Many organizations have beautiful statements about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. These statements often assert the company’s commitment to increasing representation as part of their deeply held values. They cite research that correlates increased creativity and productivity with diversity. Many proudly report increasing numbers of employees from a variety of historically marginalized identities. While increasing diversity on one’s staff is necessary, it is not sufficient to create a truly diverse workforce where folks are thriving.
Another necessary component is recognizing that those new, much lauded employees often experience harm directly tied to their identities. Organizations must implement processes to learn about and repair that harm, and prevent future harm from happening. This is where some organizations fall short. Even when employees ask, and management agree, to have dialogue to address bias, microaggressions and other acts of inequities, those conversations can fail as the process used for the dialogue blocks effectiveness.
This ineffectiveness is not necessarily indicative of a lack of commitment or desire from those with structural power, although that can exist. Instead, these conversations might take place without any awareness of the blocks that interrupt and derail truly effective dialogue. When organizations become aware of these blocks, they can intentionally take steps to counter them, thus making it possible for meaningful, sustainable dialogue that leads to change.
One way to unintentionally, and at times intentionally, interrupt conversations about racism and other inequities is through an insistence on a certain process or form for these conversations. Not surprisingly, the form that is often chosen is one that favors ways of being that are typical of those with more structural power and prioritizes processes that ensure the comfort of those with power. I have been brought into organizations by folks who are concerned about complaints of racial inequities lodged by a person from the Global Majority.
Invariably, when those who are bringing me in describe the concerns, they may acknowledge the legitimacy of the issues being raised but often add the part that led them to bring me in. “We’re grateful Person X brought this to our attention, but he’s going about it all wrong. Everyone feels scared now.” Or “She’s so angry. She’s not following the right procedures, so it keeps interrupting our meetings and our work.” When I ask what the person is doing, I might be told, “Well, they bring it up again and again in the staff meetings.” Or “They got really upset and yelled once.” Or “They repeatedly point out whenever they think someone is doing something racist.”
As I hear this, I imagine the person they are describing as someone who is desperately trying to raise awareness that might lead to change; someone who is yearning to be met with some response that acknowledges their experiences and the severe impact they have felt. And instead, this person is consistently met with messages that do the opposite. “Yes, this is important, but you shouldn’t raise your voice in staff meetings. Everyone has a right to a safe workplace.”
Can you imagine how you might feel if that’s the response you get when you raise your voice because you have been repeatedly harmed? The underlying message the person from the Global Majority might perceive is “It’s okay if you or people like you experience harm while we figure out some ways to look at this problem that keep everyone else emotionally safe. Everyone but you deserves a safe workplace.”
The rapid, disapproving response to the ways messages are delivered, combined with glacial attention to the content of those messages, often reinforces the implicit message of whose well-being is valued and who needs and receives support. Similar impacts occur when meetings are called to address issues of racism and other inequities.
Some of these meetings are highly structured, with rigid rules to follow of who speaks when. Global Majority folks experience being interrupted, cut off, told they are speaking out of turn or off-topic at the same time white folks are permitted to go off-topic, or take longer than their allotted time without repercussion.
In public formal meetings, for example, insistence on following a form not everyone knows and can anticipate means that folks with structural power get up or otherwise signal they want to speak and get queued up in order to do so while folks without knowledge of the system find themselves at the back of the queue, subject to not being heard because time has run out. This essentially uses the process to reinforce whose voice is prioritized, at the expense of content.
When we insist on following rules that are informed by long standing paradigms of white supremacy culture, don’t ensure that everyone has the same information, and don’t provide other structures that can support the full inclusion and valuing of all our community, we privilege some folks (typically those with more structural power) over others (those with less structural power, often Global Majority folks).
We must attend to the often invisible structures and norms that govern our dialogues about race. When we remove the blocks to effective dialogue, we create the conditions for meaningful change to occur. This change is necessary if we want to not just gain, but retain our much celebrated employees from historically marginalized groups.
Excerpted from How to Have Antiracist Conversations: Embracing Our Full Humanity to Challenge White Supremacy (Berrett-Koehler Publishers).
Written by Dr. Roxy Manning.
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