How to navigate a complicated racially biased environment

My partner works in a place where their office is actually the reverse, racially, of what one would expect. Out of 9 people, 7 are black and 2 are white. My partner and their boss are white. Their boss is the overall boss of the department. Recently, they had a meeting where they were asked how comfortable they felt and one of the workers said they felt it was a very safe and secure space. My partner disagreed. What proceeded to happen was a throwdown where they bullied my partner into tears and never heard them out. The reality (and I’ve seen and heard this) is that they constantly make fun of and crap on white people (and other non-black people), especially their boss. Their literal job is to help others, regardless of their identity, and when they do that, my partner can’t do their job nor feel comfortable in that space personally and professionally. My partner is well versed in intersectionality and is brutally aware of their whiteness, but has no idea how, if they even can, bring up the issue of race and how the black people in the office are literally perpetuating the problematic system everyone is raised under by their words and actions. How do you navigate that conversation and hold people accountable when instead of white people being the problem, it’s the reverse, and really…it’s the problem of the system?

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Hi @learning,

@Jen_InclusionAtWork and I are discussing this one right now; while we don’t have the full context of the scenario, a few things came to mind as we help you and your partner with some advice. We have some practical suggestions, along with some high-level perspectives that might be helpful to consider.

First, some practical solutions: D&I conversations can be very intimidating, and it’s easy for us to feel guarded, defensive. The last thing we want to is be emotionally honest and vulnerable… but sometimes that can be the most powerful approach in these types of scenarios. Check out this article from Jen (https://inclusionatwork.co/embracing-vulnerability-at-work/) and consider, whether your partner could feel comfortable saying something along the lines of “I want to be emotionally honest with you all - I feel uncomfortable talking about race and I want to learn more”?

Second, perhaps your partner could create a healthier discussion with their colleagues by reading the same book, and suggesting a time to share and reflect. There are several books that address race that would serve the purpose of creating a space for shared, respectful dialogue. White Fragility by Robin D’Angelo is a good one. Alternatively, there are short stories by Ta-Nehisi Coates that would be great discussion material (and you could read 1 a week, or two a month, etc). This could be an initiative that your partner’s boss could participate in as well - and would show the willingness of both of you to learn about race with the group. After each reading, you could establish discussion questions to make sure the conversation is fruitful. An additional benefit to this approach is that you can demonstrate you’re willing to do the work - by educating yourself first, before jumping into emotionally-charged conversations / hasty conclusions.

Third, perhaps your partners could suggest a 1:1 meeting with the person that your partner trusts the most. In this 1:1 conversation, your partner could communicate that they are doing their very best - truly trying their best to understand race in this difficult context that we are in. This requires a lot of internal work on your partner’s part first. If your partner is truly does their work and gives their best, and still 1:1 conversation isn’t fruitful, well, that’s just going to be more information. Your partner is going to have to sit and consider: “maybe this is a larger interpersonal issue, and not about my whiteness being the cause.” When you truly give it your best shot and lead with emotional vulnerability - the response you get says a lot about the person you are trying to learn from.

The last thing we want to leave you with is this. Sometimes, the attitude of feeling like we “already know” something gets in the way of being able to learn more. While I appreciate it sounds like your partners has taken steps to educate themselves on intersectionality, etc. Whiteness is an incredibly complex topic that might not be possible to fully “get.” Well-intentioned people want to, of course - but the desire to be “woke” can often come from discomfort and guilt that’s actually worth sitting with more – because even though this particular team dynamic is unusual, and it feels like the white person is without power, that’s just not true in our society. Whiteness does have major power in our world, and it’s not something that simply gets “flipped” in a small environment with different numbers, when as humans we bring our histories, perspectives, values into every environment.

So, in short – we would encourage you to continue dig into unpacking your own privilege and power, even if it doesn’t feel comfortable to do so. Even if it feels like that’s not relevant in this situation, it still is.

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I think this is a great response to the professional side of where things could go. I think your solution is good for the largest picture but doesn’t provide how to hold people accountable when they enact the same prejudicial behavior onto others that their community had experienced. Or was that what you meant? That for them to have the Talk about how their use of racial prejudice toward my partner, my partner has to do all of that in order for someone to be held accountable for bad behavior? It feels like you’re kinda justifying the bad behavior.

