Everywhere I turn, whites are asking what we can do to address the racial inequity that is now on display across the nation. On both social media and on list-serves, people are sharing books, videos and suggestions. I want to suggest taking action in the location where most whites meet people of color: the workplace. Given the reality of racial segregation in housing, most whites live in neighborhoods that are 80-95% white. This is also the case in terms of schools, houses of worship and social clubs. The workplace which is probably the most racially integrated arena in the US.
If we pay attention in our workplace, we will have ample opportunity to observe how race is impacting both our coworkers of color, and our white coworkers. In a previous blog of May 13, 2020, I listed a number of key areas to watch: meetings, informal socializing, interactions that managers have with people of color as well as who, by racial identity, gets mentored and who is given opportunities to show initiative. Depending on what is seen, each of these areas are arenas where whites can intervene to change what occurs. We may not be able to totally rectify a situation, but we can break the violence of silence by speaking up and by forming alliances with co-workers of color.
In today’s article, I want to discuss what any of us can do if we see other whites in meetings disregard, minimize or ignore the ideas, issues or suggestions of coworkers of color.
If you notice that co-workers of color are cut off before they finish speaking, but whites are allowed to finish, you can prepare to intervene the next time you see this occur. If a person of color is interrupted by a white person, you can say “Louise, you did not finish what you were saying, please go on.” Saying this is very important. It draws a line in the sand, figuratively speaking. It puts everyone present on notice that you will not sit silently when a person of color is cut off or has their idea ignored, only to have a white person say the same thing later and receive a positive response. By doing this, you are breaking the color line. You are not playing the assigned role for whites to never intervene when other whites exclude or disregard a person of color.
If the white person continues to interrupt or disregard a co-worker of color, there are several options available to you. You can approach other whites after the meeting, and ask them whether they noticed what occurred. If they say that they saw nothing, you can share what you saw and suggest that the two of you meet to debrief after the next meeting to see if the same thing occurs. By taking this action, you are also implicitly calling other whites to account. You are letting them know that they cannot do nothing without you noticing it. You are putting them on notice that they no longer have the privilege of going along without being asked why are they doing that. By doing this, you are also challenging them to acknowledge what is occurring.
If the whites you approach after the meeting do acknowledge that the person of color is being excluded or treated differently than the whites in the meeting, they then have to justify what they are going to do in response. You do not have to press them to do anything. You only have to ask them what they think should be done. If they give you a rationale for doing nothing, then they have taken a stand to support the status quo. You now know that they are not someone who can be relied on to create racial equity in your work unit. At this point, I suggest that you move on to another white person. In the beginning, it is important to identify who might be allies. You want to build alliances with as many allies as you find in your work unit. You don’t want to waste time on those who don’t want to do anything but maintain the status quo.
Another, riskier approach is to wait until the meeting is over and directly ask the interrupting white person if they noticed that they had interrupted the person of color. They are likely to respond with some defensiveness. Do not argue with them. You can tell them that you understand and let them know that this is something you pay attention to in any meeting. Invite them to do the same.
However, they respond, you have confronted them on their behavior. They now know that you monitor such behavior. While you lack the power to stop them from continuing to interrupt or disregard what co-workers of color say, they now know that their behavior is being noticed. They cannot be sure what consequences may ensure in the future. You have put a hitch in their git along. They have learned that there are some consequences already – you notice and do not support that behavior.
There are several goals that you are trying to accomplish. One is to break the “violence of silence.” You have done that by speaking up. A second is to notify other whites that you will not sit by while a co-worker of color is treated with disrespect or is marginalized. Third, with the group that does acknowledge what occurred, you are letting other whites in that group know that you are asking them what are they going to do when they see such micro-aggressions being committed in the meeting. Fourth, you are beginning to identify other whites who will support treating co-workers of color with respect and inclusion.
This is not a small matter. It is the beginning of changing the norms in that work group. By asking whites what they observed, you are also beginning the process of building a key skill. If we are to manage inclusion we have to see when it is happening and when it is not. All concerned need to build a habit of noticing any patterns of racial difference in order to recognize when it is playing out in the moment. This involves noting differences in who speaks and who is listened to. It involves noticing who, in terms of racial identity, speaks most often. It involves noticing differences in perspectives voiced by whites and by people of color. It involves noticing whether group members of different racial group have similar or different priorities in regard to an issue under discussion.
This fundamental skill must become widespread in any organization that is committed to achieving racial equity. By taking the actions described above, you are breaking from the status quo and modeling for others this essential skill.