Common Roadblocks To Talking About Race And Ethnicity, Explained

96d54a74dd83e3c2d35e0705230d8177-originaIt Will Take Courage to Get Past Them

Image courtesy of Oliver Cole.

By Jared Cline. You’ve got issues. Hypothetical, of course, for the purpose of this blog.
Issues at work arise all the time. Sometimes, these issues have to do with aspects of people’s identity, like race and ethnicity.
Issues related to race and ethnicity vary across regions, but in increasingly global workplaces, you’re bound to encounter them.
So, let’s prepare. Here are two ways of addressing these kinds of issues:
Option One: Talking about it! What’s the impact? Catalyst research shows that employees reported feeling included when they feel both valued for their uniqueness and a sense of belonging. Those same folks reported being more team-oriented and innovative.
Option Two: Not talking about it! What’s the impact? Imagine having to hide or cover an aspect of your identity—by altering your appearance, not showing emotion about recent news events, or avoiding certain behaviors—out of fear of reinforcing a stereotype. Would you feel valued or accepted for your authentic self—and feel a sense of belonging?
The potential to create a culture of inclusion is diminished every time we shy away from genuine conversations about the very things that make us unique.
So, what’s holding us back?
First, option two is easier, plain and simple. Isn’t it always easier to not do something than it is to do something? Once we’ve settled on inaction, we tend to justify that choice, often in one of the following ways:
  • “We don’t see color—only people.”
  • “Race and ethnicity are not relevant in certain places.”
  • “Talking about our differences can only further divide us.”
  • “I might say something inappropriate—or worse, be viewed as racist or sexist.”
Sound familiar?
That’s because these statements, even when they’re made with the best of intentions, form the basis of three common roadblocks to talking about race and ethnicity in the workplace.
These roadblocks are:
"There isn't a problem."
It is not racist to see a person’s race or ethnicity—it’s a normal tendency! Ignoring differences—and similarities—across race and ethnicity can lead to confusion and misunderstanding.
For example, researchers found that white people who endorse colorblind beliefs engage in more biased behaviors, leading non-dominant ethnic groups to be less engaged with their work.
People’s different backgrounds should be honored, and celebrating differences should be encouraged.
"There's no benefit to talking."
What we see and hear in mainstream society often focuses on individual bias and “bad behavior,” rather than broader systemic problems.
These messages may reinforce a common misconception: that talking about these issues will fuel interpersonal conflict and create divisions among social groups in the workplace.
Organizations must develop preventive strategies to help employees learn how to communicate effectively across differences—how to handle emotions and be humble enough to learn from those with different perspectives.
"There will be negative consequences to my actions."
A sure way to shut down a constructive conversation is to suggest someone is being “too sensitive” and make assumptions about the validity of their feelings.
Instead of sharing and learning from someone different from you, it is easy to inadvertently reinforce exclusionary behaviors.
Everyone needs to feels safe speaking up in the workplace, including members of dominant group members who no longer want to stand by as passive witnesses to exclusionary behaviors.
What is the most common roadblock you see? Take our poll!
For more on this topic, check out Catalyst’s tool, Engaging in Conversations About Gender, Race, and Ethnicity in the Workplace.
f3c223e56ea53d74eb3dd4cda12dcbfb-huge-weJared Cline is the Community Manager of MARC (Men Advocating Real Change), an initiative of Catalyst. Get in touch if you have any questions about the community, would like to write a blog, or are looking for ways to collaborate. He can be reached at

Posted by MARC Catalyst on Feb 13, 2018 1:05 PM America/New_York

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Jared,  You did a wonderful job framing the $64 dollar what’s holding us (whites) back?  My comments are formed by personal experiences and learnings. I am not speaking for all whites, but I submit my following comments generally apply to most whites (men and women). I am also not into the blame and guilt game...both are paralyzing emotions that ensure the continuation of our societal racial status quo. We (most whites) have likely never had an honest discussion on race. Our “systemic advantage” provides the “privilege” of never having the need to think about, discuss our skin color or recognize the benefits we receive everyday, every hour of our lives...for entering this existence as white. As a result, we look beyond race and institutional racism because we do not understand or acknowledge how we are negatively impacted by its continuation.  Most importantly, we do not want to consider or confront any personal role in propagating (knowingly or unknowingly) the cause and effect of institutional racism. If I acknowledged this, what does the admission say about me? If I acknowledge this reality, am I now willing to take accountability and reasponsibilty to change organizational and societal systems and processes to ensure fairness and equity for all? White women are critically important in having a primary role in combating institutional racism in my opinion. I say this because white women understand the dynamics of a male dominated society. White women understand gender discrimination. As a result, white women understand racial discrimination at a base level. White women must not become paralyzed by their white privileged in orders to make make significant change to confront racism.  Any discussion on race is an inconvenient ocuurance that we (whites) maneuver around to ensure we don’t out ourselves as clueless or seen as bigoted. For someone black, the idea of never having to think about skin color is likely unimaginable when trying to survive in a society that institutionally benefits and protects whites. For someone black, understanding our unrecognized white systemic advantage (privedge) is a matter of organizational and societal life and death.   
  • Posted Fri 16 Feb 2018 11:05 PM EST


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