We Don't Need Another Diversity Training or Town Hall on Race to Address Racism in Corporate America
Updated: Jun 9
We don't need another training.
One of the first things that the HR leader said to me after I made a formal report, included how articulate she thought my description of the incident was. In that complaint, I described how at the start of a video conference, a co-worker mimicked “hip-hop” mannerisms and started beat-boxing after she said that my avatar photo was “cool, and that [I] look like a rapper”. The HR leader commented how great it was that I used words like “microagression” and “stereotype” in the complaint, and that it is evident that the all-staff diversity training I participated in last year had been helpful.
I reminded her that I have lived as a Black cis-male in America for all of my life (and hopefully will continue to, even if I have an interaction with a police officer), and that no diversity training would trump the lessons I have learned living in this Black body and navigating both academia and corporate America. I have possessed a vocabulary to describe anti-Black discrimination since my youth, and every single day I gain an intimate working knowledge of the events that they describe and how they play out in real life.
Training on diversity, discrimination, bias, or whatever your HR department calls it has its place in workplace development and community building. However, if organizations fail to directly name social issues, and lay out practical steps that staff can take to exterminate racism from the workplace, then they will be ineffective. Organizations must frame these programs with intention, not simply in an effort to minimize its liability or to check boxes. Companies should hire Black firms to do this work. While it is exhausting for Black staff to bear the burden of educating co-workers and to be constantly asked to share their stories without seeing change, it is an opportunity for organizations to pay Black firms to guide the work.
Diversity trainings must be a component of institutional reform and anti-racism efforts, but they are not the panacea. Companies must be intentional about their commitment to end racial inequity within their walls. Trainings are a small chunk of the work that needs done in the organization, which should include internal reviews of human resources processes, ethics and compliance oversight, employee surveys, and a strategy for ensuring that recruitment, hiring, compensation, and promotion policies are equitable and anti-racist.
We don't need another town hall to discuss racism.
Do not expect Black workers to star in trauma porn so that white workers can face their own racism. It must be something about personally knowing someone affected by anti-Black racism that is so appealing; but while white attendees to these forums where race is discussed gain insight and knowledge by hearing first-hand accounts of the sharp pain and impact of racism, Black co-workers recounting these stories risk being re-traumatized. If nothing is done, they risk feeling that displaying their pain has not resulted in concerted action to snuff out the source of that anguish.
Black workers do not want a pity party of white colleagues to be “nicer” to them in the office. They want to know that they are receiving the same privileges that white counterparts receive. They want to know that they are being compensated at the same levels as their white counterparts. They want to know that they are being considered for promotion at the same rates as their white counterparts. They want to know that governance structures incorporate diversity initiatives in meaningful ways, and that it is prioritized on the board’s agenda. They want to see Black people hired into leadership, as well at every level within the organization. They want to know that their credentials and accomplishments speak louder than the ways in which a co-worker (or superior) sees their race.
Forums to discuss race have their place in an ongoing effort to normalize conversations on the subject. But to implement them as an acute response to social issues that impact the company's bottom-line, rather than as a tool to ignite change and gather community input, followed by a commitment to action, is simply performative. Conversations coupled with actions, need to be long-term, enterprise-wide initiatives that pursue racial equity and justice. And it won't be easy or comfortable.
Addressing racism at work is not political.
Taking a stance and acting against racism at work is not political. It should not be taboo for these conversations to be brought into the office, even interpersonally. For many of us Black workers, racism on the job is a reality that we often face; grinning and bearing our way through the day.
We do not have the privilege of “not seeing race”, or being colorblind as many well-intentioned white colleagues have expressed. Race, and a heightened awareness of covert racism is something we navigate with each interaction.
Conversations about race need to be normalized in workplace culture. Race in America impacts all of us, and to not make it OK to talk about in a place where we spend upwards of 40 hours of our lives each week, is silly. If we don't feel like race is OK to discuss openly at work, then neither will we feel safe enough to call out and report racism at work.
Finally, corporate leaders are publicly taking stances against racism. And now they must act.
The workplace should not only have zero-tolerance for racism, but corporate leaders must name the issue in clear terms, develop holistic plans to address racism at all levels of the organization, and execute that plan without it being perceived as political.
It all comes down to the message that we want to send to our organizations, our workforce, our colleagues, and our stakeholders about where we stand on race: All employees at our organizations have a right to work in an environment free of racism and injustice, and that Black lives matter, even in the workplace.