Sharing the Burden of Racial Equity Work in the Workplace
By Lily Eisner, Policy & Program Assistant, YWCA USA
I’m going to let you in on an uncomfortable secret: diversity does not spontaneously create racial equity.
So often, organizations believe fighting racism in the workplace begins and ends with increasing representation. Unfortunately, this is only (part of) the first step. There is a fundamental misunderstanding that racism manifests only in the segregation of races; that if we welcome people of color into workplaces, they will begin to filter up through the system, eventually rising to the tops of corporations, governments, and nonprofits, magically bringing equity and peace along with them.
This is a lovely but misguided—and intentionally naïve—vision of what racial equity could be. This vision fails to address the history of racism that exists in the ways in which we bring people of color together and exploit their labor, resources, and bodies. Moreover, racism is embedded in the framework our society and lives within all our systems, and thus cannot be defeated through interpersonal and institutional efforts alone.
Often when organizations hire people of color, they expect that these individuals will not only do the job they were hired to do but will advance the organization down the path towards a vision of racial equity. The vision of racial equity that I, as a privileged white woman, have been fed is that diversity and inclusion necessarily create racial equality and equity. I believed that advancing an organization towards racial equity would not be a burden on people of color, and that rather, these individuals would be the beneficiaries of the benevolent organization’s move towards a fantastic vision of racial equity.
Through my personal experiences in the professional world and, additionally, through a racial justice training led by Race Forward, I began to recognize this belief for the falsehood it is. That this belief denies the structural racism within organizations and the history of labor exploitation of people of color. In practice, when young people of color join a new organization they often face job stagnation, overburdening, and silencing due to institutional hierarchy and a lack of pipelines for advancement. Essentially, I began to realize this hard truth (a truth that people of color and other marginalized communities have long understood): people of color are not a racial equity strategy. White folks and organizations that profess to believe in and advance “diversity and inclusion” have a lot of work to do to not place the burden on people of color. The heavy burden of white supremacy should and must be on white people and institutions to actively dismantle.
Here are four elementary changes your organization can implement today to start building a racially equitable workplace:
I. Get an outside racial equity facilitator to train your staff on racial equity in the workplace: One step towards racial equity in the workplace is the realization that the creation of a racially equitable space is a form of work. Hiring a dedicated facilitator honors that work as legitimate and important. Further, a racial justice training level-sets and builds a foundation of terminology and concepts throughout your office
II. Create and support a technology-free meeting culture:* A technology-free meeting culture cultivates a present, respectful conversation between coworkers. *Note: This expectation must be flexible and inclusive of individuals who rely on technology to alleviate ability barriers
III. Establish community guidelines for office culture, meetings, and personal sharing: Set up team and office community expectations that cultivate respect and provide a shared sense of community. These guidelines should be developed and agreed upon as a team. With established expectations, coworkers may be more able to set boundaries on sharing, touching, and communicating as well as to hold one another accountable for actions that violate their community expectations.
IV. Include “Racial Equity Concerns” as a recurring meeting agenda item: This recurring item would serve as an unavoidable reminder to all meeting participants to think through the racial equity concerns of work plans, task assignments, projects, and anything else pertinent to the meeting. Repeated, institutionalized reminders are an important racial equity tool in creating a more racially equitable workplace.
The inclusion of people of color in the workplace should be seen not as the root action from which racial equity springs, but rather as a necessary step in a long journey. Instead of assuming that people of color will set an organization on a path towards racial equity, the organization itself must build that path and meet the people of color they hire. More specifically, white coworkers must step into the role of building that path.
In order to build a better, just future for all of us, racial equity work must happen in our workplaces. Fellow white allies, how will you join in that work and lessen the burden on your coworkers of color?