Here's a guest post from Carmen Van Kerckhove. I have learned so much about race from her blog, Racialicious, that I asked her to write five tips for dealing with race at work. She always surprises me and this is no exception.
Rule 1: Don’t be colorblind.
People say this all the time: “I don't care if people are black, brown, purple, or polka-dotted. I don't notice color!”
But that's a lie. All of us notice variations in physical appearance that cause us to draw conclusions as to what race a person is.
Then why do people insist on claiming that they don’t notice color? Often, it’s because they are scared to death of being labeled a racist.
But here’s the thing. Noticing a person’s race doesn’t make you racist. What does make you racist is if you make assumptions about that person’s intellectual, physical, or emotional characteristics based on the race you think the person is.
More importantly, when you proclaim that you’re colorblind, what you’re really implying is that race doesn’t matter in America. Race still matters because racism is alive and well. Pretending otherwise negates the everyday experiences of millions of people of color in this country.
Rule 2: Understand that diversity training is about protecting the company, not about educating you.
Diversity training rarely succeeds at reducing bias or increasing managerial diversity within organizations.
So why do companies continue to spend millions of dollars on it every single year?
Because they’re afraid of costly lawsuits.
If a company gets sued for racial discrimination, it can point to its diversity training program as a good faith effort to eliminate racial discrimination and hopefully win the lawsuit.
Ultimately for most companies, diversity training isn’t about nurturing diversity in the workplace. It’s about protecting the company.
Rule 3: When someone tells a racist joke, play dumb.
Figuring out how to react when a co-worker makes a racist joke is tricky. If you don’t call the person out on her racism, you seem to be condoning the behavior. But if you do say something, you risk alienating him and sabotaging your working relationship.
The best response to a racist joke should accomplish 3 things:
1) Communicate that you find this behavior unacceptable.
2) Demonstrate that the joke is racist.
3) Inflict as little damage as possible to your working relationship with the joker.
My recommendation? Play dumb.
Put on a bewildered expression, act as if you don’t understand the joke, and ask your co-worker to explain it to you. He will not be able to explain why the joke is funny without evoking a racist stereotype. You can then question the veracity of this stereotype, thus pointing out the racism of the joke, without being confrontational and without humiliating your co-worker.
Racist jokes rely on an unspoken, shared knowledge of racist stereotypes. Without the stereotypes, there is no humor.
Rule 4: Think twice before reporting racial discrimination to HR.
As difficult as it may be, your first step should almost always be to discuss your concerns directly with the person whom you believe is discriminating against you. Even if the conversation doesn’t resolve anything because they deny any wrongdoing, you will look good by having given them a chance to modify their behavior.
If you've addressed the issue directly but nothing has changed, go up the chain of command and talk to the person's boss. The supervisor will appreciate you keeping it “in the family,” and in most cases, is actually the one who has the power to fix the problem.
If the behavior continues even after speaking to the person's boss, go to HR, but consider asking for a transfer instead of filing a complaint so that you can extricate yourself from this hostile work environment. Your HR people may actually be grateful that you are suggesting such an easy solution instead of embroiling them in a long, drawn-out investigation.
You may be adamant about having the person disciplined for his discriminatory behavior. If that's the case, you should file an official complaint with your HR department, but be aware of the risks. No matter how confidential HR tries to keep this matter, word will spread. Be prepared to deal with backlash in the form of firing, demotion, or social ostracization.
Rule 5: Learn about racial stereotypes to advance your career.
People of your racial or ethnic group are stereotyped as good employees with a solid work ethic. That should bode well for your career, right?
Not necessarily. Even so-called “positive” racial stereotypes could spell trouble for you in the workplace.
Say, for example, you’re Asian-American, and your colleagues believe that all Asians are good at science and math. You could have a hard time moving into a client-facing position because your boss thinks you’d be better suited crunching numbers in a back office.
Professionals need a clear understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses if they want to take their careers to the next level. But if your boss believes a stereotype about your racial or ethnic group, that could contribute to a halo effect, where she feels that your performance is better than it really is. As a result, you won’t receive an accurate performance evaluation, and won’t know what you need to work on. In the long term, it will hinder your career prospects.