The conversation on race

Doyin Atewologun
Doyin AtewologunDelta Alpha Psi
Fatima Tresh
Fatima TreshDelta Alpha Psi
Manjari Prashar
Manjari PrasharDelta Alpha Psi

One of the many implications of the racial disparities exposed by COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020 has been a hurried and heightened sense of urgency in organisations to talk about race.

While the impetus for racial equality is not new, this time there appears to be greater pressure on business leaders and diversity professionals to speak authentically and knowledgeably about racism and racial dynamics in their context, and to articulate actions underway for structural change.

In a groundbreaking 2014 study, Dr Doyin Atewologun coined the term ‘race fluency’ in response to research findings that organisations and their leaders are clearer and more confident about articulating talent management strategies related to gender than about race.

This lack of fluency reflects a discomfort with talking about race which we subsequently highlighted in the 2020 government-backed Parker Review on ethnicity on UK boards. We argued there that a lack of race fluency prevents organisations from directly addressing racial and ethnic underrepresentation, from board level to pipeline initiatives.

Race fluency is a starting point towards meaningful change. Leaders in law firms want to better understand and articulate the structural and cultural barriers that obscure minority ethnic talent progression. This article aims to support their efforts and offers guidelines for increased race fluency to raise confidence and capability to talk about race at work.

What makes people uncomfortable about talking about race and racial issues?

Our experiences suggests, for law firms in particular, there is fear of saying the wrong thing, which leads to silence. Two themes contribute to this: genuine concern about coming across as insensitive and/or racist, and fear of potential reputational, and even legal, implications.

However, Black lawyers and other employees across the UK corporate sector have told us that business leaders’ silence (especially palpable after George Floyd’s murder) can be painful and deeply discouraging.

Minority ethnic and white employees tell us time and time again that they want to hear leaders call out discrimination and to see HR disrupt biased talent management practices (for example limiting stretch opportunities only to those who have been informally sponsored by [white, male] senior leaders).

To paraphrase a client: “Change will happen when the fear of not saying something outweighs the fear of saying something wrong."

So, how do we have open, transparent, action-oriented conversations about race?

First, it is important to acknowledge that the vocabulary around race evolves over time and space. It is thus important to stay abreast of the terms pertinent to your context and region. 

See race-related resources including our guide to race fluency and glossary of terms

Second, think about how you frame your message(s) when talking about race and how you can change your language.

Eight actions you can take

  1. Do not ‘hide’ behind geographic/cultural diversity when you are talking about race, ethnicity and diversity
  2. Observe when micro-affirmations (positive behaviours such as making eye contact and giving people time to speak) support racial exclusion when restricted to one group over others. That is, being race confident means not just stopping negative behaviours (micro-aggressions) like speaking over people or mispronouncing names, but expanding the zone of micro-affirmations
  3. Show your openness to learning, and role model vulnerability; recognise your limitations and accept that you do not have to have all of the answers – ask questions
  4. As a leader, speak on behalf of the firm’s values and strategy (this has more impact than speaking on behalf of employees of colour)
  5. Where possible, differentiate between when you need administrative categories such as ‘BAME’ (black, Asian and minority ethnic) for reporting on shared experiences, and when you need to analyse specific outcomes for individuals of different ethnic groups
  6. Consider the context of your words and the impact it will have on others. Seemingly neutral words can result in creating an exclusionary and divisive environment. For example, when giving feedback to a minority ethnic employee, saying they are “well spoken” can imply that you had lower expectations of them. Where possible, focus on the impact of the work, so you could say something like “your presentation was well received by the client”
  7. Express your values instead of your fears. This can help avoid stereotypes and encourage a mindset that builds connections and deepens relationships. For example, instead of saying “I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing,” try something like “race is challenging to talk about, but I will try; my intention is to make positive change”
  8. Confidently call out or disrupt racist behaviour by saying something immediately. For example, if a colleague or client ignores or speaks over a minority ethnic co-worker, speak up about what you have seen

These actions require leaders to act courageously. In our experience, such leaders accept that their legacy is best served through learning and actions to improve race fluency rather than being silently complicit in racism.

How organisations can facilitate race fluency and courageous conversations

  1. Creating a firm-wide culture of inclusion and psychological safety where conversations across racial lines and about racial difference are welcomed and encouraged
  2. Empowering leaders to talk about their equality goals and values of equality to their teams
  3. Collecting and sharing data on race representation, pay gap and lived experience intersectionally (that is, by race and other identities including gender, sexual orientation and religion) and facilitating open conversations to explore potential reasons behind divergent outcomes and how to address them
  4. Providing training to all managers on inclusive leadership practices, talking confidently about race and creating psychologically safe teams
  5. Acting swiftly to rectify racist language and behaviour, with a zero-tolerance policy

Now, think of one area of racial inequity that you would like to talk about in your workplace. What would you like to say and to whom would you like to say it? When will you initiate this conversation?