The Conversations We Aren't Having
Recently on the Being Brown at Work podcast, I had the pleasure of speaking with Cheryl Thompson about all of the things we don't say in the office. Cheryl is the CEO and founder of the Center for Automotive Diversity, Inclusion and Advancement, in addition to her 30 year career at Ford Motor Company. We had a fantastic conversation, so definitely tune into the Being Brown at Work podcast to catch the full discussion.
One of the first things that Cheryl and I talked about is the origin of the "ideal worker." She pointed out that the ideal of the white collar American worker is based on a set of values and behaviors that came out of the 1950's. White men with wives at home who looked after the kids and the home needed very little flexibility. They could work longer hours and come in early, because there was someone there to pick up the slack.
Up until the pandemic, very little had changed in our working environment. Companies expected in-person workers, and not much had slackened in that regard except for a loosening in the dress codes at most offices (goodbye, pantyhose!). However, the unwritten standards and expectations that had been created over 70 years ago still have a huge impact on our working lives, and it's not something that we ever seem to address.
People are afraid to bring up points of difference
Whether it's race, gender, wealth, background, or any other socioeconomic marker, people are uncomfortable bringing up such topics during conversation. The preference is to keep things "neutral" and not "play the ___ card." But the problem is that in America, "neutral" means white and male, and not addressing our points of difference privileges the voice of the people in power.
We're afraid to make mistakes
If we do decide to get brave and address the way things like race or gender are affecting a situation, the fear of messing up or putting our foot in our mouths can keep us from saying what needs to be said. Sometimes people know something is wrong in a situation or that a point of view is being overlooked (or excluded), but the fear of offending others keeps us quiet.
We're afraid to be vulnerable
True bravery requires us to put ourselves out there and stretch beyond our comfort level. We might get it wrong, and that's terrifying in situations where we badly want to get it right. This is why creating a culture of safety and support is critical to fostering a culture where people feel that they can speak up when they see or hear something that's harmful.
Cheryl and I agreed that one of the best things that White people can do for Black people is to be an advocate when we're not in the room. If a white person is in a group of all white people and they hear something racist, being the one to stand up and say, "hey, that's not right," is one of the most effective ways to make change.
For Brown and Black women in the workplace, we’re the ones dealing with the side effects of a culture where White people don’t hold each other accountable... and we need to lean on each other for support.
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