No one can argue that 2020 has been a huge dumpster fire. So many things this year are simply beyond comprehension that I’ve found myself in a place where I would actually prefer the zombie apocalypse. (What you don’t know is that I’m really scared of zombies. Truly.) You know exactly where you stand with a zombie. There’s no subterfuge. You don’t have to wonder if they will be respectful of racial differences or diversity. They don’t recognize color or gender or religious preference. They just see food. See? It’s completely straightforward.
Instead, we are in a crazy world where police are killing unarmed citizens, synagogues are being defaced, and white supremacy is a whole lot more in the open than it used to be. In fact, according to the Anti-Defamation League, hate crimes are most definitely on the rise. And the workplace plays a key role! To some, it may seem like a minefield. (I’m addressing folks that look like me – Caucasian.) What should you say? What should you not say? Assuming you aren’t a member of a hate group, you might be nervous about offending the people of color that you work alongside.
If you, like many out there, are just now beginning to be aware of these issues, I wanted to share some workplace tips in the hope that this may help improve both understanding and compassion.
Watch your language. I really shouldn’t have to say this, but avoid inflammatory language considered offensive by minorities (this includes all minorities from LGBTQ to Jews, Blacks, etc.). The hard part here, is that you may not know what you are saying is offensive. Let me tell you a story.
Back when I was a new manager, I was taking a break with an employee and listening to her story about buying a new car. She was so proud of her husband for negotiating a great deal and I’m smiling along with her when she says, “He really Jewed down the price.”
I was shocked. As an American Jew, I could not believe my ears. Had I heard her correctly? I called her out for using this term to describe negotiations and she had the nerve to defend herself. She didn’t listen to my concern, hurt, or deep wound caused by her offhand remark. After attempting to counsel her as her boss and explain why what she said was offensive (and her not listening or caring), I fired her.
Realizing that you truly may not know that what you say is offensive, please listen and be open to receiving feedback from people of color and other minorities with which you work. Let them educate you without judgment or getting defensive. It’s really important if we are going to evolve past systemic racism as a society.
Realize that listening before speaking is the first step in recognizing that we live in a society permeated with bias. For some of you, the protests surrounding George Floyd have probably come as a surprise, though a quick look at our shared US history (at least to me) make the protests long overdue. It wasn’t that long ago that lynching was commonplace. In fact Carolyn Bryant, the woman who accused 14 year-old Emmett Till of whistling at her recently admitted that she lied to authorities. One small lie and Emmett Till is pulled from his bed, beaten brutally by a mob, killed, and tossed out like trash. (Click here to learn more.) Fast forward and we continue to have a disproportionate number of minorities being pulled over by police and heck, the debate about sanctuary cities and the detention of migrant children is stronger than ever.
All of this means that you have probably grown up without feeling the weight of generations of oppression. As a Jewish-American, I have grown up with the weight of genocide and honestly, it’s not something that I can explain. The best thing I can say is that, at times, it is actually a physical feeling of…weight. (Dozens of my family members were murdered in Treblinka.)
I can only assume that growing up as a person of color in the US has a similar feeling. And the best thing we can do during this stressful time is to simply listen. Not argue. Certainly the workplace is not the best place for this debate, so again, if you have a coworker talking about the protests – debating is probably not what your colleague needs. They are most likely anxious, upset, and probably having trouble processing everything that is going on. Just since George Floyd was killed, we have had at least two other similar deaths at the hands of police. Regardless of your personal opinions about the protests, they aren’t giving out points for being woke (or taking points away if you disagree). Your personal beliefs are not what is important here. What IS important is that your colleague – coworker – boss – or direct report is in pain and honestly just needs you to listen.
Do not diminish the importance of removing the confederate flag from EVERYWHERE. You might have heard about NASCAR removing all confederate flags and thought, “What the heck. It’s just a flag. And it’s not even our flag!” Here’s the thing – it is literally a symbol of slavery and racism. It calls our attention back to a time when not everyone was considered a person. When people of color were thought of as “less than.” When people were actually bought and sold. Think about that for a second.
Why would this symbol ever be okay? Is the swastika okay to display at work? Most of you (hopefully) will say “No!” The confederate flag is exactly the same thing.
If I ever walked into a place of business and saw a swastika, I would walk right back out again. Probably shaking and definitely ready to boycott the business and share my outrage on social media. So why would it be okay to minimize the impact of a symbol that institutionalized slavery?
A good friend of mine (who is black) and a dean at a university, has shared the following: “Racism is a white people problem. Asking your Black and non-white colleagues to educate you is missing the point of what is going on here. Don’t be a zombie – Start reading.” Here are three books that she highly recommends:
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo, Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland by Jonathan M Metzl, How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.
Don’t argue about “All Lives Matter.” No one is arguing about the value of all lives vs. the value of black lives. Unfortunately, at this time in US history, it is a fact that unarmed black men are being killed by police. It is a fact that black women are being killed in their own homes. Again, by police.
No one is saying that this never happens to white people or Latinx or LGBTQ or Jews. What’s relevant is that there is a high percentage of unarmed black people being killed by police compared to representation in the broader US population. The statistics are clear. But don’t take my word for it. Do your own research.
To navigate the workplace, this is simply not an argument you should have. It’s not the right time. And it’s not the right place. Instead, I’d focus on the fact that your black colleagues are under a lot of pressure and stress right now. They are – and have been – persecuted by institutions in this country since the 1600s. The forces that are supposed to protect us have proven themselves time and again to be dangerous and life-threatening. I’m not saying that all police are to blame. They clearly aren’t and there are thousands of conscientious officers in this country that ignore skin color. But that’s impossible to anticipate when folks of color are pulled over. The result? Living in the US while black is like playing Russian Roulette. And that is stressful.
So, instead of arguing semantics about “All Life” vs. “Black Life,” have compassion and simply offer support. Say – out loud – that you support equality, just treatment, and equal education. Coming together is what matters most at times like these!
I don’t want to stand here and preach. My only hope is that this will help folks navigate the complexities of working in a diverse environment in 2020 (post-George Floyd) – and if I’ve made you stop and consider an alternative way of thinking, then we’ve made at a little progress. One person at a time.