds, keeping their daily and racialized experiences as Black people strictly separate from the world of white Eurocentric professional standards, cultural values, and social norms.18 To achieve this dichotomy, Black employees often feel that they have to suppress their racial identity and avoid any mention, much less discussion, of race in the workplace.19 Black employees may therefore need to deliberately create a workplace image which is both authentic and professional.20 Black women face a particularly fraught land-scape, since they are simultaneously extremely visible physically, because they generally differ from their colleagues in both gender and race, and invisible or overlooked, because they do not readily fit into simplistic categorizations of race and gender.21 Black women are often penalized for wearing Afro-centric (i.e., natural or protective) rather than Eurocentric hair styles, which are sometimes labeled ‘less professional’.22 At the time of writing, seven states – California, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Colorado, and Washing-ton – have enacted the Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act, which bans discrimination on the basis of natural or protective hair styles including braids, dread-locks, and twists.23 There is now a growing movement to enact CROWN legislation in other states and federally.

Despite acquiring educational credentials and workplace training that are equivalent to those of their white peers, Black employees receive less psychosocial support and fewer promotions than white colleagues.

Third, Black employees are less likely to be granted leadership roles.24 Despite acquiring educational credentials and training equivalent to those of their white peers, Black employees receive less psychosocial support and fewer promotions than white colleagues.25 Black employees tend to be denied the managerial support, mentoring, and advocacy that are vital to advancing into leadership.26 They often do not receive critical feedback or they receive feedback which is biased and which inflicts and amplifies harmful racial stereotypes.27 Even when they are promoted to leadership roles, Black employees are less likely to be viewed and evaluated favorably as leaders, particularly when their leadership meth-ods differ from those of the white men who dominate leadership roles.28

Fourth, research has proposed ways of mitigating the harmful effects of racism on Black employees. Across the board, studies find that Black employees’ experience of inclusion and belonging depends not only on changes in workplace structures and culture, but also on changes in social relations.29 Leaders and colleagues must actively strive to understand the experiences of Black employees, including their experience of coping with negative societal events which affect their communities while simultaneously trying to fulfill their workplace responsibilities.30 Mentors and managers must support Black employees in cultivating positive racial and professional identities at work while they navigate challenging events.31 Finally, organizations must restructure hiring and development practices to eliminate the obstacles that Black employees have, until now, been made to overcome in order to earn rewards equivalent to those enjoyed by their white colleagues. These steps are vital for companies which wish to create an environment that welcomes and supports Black employees and their social identities.32

If we are to mitigate the harmful effects of racism on Black employees, talking about race at work is important.

Having Difficult Conversations About Race in the Workplace: The RACE Framework

While evidence of racism abounds, formal conversations about it in corporate workplaces have, until recently, been rare. The marginalization of race as a worthy topic (and experience) has historically worked with other forces of systemic racism to make having these workplace conversations difficult. Yet, if we are to mitigate the harmful effects of racism on Black employees, talking about race at work is important. After extensive analysis of the patterns that make up systemic racism, I have recently developed the RACE framework, designed to help leaders to better facilitate conversations about race in their organizations.33 RACE is grounded in both academic research and my own experience in facilitating conversations about race in corporate and academic settings. The RACE frame-work, adapted for this article, works as follows:

R – Reduce anxiety by talking about race anyway.

Many people feel uncomfortable talking about race at work.34 Often, people have been told in compliance training not to mention or consider race in the workplace, to be color-blind. Black employees may also be reluctant to share their experiences of racism for fear that they will not be believed.35 Conversely, white employees may be unwilling to talk about race out of fear that they will be personally blamed or labeled racist.36 Yet, research suggests that these fears prevent all of us from becoming better versions of ourselves and better leaders.37

Leaders can help employees to feel less anxious and to understand the power of conversations about race, equity, and inclusion. One effective method is to discuss the parameters of the difficult conversations ahead of time. Leaders can invite employees to lay out guidelines they would like to observe to make their conversations about racial differences more effective. Some of the themes I have often encountered during this activity are: building a safe or brave space, practicing respectful engagement, listening actively, and being constructive. Leaders may also wish to ask employees to generate two or three strategies which will help them to respect their parameters or guidelines. In order to build a safe or brave space, employees might have to commit to keeping conversations confidential, refraining from sharing the names or remarks of those who contributed once they have left the conversational space. These strategies are also supported by decades of research on intergroup dialogue, which underlies many methods of facilitating conversations about and across differences. 38

A – Accept that people are going to have different experiences regarding race.

That people experience race in different ways is demonstrated by sociological, psychological, and organizational studies. White people are more likely to believe in colorblindness, a theory which strives to avoid the appearance of bias by scrupulously avoiding any acknowledgement or mention of racial differences.39 Black people, by contrast, are more likely to value multiculturalism or the acknowledgement, consideration, and celebration of group differences.40 Black employees are also likely to report feeling invisible or hypervisible on account of their race.41 Considering the range of experiences of race, we must consider what we gain or lose by making race invisible or hypervisible?

Leaders can help employees to find space in between invisibility and hypervisibility, normalizing race as a meaningful dimension of diversity. Leaders might share some of their own positive and negative experiences with race at work before inviting employees to do the same. Particularly in the context of recruitment, orientation, and evaluation, leaders, including the chief human resource officer, should consider leading discussions about whether and when race should be (in)visible. These discussions are also important whenever the board of directors is planning a CEO succession.

C – Call on internal and external allies for help.

Although Black leaders and employees are often seen as the default experts on race and diversity in the workplace,42 white leaders who are charged with anti-racist agendas must also learn to facilitate conversations about race.

Business leaders can cultivate a network of relationships with a diverse set of internal and external allies (including peers, academics, former colleagues, friends, and clients) who are invested in diversity, equity, and inclusion. This network allows all participants to share tips and resources, disseminating insights on how to facilitate conversations about race in the work-place. Leaders should also encourage employees to develop similar networks and to lean on them for help when it’s needed. Leaders must also recognize that Black workers and women are often penalized for their diversity efforts while white men are often rewarded.43 Knowing this, leaders should make sure that everyone – including Black workers – is appropriately acknowledged and rewarded for performing vital diversity work.

E – Expect to provide some “answers,” practical tools, skill-based frameworks, and so forth.

In helping employees feel that they can include race in conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion, it is important to create practical tools and skill-based frame-works.

Leaders can adapt publicly available resources, like the lessons about difficult conversations drawn from intergroup dialogue research. However, they will also need to develop their own concrete and accessible “how to” frameworks. I have developed one such framework, represented by the acronym LEAP, to teach others about ally-ship.44 L: Listen and learn from your Black colleagues’ experiences. E: Engage with Black colleagues in racially diverse and more casual settings. A: Ask Black employees about their work and their goals. P: Provide Black colleagues with opportunities, suggestions, encouragement, and general support.

It is normal for leaders to question whether they are doing “the right thing” when it comes to addressing issues of race and racism in the workplace. Yet, leaders who hope to eradicate systemic racism must empower employees and provide them with the resources to have productive conversations about race. Grounding these conversations in evidence and good intentions and accepting that people will probably make mistakes or feel uncomfortable, is far better than avoiding talking about race at all.

Stephanie J. Creary, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Management at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Her research on identity and diversity in the workplace has been published in leading academic journals and the popular press. She earned her PhD from the Boston College Carroll School of Management.

Endnotes

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