Discussing Race in the Workplace

How to lay the groundwork for meaningful, action-oriented dialogues.

If you are a person of color, you might be the go-to colleague for all issues race-related, or you’re subjected to conversations you don’t have the time, energy or interest in having. If you’re white, you might feel awkward about discussing race or confused about how to be an ally to your colleagues of color because you don’t know where to start.

Much of the former can be attributed to misguided good intentions, while the latter is the product of a longstanding culture of silence. Both can undermine the potential for meaningful, action-oriented conversations. To explore this, we reached out to three distinguished experts dedicated to anti-racist education and racial equality: Assistant Professor of Management Stephanie Creary, an identity and diversity scholar at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania; Monique Marshall, a career educator with expertise in multicultural and diversity leadership; and Taylor Shaw, the founder of Black Women Animate. Together, they share some ideas to consider when discussing race in the workplace.

Don’t let the burden fall on your colleagues of color

Creary says that historically it’s not uncommon for companies to leave the responsibility of figuring out what to do or say in regard to issues of race on employees of color. As Marshall adds: “There’s a trend of asking the people of color to teach everyone else about race and racism.” Not only does this create an extra, unpaid “job” for that person, it also can affect their mental health and productivity. “Creating art is a beautiful, intimate and emotional process,” says Shaw, “and creators of color should be able to focus on that.”

Monique Marshall

“More white people need to think about their own white identity and not the identity of the quote-unquote other.”—Monique Marshall

Focusing on their job can be difficult, Creary explains, when “you have this person who is underrepresented, sitting at work observing all these problems. Or they’re thinking, I’m really having a hard time being present at work today because I just spent all this time on social media watching another killing of an unarmed black man, and I have to act like this isn’t happening. You’ve got people who are carrying their internal experiences and the outside experiences, and that’s contributing to their own self-questioning around, is this a place for me?”

Wherever the stresses originate, the employee should never feel obligated to talk about them, according to Marshall. At the same time, they should be able to talk about their experiences if they choose. In order for a person to make this choice, they need to feel safe. If a true sense of safety is absent, “you don’t get the best out of your talent,” Shaw says. “When the onus is on the artist, that’s when we start to see burnout. That’s when we start to see the retention of people of color within animation drop off. Our industry has not taken huge collective and actionable steps in response to the conversations that have been happening for quite some time. The next step needs to be a quantum leap.”

Leadership must create a safe place for conversations

All three experts firmly believe that the initial responsibility for this quantum leap belongs to those in leadership roles. While this is an excellent goal, most studios and production companies are still just out of the starting gate when it comes to racial equity. So when an employee of color mentions their feelings about an issue to a supervisor, the supervisor might not have the resources to know what to do with that kind of information.

“What a company needs to do first is empower managers,” Creary advises. “I’m not talking about generic unconscious bias training. I’m talking about helping managers develop the skills to be better listeners and providers of support to employees. How do you do this? The same way that you teach them to do their jobs, period.”

With that in mind, Shaw says, “in order to create change right now in the animation industry, it’s essential to hire experts.”

Creary and Marshall agree that it’s necessary to provide specialized training so that when an employee of color does speak up, there is a meaningful response. Many white people, Marshall explains, are typically limited when it comes to carrying out conversations about race. Unlike most people of color who have been talking about race since childhood, white people generally did not grow up talking regularly about the subject. “Language is really powerful,” she says. “If you have words for something, you can change people’s thinking.”

There are other reasons for outside facilitators, as well. They indicate that leadership believes in the importance and necessity for change, they don’t have a personal stake in a specific workplace, and the conversations that take place won’t be a threat to them.

One example of how an expert might guide an organization is Creary’s RACE framework, which is featured in her article, “How to Begin Talking About Race in the Workplace,” published by K@W, The Wharton School’s business analysis journal.

Stephanie J. Creary

“The elephant in the room is that the topic of race, and the idea of discussing race, makes people incredibly anxious.” —Stephanie J. Creary

Creary’s framework begins with R: Reduce anxiety by talking about race anyway. She says: “What’s important now is that we acknowledge the elephant in the room. The elephant in the room is that the topic of race, and the idea of discussing race, makes people incredibly anxious.” Using the first step in the framework, she suggests creating norms such as “practicing respectful engagement” and “listening actively” before the conversations even begin.

Next up is A: Accept that anything related to race is either going to be visible or invisible. It is important, Creary writes, to address the following questions: “What do we gain/lose when race is invisible? What do we gain/lose when race is hypervisible?”

Step C advises: Call on internal and external allies for help. This can be
done by cultivating a network of relationships with people both inside and
outside the workplace “who are invested in diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Finally, E reminds managers: Expect that you will need to provide some “answers,” practical tools, skill-based frameworks, etc. As for where to find those answers, numerous organizations offer guides and workshops, including Race Forward’s Building Racial Equity, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Racial Equity Resource Guide. (Most organizations have shifted to online workshops during the pandemic.)

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

At this particular time in history, white colleagues are actively seeking ways
to be allies. But these efforts to create conversations around diversity can make colleagues of color feel uncomfortable, no matter how good and sincere the intentions are. Rather than tackling a problem head-on or attempting to organize discussion efforts themselves, white colleagues shouldn’t be afraid to ask their supervisors for guidance. As they point out a problem, request tools, and strive to create a safer, more inclusive environment, they should also feel comfortable doing work on their own.

Taylor Shaw

“In order to create change right now in the animation industry, it’s essential to hire experts.”—Taylor Shaw

Marshall recommends the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere (AWARE-LA), an organization that hosts a Summer Institute, ongoing workshops in engaging in difficult conversations, regional Saturday Dialogues. This suggestion corresponds with her belief that affinity spaces for dedicated conversations need to be created for more than just the purpose of staff of all races to have conversations together. There need to be spaces where colleagues of color can come together without the burden of educating white people, and just as importantly, for white colleagues to come together and speak freely about their own race and its influence on the construct of racism.

As Shaw points out, “most in the industry have a singular perspective that is white and male.” This makes it difficult “to understand the need to engage in conversations around identity,” Marshall explains, “because they see themselves as normal. More white people need to think about their own white identity and not the identity of the quote-unquote other. They need to do their own work first. In our companies and organizations, we need adults relearning and unlearning, but truthfully.”

Not only will “brave and uncomfortable conversations” about race—combined with genuine, significant efforts to increase diversity—improve the quality and scope of animation content, according to Shaw, it will make “our art more powerful and expand its reach.”