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Let’s talk about race

Written by Aggie Mutuma

The floodgates have opened and we are talking about race in a way that we haven’t before. The historic, the systemic, the institutional and the individual acts of inequity and discrimination are having a bright light shone upon them. People, organisations, societies and nations around the world are waking up to the suffering that many have known for their entire lives. The revelations, the emotions, the guilt and pain have hit us like a tsunami and many have found themselves emotional, confused and feeling a sense of powerlessness. But out of these conversations, the sharing and the listening has come understanding, acceptance, learning, healing, hope and action. Action at an individual level with more understanding of race and the part we all play, at an organisational level with businesses taking an active interest in the issue and at social level too with discriminatory policies being reviewed.

This is why it is important that the conversations continue, so how do you do this in your organisations?

Accept. Leadership and people teams need to accept that talking about race in the workplace is new for most; as such there will be discomfort, mistakes will be made and false starts will happen. This is part of the process, individuals, teams and organisations need to sit in the discomfort as they learn how to have conversations about race in an open and transparent way. By pushing through the discomfort, the understanding, compassion and growth will come.

Set the intention. Organisations need to communicate their intention in having these conversations, whether it is to understand the lived experiences of its people or to give space for open sharing and conversations. The leadership team need to be open about the fact that the organisation does not have all the answers, that there will be a journey with some discomfort and how they will work through the journey together.

Allow room and give voice. In light of recent events, which have been traumatic for black people it is important that the voices of black employees are heard and amplified. This could be through virtual groups, work communication groups or one off virtual events. It is important that black employees have a forum to discuss their concerns and receive support.

Involve everyone at the right time. When the time is right, it is important to involve everyone in the conversation and that means all races.  Whether it is expressing support, seeking understanding, asking questions or sharing their own experience and learnings about race the conversation needs to include everyone. The timing and the facilitation of this is crucial as it is important that the conversation remains safe, open and focussed on how to heal and move forward together.

Safe space facilitation. To increase the likelihood of open conversations and experience sharing, the conversations – especially those involving everyone have to be carefully facilitated. This includes setting clear intentions, setting ground rules, communicating that there will be moments of discomfort and giving all individuals tools to deal with the discomfort.  The conversations should be framed as a safe space for open sharing, with all views expressed being respected. A skilled facilitator who is perhaps able to share their own perspectives and experiences about race, should be considered, this can demonstrate your intent and allow your employees to open up.

Listen. Listen. Listen. Ensure that you listen to understand, support, acknowledge and … Do not engage in explaining, or defending or challenging. It is likely that you will encounter experiences, feelings and thoughts that you have not personally come across, it is important that you do not attempt to dissect or dispel this. Take the learnings, questions or confusions and seek support outside of these conversations. There are organisations that can help you and also plenty of free resources if you have the time.

Take action. Lastly, it is important that you take action. It is important that as the conversations continue, clear action is taken to address the inequities highlighted. Look out for our article on how to do that.

Parting thoughts  – The uncomfortable conversation has to be had until it becomes comfortable.

“When you avoid difficult conversations you trade short term comfort for long term dysfunction”

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