Conversations about race at work

Published on March 30, 2021   14 min

Other Talks in the Category: Management, Leadership & Organisation

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Hello, my name is Dr. Ella F. Washington, I'm a management professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business in Washington DC. My passion is helping to create more diverse, equitable, and inclusive work environments for all, through my research and practice. Today, I will be talking about conversations about race at work.
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We often think about race as an attribute that only applies to black and indigenous people of color, but the truth is that race is a socially constructed concept that applies to all people, including white people. When we think of race as a concept only for people of color, we are actually normalizing whiteness and othering everyone else. This becomes another way that racism is able to exist because we choose to ignore its impact on everyone. Race affects many important aspects of our lives. It can be a determinant of health outcomes, it can affect employment and residential opportunities, as well as influence the level of stress we feel on a day-to-day basis. Race is a part of our identity that has an impact on the way that we see the world, and the way the world sees us. When we think about the concept of whiteness as normalized identity, we start to believe that because race doesn't seemingly affect white people, it's something that must show up similarly for non-white people, but this is not the case. If a person has a negative interaction with law enforcement on their way to work, or the night before they experience discrimination in a social outing, or senses tension with colleagues that feels racially motivated, it is unreasonable to expect that when this person arrives at work they must operate as though nothing is the matter. When in reality they are experiencing stress and anxiety around what may have not been their only experience with the matter. Conversely, a white person may not have noticed that they are never followed around a store, or considered the aggressor in a heated situation. Because they are never exposed to these experiences (second-hand or otherwise), they may begin to believe that their life experience is the same as most other people's. Race, both positive and negative experiences with it, also happen at work, and not to discuss race or these topics ignores the very real experiences of these individuals. Finally, we miss out on having the value of a diverse workforce when we ask people to leave their unique identities at the door. The life experiences of a person cannot be separated and compartmentalized to be shared in comfortable doses, for the comfort of what may be the majority of people in the office. Especially when we think about the fact that although whiteness may feel invisible to white people, it is not invisible to people of color. Those members of our organizations are being asked to experience and accept different ways in which race shows up for white people, without being given the same courtesy or consideration. We have a missed opportunity when we ask people to pick and choose parts of their identity that are comfortable enough for our workplace, especially when that metric is vague and based on feelings and experiences of one group of people.