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Jan Lee headshot

Why is Corporate America So Silent on Race?

By Jan Lee

In July 2015, a little more than a year after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in a St. Louis suburb, a New York radio station produced a four-minute video clip of 12-year-olds talking about race issues. The point was to examine how the racial unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities affected youngsters in school and at home. Were the kids aware of racial tensions in their neighborhoods? How did it impact them? How did it affect their relationships with other students at school?  And what did those conflicts say to them about their society and their perceived role?

The results were eye-opening for educators. Kids were deeply affected by racial unrest, irrespective of whether it happened in their city or hundreds of miles away. One 12-year-old African American boy summed up what the shootings in Ferguson and other cities meant to him:

“I feel a little scared if I just walk down the street," said the 12-year-old student. "You know, cops might just think I'm doing something bad. And then if I try to explain to them [I’m not] they won't listen, and they'll just start beating me up and doing terrible things to me.”

Racial conflict has always been an uncomfortable topic for Americans to discuss. But hearing a child’s fear of being subjected to violence just because of his skin color compelled many of us to act. In the months following the video, numerous educators and parents spoke out, calling on schools to talk about the impact of the shootings and protests with their students. Experts offered insights on ways parents could incentivize more school action. Parents created websites to offer tips on ways to help kids verbalize anxiety. Some schools got behind the call for action.

Interestingly what wasn’t discussed by educators, social workers and sociologists at the time was how racial tensions affected the child’s family members at home. The conversation didn’t extend to how the parents who watched the same disturbing images on TV each night were internalizing the news when they went off to work each day. It didn’t discuss whether those same supportive discussions that now take place in some schools should also be encouraged in workplaces.

An open atmosphere of sharing was being encouraged in public schools to help kids deal with what they may have watched on TV or heard from their friends. But in many workplaces across the country, the topic of race relations and the impact racial violence may have on workers was, and still is, an overlooked topic of discussion.

Yet the fact remains that employees are just as affected by incidents of racial violence as their kids, especially when the violence involves members of their own race or community, said Jennifer Brown, a diversity and inclusion expert and author of the new release, "Inclusion: Diversity, the New Workplace and the Will to Change."

"It is foolish to think that employees aren't walking into work worried about issues that are impacting their community of identity or origin, whether locally or on the national stage,” Brown told TriplePundit.

“News of police shootings or hate-inspired events like the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando weigh heavily not only on employees whose communities are most directly affected, but on the hearts and minds of colleagues of all identities who stand in solidarity as allies.”

How an employer responds to the emotional impact of that news can have a profound effect on the employee’s comfort level at work. It can also be a deciding factor in that employee's relationship with the employer.

Although the proverbial 'show must go on' mantra persists at work, "an employer’s or leadership team’s silence (or a co-worker’s silence) can be interpreted as a denial of something happening loudly in the culture at large, and [can be interpreted by the employee] as a lack of caring and acknowledgement of those very employees affected the most. The silence is, as they say, deafening; trust can be broken in that moment.”

Often employers are afraid to open sensitive issues, Brown continued, concerned that “once they speak up it will snowball” into a situation they aren’t able to control rather than creating opportunities for productive engagement with their employees. She said employers that make this assumption are shortchanging their workers, as well as the company’s potential to make a difference.

“This is leadership by burying our heads in the sand and hoping we can minimize our responsibility to step in to the dialogue.” Brown said a company has the potential to gain workers’ trust by “embracing the learning curve and taking the opportunity to underscore how the organization values all of its talent, the communities that make up the company, and how their engagement and state of mind and heart is important and a priority to that employer.”

In recent years, some company executives took the unusual step of expressing how the news of racially-motivated violence affected them, and how they dealt with it. Nike CEO Mark Parker wrote an open letter to his employees, which was published by Forbes in July.  He called for dialogue. “Our voices matter. This is your company and we want you to be heard,” Parker wrote. More recently Edith Cooper, global head of the Human Capital Management division of Goldman Sachs, offered her insights in a post on LinkedIn’s Pulse blog.

“I am frequently asked ‘what country are you from?’” wrote Cooper, an African American woman who grew up in Boston. “I’ve been questioned about whether I really went to Harvard (she did) or how I got in” (she applied). She said she’s also been mistaken as the coffee server at a meeting she was to lead and questioned as to whether she is really African American “because of the success I have had.”

Despite what could normally be interpreted as insults, Cooper offers her own insights about how she feels she best deals with interpersonal challenges, including those that she may feel are due to the color of her skin. They include working to leverage “what we have in common” with others to “effect positive change for all.”

Different companies choose different mediums to reach out to their employees, Brown said. “Some companies have prioritized communicating to their workforce in these difficult times about the value of diversity and inclusion; a heartfelt and respectful acknowledgement of the pain being felt, related to what’s occurring in the world outside the company’s four walls, and a re-iteration of the values that animate the company are all that’s needed.”

However the company chooses to verbalize its message, she said, it’s clear employers "need to become more practiced [and] nuanced in how to speak on things in our society that impact their employees and those employees’ ability to be present and bring their full selves to work — in light of what might be occurring in the news and the tensions being felt."

And employers often find added benefits come with a willingness to tackle difficult issues not normally discussed in company meetings. Prospective partners and business clients are often encouraged by companies that mirror their own values and aren’t afraid to lead by example.

“There are opportunities to make connections with partners and clients” who “want values to match,” said Brown, who added that in the business world, “deals are often won or lost by these topics.”

Still, creating a safe zone where all workers can talk about troubling issues that affect their communities isn't easy.

"It is something we have all noticed. Racial issues go way deeper in this country -- what to say, what not to say," Brown said. "There is a fatigue about it [because] we feel it's difficult to talk about racial issues." But there's still "an overwhelming business case to do so."
Image credits: 1) Flickr/Global Health Fellows Program II; 2) Courtesy of Jennifer Brown Consulting 
Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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