I am used to talking about race. I am a Black woman and an attorney. I am also an equal employment opportunity officer, a position referred to as chief diversity officer in some organizations.
My office investigates employees’ allegations of discrimination based on race, sex, disability, sexual orientation and other categories specified in various laws. Employees’ complaints have included accusations of sexual harassment, harassment because of a disability, being called a racial epithet and being denied a salary increase because of their race or gender. In addition to making determinations about whether discrimination has occurred in particular cases, I also advise managers on how to comply with anti-discrimination laws and how to achieve a more diverse workplace.
And yet I dread talking about race at work. I’ve learned that most white people are not interested in having honest conversations about race, white supremacy or white privilege.
My career has always been contoured by race. Being a Black woman whose job is to talk about inequality has presented unique challenges because I’ve experienced sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination in the very same institutions in which I worked to create more equitable and inclusive workplaces for others.
I’ve had colleagues repeatedly question my advice or opinions while readily deferring to white colleagues who had less expertise than me. When I attended a meeting with one of my white direct reports, a white colleague assumed the white employee was the director of my department and that I was the direct report. He apologized profusely when I corrected him, suddenly realizing that he needed to examine his own biases.
While representing a health care system in a race discrimination case before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, two white women requested that I be removed from the case because they thought I would sabotage it and side with the Black employee who had filed the complaint instead of with them. They thought my Blackness made me biased and unable to do my job, and that their whiteness made them objective.
Although I stayed on the case, I didn’t adequately defend myself. Only a few years out of law school, I was more concerned about proving how competent I was than pointing out the racism these two women had exhibited. It was often easier for me to defend other people, including white women who had discriminated against me, than it was to defend myself.
I eventually found my voice. I learned that I could not fully advocate for others if I was unwilling to stand up for myself. During President Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, a white colleague with whom I was very friendly told me his wife would never vote for Obama or any Black person because Black female supervisors had fired her in the past.
“Your wife is a racist, and so are you for lying next to her every night,” I responded. White folks who fail to check their racist relatives do not get Brownie points for telling me stories about their racist relatives. He didn’t speak to me for a month but then finally apologized.
In my efforts over the years to make workplaces more inclusive and equitable, I’ve had to discuss inconvenient truths about racism and discrimination with many white people. I’ve seen people’s biases, contradictions and motivations — even when they voted for Obama or have Black friends. Over the years, I’ve learned that most white folks don’t like to hear Black people’s views about anti-Blackness and racism because it makes them uncomfortable and requires a level of self-awareness beyond merely saying, “I am not a racist.”
In her book “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” Robin DiAngelo describes “white fragility” as the pattern of defensive behaviors white people exhibit in response to racial discomfort or having their racial views challenged.
Throughout my career, many of my white colleagues have displayed the classic symptoms of white fragility in our conversations about racism. I’ve seen white women cry at the mere mention that they should stop doing something because it offends Black employees; white people have attempted to minimize the harmful effect and offensiveness of their actions by focusing the conversation on their good intentions and the “true meaning” of their actions; others have suggested that Black employees were overreacting and should find a way to compromise and be less offended.
“I’ve learned that most white folks don’t like to hear Black people’s views about anti-Blackness and racism because it makes them uncomfortable and requires a level of self-awareness beyond merely saying, 'I am not a racist.'”
But their acts of white fragility have extended beyond reframing conversations. I’ve experienced microaggressions, subtle acts that let me know I had been dismissed. On other occasions, white people have sent blaring messages that neither my views nor I were welcomed at the table.
While explaining why a particular act might be perceived as racist or offensive, I’ve had white folks refuse to look at me and instead look at another white person with whom they agreed. White people have become visibly upset or have excluded me from meetings after I called out racist behaviors or urged them to confront their own biases.
And then there were the fair-weather allies — the white folks who toed the party line in front of our white colleagues but would tell me in private that they agreed with me. Here’s a news flash: Fair-weather allies are not real allies.
These acts of white fragility were ways for white people to avoid responsibility for how they contribute to racism and inequitable workplaces, ways for them to remain comfortable while preserving the illusion of honest and open dialogue.
Honesty has a price. My experiences are not unique to me, nor are they unique to a particular organization or industry. Despite my various roles as an EEO officer, I have faced the same fate that most Black people face when we talk honestly about racism. Many Black employees fear talking about race and bias at work because they don’t want to be labeled as agitators.
Women and people of color who talk about inequality in the workplace, including racism and championing diversity, are often penalized. These penalties include being viewed as less competent or effective, and receiving negative performance ratings. These penalties do not disappear when Black women become diversity and inclusion professionals. Chief diversity officers across the country who are women of color, including Black women, have experienced the same resistance in their workplaces. Yet many of these organizations and the white people who lead them will tout themselves as progressive, equitable and even antiracist.
Forced silence does not erase the employment discrimination many Black people endure. Black women are more likely to face discrimination, which often occurs in the form of microaggressions, pay inequity, being less likely to be promoted to manager and being evaluated more negatively. Black women also pay an emotional tax as a result of workplace discrimination, which negatively affects our health and wellbeing.
We’ve reached a tipping point in history. People are tired of Black lives not mattering. Our country can no longer turn away as police officers, and white people who cloak themselves in the authority of the law, stomp the lives out of us like cockroaches on a sidewalk.
To the organizations and white people who have expressed a new (or renewed) commitment to racial justice, Black lives must matter even when our last moments are not recorded on cellphones. Black lives must matter in all sectors of our society, including the workplace. Black lives must matter, not only when it is popular or the subject of a national movement, but in your everyday interactions with Black people. Your companywide and public commitments to racial equity, monetary donations in the name of the Black Lives Matter movement and new initiatives are meaningless if you do not ensure equity for your own Black employees in the form of a healthy workplace culture, pay equity, hiring, career support and advancement, and representation on corporate boards and executive teams.
You must have honest and courageous conversations about how you participate in systemic racism and how you engage in acts of anti-Blackness and racism. And you must see and listen to Black people rather than ignoring us or calling us oversensitive. Black folks have always tried to tell you about the truth of our existence. You were too busy being fragile to care.