This direct, actionable and refreshingly humorous look at the serious topic of contemporary racism serves as a potent reminder that the problem persists, even if subtler forms of discrimination have supplanted more egregious ones in some cases. As an accomplished lawyer and CEO who has endured racism since her youth, Y-Vonne Hutchinson’s best-selling handbook focuses mainly on combating its scourge in the workplace through skillful conversations – followed by concrete actions. She shows workers how to be more assertive in the face of discrimination and speak persuasively with conviction and courage.
- Systemic racism still pervades all aspects of society, including the workplace.
- The US workforce remains segregated.
- Consider your unconscious biases before taking action against racism.
- Build a coalition at work to tackle racial injustices.
- Before you talk to your boss, prepare and practice.
- Emphasize racism’s effects on work, productivity and retention when talking to management.
- Resist deflection or denial of racism’s pernicious effects.
- If your boss exhibits racist behavior, consider your options before reacting.
Systemic racism still pervades all aspects of society, including the workplace.
The murder of George Floyd by a police officer shook many Americans from their slumber surrounding racism, and spawned the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. But, in response to movements and cultural shifts, a backlash emerged, which COVID-19 exacerbated. Many racially-motivated killings and attacks have followed. Politicians, school boards, municipalities and learning institutions have attacked or banned educators from teaching critical race theory or referring to systemic racism.
Of course, treating people differently based solely on the allotment of melanin in their skin makes no sense, yet racial enmity and discrimination have persisted for centuries. Racism was invented to exclude and enslave. Systems have historically codified and sustained racism. Thus, whatever your race, your upbringing etched racism and related biases into your psyche.
“If you are truly committed to anti-racism, arguably nowhere is more important than your workplace.”
Even though science proves average potential is identical across all races; opportunity comes unevenly. The social construct of race may seem absurd to you. You might even want to deny race because it has no basis in biology; but racism costs lives and restricts economic growth. People gain advantages based on their race – advantages undergirded by the institutions of society, including laws, culture and economics. Acknowledge this fact, and realize that racism doesn’t only manifest in cross burnings or in “No Blacks Allowed” signs.
The US workforce remains segregated.
Keep learning about racism and its impact. Help raise awareness beyond stating your dislike of racism, beyond tweeting your support for Black people and others, even beyond standing on a sidewalk with a BLM sign or demonstrating on the streets: Take action. Counter racism when you see it. Call out its perpetrators. Embrace anti-racism.
Neutrality puts you on the wrong side. You may wonder where and how to fight. For many, the most powerful anti-racist action will occur at work.
“Conversation itself rarely solves the problem. In work, as in life, actions speak louder than words.”
Centuries of racism continue to segregate the American workforce. Most firms have excised obvious and illegal discrimination but, in general, white, male, able-bodied people still get more interesting, safe, high-paying and senior jobs than others. Overwhelmingly, research and statistics demonstrate the existence of these work and economic advantages. Call out attempts to deflect conversations about race, and refute statements that claim it no longer exists. Educate your co-workers, invite subject-matter experts to speak and participate in an employee resource group (ERG).
Consider your unconscious biases before taking action against racism.
Don’t attempt to prove anything about how another person thinks or what they intend. You can’t ever know these things for sure, and you’ll waste time. Instead, look to impact and outcomes. Whether a person admits they aimed to hurt someone with a joke, or claims an action was purely innocent and unintentional matters little compared to the harm the speech or action caused.
Microaggressions can include actions like talking about your tan in comparison to the color of a Black colleague’s skin, or commenting on an ethnic hairstyle. You may mean no harm, but as they accumulate, microaggressions affect the health and well-being of their victims. They undermine confidence and performance, and, ultimately, may cause minorities to leave their organizations.
“Unconscious bias refers to the bias that we all hold, informed by social stereotypes, about various identity groups.”
