Ask the Expert Series: Racism, racial bias, and discrimination in the workplace

By Carla Beauvais, Social Entrepreneur, Columnist, & Diversity & Inclusion Consultant March 18, 2022

OUR ASK THE EXPERT SESSIONS ON DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION ARE SO POPULAR, WE INVITED DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION CONSULTANT CARLA BEAUVAIS TO ANSWER SOME ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS.

* PLEASE NOTE THAT ALL USER PARTICIPATION IS ANONYMOUS.

BLACK LIVES MATTER

Question:

Without diminishing someone’s self-worth or causing them to become defensive, while at the same time making them realize that there are issues to explore and address, what do you suggest the best response is when someone says “all lives matter”?

Carla Beauvais:

There is a difference between focus and exclusion. When something matters, it doesn’t mean that nothing else matters. But here’s something else that matters too: context. The Black Lives Matter claim is not a statement against Whites. It doesn’t exclude Whites or other people. The claim doesn’t accuse anyone of anything. The slogan chanted (by Black people, but also by allies) is a statement against these injustices: We want to live in a society free of racism and discrimination against Blacks. Plain and simple.

PERFORMATIVE ALLYSHIP

Question:

In what ways can someone avoid falling into unintentional performative allyship, and better understand what is harmful vs. helpful without putting pressure on our peers for these answers.

Carla Beauvais:

Performative activism can weaken the confidence and credibility of a business or an individual. Not only can this hurt BIPOC, but it frames the message in a way that makes it seem like the company is throwing money at diversity issues, hoping they’ll go away or to gain social capital. But that doesn’t deal with issues in a deeper way. When talking about individuals, we’re talking about slacktivism (online activism with very little genuine commitment).

People see this lack of authenticity of certain brands or individuals, as performative activism — with good reason. We must face the fact that there are implications and consequences and that we should not take advantage of an issue opportunistically or take advantage of events to gain social capital.

Whether at the corporate or individual level, we must avoid falling into the traps and blind spots of performative activism.

Of course, alliances can help bring about positive change. When we join hands in denouncing injustice, justice can be served. But neither should we be tricked into thinking that this kind of alliance is enough to eradicate racism and injustices. We need more than hashtags; we need action.

To go from being a performative activist ally to a true ally, you must support the BIPOC causes (put your money where your mouth is). Support businesses owned by BIPOC.

Talk to people in real life. Go beyond showing your support in an Instagram post. Engage in a way that confronts your own prejudices. Read books on the history of racism, listen to podcasts on racial issues. Get informed.

If everything you do is public, chances are that you’re a performative ally. Challenge yourself to do things discreetly, hidden from the eyes of people, like, for one, changing where you spend your money (support BIPOC businesses), donate your platform to a BIPOC, or learn about the history of racism without telling everyone how knowledgeable you are. This way you know you are showing up for the cause—not to project the image of a “woke” person.

DENOUNCING DISCRIMINATION

Question:

When someone in a position above you makes a comment or joke to you that you believe is inappropriate, like making reference to a racial stereotype, how can you respond without jeopardizing your job?

Carla Beauvais:

Most of the time, employees who suffer from discrimination do not complain because they fear that it might backfire or get them fired. The same goes for people who witness discrimination taking place but who prefer to turn a blind eye to protect their position or career. This is all perfectly understandable. You should know, however, that this should be the least of your worries. You must take action against discrimination and report any wrongdoing, and you shouldn’t continue to work in an intolerant environment. You can try the informal approach first and politely express your concerns to the offender. Ask them to explain what they meant and caution them from making similar comments in the future. You should also show your support to the victim of the discrimination. If the informal approach does not work and the acts continue, report the issue to your Human Resources Department for further action. Under normal circumstances, you may request that your complaint remains anonymous. There are also measures to protect employees in these situations. You can also enlist the help of a lawyer to make sure you don’t put your job at risk. These are tough situations, but the right thing to do is to speak out against discrimination. Silence is not an option.

