Picture yourself at a staff party. You’re surrounded by colleagues who are dancing and chatting. You have just topped up your g&t when a member of your circle brings up the topic of race. It’s instantly awkward. But why? 

A good question to ask yourself at this point is, who is part of this conversation? What is the topic? Could the conversation be handled differently? Whose making this awkward?

Top UK book charts author Reni Eddo-Lodge discusses in her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race the challenges faced when discussing the topic of race. In a recent article published by The Guardian, Eddo-Lodge states how the biggest challenge to progress is that “ opposition to anti-racism is masked in passive-aggressive politeness. We live in a country that tries to pride itself on fair play but is really resistant to any attempt to analyse what fair play actually looks like.”

In an article, released in 2016 by The New York Times, entitled Defining Ethnicity, multimedia storytellers Logan Jaffe, Saleem Reshamwala and Bayeté Ross Smith asked each other potentially awkward race-related questions such as “Have you ever been the token black person? What does that actually feel like?” and “how ethnic ARE you? Is there, like, a scale?”. They then shared their responses on Instagram, encouraging their followers to pick their favourite questions and also submit their own. The reason for this practice was to encourage their followers to start having more open and personal conversations about race across the racial and ethnic spectrum. As a lot of white folks are inexperienced when it comes to talking about race, the usual response is to get defensive as a result of their own racial anxiety.

Mark Cuban, owner of the American professional basketball team the Mavericks, recently spoke out against systemic racism and disparities facing the black community. At an event hosted by the Mavs franchise – entitled Courageous Conversation, Cuban took a knee outside the American Airlines Centre, then addressed the crowd with a brief, yet encouraging statement. “I need all of us to really open up and talk to each other. Even when it’s not something we’re comfortable with, particularly those of you who look like me, the white people. The reality is…when people talk about white privilege, we get defensive. We all have this mechanism that I call manufactured equivalency to try to protect ourselves.” This notion comes to life when statements such as “I can’t be racist, I know loads of black people” are used in a discussion when talking about race.

The subject of race is a hard topic to discuss, because of the structural racism which has helped oppress such conversations and tarnish the subject matter, so it is viewed as ‘inappropriate’ or ‘awkward’. This way of thinking can be broken down by taking the plunge and having those conversations openly – as a way of educating and learning from others experiences.  

Activities to try in your team

  • In your next team meeting or all-hands. Ask folks to reflect on how old they were when they first realised race existed, or noticed any other significant differences in their local society like class or religion. What is that story? What happened? What impact did that moment have on them?
  • Re-framing constructive feedback through the lens of bias. Ask team mates to rate how comfortable they feel discussing race on a scale of 1-10. Encourage open communication and ask them to explain themselves. Explore the discomfort that comes with discussing race so you can get more comfortable!
  • Think about your last 1:1. Did you consider your candidates’ race in the context of global events unfolding in the news? Coronavirus has shown us how healthcare systems reflect the oppression we see in society with a disproportionate amount of Black and brown patients dying. How can you build a bond with team mates that takes into account their lived experience and what could be creating additional stress in their life?

New habits to make a difference

  • Talk about cultural differences: share anecdotes of meeting different people and traveling to new places and what those experiences taught you about empathy and understanding.
  • Consume content from people who don’t resemble you and discuss it with people in your team: spark their curiosity and get their perspectives.
  • Each time you read a news story start to question whether there are any negative stereotypes or narratives in it that reinforce racism.

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