Part of learning how to talk about race in the workplace is unlearning what you may have been taught and realizing which workplace practices you may have come to accept as normal.
In recent days, employees working in media and retail have called out the status quo of racism happening within their own institutions while these same companies are championing Black Lives Matter on social media.
It’s time to interrogate how your own thinking could contribute toward making your colleagues of color feel unwelcome. You may have internalized common lies about workplace diversity regarding race that you need to know are not true.
1. The enduring meritocracy myth
One enduring harmful belief about career advancement is that if Black, indigenous and other people of color just work hard enough, they will have the same career outcomes in the workplace as their white counterparts.
But dismal stats about the representation of people of color in professions and in senior management show this isn’t true. There are only four Black CEOs in the Fortune 500, and only 8% of Black professionals hold white-collar jobs. Among employed adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, Black workers represent just 7% and Latinx workers are only 6% of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics workforce, according to the Pew Research Center.
For the few people of color who do get hired in fields where they are the minority, they may also face the assumption that they hold a racial advantage.
“The thing that becomes most toxic is when white people assume that African Americans and other people of color are somehow at an advantage in fields in which they’re pretty much excluded,” said Pamela Newkirk, a journalist and author of “Diversity, Inc.: The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Business.”
“There is this underlying assumption that if you are white, you’re there due to merit, or if you’re Black or of color, you got your job because of your race, which is ludicrous, but that is a perception that is prevalent among many whites,” Newkirk said. Newkirk has experienced this perception herself in a newsroom where she was the only Black staffer and was told that the only reason she got the job was because she was Black.
Far from being an advantage, being the only one of your racial identity group comes with its own psychological burden. Fifty percent of Black women reported feeling especially on guard and closely watched when they were the only woman and only person of their race in the room at work, according to a 2019 LeanIn.Org and McKinsey report.
2. The Race Card
“The only race card that has ever been institutionalized in our country is white supremacy.”
When co-workers say their colleagues are “playing the race card” or “being divisive” by calling out workplace discrimination and mistreatment due to race, they are minimizing lived experiences.
“The only race card that has ever been institutionalized in our country is white supremacy,” said Crystal Fleming, associate professor of sociology and Africana studies at Stony Brook University and author of “How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy and the Racial Divide.” Fleming said that white supremacist racism is giving privileges, advantages and resources to people on the basis of them being socially defined as white.
“Even the term ‘playing a card’ ― this is a way of minimizing the massive harm of racism,” Fleming said. “Anyone that has actually been systemically or structurally targeted by racism knows it’s not a game; it’s a matter of life or death, it’s a matter of having access to resources or not.”
Invalidating co-workers’ lived experiences with race can be done out of defensiveness. One common characteristic of how white supremacy shows up in organizations is through defensiveness, according to “Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups,” by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun. “Criticism of those with power is viewed as threatening and inappropriate (or rude),” they write.
Antidotes to this criticism mean that you need to work on naming defensiveness in yourself to understand “the link between defensiveness and fear (of losing power, losing face, losing comfort, losing privilege),” Jones and Okun write.
3. The Post-Race Myth
“Once you admit that there is inequality and bias, then the onus is on you to do what you can to combat it.”
In conversations with co-workers, you may hear that “racism is dying out” or that “we are a post-race society,” a phrase that was often repeated after the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first Black president.
But race has always played a role in our society, including the workplace. “We weren’t a post-race society before Obama, during his administration or after. We’ve never been a post-race society because we’ve always had these perverse disparities that we’ve allowed to continue,” Newkirk said.
When you say you think your workplace doesn’t see race, you are also saying that you choose to ignore workplace racial inequalities that could be taking place within your meetings, between your teams and in your boardroom.
“Once you admit that there is inequality and bias, then the onus is on you to do what you can to combat it,” Newkirk said about the post-racial beliefs. “It’s easier to say it doesn’t exist, and that’s a way of ensuring the status quo, protecting the status quo.”
4. The Belief That “Everyone Is Diverse”
Fleming said this “everyone is diverse” language falls under the “all lives matter” framing of diversity.
“Part of what happens with diversity and inclusion language is that it gets co-opted by institutions and corporations and universities in ways that avoid addressing systemic racism and inequality and discriminatory practices within our institutions,” Fleming said.
5. The Belief That Promoting Racial Diversity Ends Once You Hire Someone Or Take A Workshop
Improving racial diversity does not end once you hire diverse talent. It’s also about fostering an environment that they want to stay and grow in.
Minda Harts, founder of The Memo LLC, a career development company for women of color, noted that a lot of Black employees leave because they lack the opportunities to advance.
“I think a lot of companies focus on the pipeline. They say, ‘We gotta get them in the pipeline,’ but actually there’s a lot of talented Black employees that are not being retained,” Harts said.
Harts recommended that companies identify the Black talent they already have within their company within the next 60 to 90 days and ask themselves, “What are the succession plans to make sure that they’re advancing up the ladder?”
The work also doesn’t end when you take a workshop on racial biases or diversity. Fleming said one of the major misconceptions about diversity is that it’s a box you can check off after you attend a workshop or a training session.
“It allows organizations and institutions to avoid structural change because if you just tell people that all you need to do is this workshop and problem solved, then you don’t have to take a hard look at who is excluded from the C-suite, what is the pay gap between people who are white and people who are Black, and people of color, or also gender pay disparities,” Fleming said.
Looking beyond racial diversity in hiring also means critically interrogating the relationship between your company and communities of color. There can be a disconnect between the progressive words projected by brands and the way their businesses operate.
JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, for example, recently kneeled with staff in the pose that former quarterback Colin Kaepernick popularized to call out police brutality against Black people, but in 2017, JPMorgan Chase paid $55 million to settle a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit accusing it of discriminating against Black and Latinx borrowers.
“The solution is not to just diversify hiring, you also have to look at the politics of whatever is occurring within the organization,” Fleming said. “We have to be serious about not letting our institutions get away with statements that are superficial and that don’t go to the root of problematic and harmful practices.”