How to have race conversations in the workplace

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Health Assured team

30 October 2020

While many people may not think that racial issues, prejudices and biases affect every workplace, they certainly do. Diversity and inclusion are more important than ever—while progress is being made, it’s vital that this progress turns into momentum.

Of course, such a sensitive subject isn’t always easy to bring up. It can be uncomfortable, particularly for people with no real knowledge or experience of racial issues. But it’s important to do so, in a friendly and approachable way, because these issues—both visible and hidden—need to be spoken about.

There are ways for all employees to carefully and considerately discuss the topic of race in the workplace, and feel confident to do so, without fear of saying the wrong thing. We’ll walk you through how best to start these conversations now.

Seek help and guidance

You’re not expected to barrel in to a sensitive topic like this immediately, on your own. HR is a good place to start—speaking to a professional about expectations, options, and what you should and shouldn’t say is a positive step.

They may also be able to suggest practical steps that you can take internally to harbor the culture of openness and understanding that we explain below.

Not everyone will want to engage in these conversations. And that’s okay—it’s a personal choice. Make sure that people who engage are doing so because they want to. Pushing ideas and opinions onto others builds resentment. Allowing people to come to you, on the other hand, fosters openness and means those who engage are much more willing to talk, listen, and learn.

Creating a culture of openness and honesty will help, as well as offering safe spaces to discuss these more difficult topics—this could be through establishing an internal Equality & Diversity network where people can exchange thoughts, opinions and share educational resources.

Non-POC employees may be nervous to engage through fear of saying the wrong thing or offering opinions on a subject they have no direct experience with. But it is better to talk in the knowledge that you won’t be judged than to say nothing at all. How else can the conversation begin? On an individual level, it is also important to maintain a positive and open mind, being open to change your perspective as we’re never too old to learn and shift our way of thinking.

Listen

This is possibly the most important piece of advice.

No-one can truly understand the lived experiences of someone else. But the closest you can get is by actively listening, and taking in everything someone says. Every detail is important. Don’t interrupt, even with well-meaning questions, don’t listen with half your mind while planning your next response.

Self-educate and learn

Lack of knowledge is no longer an excuse for being uneducated on the subject of race. There are so many fantastic resources in the form of online articles, documentaries and, of course, books across a breadth of sub-topics.

Taking the time to read and engage with the subject is a fantastic way to ensure you know more, understand better and feel confident discussing race with friends and colleagues. It is up to individuals to focus on their own self-development and take responsibility when lacking knowledge about race, rather than asking People of Colour (POC) to explain and teach others. Many POC will not want to share their personal experience, and it isn’t their duty to educate others.

Accept your errors

As above, everyone’s experiences are different. And it’s likely that a lot of the things you thought were true, particularly about racial issues, don’t hold true for people with different experiences from yours.

It’s vital that you accept this, without being defensive or trying to justify your actions. If a coworker opens up to you about something you may have done wrong without realising (often, we commit microaggressions completely involuntarily, for example), take this on board. Accept, understand and consider what you can do differently.

 

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