How to Talk About Race and Gender Even If It’s Uncomfortable

While race and gender have moved front and center in the public square, many of us feel ill equipped to engage in the conversation. We may even have been taught to avoid these subjects rather than empowered to discuss them. But getting comfortable with the discomfort of talking about race and gender is a critical first step to driving more equitable workplaces. “When you lean into the discomfort, it tends to produce a positive outcome, much like physical exercise,” explains Arlene Pace Green, Ph.D., founder of Enelra Talent Solutions and WFF Connect speaker.  
 
The pervasiveness of racism and gender bias, and the ways they are supported by deeply rooted social and economic systems, can make change seem daunting. But our national awakening to these issues provides an important opportunity each of us can prepare to capitalize on in our personal and professional lives.
 
“For many people currently in the workplace, this moment is a pivotal one where they are seeing, perhaps for the first time, how much progress is still needed to create equitable work environments today and a different experience for those coming behind us,” says Arlene Pace Green, Ph.D., executive coach and organizational psychologist. You can watch Green’s talk At the Intersection of Race & Gender: What We Can Do to Advance Equity in our Workplace online at WFF Connect.
 
Tough conversations
When Green polls her audiences to ask how comfortable participants feel talking about racism and sexism, many admit they’d rather not. We are afraid of appearing ill informed, offensive, angry or causing more harm than good. But getting comfortable being uncomfortable is a key first step to engaging in conversation and setting the stage for progress.
 
Green encourages simply sharing your reality and acknowledging someone else’s as equally valid. She compares the experience to looking at a water bottle from opposite sides. Someone sitting in front may see a large brand name and logo. Someone looking at the back of the bottle will see small print with manufacturing information.
 
The same diversity of perspectives happens in organizations, Green says. “How you see your workplace, a manager, team-building events and small talk can look very different depending on your personal experience and background. Both realities can co-exist but everyone needs to be able to share what is true for them.”
 
Words matter
Green cautions that one conversation will not typically change long-held beliefs. But it’s where you start. Along with getting familiar with contemporary understandings of gender and race. The common belief used to be that race defined distinct groups of people based on biological, genetic and physical differences. Today, research shows there are no reliable genetic differences that define race. That’s why it’s now termed a social construct that reflects attitudes and beliefs that arose during western European conquests begun in the 1600s.
 
Green explains that our ideas about gender also reflect socially constructed roles, activities and attributes, compared to sex that does have a biological foundation. Where you sit on the gender continuum is based on your personal identity.
 
The terms systemic racism and sexism reflect prejudiced beliefs backed by policy and the authority of society. “Today, we understand racism and sexism not as who we are but as how we act in a specific moment,” Green clarifies. “This transition in definition is critical because it helps us be more open to recognizing and identifying these behaviors in ourselves.”
 
Make a difference
There are plenty of ways to take your engagement to the next level. Because research shows that white Americans are more influential in educating other white Americans with regard to racism, and that men are more influential in influencing other men with regard to sexism, members of these groups are especially well positioned to drive change. We can all start here.
 
Follow the data. Data is the currency of the workplace and you can tap into that capability to identify systemic racism and sexism. Is the leadership team, Board and each level of the organization representative of the population? Is there pay equity? Are supplier relationships diverse? How do promotion and retention rates track for women and people of color?
 
Change policies.  Evaluate policies and practices related to hiring, promotions, succession and development decisions that hinder racial and gender equity. “Focusing on advancing individuals is positive for that person but it doesn’t address inequity in the system,” Green advises.   
 
Listen, learn and self-educate. Online and printed resources abound that enable each of us to increase our understanding of the challenges of sexism and racism without repeatedly asking marginalized populations to do this work for us.
 
Identify your own racist and sexist moments. When you are honest with yourself, you can choose to behave differently. Be willing to look candidly at your own behavior and interrupt racist and sexist behaviors when you observe them in your circle of influence.
 
Don’t let your organization off the hook. “In business, if there’s a problem that matters, we go after it and solve it,” Green says. “We need that same level of energy and analysis to solve these problems.”
 
And keep talking. “We sometimes get this idea that talking about difficult issues is the problem,” Green observes. “But it’s not talking about racism and sexism that’s the problem. It is the issues themselves.” Your first step may be getting more comfortable engaging in uncomfortable conversations. Start by watching Green’s full presentation at WFF Connect.

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