The Do’s and Don’ts of Bringing Up Racism in the Workplace

The Do’s and Don’ts of Bringing Up Racism in the Workplace

How do you bring up racism in the workplace when race is one of the most taboo topics? 

There’s no simple way to say this, but racism is everywhere. It’s in every state, city, and industry in the US. It’s one of those topics that many would like to avoid. It becomes unavoidable as news of violence, discrimination, police brutality and protests continue to fill the streets. For Black people who experience racism at a higher rate than most, this experience continues to be more traumatic as they see violence and continue to protest.

Still, it’s difficult to talk about racism and racial inequality at work, including racism experienced in the workplace. Companies encourage workers to engage in politicized issues as to not “disturb the peace.” That becomes difficult as Black and nonblack workers of color share their own experiences with racism and discrimination.

Although uncomfortable, it’s critical for organizations and workers to discuss racism in the workplace. How do you start a meaningful conversation about racism at work? Here are some do’s and don’ts of bringing up racism in the workplace.

Do State YOUR intention and purpose 

 Whether you’re an employer or employee, stating your intention is essential. Talking about racism is difficult, so you have to clearly state what and why you want to address it. With anything, you need a goal, objectives, and talking points, which means mapping out your purpose and intention before bringing it to leaders and coworkers. 

What you need to do

  • Research about races and talking points; including reading racism-focused articles, books, films, i.e., work from research- focused individuals on racism
  • Write out your goal and intention (be authentic)
    • Think of where and when you’d like to open up the conversation 
  • Prep talk, have a script or notes of points you’d like to touch on 
  • Provide solutions and recommendations

Don’t, As a nonblack individual, place the issue on to Black workers

It’s not the job of Black people to educate others on racism and their struggles. You can state your intention without adding more emotional and physical labor to your Black coworker’s plate. You inadvertently become part of the problem or might already be part of the problem.

As an organization or coworker, you must educate yourself on these issues before bringing it to the table. As uncomfortable as the conversation may be, it’s important to have an open dialogue about race relations in the U.S. This conversation is essential especially given the disproportionately higher rate at which Black people are dying of COVID-19 and the lack of access to adequate healthcare. For organizations, you can use this time to make a clear stance on inclusion and listening and supporting Black or marginalized workers. As an employee, you can continue to have an open dialogue and create a safe space where your coworkers feel supported.

Do Create and put in place safe avenues and time where people can talk 

Talking about racism makes people uncomfortable, so it’s important to create a safe space where employee voices feel heard. Workplaces can hold educational meetings or development sessions where you intentionally speak on racial issues, i.e., racial inequity, accessibility,  gender discrimination, and understanding the Black experience.  I suggest holding a Q&A during one of the open conversations; this could be during the first meeting.

Examples of Questions to Ask

  •  What can the organization do to address racism in the workplace and community?
  •  Have you experienced racial discrimination in the workplace?
  • Do you feel like leadership is doing enough to make you feel safe and heard?

Note: Remember, many may feel uncomfortable talking about racism with you, especially if your organization lacks diversity and inclusion. This is a continuous process, so with time and initiative employees may communicate more.

Don’t Create  “performative” diversity and inclusion initiatives

When we say performative, do not put on a #BlackLivesMatter sticker and think the work is done.  

Companies often create diversity and inclusion plans without the input of employees, and when they do, there usually isn’t any follow-through. Employees know these things are in place but may not use or feel comfortable seeking assistance. Remember, creating an initiative is the first step, but how you implement it is important. 

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Do my employers or coworkers, primarily black and people of color coworkers, feel safe enough to give feedback?
  •  Do I believe these initiatives and changes are working?
  • Am I or is the organization being transparent and supportive enough?

 The only way to know if your initiative is effective is to ask for feedback. 
Racism won’t end in a day. It’s difficult to unpack systematic issues overnight. However, there are many steps that you can take to begin the work.

Things Organizations and Coworkers can do

  • Hire  Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Consultant or Anti Racism Coach
  • Have a system of documenting racism in the workplace
  • Encouraging employees to hold the organization accountable for racism in the workplace
  • Have a review board to go over your policies, hiring processes, and company culture

These are steps that you can take when bringing up and following through on racism in the workplace. These do’s and don’ts to bringing up racism in the workplace are not the only things you can do. You can always research and connect with others who are doing racial justice work, specifically in the workplace.  Let us know in the comment section if you have any do’s and don’ts on how to bring up racism in the workplace or if you have questions.

Here is a great article for organizations who want to work on racial equity at work. Check out our Diversity and Inclusion section for more articles.


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About the author

Joycelyn Ghansah

Joycelyn Ghansah is a former Healthcare Organizer with a background public health, include reproductive and sexual health. When she's not freelance writing, she's transcribing interviews and researching ways to strengthen healthcare labor laws.

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