In a 2020 study of 101 Black teenagers living in the United States, participants reported 5,606 experiences of racial discrimination in the course of two weeks, which is an average of five times per day per person. The discrimination against Black people doesn’t stop upon entering adulthood or the workforce, though. Racism at work runs rampant, and in order to be allies—not bystanders—white co-workers need to consider anti-racist actions part of their job description.
Before taking swift, effective steps to combat racism at work, though, Sonyia Richardson, PhD, LCSW, a clinical assistant professor of social work at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, says it’s important to be able to spot transgressions in the first place.
Below, learn three ways racism at work can manifest in the first place, then find the five-step guide that employees can read, memorize, and enact to effect change, no matter their status in the company.
3 ways racism at work manifests
1. White Fragility keeps communication lines about race closed
Plain and simple, white people are really bad at talking about race—and that’s a problem. “I would suggest that the discomfort or fragility that some people have with discussing race in the workplace reinforces racism,” says Dr. Richardson. “This discomfort and inability to have these real conversations only perpetuates racism and reinforces the quietness of employees of color.”
2. There is a lack of BIPOC representation in leadership positions
BIPOC employees are statistically less likely to get promoted, as evidenced by a 2019 survey finding that BIPOC women account for only about 4 percent of C-suite (or executive level) employees. Worse, Black workers who are in positions of power at work are often alone, representation-wise, at the top. “Typically, people of color often are placed in leadership positions in companies where there are few people who look like them. Without access to these leadership positions, people of color are left powerless in companies,” Dr. Richardson adds.
3. Companies are often guilty of hollow, performative allyship
The last and arguably most insidious form that racism takes on at the office is that of fake diversity promises that prove to be strikingly hollow. “It is easy for companies to publish diversity statements acknowledging a commitment to diversity, but it’s harder for them to actually demonstrate their commitment to diversity in their actions,” says Dr. Richardson. This allows companies to mask themselves in equality “efforts,” while continuing to underemployed and undervalue BIPOC employees.
5 anti-racist changes employees can make to commit to racial equality in the workplace.
Dr. Richardson suggests a two-pronged approach for diminishing racism at work: action focused on diversity and action focused on inclusion. “If the motive is based on increasing diversity, the goal would be more metric-based, with a focus on how to increase diverse staff hires, vendors, and marketing materials,” says Dr. Richardson. For inclusion, “the goal would be to advocate daily for employees of color to be at the table for decision-making, for them not to be excluded from the company culture, and for them considered for promotions and hiring,” she says.
The five tactics below promote both diversity and inclusion.
1. Put your money and your mind where your values are
“If you are truly committed to diversity in the workplace, invest money to demonstrate your commitment,” says Dr. Richardson. This could mean purchasing books, attending webinars, raising money for a local organization focusing on diversity work, or asking your company to bring in speakers who can speak to the whole company about diversity and inclusion.
“It’s important to do inner-work so you don’t continue unintentionally harming the people of color around you because you’re not aware of the things that you’re doing.” —Michelle Saahene, co-founder of From Privilege to Progress
“Everybody can do things to create systemic change right where they are,” says Melissa DePino, co-founder of From Privilege to Progress, an organization dedicated to desegregating the public conversation about race. “But the first thing you have to do is you have to learn; you have to be on that path to anti-racism. There’s a difference between taking actions in your workplace not having an understanding and taking action with knowledge on your side.”
Michelle Saahene, activist, coach, and co-founder of From Privilege to Progress, echoes DePino’s point that, especially for white allies, if you don’t know Black history or personally have a pulse on the Black experience, there’s a risk of doing more harm than good. “It’s really important to do that inner-work because if you don’t, you’re going to continue unintentionally harming the people of color around you because you’re not aware of the things that you’re doing. Without that base of knowledge, you can continue to be really, really problematic and oppressive,” says Saahene.
2. Request the formation of a Paid diversity committee
It’s critical for white employees to remember that advocating for racial diversity and inclusivity shouldn’t become the burden of Black or BIPOC employees. As diversity consultant and Change Cadet founder Akilah Cadet, MPH, said during a recent fireside chat with Ladies Get Paid: “There are a lot of Black people who don’t want to carry the additional weight and burden of helping their company figure out how to respond to their peers, their Black employees, and also externally to whomever the consumer may be.”
So hiring a diversity committee, whether that means compensating current employees who volunteer to take on this extra work, bringing in external consultants, or a combination of the two, is critical. And it’s change for which every employee can advocate.
3. Write a new mission statement that incorporates diversity within the company’s pre-existing mission
“If necessary, articulate your collective needs to the board as it relates to diversity. It might be helpful to relate the need to focus on diversity by aligning it with the company mission, vision, and perhaps even sustainability,” says Dr. Richardson. A statement like this can serve to both point out the hypocrisy in those hollow diversity statements noted previously, and make painfully clear why everyone benefits from a workplace that’s diverse and inclusive.
4. Share the power at the conference table, every day
It’s important for white employees to assess how daily operations—including meetings and happy hours—function at work, and then re-wire them to pass the mic to Black and BIPOC colleagues.
“It is helpful for white people to use their influence to garner support for diversity within the company without becoming the white saviors for people of color.” —Sonyia Richardson, PhD, LCSW
“It is helpful for white people to use their influence to garner support for diversity within the company without becoming the white saviors for people of color,” says Dr. Richardson. “If people of color are at the table, share the power with them, and be willing to allow them to lead.”
5. Stop being a bystander, but don’t make it about you
“It is important to have compassion for what your Black employees are experiencing right now,” Dr. Cadet wrote in a recent blog post outlining what white and white-passing leaders can do for Black employees. “Do not compare your lived experience to a Black person’s lived experience if you are not Black… If you are not Black, you absolutely do not know the Black experience.”
Finally, a message for white allies to the Black community at work: Do what you can to create spaces for diverse and inclusive change in your company, but once that space exists, listen. For example, if you hold a meeting to advocate for the creation of a diversity committee, don’t talk over the Black employees who show up. Book the room, then open your ears and your mind—but not your mouth. This is a time to learn, not share.
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