What Black Professionals and White Professionals Really Think About Race in the Workplace

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Flashback to New Year’s Day 2020. Perfect vision was the predominant celebratory theme —  and this year has certainly been eye-opening.

As if the global pandemic, widespread deaths, and massive job loss weren’t enough, the world watched as George Floyd was murdered before our eyes. This tragedy sparked global protests and a barrage of emotions. As a Black woman, I felt the event trigger a deep, generational trauma that was difficult to shake. I was compelled to take meaningful action to open people’s hearts and minds.

Race has been a taboo subject in the workplace — until now. After spending two decades in corporate America leading some of the world’s most iconic global brands, I know that change begins with insights, and the best insights are inspired by authentic conversations.

That’s why my market research team at Driven to Succeed  hosted two closed-door, tell-all community dialogues via Zoom to talk about race, one with Black professionals and the other with white professionals. Participants held a range of leadership roles at their organizations, from directors to the C-suite, plus a few entrepreneurs. The goal of these dialogues was to build more empathy and take steps toward healing to end institutional racism. There were no right or wrong answers — just an honest discussion and a diversity of opinions.

The conversations among our 16 participants were authentic, candid, revealing, and often uncomfortable. People spoke from their hearts and truths; nothing was meant as an attack. We also shared some of the feedback from the Black professionals with the white professionals to get their reactions.

Below are the key insights that arose from our dialogues:

The Gas Pedal Dilemma

Both Black and white professionals have their feet firmly on the gas pedal, with a shared desire to move ahead in their careers. However, Black professionals also have their feet on the brakes. They’ve trained their words, tones of voice, emotions, and countenances so that white colleagues don’t feel “uncomfortable” or “afraid.” Black professionals have learned to “put on a good face” and often curb their ethnicity to be relatable. As Black executives, each often feels as if they’re an island by themselves, and they are tired of being “the only one.”

Black professionals have to measure themselves so they’re not “too much” of anything. Being Black and female is doubly exhausting since, as one participant put it, “I don’t get forgiveness for certain personality traits.” One person observed that Black male executives are generally passive so as not to be  seen as an “angry Black man.” What’s a leader to do when they’re warned against coming across as “too militant,” but they naturally communicate with passion and emotion? They develop armor to protect their feelings.

The Roadblocks

Both groups mentioned, unprompted, that Black people don’t have the same starting point as white people in their professional journeys. Blacks run into the wall of race, so they are forced to fight a battle that shouldn’t be necessary, leaving them exhausted, frustrated, complicit, and feeling like the underdog.

In addition to the challenges mentioned above, Black professionals shared some additional barriers and unspoken rules they face in corporate America:

• “We all have to alter our ethnicity at some point.”
•  “I keep my personal life personal so it’s not used against me.”
•  “Whites feel comfortable connecting with other whites, and I’m not what they’re used to.”
• “I outperform my peers and still don’t get the promotions I deserve.”
• “There’s a lack of sponsors who can advocate for me.”
• “I’m always in the spotlight/under scrutiny/looking over my shoulder.”

The Eye-Opener

The Heart of a Leader CoverThe murder of George Floyd has unleashed “a stench of racism that can’t be ignored,” one participant said. According to Black research participants, white people were forced to see and hear racism, making “the struggle” more real to them now because they are part of it. We asked white professionals to describe in one word how they felt in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death: “despair,” “confusing,” “necessary,” “torn,” “horrific,” “hopeful,” “backward,” and “sad.”

White professionals are torn between two ideas: How can America be the greatest country in the world, where anybody can make it if they work hard and dream big, and at the same time have such a huge number of people running this race with a weight around their necks because it’s systemically set up to be that way? The experience has been “confusing, enlightening, and painful; good, bad and awful; and everything in between,” according to white participants. The more they absorb, the more painful it is.

Many shared a sense of hope that we’ve “turned a corner and can start to move in a different direction.” They said they can’t continue to be passive or behave the way they have. “I’m an ally willing to do what’s needed but struggling because I don’t know what to do,” one participant said.

How do you have difficult conversations about things that are so complicated, complex, and sensitive? To help answer that question, we shared Black professionals’ feedback on what they want white people to know.

The Revelations

When it comes to outlooks on progress around race, Black professionals’ perspectives range from cautiously optimistic to skeptical. Some believe we are at a tipping point, while others feel quotes from Malcolm X and James Baldwin are still as relevant today as they were 50 years ago.