Due to centuries of institutional, structural racism, unconscious bias exists alongside conscious and overt racism. Don’t use the excuse of unconscious bias to let yourself or others off the hook. Unconscious bias might result in unfair preferences in hiring, performance reviews and promotions.
Intersectionality is a useful framework for understanding how the effects of different biases increase for those who fall into multiple categories of discrimination – a Black woman, for example, or a disabled Native American. The notion of privilege exists on a continuum. It can benefit Black men born into affluence, for example, or silence a white, 20-year-old in an ageist workplace.
Before you take action against racism at work, consider your identities. What advantages and disadvantages does your identity confer? What biases might impair your thinking and decisions? Which of your identities does your boss share? Recognize where your identities place you on the spectrum of influence within your firm. Know your influence – your ability to reward and punish, your access to information and the effects of your values, reputation and expertise. Recognize how you exercise this power, and how others, including your boss, use theirs.
Build a coalition at work to tackle racial injustices.
Don’t tackle race issues alone. You’ll exhaust yourself and may suffer retaliation. Most improvements for workers over the decades have come from groups engaged in collective action, like unions. Talk to people, join workplace interest groups and seek out those who may have undertaken Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) action in the past. Join with others – friends and allies – who want to help.
“The term ‘white fragility’ refers to defensive reactions to the racial stress that’s triggered when white people are asked to engage with racism.”
Solidify your group by listening to their ideas, take personal accountability for sharing information, volunteer and follow through on your promises. Work with your group to influence others. Build evidence-based arguments that focus on the business and ethical aspects of racism, combined with emotional appeals. Use that reasoning to move those opposed to change toward neutrality, shift neutral colleagues to agreement, and prompt passive allies to become active ones.
Before you talk to your boss, prepare and practice.
Proceed with caution, even after you form a group. People often react to conversations about race with defensiveness, deflection and denial. How might such responses increase your stress, or, perhaps, cause you to say things that could set back your cause? Might your advocacy cost you a promotion, or even your job? With such high stakes, think carefully about what you want to say before you meet with your boss, and know what you hope to achieve. Script your conversation and practice it with others, or in front of a mirror. Anticipate questions and objections, and rehearse your responses.
“Perhaps the strongest indicator of racism within a company is the rate of attrition for people of color.”
Collect and retain crucial background information, including company values, industry norms, workforce demographics and examples of how racism affects your firm. Come to the meeting with ideas about how to address challenges. Consider whether to lead with well-known business, risk or legal cases for diversity, or whether social and moral arguments may work best – or some combination of both.
Emphasize racism’s effects on work, productivity and retention when talking to management.
Point out the attrition and/or disengagement-related costs of racism. Suggest ways you think your boss can help, but do so with emotional intelligence. Ask for an official, private appointment, long enough to discuss race meaningfully. Let your boss know what you want to talk about beforehand, so he or she won’t feel ambushed.
“The thing that racism does most effectively, aside from killing people and draining generations’ worth of collective potential, is waste time.”
Don’t assume you know your boss’s attitudes or position ahead of time. Stay curious and open-minded. Ask your boss about their thoughts and feelings, and seek common ground. Offer your help, talk about your experiences and what interests you about racial justice. Turn off your phone. Talk half as much as you listen, maintain eye contact, lean in when your boss does, ask questions and don’t interrupt.
Uncomfortable as your boss may become, talk about racism, white supremacy and anti-racism directly. Don’t mince words. Don’t let the conversation stray toward intent, and away from impact. Your boss may say a person didn’t mean their actions to be racist or hurtful, or fall back on claims of unconscious bias. Keep emphasizing racism’s effects on the work, on productivity and on retention.
Arm your boss with concrete next steps – things he or she can say and do. Identify quick wins that lie within your boss’ control. Give him or her examples of what other, similar firms have done. Offer support in helping take actions that improve and bring positive attention to the organization. Follow up regularly after your meeting.
Resist deflection or denial of racism’s pernicious effects.
