Don’t Let Racism Get You Down at Work

The events in Charlottesville taught all of us that racism is still very much alive–even at our workplaces. Here’s how to take it on. Under President Obama, many of us thought we had racism beat. Or, at least we thought it was controlled to a small group of outliers, but that’s just not the case. As evidenced by the recent events in Charlottesville last week, many people still ascribe to racist rhetoric and policies. Racism is still rampant.

And, it’s not just in the U.S. It’s a pandemic. It’s in our homes, on our streets, and in our workplaces–from mom and pop shops to corporate powerhouses.

Last week following my corporate seminar on leadership skills for women in Singapore, an attendee – a woman of color, living in Asia – approached me and asked a question that sadly, I didn’t find surprising.

She asked, “How should I deal with racism?”

What a simple, yet complex question.

We’ve seen a lot of hate recently–terrorist attacks on the streets of Spain, violent white nationalist protests in a bucolic Virginia town–and it’s truly upsetting. But, here, I was faced with an ambitious, highly-educated, professional woman who wanted to know how she should deal individually with racism that she experiences in her global workplace.

Here’s what I told her.

Don’t minimize it.

Many people try to minimize racism. They say, “Oh, they don’t really mean it,” after someone says something completely inappropriate. Or, they say, “I’m not racist, but…” How many times have we heard that one?

Ignorance and diarrhea of the mouth are no excuse for saying racist comments. The words people use should be taken very seriously and called into question.

If you are offended, you probably should be. Don’t swallow racial slights or hurtful comments. We should take it personally, process it healthily, and internalize that it’s not about us, it’s that person’s problem.

Educate others.

Yes, people might not mean to be racist, but they haven’t learned to think and act sensitively, which doesn’t give them a pass. Instead, they need a lesson.

One of the situations my African American husband and I frequently confront with other White people is, they say, “It was bad for my family, too, my grandparents came to the U.S. with nothing,” or, “I grew up poor.”

While of course, it is the sad and unfortunate case that White people are poor in the U.S. and many people struggle, Black people came to the U.S. under duress, and most Black families started with minus, worse than nothing. They couldn’t even get the dishwasher job that was readily available to White people.

It’s vital to understand the impact that makes in society and with black families today.

If one lives in the place where there are people of all different backgrounds (which is everywhere today), there’s no reason not to observe, listen and understand another’s experience. Really step into another’s shoes and empathize with the historical, political and professional contexts in which they live and work.

As the person who grew up with racism and prejudice, don’t hesitate to share your experience. This will help cultivate empathy. However, it shouldn’t lie solely on your shoulders, White people and those who do not experience racism should advocate on behalf of those who do.

Address it immediately.

If someone says something off-color, tell them it hurts. Let them know the impact of their words and what it could mean for their personal and professional relationships and image.

You can do this without blaming or shaming them. Better yet, let them know the impact on your feelings. Most people can empathize when you’re pointing out hurtful behavior rather than saying they’re a bad person.

Racism is very damaging. It can push people over the edge or hold them back. By taking these three actions, it is possible to take it on without getting human resources involved. But, it’s also a good idea to document incidents in case these actions above don’t have a positive impact.

I hope that’s not the case for the woman in my seminar and that she can continue to thrive in her career and not let prejudicial words or mentalities hurt her.

A version of this post was first published on Inc. 

Photo credit: Pablo