The events of the past few weeks, and the number of increasingly vocal Black employees, have caused many companies to realize they have issues. “It’s like the bed was nicely made up, but now the covers are pulled back and you find there’s a lot of dirty clothes under that nicely made bed,” one participant said.

Prior to the past several weeks, whites were okay without having conversations about racism, but Blacks don’t have a choice. Suddenly, white people want to talk about race. Blacks are being bombarded with questions. They’re publicly sharing their pain at company town halls and team meetings, which has simultaneously led to more exhaustion and more boldness as Black professionals ask their colleagues, “Are you ready for what you’ll hear?”

While Blacks still measure their words with colleagues at work, they were quite candid during our community dialogue. Here’s how they responded when we asked, “What do you want your white colleagues to know?”

• “We’ve been traumatized and terrorized for 400 years.”
• “I’m not giving you a script on how to talk to Black people.”
• “Your European ancestors never had what my ancestors and I experienced.”
• “You’ve had an awakening, but how could you be so oblivious?”
• “Having Black employees doesn’t mean you’re not a racist.”
• “Discrimination happens to Black people you know.” Note: Many white colleagues say, “I never thought racism would happen to you,” but every Black participant said they had negative experiences around race.
• “Work through your own stuff, just like I did in first grade. You’re lucky you don’t have to deal with this until you’re in your 40s. You can hire a therapist.”
• “Your tears, guilt, and apologies are irritating. What are you going to do with your ‘sorry’?”
• “Institutional racism is very real for us, and it’s a white problem, so you fix it.”

The Response

Kristin HarperIf you’re feeling squeamish or uneasy, you’re not alone. We asked white professionals for a one-word reaction to these revelations: “breathtaking,” “overwhelming,” “uncomfortable,” “sad,” “true,” “revealing.”

“I couldn’t breathe and felt nauseous when I heard ‘traumatized’ and ‘terrorized,'” one participant said. “Four-hundred years is tragic, and it makes me angry because it comes from power and greed.”

“I feel personally attacked because I don’t know if that’s true about me,” another participant said.

“I get it, but it sucks,” said another.

“Racism doesn’t reflect everyone’s view,” said a fourth.

“We have to work together to make an attitude adjustment,” a fifth participant said.

One person went on to explain, “I feel like our country is literally getting torn apart at the seams, by folks taking different sides on an issue that seems so apparent we should all be on the same team about. I bristle at the term ‘white privilege’ because I think it’s an inherently derogatory, made-up term that creates even more divisiveness. I don’t see skin color; I see character. So, if you’re asking me to see your skin color, then you’re asking me to see you as a victim. That doesn’t feel good to who I am.”

Most white professionals agreed that something has got to give, but how? They know there’s a lot to do, but what? There are no right words to heal the pain, and many expressed a similar sentiment: “I legit don’t know where to start.”

My market research colleague, Kaylie Dugan, facilitated the white professionals group. We both observed that the energy of the group dramatically improved when we concluded the dialogue with feedback from Blacks about what corporate America should do. The white professionals expressed a desire to learn and help, but they were nervous about bringing up the subject of race for fear of offending anyone.

The Ask

“Motivating.” “Positive.” “Exciting.” “Tangible.” “Love it!”

These brief reactions capture white professionals’ responses to what Blacks want from corporate America. That list of wants includes:

• Action, not rhetoric
• Diversity at every level, especially in the C-suite and boardroom
• A critical mass of Black executives
• Equity in representation and pay
• Sponsor and identify people who should move up
• Give feedback so Blacks can advance
• More money spent on minority businesses (not white-women-owned businesses)
• Senior leaders must recognize their bias and speak up
• Replace the term “ally” with “advocate”; ally is passive, while advocate is active.

Despite feeling “perpetually awkward” talking about race, white professionals liked the tangible, realistic, and specific goals. They can “champion this for sure” because these asks reflect what they want for their careers as well.

Although we didn’t share the barriers and unspoken rules with white professionals, one person did acknowledge that the starting point for Blacks is lower. “Everyone deserves the same starting point in the race,” they said, while also noting that it’s a catch-22 when you’re “trying to conform yet trying to shine. That’s the double bind.” Black professionals would likely agree.

Kristin Harper is CEO of Driven to Succeed, LLC, and the author of The Heart of a Leader: 52 Emotional Intelligence Insights to Advance Your Career. 

By Kristin Harper