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Breaking the Silence: The Crucial Role We All Have in Tackling Racial Inequalities – Part 1

Sep 11, 2023
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Organizations can play a significant role in addressing systemic racism and many other inequalities that are still in place. Realizing this potential, though, necessitates a transformation in the nature of our dialogues and discussions.

Many companies today seem to spend a lot of effort on programs highlighting the company’s zero tolerance for discrimination, how the golden rule is now a platinum rule, and how the melting pot has evolved into a tossed salad (or another comparable metaphor).

While these conversations are still important and needed, we also need to keep in mind that, at best, their primary purpose is to raise awareness. Yet, raising awareness alone falls short of the mark. We also need opportunities for deepening our understanding and for honest conversations on the inequalities that are still in place in our society.


What Prevents Organizations from Having Much-Needed Conversations About Race

Employees don't exist in isolation, and it is unrealistic to expect them to leave their external experiences at the workplace door. Although there is a clear need for designated forums where these challenging conversations can occur, they are, by and large, not being facilitated. Below are just a few reasons why.


1. The Belief That Silence is the Best Option

The initial hurdle organizations must confront is the infrequency of authentic discussions about race, which is often regarded as a taboo topic by many. Even when such conversations do occur, they are frequently marred by heightened anxiety and apprehension. Individuals often grapple with a sense of unpreparedness, fearing that their words may inadvertently cause offense or be misconstrued. It's no surprise that silence is the default response to matters concerning race and racism.


2. The Belief That We Should Not See Race

Beyond the prevailing culture of silence surrounding race and racial disparities, many individuals, particularly within the white population, have been conditioned to believe that discussing race equates to racism. This misconception has given rise to the concept of colorblindness, leading to a perplexing dilemma:

 How can meaningful conversations about race transpire when we refuse to acknowledge it?

Those entrusted with facilitating such dialogues in the workplace must guide employees in comprehending that colorblindness is not the solution to dismantling racial inequality; instead, it renders race inconsequential, obstructing our ability to address it as a vital and urgent social concern. In essence, we must move past the inclination to ignore race (colorblindness) in order to engage in the crucial conversations that are sorely needed.


3. The Belief That Race Discrimination is No Longer an Issue

An enduring challenge lies in the belief held by many individuals today that racism is no longer a pressing issue in our country. It's often argued that slavery ended over 150 years ago and, with the Civil Rights movement, the time has come to move forward.

However, a sobering reality emerges upon closer examination. While slavery may have ended, justice remains elusive for numerous Black and other marginalized communities in the United States. In his book Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal, Andrew Hacker vividly illustrates the stark racial disparities that persist in our nation.

These disparities find an alarming focal point in our educational system, where studies reveal that students in low-income areas are often taught by underprepared teachers with limited access to technology and innovative teaching resources. These schools frequently grapple with overcrowding, disrepair, and safety concerns stemming from acts of racism or violence. Regrettably, these systemic educational inequities continue to cast a long shadow over the lives of Black, Brown, and economically disadvantaged children, contributing to their perpetual cycle of disadvantage.


4. The Belief in the Myth of Meritocracy

Meritocracy is a belief that advancement in society is based on an individual's capabilities and merits rather than on the basis of family, wealth, or social standing. In the workplace, it assumes that an individual’s success, promotion, or advancement depends solely on skills, experience, and hard work.

The problem with this myth is that (1) it assumes we all have the same opportunities, and (2) it does not consider all the inequalities that are still in place.

For example, according to data from July 2023, Black unemployment rose to 6%, nearly double that of White workers. In fact, data from the report, Current Population Survey, 2021 and 2022 Annual Social and Economic Supplements, Black families have a median household income of just over $48, 000, while the median income of White families is nearly $78,000.

Blacks are overrepresented in occupations such as hotel maids, janitors, and cleaners and are severely underrepresented in occupations such as engineering, law, medicine, and technical fields. Furthermore, persistent racial inequalities are evident in the criminal justice system. According to the NAACP, African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites and the imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women.

Clearly, the playing field is hardly level.


Achieving true equality demands confronting these systemic disparities embedded in our society and, potentially, within the organization itself. The idea of treating everyone equally presupposes that everyone starts from the same vantage point, which isn't the case. In reality, there exist systems, policies, and practices that necessitate transformation so we can attain genuine fairness, equity, and inclusivity both within the organization and in society at large.

Now, more than ever, organizations need to create dialogue spaces where employees can share their experiences, their stories, and how they are being impacted by what is happening in society. These dialogue spaces should create opportunities for deep listening, the discovery of new truths, and the broadening of perspectives on the impact of racial inequalities.

Let’s get the conversations started!

Next week, I will cover two ways business leaders can promote anti-racism. I will also share how every one of us can play a role in promoting race reconciliation.

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