Addressing racism as an employer must begin with listening

Organizations all over the world are pledging their commitments to anti-Black racism as global protests over the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others, move into their fifth week.

While the outcomes of these numerous pledges remain to be seen, discussions on the topics of race and racism are being held in boardrooms and living rooms alike, adding to the chorus of voices chanting in the streets.

For employers looking at more formally addressing issues of racism in the workplace, the first step is to listen, says Paula Allen, senior vice-president of research, analytics and innovation at Morneau Shepell Ltd. “It’s not just about moving forward. We can’t really move forward unless we understand what the current state is.”

Read: OPB outlines commitment to stand against anti-Black, anti-Indigenous racism

To many, the ongoing protests appear to be a tipping point, but she says it’s integral for organizations to remember the events that sparked them don’t represent a sudden change in the life of racialized communities, but rather the continuation of a longstanding pattern. “[The first week of protests] and the week prior is not different in the life of a Black person or the month prior or the year prior. So the experiences people are starting to talk about right now and are starting to come to the forefront of their consciousness have been around for a while.”

Issues of race may feel extremely awkward precisely because they’ve gone unaddressed for so long, notes Allen. “That’s the first signal that this has been an under-recognized and repressed issue. Just the whole idea of talking about race in the workplace is not something that most organizations have ever felt terribly comfortable with. We talk about diversity and we talk about it from a number of different perspectives, which I support 150 per cent, but there is that uncomfortableness on really going deep on any particular aspect.

“I really think, with the best of intentions, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what we’re actually talking about. And that’s where it starts. If you actually look at what racism is, it’s a system. It’s a systemic thing that invades parts of your life, it’s not just one incident. It’s really something that takes away your feeling of safety, your feeling of security and, very importantly, your feeling of self-determination.”

Read: Manulife investing $3.5M in workplace diversity, inclusion

Not all racism takes the form of hateful vitriol or egregious violence, she says, but that doesn’t mean its other forms are inconsequential. “There’s a series of a thousand cuts that can cause a fair bit of damage. And that’s what we’re dealing with.”

Employers must be willing to listen to employees and think about why the space and occasion for that listening has been absent, says Allen. “The reason why it’s so uncomfortable having this conversation right now is because listening wasn’t encouraged and speaking wasn’t condoned. There are very few people in racialized groups who would say that there isn’t a massive feeling of anxiety just to even mention anything about race, because we end up being labelled as a complainer, playing the race card.

“And think about that — we talk about anyone who’s been through anything traumatic or difficult — think about having an experience you can’t speak about without worrying about being punished, in a very silent sort of way, if you speak about what your real experience is.. . . When we’re talking about very outright, hate-filled racism, people recognize that and there’s outrage when it’s so clearly wrong. But there is such a continuum and it’s not just that that we’re talking about.”

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If there isn’t a genuine readiness to be open to listening and empathizing with racialized peoples’ experiences, she says, the conversation isn’t worth starting. ” I think it’s quite damaging if conversations are started and they aren’t authentic and you’re not really willing to finish the conversation and you’re not willing to listen.”

Many organizations are encouraging their managers to reach out to staff to open up that opportunity for listening. “If the managers are able to do that in a very human way, they don’t have to be experts around race,” says Allen. “They just have to know that they have to listen and they have to truly care about the person who is speaking. If they don’t want to listen, if their ideas are hard set, if there’s a set of biases (it could be unconscious bias), if they don’t actually believe this issue is real, I would really say don’t have the conversation, make sure you get some education.”

Indeed, she notes education is critical to ensuring a manager can listen to and absorb the experiences that a racialized employee wishes to share with them. “When I’m talking about being heard, it’s really about letting that person say whatever they’re comfortable saying, just making sure they feel validated as human beings, being part of an empathetic conversation, without the need to change the person [they’re speaking to] or justify every point or provide lists of evidence points.

“You have to be open to hearing and, if not, you’ve got to get educated before you start that conversation.”

Read: Scotiabank recognized for creating culture of diversity in workplace