Following the global protests and outpouring of stories of racial injustice sparked by George Floyd’s death in America, workplaces around the world are grappling with the open wound of racism that has been exposed.  It is clear that many diversity and inclusion efforts in workplaces are failing.  For example, studies have found that there remains a huge gap between what workplaces are saying and what they are doing to promote inclusion, with African Americans still less likely than their white peers to be hired, developed, and promoted.

“The first step to getting unstuck is telling the truth,” explained Valorie Burton, the founder and CEO of the Coaching and Positive Psychology Institute, when we interviewed her recently on the Making Positive Psychology Work Podcast. “Recent events have opened up the conversation about racism in new ways that offer all of us opportunities for learning, growth, and progress.” 

So how can we better navigate these conversations in our workplaces together?

The truth is that for many white people, discussing racial issues can evoke uncomfortable feelings of guilt and shame.  As a result, many colored people may also not be comfortable talking about their experiences, because they’ve been socialized to not make white people feel uncomfortable, or they may have encountered a dismissal of what they shared.  

Rather than turning away from the conversation, Valorie suggests that we need to recognize that the issue of racism is much bigger than our emotions.  It’s about how we want to show up as human beings, and how we want to help others thrive.

“There’s no vision that we get to without struggle,” explained Valorie.  “We all have a role to play – in our organizations and our communities – to fix and rectify our systems.  We need to understand the history of how we got here.  Then, if we’re willing to have honest conversations, even if it feels uncomfortable, even if we’re afraid of offending, we can start considering different ways to go about living and working together in order to change what is happening.” 

To help us have more honest conversations about racial injustice, Valorie suggests trying the following:

  • Show racial empathy  –  When you interact with someone in your workplace who doesn’t look like you, consider what that experience is like for them.  Ask yourself, “How do people who don’t look like me, experience me?”  Would it be an experience that contributes in a positive or negative way to moving forward racially?  Would it cause them to let some of their walls down, or build more trust with people who don’t look like them, or would it cause them to raise the walls even higher?  Asking yourself these types of powerful questions can help you be more racially empathetic and can allow you to reflect, on a personal level, on what you can do differently. 

If you’re a workplace leader, and you notice diversity is lacking in your workplace, consider how you could widen that circle.  Who could you reach out to?  Rather than become upset that you haven’t done more before, try saying, “I’m awakening to my role in this, in my own power, and the things that I can change.  What will I do with the power that I have?”

  • Speak up  –  Even if you’re worried that you might say things the wrong way or may not get it perfect, first and foremost, it’s important to find something good to acknowledge.  So, if your workplace has a diversity policy, acknowledge that they are taking a step to address something that needs to be addressed.  And then encourage others and your workplace to keep moving in that direction.  Sometimes it might be that your workplace doesn’t know their blind spots or how to have conversations about race. 

As a leader, you might start with getting feedback via anonymous surveys, and then making sure that the approaches are collaborative.  Consider who’s leading or co-leading the conversation?  Is this coming from the top?  And are there diverse voices in the conversation about how to move forward?  On an individual level, it’s about recognizing that this is a bigger issue than just you and your feelings.  What do you believe is your responsibility in this?  What are you willing to do? 

  • Listen  –  While you might want to jump in and help and offer suggestions, Valorie emphasizes that just listening is a profound gift to give anyone.  In fact, jumping in with suggestions for action can unintentionally add to the problem.  As in any strong relationship, listening can be challenging, especially if someone is telling you things that are hard to hear.  Try to listen in ways that suspend judging and ask yourself, “Well, what if that’s true?  Why does that make me uncomfortable?  What does that mean about how I might change what I believe?”  

What can you do to open up more honest conversations about racism in your workplace?

To discover more evidence-based practices for helping people to thrive at work, check out the Making Positive Psychology Work Podcast.