The Race Talk: 4 Steps to Empower Leaders Who Don’t Know Where to Start

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I recently interviewed a few executives for an upcoming team development workshop. Their honesty struck me about how race and social unrest was a major external challenge they were facing and struggling to address within their organizations.

Struck by their vulnerability and impressed with this simple framework, I wanted to empower leaders who are unsure of where to begin or how to engage colleagues when talking about race. While the focus of this post is racial inequity, all steps shared apply to any element of workplace inclusion or difficult conversations for that matter.

As a Black woman, I grapple with my intersectional identities daily. As both a woman and Black, my lived experience makes me an expert on both topics. Therefore, I can personally attest that the #MeToo and #LeanIn movements have normalized the gender conversation at work. Still, up until very recently, it was incredibly taboo to speak about race at work. Thankfully, the tide is starting to turn in this arena. For the first time, I hear stories of Black people getting the care, consideration, and support they have needed for decades from their white bosses and colleagues. To be clear, silent, microaggressions, and systemic racism, still pervade American workplace cultures; but there has been a palpable shift. Regardless of where your organization falls on this continuum, the fact remains that talking about race at work can be one of the most challenging and uncomfortable conversations one can have — but have the conversations we must. Since silence is no longer an acceptable course of action, here is what you can do instead.

Make Sure Every Voice is Heard

“In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

First, everyone must be involved in the conversation related to race, bias, equity, inclusion, and representation at work. These topics impact everyone, so it is important to acknowledge everyone’s feelings and experiences with these matters before doing anything else. The goal of this step is to humanize everyone in the conversation. Please note, all emotions are valued and deserve to be expressed and heard in the discussion. That includes individuals who have never considered their race or racial injustice. There is a common misconception that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) should dominate these conversations of race because white people are void of race. The fact is if you are a human, you have a race, ethnicity, and culture. To move the conversation forward, everyone must accept that.   

Questions to Consider:

  • What was the first time you were aware of your race? (It is important to ask everyone to share the answer to this question to establish common ground)
  • How does it feel to talk about race? What feelings come up?
  • What is my biggest fear in speaking about race? (For many there is a lot of fear of saying the wrong thing in this conversation.)

  2. Keep an Open Mind

 “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela

The next step is to acknowledge what you know about race, bias, inequity. Over the last few weeks, there has been a flood of reading lists and resource guides dedicated to shedding light on this topic. Books like White Fragility and How to be an Anti-Racist have become overnight bestsellers as societal awareness shifts. In your conversations about race at work, it is essential to vocalize what you have learned. Articulating that you understand shows interest. It also shows openness to engage and even change. An open mindset is required for this journey. A common understanding of an issue also provides a common foundation from which to start making change. It is also important to note that racial awareness is very complex and ubiquitous. You will not have a mastery of the topic after reading a book or watching a Netflix documentary. That is the first step in a lifetime of effort, action, and understanding. For all who have never spoken or considered race before, a few guidelines to consider:

  1. Be kind & patient with yourself. Racial equity is a triathlon, not a sprint.
  2. Admitting what you do not understand is just as crucial as admitting what you do know.
  3. Make sure to maintain a growth mindset with a healthy dose of humility.
  4. You WILL probably say something wrong or insensitive. Assuming you do so unintentionally, try, try again.

Questions to Consider:

  • What have you seen, read, watched, and learned about race/racism/white privilege over the past few weeks/months?
  • What are the topics that you still do not understand or need to understand more?
  • How can the team support each other in being educated about this topic?

3. Roll Up Your Sleeves & Get to Work

 “You should never let your fears prevent you from doing what you know is right.” – Aung San Suu Kyi

If your organization made a statement denouncing systemic racism and bias, keep reading before you pat yourself on the back. These public statements are the first micro-step on a much longer journey. Racial injustice did not start when George Floyd died, and it will not be vindicated tomorrow. Many BIPOCs have dedicated their lives for generations to advocate for equality and justice in the workplace, yet “racial bias [still] disadvantages Black employees in almost every aspect of the employment cycle, including selection, salary negotiations, upward mobility, and retention.”1 We, people of color, have been patiently waiting for you. We desperately need your help to get things moving in a more fair and equitable direction. The truth is real; sustainable change can only happen when those in power and privilege decide to make a change. Racial conversations have 0% to do with your political ideology and 100% to do with common humanity. So, I invite you to roll up your sleeves and get this car called equality out of a ditch and back on the road.

 Questions to Consider:

  • What behaviors can my organization put into practice the words we espoused online?
  • How can we hold ourselves accountable to act when it gets hard?
  • How can our organization invest in education on this topic?
  • Are there opportunities to invest in communities of color or diverse populations within our organization?
  • How can we invite more BIPOC to join us at the executive table?

4. Acknowledge Your Feelings & Experience

“In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” – George Orwell

Finally, when engaging in conversations about race, it is essential to reflect on your own life experience. If having a race conversation at work makes you want to run screaming, acknowledge that feeling. If you feel like things are fine and this topic is fake news, recognize that feeling. If kneeling for the national anthem upsets you more than kneeling on a man’s neck, acknowledge that feeling. How you feel is valid and worth exploring and understanding. Your emotions and opinions are data. Until this issue of equality and justice has made the long journey from your head to your heart, your impact will be minimal. How you feel is valid and worth exploring and understanding.

Questions to Consider:

  • When/Where have you seen racial bias show up in the workplace?
  • When / where have you seen racial bias show up in broader society (i.e., health care, employment, education, wealth/economics, leadership, policing? Etc.)
  • How can you be aware of these biases and injustices at work, at conferences, in meetings with clients, in our schools, homes, and neighborhoods?
  • How can you leverage your networks, influence, power, privilege to champion this cause?
  • What personal feeling comes up for you that you need to acknowledge or seek support in processing?

Take heart. You are not alone in your hesitation to engage in racial conversations at work. Just like physical fitness and getting into shape, talking about race requires practice, consistency, and tolerance for discomfort. Practice makes progress.



1 L. Quillian, D. Pager, O. Hexel, et al., “Meta-Analysis of Field Experiments Shows No Change in Racial Discrimination in Hiring Over Time,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114, no. 41 (September 2017): 10870-10875; M. Hernandez, D.R. Avery, S.D. Volpone, et al., “Bargaining While Black: The Role of Race in Salary Negotiations,” Journal of Applied Psychology 104, no. 4 (April 2019): 581–592; T.H. Cox and S.M. Nkomo, “Gender Differences in the Upward Mobility of Black Managers: Double Whammy or Double Advantage?” Sex Roles 21, no. 11-12 (December 1989): 825-839; and K.A. Couch, R. Fairlie, and H. Xu, “Racial Differences in Labor Market Transitions and the Great Recession,” in “Transitions Through the Labor Market: Work, Occupation, Earnings and Retirement,” eds. S.W. Polachek and K. Tatsiramos (Bingley, United Kingdom: Emerald Publishing, 2018).