Your boss or peers may resist your arguments by defending the good intentions of white people, or by chalking harmful words and actions up to unconscious bias. They may even say racism no longer exists. Or they might evoke the notion of “reverse” racism. They might blame lack of diversity or uneven promotions on too few non-white people in the pipeline. Some may argue race has nothing to do with the problems you identified, or that racial politics have no place at work.
When these defenses and deflections occur, stay composed. Suggest that you and your boss investigate the issues you raised and learn about them together. Tackle the common myths your boss might use as deflections. If they make the meritocracy argument – not wanting to “lower the bar” based on race – remind them of the myriad biases that drove people to hire and promote people like them, or that cause them to assume white people automatically carry greater qualifications. Say you want meritocracy too, but the firm hasn’t reached that goal yet. Suggest small changes, like blind screening during the recruiting process.
“Any approach to anti-racism and increasing diversity within historically biased systems like the workplace must include elements of affirmative action.”
Your boss might conflate your requests with affirmative action. Remind him or her that affirmative action doesn’t make anyone hire or promote anyone; it demands no special treatment. Affirmative action only requires that firms don’t discriminate unfairly. It works for white women getting promotions and for white men gaining entrance to college. Affirmative action never puts less qualified people into jobs at the expense of those better qualified.
If your boss says he’d love to hire and promote more Black people, if only there were candidates, leap at the chance to prove him wrong. Despite more Black and Latinx candidates than ever seeking a range of professional and executive positions requiring experience and advanced education, non-white numbers in those jobs remain stagnant. Don’t let your boss or others blame the victims. Find and present the readily available statistics that prove your case.
Similarly, don’t let your boss shift your efforts toward easier, less uncomfortable actions, like focusing on women first. Make racial and gender progress in parallel. Remind your bosses that working on one group at a time and making others wait is immoral, costs more and wastes time.
Your boss might gaslight you by asking endless questions and/or constantly requesting more data. Bring data, make sure it’s objective and ask your boss what it would take to convince her or him. Remind your boss of the thorough and well-established business, risk, legal and moral cases for DEI. If, as often happens, your boss flips responsibility back to you – suggesting you take the lead on educating your workforce about racism or on finding qualified non-white job candidates – refuse unless your boss also offers a budget, staff and a raise.
If your boss exhibits racist behavior, consider your options before reacting.
Never attack your boss’s character. Again, focus on the effects of his or her actions, and how they hurt others and the firm. Know, too, that your boss or others might retaliate by punishing you for speaking up, stalling and starving DEI initiatives of resources, or otherwise staging a powerful pushback. These actions suggest that walking away and/or resigning your job might be the wisest choice. First, consider whether you want to get another job, go public or fight your employer legally. Your circumstances and fortitude will determine your best course.
Whichever route you choose, keep detailed records of your actions and know the rules and code of conduct in your firm. Invite HR into the conversation when necessary, but, remember, HR represents the firm’s interests, not yours. In the US, consider recourse to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but expect your case to take years. Consult with a labor lawyer, if only to have them write a letter that might persuade your bosses to be more reasonable. If your boss fires you, don’t blame yourself. Hire an attorney and negotiate your best terms of exit.
About the Author
Former international labor lawyer Y-Vonne Hutchinson founded and leads ReadySet, a DEI consulting and training firm.
In “How to Talk to Your Boss About Race: Speaking Up Without Getting Shut Down,” Y-Vonne Hutchinson provides a timely and necessary guide for individuals who are seeking to initiate conversations about race and racism in the workplace. The book is written in a clear and concise manner, making it accessible to readers who may not have a background in diversity and inclusion work.
Hutchinson, a seasoned diversity and inclusion expert, offers practical advice and strategies for navigating difficult conversations with colleagues and supervisors. She emphasizes the importance of preparation, self-reflection, and empathy in creating a safe and productive dialogue. Throughout the book, Hutchinson provides real-world examples and case studies that illustrate the benefits and challenges of speaking up about race in the workplace.