ASKING ABOUT ONE’S BACKGROUND

Question:

How can we ask a person’s origins, meaning where is she from, without incurring this microaggression situation, especially when we have some colleagues that were born in Canada and they might feel affected by the question. Better asking “is it an aggressive question” from the start?

Carla Beauvais:

The problem is that for those who already feel “different” in a given setting, being asked where they’re from leads to assumptions about one’s race, ethnicity, nationality, etc. Often this translates to: You don’t seem to belong to our community/society/people. It validates existing beliefs about social identities and can be quite patronizing. As you said, some people born here may feel a bit uncomfortable. Especially at a young age, when identity and social construction are important. The question is: “How do you express your curiosity without being inconsiderate about other people’s feelings?” I think you could simply rephrase your question: What is your background?

This shows curiosity about someone’s background without implying that they’re not from here.

RESOURCES

Question:

Do you mind sharing any tools/resources which support learning about equity and anti-racism that can be shared with colleagues at work?

Carla Beauvais:

The Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion offers a bunch of really interesting resources and toolkits.

You can access them here.

You will find anything from movies to books, podcasts, and/or Instagram accounts you can follow. A truly excellent guide for these kinds of themes.

SUPPORTING CHANGE

Question:

Can institutions truly become anti-racist without having BIPOC in power? While anti-racist policies can be in theory enacted by anyone, they obviously haven’t been by white leadership, who also truthfully claim they have difficulty in understanding the lived experiences of BIPOC. The other side of this question has to do with tokenism, how can we also ensure the BIPOCs promoted (by white powerholders) are not tokens who perpetuate white supremacy??

Carla Beauvais:

Diversity and inclusion are hard in part because it’s challenging to meet a diversity quota without resorting to symbolic milestones. Tokenism is diversity without inclusion, which means it’s a superficial effort to meet diversity targets or to give the appearance of diversity without making effective changes.

To avoid falling into this trap, stop thinking about targets in terms of numbers. You need 1 Black person or 1 woman for this position. No. It’s much more than a matter of ticking boxes.

Ask yourself questions instead: How can you make your jobs more visible and more attractive to a diverse pool of candidates? How can you create employee roles or policies that are more inclusive of people outside of your dominant culture? If you make these changes, the numbers will follow. Change policies so that jobs are more inclusive overall and stop brandishing your targets as actual D&I accomplishments. We hire people for their skills and qualifications, not because they allow you to tick a box in your D&I checklist.

By the way, when I say “you,” I mean people in general, not you who’s asking the question.

ENSURING DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION

Question:

How do we ensure that inclusion and diversity are not only for hiring but also for existing employees who need support due to barriers?

Carla Beauvais:

Diversity is what happens when you’re recruiting. That isn’t inclusion. Inclusion is the set of mechanisms, values, and measures that make people feel included, that they have equal opportunities and that they can be themselves completely and be treated fairly. In my opinion, the issue of inclusion is even more important than diversity. Because without a truly inclusive climate, all efforts in terms of diversity are in vain. The question of representation strikes me as important. Inclusion and representation are, in my opinion, the two pillars for a successful D&I strategy.


DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION PROGRAMS

Question:

How am I supposed to take my company’s D&I team seriously when they’re all white?

Carla Beauvais:

Many business leaders still have blind spots when it comes to diversity. They underestimate the barriers that their racialized employees face and perceive their workplaces as being far less prejudiced than they actually are. They launch programs they believe will bring improvements, but they base their decisions on intuition rather than proven results. Unless they recognize their blind spots, these leaders will not make significant progress.

Businesses can’t just launch programs and expect results. Instead, they should approach it like any other business priority: with careful planning and implementation. Specifically, the success of each of these initiatives requires a commitment from management, a tailored approach based on the needs of the organization, and metrics to measure progress. In addition, they must include their employees throughout the process, both in choosing specific solutions and in evaluating the impact of current measures. So, it’s easy to see how companies can spend money on diversity initiatives that don’t drive results. Executive officers—mostly older men—who decide how much to invest in diversity and which initiatives to fund, do not clearly understand the magnitude of the issues or where they stand in relation to them. But I can understand your skepticism. Perhaps one solution would be to get involved in the committee and to voice your concerns.

