5 Ways To Address Racial Oppression In The Workplace

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Corporate America is having a conversation about race, and white leaders are being asked to make sweeping changes. It’s not a huge surprise that it’s happening given that companies have typically addressed racism only in the face of overwhelming public pressure. But let’s face it: racism is an uncomfortable topic.

This is particularly true for corporations who have to hold not only themselves to a higher standard, but all of their employees, their board, their partners, and so on. But again, the conversation is happening. This is why I wanted to embrace this opportunity to highlight some actionable ways that leaders and employees alike can begin to enact positive change with diversity and inclusion – done well – as the end goal. 

I’ll break this feature into 2 parts. Part 1 (this article) outlines 5 actionable changes that will begin to move the needle for you and your organization. Part 2 will make these 5 suggestions more tangible by sharing the experiences of friends of mine – all POC – who have been personally and professionally impacted by these particular examples of racial oppression. I’m particularly appreciative to this group of people not only for sharing their personal stories, but for influencing and contributing to these articles. As a white woman, this is not my story to tell. However, it is my duty to utilize my network – of predominantly white men and woman within tech leadership and HR – to help enact change.

Let’s get to work with some less obvious – and highly impactful – suggestions for addressing racial oppression within your workplace.

1. Don’t just hire Black employees: ensure they also have the influence to enact change – just as you would for your white employees.

You won’t have to look far to find some very sobering statistics around Black representation in leadership, but Brian Xu’s chart below sums up the Corporate America tech space quite effectively.


Representation is a key step toward meaningful change. As Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, said in The New York Times article Corporate America Has Failed Black America, “If you do not have blacks on your board, you’re not going to see blacks in the c-suite of that company.” And it’s not just about people of color on the board: look around the conference room or the Zoom video when you gather. Who’s in the room? Look at the list of committee members and the people you invite into the side discussion after important meetings. What do you see? If all of those people are white, there’s the problem. It means you haven’t branched out to bring people of color into positions where they can grow, develop, find mentors and reach decision-making positions.

The next question is, why is the room white? Is it because you are okay with the room being all white? And if not, why have you traditionally hired and promoted people that look like you, from pools of applicants with the same background as you? These are not easy questions to ask yourself, nor are they changes that can be made without substantial commitment to evolution.

Influence is just as important as representation. Mr. Walker proceeded to add, “We are put into these positions that are honorific, because they want our presence. But we are not given authority and resources.” For instance, Exxon, the largest U.S. energy company, has two Black board members, but the management committee is composed entirely of white men. Leaders of color can be corporations’ means by which to create more diverse and inclusive  – and simultaneously more financially successful – businesses, but only if existing leaders genuinely relinquish some of their own power. This step is necessary in providing leaders of color the authority to enact essential (and typically uncomfortable) change.

This doesn’t just fall on leadership. Just because you have Black friends, or you see Black colleagues around the table or in the Zoom, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re creating a space in which they’re empowered to be heard. White people have traditionally been provided opportunities to advance that Black people haven’t, often because we are in positions to find mentorship from people who effortlessly relate to us. Because we are encouraged by our mentors to take on challenging tasks, even if we fail, we’re often more comfortable to speak up without fear of judgement or consequence. How difficult is it for people of color in your organization to gain these sorts of mentors or these kinds of associated growth opportunities? Have you asked? 

White fragility can lead us to avoid asking uncomfortable questions, and we often [even if unknowingly] reinforce our Black counterparts’ inclination to keep quiet. In her article The Year I Gave Up White Comfort, Rachel Ricketts says it well: “As a Black woman, the majority of the time being your ‘friend’, hell even acquaintance, has meant my playing small. It meant biting my tongue and keeping quiet for your benefit and comfort at the detriment of my own.”


2. Stop Gaslighting.

Almost all of us are guilty of gaslighting. It isn’t always malicious – it’s often a defense mechanism – but gaslighting alone could very well inhibit your ability to ever create an inclusive work environment.

Gaslighting is defined as “a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment, often evoking in them cognitive dissonance and other changes including low self-esteem. Using denial, misdirection, contradiction, and misinformation, gaslighting involves attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim’s beliefs.” The source of the word is George Cukor’s movie Gaslight – based on a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton – in which the victim (Paula) becomes uncertain that she can perceive reality correctly, simultaneously becoming dependent on the gaslighter (Gregory).

Different variations of saying “I don’t see color” can also be examples of gaslighting. This can be interpreted as, “I can’t comprehend racism or its role in my life” which in turn can make Black friends and colleagues feel as if they are overreacting or unheard. As white individuals, seeing color is not as simple as acknowledging the color of someone’s skin: it is acknowledgement of Black culture.

What are some common examples of gaslighting occurring at work? Let’s say you believe that your race/gender/religious beliefs/sexual preference are negatively impacting your ability to move up within the organization.

  • You’re asked to prove it.
  • You bring up specific instances and are told that the associated aggressors “didn’t mean it that way.”
  • Specific attributes of your caliber of work – attributes displayed by others around you who have alternatively managed to move up within the organization – are highlighted as the areas of improvement prohibiting you from upward trajectory.
  • You’re told time and time again to just be patient – your time will come.

