What to do if you experience racism at work, according to an expert
Though the recent deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd have sharpened the attention on racism in the United States, it is not a new issue. Racism is entangled in many aspects of everyday life, contributing to the insidiousness of systemic oppression. And despite most states adopting anti-discrimination laws and the federally mandated Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prevents private employers from discriminating against their employees, the workplace is still one of the main areas where racism unfolds.
Combatting racism at work can be difficult for Black people. We run the risks of being fired, overlooked for promotions, or labeled an Angry Black Woman or aggressive when we speak up, and our work performances are often scrutinized and singled out by our white colleagues. However, these possibilities should not keep us from speaking out about the discriminatory practices we experience.
HelloGiggles spoke to Denisha Jenkins, equity and inclusion consultant and founder of Kardia Advisory Group, to discuss how Black people can best navigate racism in the workplace. The major takeaways? It helps to partner with others—and white workers must also do their part.
The most common forms of racism that Black people experience in the workplace
Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Laws prohibit job discrimination, but they do not provide ways to clearly identify discrimination. And oftentimes, discrimination is hidden behind less overt language. According to Jenkins, racism in the office frequently involves more subtle issues like promotion and compensation. “When [Black people] get promoted to a director or leadership level, oftentimes we find they’re not being paid equitably or equally,” she explains.
While the Economic Policy Institute reports that Black wages are increasing nationally, the Black-white economic divide is wider than it was in 2000. And Black women, who sit at the intersection of sexism and racism, would have to work seven months more than their male coworkers just to earn the same amount, according to the American Association of University Women. Black women also earn 62 cents for every dollar paid to white men, compared to 82 cents for white women.
Then there’s tone policing, in which Black employees have to carefully measure their words and tone to not be seen as disagreeable or threatening. If you’ve ever heard your Black friends or colleagues refer to their “work voice” or “white voice,” this is a direct response to tone policing.
“If [Black people] challenge something, if they ask a question, then they’re labeled as problematic or told they have to play well on a team,” explains Jenkins. “When Black people get into certain roles, they’re coached a lot of times to operate in a role of whiteness to get ahead.”
Sometimes, Black employees are told to adjust their speech, behavior, or dress so that they are more acceptable to white colleagues. “It’s really whitesplaining,” says Jenkins. “This is when advice is given from a standpoint of being like other white people.”
Many professional norms are rooted in racism and white supremacy, as whiteness was the standard that these processes were created around. As a result, much of what goes against these standards is then deemed inappropriate, such as natural Black hair and protective hairstyles. Legislation like The CROWN Act prohibits natural hair discrimination, but it has yet to be adopted nationally.
There’s also the issue of white fragility, which is white people’s discomfort and sensitivity to racism. For example, when Black employees try to call out or address discriminatory languages and practices, white colleagues may refuse to acknowledge their own implicit biases. They may withdraw and refuse to engage in conversations, instead arguing, “I’m not racist.”
Despite these obstacles, there are actionable steps that Black employees can take when confronting racism at work.
How to handle racism at work
If you’ve experienced racism but want to continue working for your employer (or can’t quit because you don’t have the financial ability), seek help from a colleague, supervisor, or another authority figure within your company or organization. In addition, try to find someone who is also experiencing or has observed racism in the workplace. Collaborating with someone else provides better solidarity and strengthens your positioning. You can work together to bring it to the attention of a superior. “I think it’s wise when you’re combating racism to have people do it with you. Because you will burn out,” says Jenkins.
You can also go to Human Resources, but if you do, document every instance of racism beforehand. Jenkins says to record “incidences of discrimination when they happen and conversations in as much detail as you can. Get all your details, because what we do know about racism is that it’s going to victim-blame.”
Make sure not to use work resources like laptops, voice memos, and other equipment when documenting racism, however. Additionally, don’t leave your documentation at your work desk. If anything gets confiscated, you won’t have evidence to support your case.
Another way to handle racism experienced at work? Leverage relationships through employee resource groups and other equality-focused organizations. There’s the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which fights for legal justice, and the National Urban League, which works to preserve civil rights, but Black employees can also seek assistance from local Black chambers of commerce and Black business associations. People at these organizations can counsel you on the best actionable steps to combat racism at work, and they can also put you in contact with people who may have authority in these matters and can advise you further.
“And when we’re talking about proper procedure and protocols, there are a lot of gatekeepers along that pathway of finding justice in the workplace. And they are not all literate in race nor are they anti-racist,” cautions Jenkins.
How white people can be allies in the office
White (and non-Black) people should recognize the strengths of their Black colleagues and advocate for them in spaces where they aren’t present. If a Black colleague suggests an idea that is later co-opted by someone else, speak up and credit that Black colleague for their idea. “If you see [an employee] not being offered opportunities, say, ‘Hey, if you want to go after this, I’ll have your back,’” suggests Jenkins.
Acknowledge who is excluded from the room and who occupies leadership positions. If boardrooms, teams, and departments look too culturally homogenous—aka too white—then speak up. Push for the hiring and inclusion of Black employees and other employees of color. Additionally, pay attention to and expect racism instead of being surprised by it. It is pervasive and normalized in workplace language and behaviors.
If you’re white, know the difference between when it’s time for you to listen and when it’s time for you to lead. Recognize that even with all the research you do and the books you read, there is still a limit to your expertise on Black experiences. Also, remember to be humble. “Know that you are going to make mistakes. You’re going to mess up and people are going to call you out,” says Jenkins. You may try to say and do all the right things by your Black colleagues, but you won’t be right every time because you are still unlearning the unconscious biases in your own language and behaviors.
Jenkins offers one last note: “It’s not enough to not be racist. We need you to be actively anti-racism.” It’s more important to point out instances of racism than to just say you’re an ally. Stand with your Black colleagues and work to dismantle racism from within.