ADDRESSING BIAS AND DISCRIMINATION IN THE WORKPLACE

Question:

My office has pulled together a D&I working group trying to address BLM and racism in the workplace. They have asked for volunteers and have also brought in a third party to help. What’s the most important question that should be put forth about inclusion.

Carla Beauvais:

I would say the most important question is: are we really prepared to go through with it—with the process? We cannot enter into this dialogue thinking that a few open-hearted conversations will help to move things forward. Yes, dialogue is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. It takes genuine commitment and awareness that these things take time. Talking about racism is difficult — that’s still the case for me in the workplace. So, we need to ask ourselves whether this approach is performative or is it part of a genuine desire for change.

RECOGNIZING ONE’S BIAS

Question:

I am a white privileged male, in my late 50’s. Call me blind, call me ignorant, but I grew up in a 99.99% white community. Over the years, I have tried to educate myself on inequalities with people of color. It did not hit me until, I watched Van Jones on CNN and he said, “In our community, we have to have a conversation with our children about how to act when pulled over by police.” It was a light bulb moment. I did not get that conversation from my parents, nor did I have it with my children. With the recent BLM movement, I believe people like myself have opened our eyes, I am watching more documentaries and reading more articles. I know it is still going to be a long road for your fight, but does the Black community in general, finally feel growing support from the white community?

Carla Beauvais:

I have to answer this question personally since I can’t speak on behalf of all Black communities (there are several, we are not a monolithic social group). I think that there’s a collective awareness of various issues that affect Black communities and that several people, who until now, were standing on the sidelines about the realities of Black communities are now experiencing a certain awakening. I honestly believe that, for many, the events of last summer were a moment of real awakening. But we also need to recognize that there’s still a long road ahead. The discrimination that Black communities experience is rooted in the very foundations of our societies. The issue is more at the social level than at the individual one. So yes, the more people, like you, are sympathetic and ready to denounce the social inequalities that certain communities experience, the more support we will drum up. In the end, we will succeed in changing our society for good in eradicating racism in all its forms.

INCLUSIVE LEADERSHIP

Question:

Inclusive Leadership: 1) what are the top qualities/attributes; 2) how could we build/develop inclusive leadership in an organization? Thank you.

Carla Beauvais:

There are several important qualities to consider when talking about inclusive leaders. Inclusive and engaged leaders demonstrate an ongoing dedication to tackling racism and exclusion in the workplace. This kind of leadership is a prerequisite for creating an environment enabled with the decision power, responsibilities, and actions to fight racism. It takes unwavering determination to build an inclusive culture. Show your continued hope and determination to lead and to expect others to lead in an anti-racist manner. You need to talk openly about your determination in front of your team.

Humility is another factor; to recognize that leaders don’t have all the answers but strive to listen to others and deepen their own understanding. Inclusive leaders have inquisitive minds and seek to explore, investigate, and learn more about the dynamics of the workplace. They ask questions and invite input from others to get a full picture of how racism manifests itself in the workplace and, subsequently, to develop impactful solutions. Leaders demonstrate a desire to learn about other cultures at work. They know their perspectives are just one set of lenses through which to see the world, and that others have different views about their role in the workplace and their sense of belonging. These leaders actively seek to understand and navigate cultural differences, and to overcome differences.

The primary goal of leadership development is to improve the ability of individuals to be effective in leadership roles and processes. For leadership development initiatives to be truly effective, they must align with an organization’s business strategy and provide development opportunities tailored to each employee.

 

Carla Beauvais, Social Entrepreneur, Columnist, and Diversity & Inclusion Consultant, has made diversity and inclusion her main focus. A columnist and social entrepreneur, she has been campaigning for over 20 years for better representation and emancipation of black and marginalized communities. With an authentic approach, she is now pursuing her commitment by equipping leaders on the inevitable path of diversity. A graduate of the prestigious Cornell University (New York), she raises awareness on the competitive and human advantages of creating more inclusive spaces. Her method consists of offering avenues for reflection and solutions based on a deep analysis of unconscious biases in order to develop best practices.

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