I suppose a better question to be asked is, “How can their boss and supervisor (boss is white, supervisor of the employees is black and both are complicit in this allowing this behavior) hold the department accountable for using prejudicial language and behavior around race? For conversation that really shouldn’t be in the public area of a workplace because it does create divisiveness? For when the office environment becomes hostile, does not contribute to inclusiveness or belonging?” While the discussion about race seems ideal, in the industry they are in (Higher Ed), the solution offered may not be the best fit for their department given the strictness of budget and bandwidth. I’ll pose your response to my partner. Thank you for so much insight. Glad to hear if the response would be different given more context. I think if the supervisor and boss came together and acted on what you’ve mentioned, there might be some change. Hopefully, this helps my partner and their department find better support and compassion for each other.

@Steven_Huang - “How do you navigate that conversation and hold people accountable when instead of white people being the problem, it’s the reverse, and really…it’s the problem of the system?”

Based on your response, it sounds like your definition of racism is inconsistent with that of @learning’s and learning’s partner.

How do you define racism?
(1) Prejudice + Power
(2) The attribution of race-based characteristics (to which one either belongs or presents to others as belonging) to the individual.

If you go by the first definition, the black employees aren’t racist. If you go by the second, they are. It sounds like you’re using the first.

Further, your response suggests that because they are not being racist, that their bad behavior - the poor treatment and attitude towards anyone in the office who doesn’t share their race - is justified.

No matter which definition of racism you choose to use, everyone in that office must share the same definition (and the values that come with that definition). When we don’t share enough of the same values, we can’t trust one another. No question there’s an impoverished level of trust in this office, which is counterproductive to the well-being of both the people and the mission of the organization.

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Hello @learning! I am by no means an expert on any of this. And, I can’t pretend to have a better or more eloquent answer than @Steven_Huang. But, some general advice that comes to mind especially, in regards to conflict resolution:

  1. It sounds like your partner went through a very rough and emotional encounter. My heart goes out to them. Obviously, anything having to do with D&I is very complicated and emotional. I think the first consideration would be why your partner feels like its an unsafe space and to do work unpacking the thoughts/feelings associated with that to create neutral terminology for discussion (that hopefully won’t be misconstrued as biased or rooted in prejudice). I’m not by any means excusing ‘bad behavior,’ but a white person (no matter how ‘woke’) coming into a space with a majority of people of color and saying they feel unsafe is going to generate a reaction. As Steven has already suggested, its very worth your partner sitting down with someone in the office to discuss their discomfort and to develop shared empathy and dialogue so everyone can be heard and understood while avoiding triggering or upsetting language/scenarios.

  2. If your partner feels that there are consistent conversations, comments or jokes that ‘crap on white people,’ have they spoken up and addressed it privately with specific people in the moment and openly shared how it makes them feel? I know its scary and that it will likely put other people on the defense, but its a very real and helpful way to build understanding.I think it could go a long way for your partner to begin speaking up and sharing their feelings (using ‘I’ statements, neutral language, not making generalizations, making the feedback actionable) when they hear something that upsets them. Will that still upset people? Maybe, but you can’t control others’ reactions.I thinks its a step in the right direction to getting an open dialogue going. Patience, emotional connection, and building trust is crucial for any team, no matter what the composition is.

Maybe these are all things that have already been done/considered, and if anyone sees anything problematic or ignorant about what I have said, please, please call it out. But I do hope some of this is helpful. At the end of the day, I think the main take away is to acknowledge and believe that its no one’s intention in this scenario to be malicious or racist or make other people feel bad (neither your partner nor their colleagues). There are just a lot of things to unpack here and it takes time, patience and commitment.

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All of the input is helpful. A lot of this is stuff I’ve already coached my partner on. I think the greater issue is their management isn’t supportive, isn’t responsive, and isn’t holding anyone accountable. This kind of behavior, regardless of race, existed before my partner came into the department. My partner is actually the newest hire which makes it more troublesome. Because their management either 1. doesn’t care or 2. doesn’t have the resources, it leaves my partner bearing a lot more of the work at an extremely tough position. I think in an ideal world, the advice given from both Steven, Tim, and Megan is super helpful, but I’m not certain it will be met by their coworkers or bosses in a way that will be safe or changing. We’ve seen the department purposely single people out for things in a very petty way, and it is likely that should my partner try to engage the management and ask for assistance again, that it will go against them and their job when they are just trying to do better.

I’m sure their coworkers don’t mean to hurt others, but I also think they’ve never been taught or held accountable. I don’t know what my partner will do, and I’m not certain they feel they have job security enough to safely have the conversation without it resulting in kind of retaliation. I know I would handle it the way that was advised, but I’m not them.

Very appreciative of the responses. Thank you. I’d love to see some videos that talk about instances like these. We don’t talk enough about if at all how to address situations where underrepresented or marginalized communities are actually the majority and perpetuating bad behavior caused by society toward people whose identities are usually in the power position. And I think we need it as supporting material to the great work that already exists on fixing power issues.