night sky with stars

Racial Equity in the Workplace Begins with You

Racial Equity in the Workplace. Does that sound like a court case? Or a problem to be solved by a bureaucratic machine? In Week One of RESOLVE Increments, we were blessed to have Nashville-based storyteller, author and speaker, Carlos Whittaker as our keynote speaker on the topic of racial equity in the workplace.

As the title of his talk suggests, Carlos points us to the starting place – ourselves. Carlos exhorts each of us to look inside our hearts and minds to discover our biases. With a light but firm touch, supported by real-world examples, life experience and self-deprecating humor, he provides a framework for action toward racial equity.

An edited summary of his talk follows below. To watch the full replay and gain access to the presentation and resources, go here

Racial Equity in the Workplace Begins with You

I have a unique personal story which offers color and shape to my perspective and, I hope, provides my ideas on equity with a grounding in the real world. For human resources professionals listening to this talk, that should mean straight talk in terms that are simple, but not simplistic. Let’s begin with a few quick definitions and the laser-focus of the talk – our responsibility as individuals to do the hard but rewarding work of finding racial equity in the workplace and in our lives more broadly.

Equality vs Equity

My dad was an immigrant to the US in 1960. At age 18, dad came to the US with $20 and a shoeshine box. He didn’t speak the language. He was a black man from Panama. Despite long odds, he shined shoes and steadily worked his way through community college, then a four-year institution and finally, a master’s and PhD. He is the living embodiment of the American Dream. He didn’t experience equity, though. The difference between equality and equity, you’ll commonly see defined this way: Equality is everyone getting the exact same resources. Equity is looking at people as individuals and getting them what they need.

Protests Change Policy. Conversations Change Community.

My dad worked within a system. He rolled up his sleeves. Could he have used a break or two along the way? Yes. He could have benefitted from more community – not being made ‘other’ or ‘apart.’ When a system is oppressing anyone, protests are important. They can change policy. They can change our behavior. But lasting, meaningful change – change in our hearts and minds – happens when we (you and I) have conversations. When it is time to rise up, conversation and seeing each other is what moves the needle.

2020 was a hard year in our country and the world, one of so much unrest and pain. And due to the pandemic, it felt like much of it was experienced through our screens. Still, it felt like something broke free. My dad felt it. “This might be the time everything changes,” he said. And he lived through the turbulent 60s, in LA, as a young immigrant black man. I think it’s crucial that we are out on the streets, that we are having these conversations. I’ll recommend a book by that name, it’s called Crucial Conversations. It’s a book found on recent bestseller lists despite having been written more than a decade ago. People are seeking out this type of knowledge. There is a thirst to understand.

What is it we’re trying to understand? I think it’s the bias that exists in our own hearts. We all have it and we must acknowledge it. There are tests online – if you ‘google’ it you’ll find them – that enable you to examine your own biases. They’re useful if they are the beginning of a conversation, but you must act. You must take that first step, walk across the street and open the conversation.

Don’t Stand on Issues. Walk with People.

In the hard year we’ve had, many of us have found a camp and planted ourselves solidly in that camp. Maybe that means we withdrew inward, maybe that means we raised our fists in anger and protest – there are different ways it might have been expressed. If we set our feet and our hearts and minds so solidly in that camp that we forget to see our neighbors who aren’t in that same camp as human beings, we’ve lost something. If you have a disagreement with someone who has thrown their weight behind Black Lives Matter, you must first acknowledge their feelings are valid. And then ask, “have I walked with them?” In the same light, if you’re solidly Black Lives Matter, have you gotten to know a law enforcement officer? I did a ride-along in Nashville with a law enforcement officer and the one thing it did for me – it humanized that officer.

We need to be passionate about the humans an issue affects. I may have some disagreements with the institution of law enforcement, but if I see the human beings within that structure, maybe I can have a better conversation about Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter. Building empathy in my, in our, heart(s) will help create equity. Get people what they need. Sometimes it’s just starts with a conversation. Or an invitation.

One of my favorite images is from a recent Dodgers game. A black player kneels as the anthem plays. Two of his teammates stand next to him during the anthem and have their hands placed on his shoulder. They are letting him protest, acknowledging his feelings are valid and demonstrating through their actions, through their physical touch, that they are walking with him. They’re not kneeling, but it’s powerful. We have got to do more of that. I have a phrase for moments like this: “Massive Movements are Made in Miniscule Moments.”

Empathy: The Mind and Heart are Just 18 Inches Apart

How does a movement happen? Sweeping policy changes may change behavior, but real change is within the heart. To create a movement toward equity, empathy is key. We need to see each other. It’s important to note the difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is feeling with someone. Sympathy is feeling for someone. We need empathy to open the conversations around equity.

There are some potential landmines when we practice empathy. The discomfort can lead us into what you might call “bad empathy.” Here are four quick examples that you may recognize but have not put a name to:

  • The Dodger – at the first sign of discomfort in a conversation on race, the dodger pulls the ripcord and bails out.
  • The Positive Picker-upper – the PPU looks at the bright side, always. The issue gets lost in the sun.
  • The Minimizer – the minimizer finds a way to diminish others pain. ‘Hey, it could be worse!”
  • The Advisor – the advisor forgets to listen and goes straight to coaching. This one may hit close to home for hard-charging professionals.
  • A couple of bonus empathy landmine categories: the One-upper (“you think that’s bad?”), the Dramatist (“this is the worst thing ever! The sky is falling!”).

Practicing empathy is uncomfortable and fraught with opportunities to really “step in it.” And these examples of empathy done not-so-well are so relatable, it leaves us to ask, “How can I do it right?” Accepting that there will be discomfort is the first hurdle to showing empathy. Here, from my experience, are some ways we can practice empathy:

  • Bust out of your bubble. Talk to someone you don’t know. Then listen – not to reply, but to understand.
  • Challenge your bias. Say it out loud. Look for it.
  • Find your privilege. And use it for those who are less privileged.
  • Try someone else’s life on. If you are white, go to a black church, for instance.

It’s uncomfortable but you can do it. It takes work. Easy solutions will not yield the full results you want. To use an analogy, think of the work of racial equity in terms of photography. To achieve the richness and fullness of what we truly desire, we cannot put the camera in auto mode. We must do the work of adjusting the aperture, changing the lens settings, setting up a tripod and so on. Setting up a picture for one shot could take an hour, even if we’re a professional. In the same way, the work of racial equity will be challenging. It will require time and adjustments. We may have to “phone a friend” for help. But, I promise, if you do the work – if we take it off ‘auto’ mode, put it in manual and put in the work, we will achieve that beautiful picture, full of richness. We will achieve the racial equity we desire.

Gain full access to Carlos’s talk and resources he shared at RESOLVE Increments Week One here.

We love working with amazing employers like you to help create inclusive and equitable workplace cultures. I’m super passionate about this topic! Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me directly or on LinkedIn with any questions or if you’d like to set time to chat.

Photo credit: Carlos Whittaker

The Case for Mindfulness and Compassion in the Workplace

Now that you’ve learned how to be more intentional about pay equity, let’s shift our focus. Week Two of RESOLVE Increments examined mental health and well-being. Join First Person and LinkedIn’s Scott Shute for an inside look at how LinkedIn’s compassion program helps its employees. Get your on-demand webinar here.

Like this blog? Share it!

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin