How to Approach Conversations About Race at Work
Illustration by Marko Aliaksandr / Shutterstock

How to Approach Conversations About Race at Work

Now is not the time for “no comment,” says Dara Beevas, co-founder and CEO of Wise Ink Creative Publishing.

It’s Monday morning, and you’re dreading the inevitable uncomfortable conversation that awaits you. Another terrible racially-charged atrocity happened last week, and you’re uneasy traversing the tensions caused by such events. You’re also tired of external chaos taking a toll on you and your team. These events are draining your team members of precious productivity at a time everyone is already feeling overwhelmed. Now, there’s yet another thing shifting attention away from what really matters: staying afloat.

The questions keep coming about how you’ll support your team through this latest horror. Moreover, you’re being asked to comment. What’s your opinion? How do you feel about this? Probes are becoming dangerously close to feeling political. Thankfully, you’re prepared with feel-good buzzwords you really like. You’ve read a few articles about “equity” and “diversity” if anyone puts you on the spot. Besides, diversity is critical. You frequently mention how you’re focusing on making changes with hiring practices—you’re going to meet with key people in the future to address how to diversify your organization. You care about this.

However, what you’ve likely not examined is how you might get it wrong. There are numerous ways to be a good ally after a terrible racially-charged national event, such as the police homicide of a person of color, but how to navigate this tension, distress, and discomfort at work can be tricky. Moreover, a single misstep and you run the risk of a backlash, negative press, and having to correct a problem you could’ve avoided by keeping your mouth shut altogether.

But here’s the deal: We’ve reached a turning point. Your team, who is hopefully multi-racial and connected to their community, needs your leadership in these moments. Here’s a quick rundown of what not to do. Here’s what your team doesn’t need on the Monday morning after a racial incident unfolds and becomes a national tragedy.

1. Don’t avoid the tough conversation. Instead of addressing it head on, you avoid it like the plague. You freeze because you don’t know what to say, and you’d never admit with transparent vulnerability that this is tough and that you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. Unwilling to make a misstep or say the “wrong” thing, you appear unaffected at best; uncaring at worst.

2. Don’t refuse to make a heartfelt public statement. You are uncomfortable putting out a public statement, especially if it’s imperfect. The learning, listening, and tweaking required to craft something meaningful and thoughtful is an unexpected distraction. You’re worried about a statement sounding too sales-y, disingenuous, or performative, so you play it safe and decide not to say anything. Don’t let the risk of being criticized publicly matter more than speaking out on behalf of your team and customers to lend your voice to a national conversation.

3. Don’t lean on your BIPOC colleagues instead of offering them much-needed space to process.  You ask your colleagues of color for their “take” on racially-charged national events, especially when it involves the unjust killing of an unarmed person of color. You ask them to have coffee with you, or for suggestions on what you should read, watch, or do about racism. Instead of doing your own research and talking to other allies, you see your BIPOC colleagues as low-hanging fruit to explain and help you process your own feelings. You think they should be the ones to help fix racist or systemic issues at your organization with diversity even though they’ve never signaled interest in doing that work.

4. Don’t focus on yourself. What you think, have done, or desire around race relations should not be the focus of the tough conversation with your team about race. Instead, listen to your BIPOC colleagues and create space for them to express their emotions. Resist the urge to center on your own pain, suffering, fears, and challenges around race.

5.  Don’t let the moment pass. Your organization plans to take action, yet never quite finds the time or space to truly make racial equity a high priority for upcoming initiatives and action plans. You know it matters to your team, clients, customers, and to the community where you’re based, but there are other things that matter more. You release trite statements that are truly absent of your authentic voice, values, and ideas. You never actually discuss as a team how you want to show up . . . and then you don’t do that work without heavily relying on your BIPOC staff who are already mentally exhausted from fighting their own personal battles around racism, injustice, and inequities.

Whether you’re a business owner, executive, or leader, now is the time to use your privilege, platform, and network. Your clients and customers are watching. In the age of Covid-19 and #BlackLivesMatter protests, your teams and customers need to know that you’re sensitive to the pain and challenges they’re facing. This is absolutely the wrong time to be passive, ambivalent, or worse, tone deaf and push “business-as-usual” content, and initiatives.

What can or should you do? What can you offer to the community to dismantle the inequities that plague your community? Get creative. Can you offer free consulting to business owners of color? Can you share your office space with your community when it isn’t being used?

Revisit your “why” and design intentional ways to connect that “why” to marginalized communities. Resist the urge to scream from the rooftops, “We’re woke around here and we care!” Instead, thrust your organization’s mission into action and if you can’t personally be on the ground doing justice work, inspire and encourage your team to. Match their donations to the organizations they’re investing in. Amplify the voices of color on your team and within your organizations. Chances are, they’re watching and waiting for your leadership.

If there’s no blueprint for messaging, resources, services, or initiatives, now’s the time to create it. You wouldn’t be where you are if you weren’t willing to get messy to make an impact, if you weren’t comfortable creating opportunities from tangent ideas scribbled on notepads at 3 in the morning. This is no different. Let’s stop dreaming, hoping, and imagining a more just and equitable environment for our colleagues from the sidelines, and actually help them build one.

Dara Beevas
Co-founder and CEO
Wise Ink Creative Publishing 

Dara Beevas is a CEO, entrepreneur, writer, and passionate publisher who speaks about the intersection of storytelling, entrepreneurialism and publishing on purpose. Through her books, articles, and presentations, she explores the importance of #diversereads, the power of storytelling, mission-oriented publishing, and startup tips. As a mentor of more than 400 authors and publisher of more than 300 books, she pushes executives, storytellers, innovators, and change agents to publish mindfully.