We Want You to Talk About Your Experience. But…Not if it Makes Us Uncomfortable
The dilemma of having the “racism talk” while Black in corporate America
When America began to collectively discuss racism after the horrific death of George Floyd, I was hopeful that our Black voices, which are typically silenced, would finally be heard. And this time not merely tolerated, but actually acknowledged.
I continued to be encouraged when corporations across the country started stepping out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. It gave the impression that these organizations were admitting their complicit — whether intentional or not — perpetuation of racial bias and were now taking a stand to simply do better.
While the realist in me understood it was more about “Black Dollars Matter” and maintaining the status quo in corporate offices than the preservation of Black lives, I still had to bear witness that I had never seen such an open, raw discussion on racism outside the Black community. As a person who is passionate about Black justice and equality, I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth in, get involved in every conversation, and finally share what I’ve had to suppress my entire life.
But then I realized some White people didn’t actually WANT to have this conversation.
On the surface, it seemed as if most of our fellow Americans in the White community were ready to talk about racism for greater understanding. Some people have been so bold as to join protests, chanting “No Justice, No Peace!” alongside Black people. Others have taken it a step further and used their own bodies as human shields to protect us from police during marches.
All these things added hope to my optimistic side. I want this country’s long history of racism to be a thing of the past. I want to relax and not worry about my children encountering the wrong police officer while simply living their lives. I want to walk into a room without wondering if the White people looking at me will acknowledge or ignore my presence because of my brown skin. I want my people to be free of all the unnecessary hatred, discrimination, violence, and murder that we suffer at disproportionately higher rates than other ethnicities. But to achieve this we must first have intelligent, thoughtful, and meaningful dialogues.
And that is impossible if some choose to remain silent or will only participate if it doesn’t take them out of their comfort zone.
Personally, I’ve noticed this open discussion on racism has caused a few White people, particularly in the corporate setting, to simply check out. Whether it’s out of fear of saying the wrong thing, the worry of judgment, or just lack of concern altogether, some have taken the liberty to remain silent if the topic of discussion makes them “uncomfortable.”
As a Black employee in corporate America, I feel some type of way about that.
I understand the concept of creating a safe place for everyone to come together and discuss the urgent issues we’re facing in this country, but a discussion must go both ways. Black people don’t have the privilege to “opt-out” of racism and we encounter uncomfortable situations on a daily basis. We also don’t have the benefit of “sitting this one out” because when we show up, the color of our skin makes disengagement impossible.
The disconnect of conversations in the workplace has caused my hope of change on a fundamental level to become slightly jaded. I know broaching the subject of racism with White America is a huge undertaking. I know that it will be uncomfortable. And I know that people on either side of this conversation may come away from it feeling differently about the other person. But I’m a firm believer that change cannot occur without people getting uncomfortable and being open to doing the work it takes to evolve into better human beings.
If you are a White person who works with Black people in corporate America, and you haven’t participated in any dialogue with your respective teams, please know that your silence makes them uncomfortable, too.
We get that people who are able to remove themselves from racism will do it in a heartbeat because let’s face it, we wish we could remove ourselves from it permanently. But we are dealing with it, along with dreading up previous trauma to help you better understand what it’s like to be Black in this country.
I think most White people may not understand that Black people aren’t comfortable with policy brutality any more than they are. We aren’t comfortable with racism, seeing people murdered on video, or discrimination either. And we certainly aren’t comfortable talking about it in a corporate setting, so we actually have that in common.
The only difference is if we don’t talk about it, we run the risk of things going back to normal. And normal for us isn’t healthy for our emotional or physical health, at work or in our personal lives.
It’s likely we will all be encouraged to continue having these conversations for the foreseeable future in our corporate offices. And while none of us may be comfortable with that, one thing I know for sure is a discussion on a two-way street is better than one on a lonely highway.