Other proof of a gaslighting culture may be the lack of people of color moving upward within the organization. In that situation, it’s highly possible that POC are being asked to wait, told that everything is going fairly and as it should be. However, if you’re unable to point to many (if any) examples of Black people who have been moved up within the ranks, there is likely a dissociative problem.

Once you understand how gaslighting looks and sounds, you’ll likely catch yourself and those around you wielding it. Begin to track who is most often on the receiving end of gaslighting and you’ll quickly find a trend. Like much of our education around racism, identifying its existence begins the essential process of behavioral change.


3. Actively work to dissociate the word “diversity” from “lowering the bar.”

The article The Sugarcoated Language Of White Fragility is chock full of eye-opening takeaways around the words we use to discuss race, but probably my biggest piece of learning was around how we use the word diversity. Anna Kegler writes,

“The word ‘diversity’ is really common when people are talking about hiring. It started out as a neutral word meaning ‘variety’ that’s supposed to describe a group, but somewhere along the way people started referring to individual people as ‘diverse’, like ‘we’re looking for a diverse candidate for this role.’ So ‘diverse’ is now code for ‘person of color’ or ‘woman.’ It’s been really distorted and linked to a destructive binary related to ability: ‘diversity’ is associated with ‘lowering the bar.’ So ‘diverse = person of color/woman = low ability’ and ‘not diverse = White man = high ability.’”

There are countless articles around the benefits associated with hiring, empowering and promoting employees of diverse backgrounds. The next step is altering the way we speak about diversity in the workplace, and then collecting the data necessary to reinforce that new conversation as the widely-accepted norm.

4. Begin to wholly reconstruct business processes with your least represented employees and end-users in mind.

I heard this suggestion for the first time from Connie Lindsey during Korn Ferry’s webinar focused on addressing systemic racism. Most business processes are [unintentionally] designed for an audience similar to those who built them. Her recommendation reminded me of a 99% Invisible episode called Invisible Women. The episode outlines very substantial – often lethal – ways in which items essential to our everyday remain designed for white men as a result of being designed by white men.

The example that stuck with me most were cars and their associated safety features. Standard car crash test dummies are constructed based on an “average” (i.e. white) man body build, which of course means they feature different sizes and proportions than a typical female. This ignores not only anatomical differences but also individual circumstances such as pregnancy.

Let that resonate: the vehicles we depend on to safely transport us, our partners and children are still designed to exclusively protect white males. Given that white, CIS men have been in positions of power for America’s entire existence, how many other tools, machines, softwares, rules and expectations have been designed through a purely CIS male lens? Almost all of them.

We’re well overdue for redesigning with an under-represented end-user in mind.


5. Ensure access to tools and resources that will provide your under-represented employees with true opportunity for success and advancement.

Many of us were raised to believe that “If you work hard enough, you will succeed.” In her article No, You’re Not Imagining It: 3 Ways Racial Microaggressions Sneak into Our Lives, Anni Liu writes,

“This is called the “myth of meritocracy” – the idea that through determination and hard work, alone, we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. This is what leads us to believe the racist, classist stereotype that we, POC (and people in general) who don’t succeed, are lazy, stupid, or incompetent – that they deserve what they have or don’t have.

But the experience for many, though not all, of us is more complicated.

Factors such as institutional racism, education level of family members, and access to fewer resources that help us succeed means that many of our paths to personal success is challenging in more ways than our White counterparts.”

Or, as Byron Allen writes in his article Black America Speaks. America Should Listen, “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

If we only provide opportunity for advancement, or even continued employment, to our employees who “work hard enough,” we’re ignoring all of the factors influencing our employees’ lives prior to them joining our organizations.

Creating interview processes to eliminate biases is an essential first step and it’s a highly difficult one. The first step to at least neutralizing bias in the process is for the talent acquisition team – in tandem with everyone else involved in the hiring process – to take some time to truthfully examine, explore, discuss, name and accept their own biases. As the saying goes, “without knowledge of self, nothing changes.”

However, this cannot fall exclusively on the hiring team. Rather than expecting our employees to just “figure it out,” provide access to continued learning, opportunities, attention and advantages the same way you would for any employees during their ramp and continued internal evolution. Rather than relying on leadership to choose the most qualified candidate for the job, create internal mobility processes that eliminate preferential treatment and bias. As Omar Johnson writes in his article My Open Letter to white corporate America, “Retention and promotion is just as urgent as recruiting and hiring. In fact, the former accelerates the latter. I guarantee you.”

By continuing to educate ourselves, and putting into practice our learnings, we can begin to make the critical change we’re striving for. This won’t take weeks or even months: it will take years of work and evolution. It already took us too long to reach where we are today. But the gears are in motion – moving noticeably faster than before – and your competition (and friends) are progressing forward.

Some additional articles that influenced this piece:

About the Author

Sally Bolig specializes in Talent Strategy, including talent brand (employer branding & recruitment marketing) and talent acquisition. Learn more about Sally on LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/sallybolig.

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