One of the book’s greatest strengths is its focus on empowering employees to speak up and advocate for themselves and their colleagues. Hutchinson encourages readers to take an active role in creating a more inclusive workplace culture, rather than relying solely on HR or leadership to drive change. She also acknowledges the risks and emotional labor involved in discussing race and racism in the workplace, and offers strategies for managing those risks and maintaining one’s well-being.
The book is divided into four parts: “Understanding the Landscape,” “Preparing for the Conversation,” “Having the Conversation,” and “Moving Forward.” Each section builds upon the previous one, providing a comprehensive framework for addressing race and racism in the workplace. Hutchinson’s use of clear headings and subheadings makes it easy for readers to navigate the book and find the information they need.
In “Understanding the Landscape,” Hutchinson provides an overview of the history and current state of race and racism in the workplace. She discusses the ways in which systemic racism can manifest in workplace policies and practices, and highlights the importance of understanding power dynamics and privilege. This section is particularly useful for readers who are new to diversity and inclusion work, as it provides a solid foundation for understanding the complex issues involved.
In “Preparing for the Conversation,” Hutchinson offers practical advice on how to prepare for a conversation about race and racism with a supervisor or colleague. She emphasizes the importance of self-reflection, identifying one’s goals and values, and developing a clear and concise message. Hutchinson also discusses the importance of choosing the right time and place for the conversation, and provides tips on how to manage one’s emotions and body language during the discussion.
In “Having the Conversation,” Hutchinson provides guidance on how to navigate the conversation itself. She emphasizes the importance of active listening, empathy, and respectful communication. Hutchinson also provides tips on how to address common objections and deflections, and how to seek common ground and build alliances. This section is particularly useful for readers who are nervous about initiating difficult conversations, as it provides a step-by-step guide for navigating the discussion.
Finally, in “Moving Forward,” Hutchinson discusses the importance of follow-up and follow-through after the conversation. She emphasizes the need to maintain momentum and continue advocating for change, even in the face of resistance or setbacks. Hutchinson also provides guidance on how to build a coalition of allies and create a plan for sustainable change.
Throughout the book, Hutchinson emphasizes the importance of self-care and maintaining one’s well-being when engaging in difficult conversations about race and racism. She acknowledges the emotional labor involved in discussing these issues, and provides tips on how to manage stress and avoid burnout.
One potential area for improvement is the book’s focus on individual action and personal responsibility. While Hutchinson emphasizes the importance of collective action and building alliances, the book’s primary focus is on empowering individual employees to speak up and advocate for change. Some readers may find this emphasis on individual action to be overly optimistic, given the structural and systemic nature of racism in society and the workplace.
The book is targeted towards individuals who work in organizations and are looking to address issues of race and diversity in their workplace. It is particularly useful for those in leadership positions or those who are interested in creating a more inclusive work environment. However, the book’s insights and advice are relevant to anyone looking to engage in productive and inclusive conversations about race and diversity.
Here are some of the key takeaways from the book:
- Racism is real and it exists in the workplace.
- It’s important to talk about race with your boss, even if it’s uncomfortable.
- There is no one right way to have this conversation, but there are some things you can do to prepare.
- Be clear and direct about what you’re experiencing.
- Be prepared to answer questions and challenges.
- Be willing to listen to your boss’s perspective.
- Be persistent and don’t give up.
In conclusion, “How to Talk to Your Boss About Race: Speaking Up Without Getting Shut Down” is a valuable guide for individuals seeking guidance on navigating conversations about race in the workplace. Y-Vonne Hutchinson’s expertise and practical approach provide readers with the tools they need to engage in meaningful discussions that drive positive change while acknowledging the unique dynamics of corporate environments. This book is highly recommended for those looking to contribute to a more inclusive and equitable workplace by effectively addressing race-related issues with their superiors and colleagues.