“I can no longer bite my tongue”: Why it’s time to talk about racism in the workplace

NSW-government-principal-advisor-Jemi-Jeng

NSW government principal advisor Jemi Jeng.

It seems everywhere I look these days, people are talking about race. And as a person of colour, all I can think is it’s about time!

Like many people, I’ve watched, listened and reflected on the long-overdue coverage — at times encouraged by the constructive conversations and at other times frustrated by the silence and denial.

However, after weeks of talking with family and friends, I started to wonder why these important conversations weren’t happening in our workplaces.

COVID-19 has unquestionably turned our professional lives upside down, but is it really the reason we aren’t talking about racism at work? Do we think our workplaces are immune to racism?

If recent reports are anything to go by, this clearly isn’t true See SBSAbsolute Care and HealthSingleton High SchoolHealthcareThe West AustralianXS Espresso CaféBalranald Shire Council and the AFL.

Why then, aren’t we talking about racism at work?

Starting the conversation

Curious to hear from others, I surveyed 15 people on their views and experiences with racism in the workplace.* Although this was a very small survey sample,** it was enough to prompt a discussion. Fourteen people completed the survey within days and a few also thanked me for my courage to write publicly on the issue. While I’m immensely grateful for this support, I get the impression some of it could be due to a reluctance to talk about racism in their workplaces.

Less than one-third of people surveyed (29%) feel they can speak openly about racism at work.

For some white people, the reluctance may come from a fear of saying the wrong thing.

They don’t want to offend or be perceived as insensitive or racist. Some may feel uncomfortable, helpless or out of place talking about racism. And others may think it’s not a problem (at least not their problem) or may even be in denial — a problem outlined by Robin D’Angelo in White Fragility.

For people of colour, the reluctance can come from a fear of reprisal.

We’re afraid of what speaking up will mean for our jobs and careers. We don’t want to be singled out, or alienated, and are tired of the silence and misguided excuses when we speak up.

This includes suggestions that we’ve ‘misunderstood’, ‘are overreacting’, ‘can’t take a joke’, are ‘too PC’, ‘playing the race card’. (I could literally go on for pages about the excuses.)

Some of us are also angry and frustrated by the need to educate white colleagues on racism when we already carry the burden of it.

Whatever the reason for our silence, we’ve made a conscious decision to avoid the conversation, and we’re all worse off for it.

Now full disclosure, I’ve also avoided the conversation more times than I’d like to admit. Over the years, I’ve been silenced by the silence, excuses and mismanaged incidents. I’ve put my mental health above the seemingly pointless battles — opting to bite my tongue and get ahead, rather than speak my truth and face the reprisals. This is something Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote about in Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race back in 2018.

But I can no longer bite my tongue.

Like many people, I’ve been encouraged by the Black Lives Matter Movement. I can no longer wait for those who benefit from practices and systems that enable racism to dismantle them. To achieve the kind of change I’d like to see, I will need to be a more vocal participant in the conversation — no matter how frustrating or exhausting, and no matter the consequences.

What people have to say about racism at work

A majority of the people surveyed (79%) feel racism exists in Australian workplaces. A total of 21% are unsure and don’t believe it’s widespread. One participant said “it may exist in some workplaces, but certainly not in most”. None of the participants denied that racism exists in the workplace, which is reassuring.

Half the participants said they’ve witnessed or experienced racism at work in the past two years, but only 43% of them reported it to a manager or HR. All those who reported incidents were people of colour.

Although 43% is higher than I expected, it isn’t good either. Key reasons for not reporting include company size, difficulty articulating racism that “is not blatant” and disbelief that anything will be done.

One participant said: “In small private companies there’s often no HR and senior management are often the ones leading the racist behaviour — what’s the point in reporting when you can’t even have dialogue?”

I don’t know much about small companies, but I do have experience dealing with a racist boss. One former boss of mine started every team meeting with racist jokes and rants about Asians — as if it was a standing agenda item. No matter how many times I tried to call it out, disagree or even hide in the toilet to escape, the situation never improved. The experience robbed me of my voice, security and confidence, and my work suffered as a result. It took me years to recover from this experience.

Covert racism, unconscious racial bias and structural racism (see more definitions on racism here) are the most common forms of racism witnessed and experienced by survey participants. Participants also consider these forms of racism to be the hardest to articulate and report.

One person explained: “I don’t think there is enough evidence for me to report an instance of unconscious bias and I’ve never witnessed outright racism, which would be easier to recognise and report and for me to speak up. When an event occurs that is more blurred, or is not racist in nature, I feel like it is not my place to say anything.”

While covert racism may seem like a step up from blatant racism, it really isn’t.

In fact, it could be argued that covert racism is more damaging because it’s so insidious. Few of us notice it and even fewer feel confident calling it out — leaving those who do experience it to largely navigate it on their own.

Less than one-third of people surveyed feel they can speak openly about racism to their colleagues and managers. Even among these few people, one person qualified her response saying it “depends on the manager and if there’s trust”.

Others said they’ve tried and been “met with uncomfortable silence”, or will talk to friends about racism, but not HR because “they will always give you the company line”.

The fact that only three out of 14 people feel they can speak candidly about racism at work is remarkable!

How can we say racism isn’t widespread if so few of us are talking about it or reporting it? How do we know it doesn’t happen in “our workplace” if most of us can’t identify or describe covert racism? What does all of this say about our workplace cultures and relationships with HR and how we deal with racism?

When asked if they’ve ever felt uncomfortable or out of place at work in the past two years, because of their race or ethnicity, 43% of people surveyed responded “yes”. Again, all of them are people of colour.

One person said:

“Only when my Aboriginality is used in tokenistic ways. I have elected to not reveal my cultural identity in some circumstances to remain safe. Australia has such a long way to go! I’d love to be my authentic self in workplaces but the fact is, I have to hide certain parts of my identity to feel safe and to feel like I am treated as an equal. I learned this behaviour from observing how my parents and grandparents were treated in the workplace. Even when a family member recently passed away, their Aboriginal slur nickname was published in the obituary from their work — disgusting!”

I know many people of colour who leave parts of their identity at home to fit in and protect themselves from discrimination at work. But the fact that some Indigenous Australians conceal their Aboriginality all together is truly disturbing. I can’t even begin to imagine the daily mental toll this takes, let alone the long-term trauma. The crazy thing is that this all happens in an environment where we’re all meant to feel “safe”.

Half the participants (or 58% of participants of colour) said their race has affected their career opportunities over the past five years. Career opportunities include job offers, earnings and promotions.

One executive said his lack of access to networks, and understanding of the codes and mores of the public service has affected his career.

Another person recounted her experience as a graduate when she was offered an Indigenous placement even though she didn’t apply to an ‘Indigenous stream’ (it didn’t exist). She said: “The fact that they did that made me feel as though I wasn’t chosen on merit but to tick a box.”

One recently arrived migrant observed that “the best jobs go to Australians and it is harder to get a foot in the door”, while another participant said “it’s clear in the legal profession that people of colour are not represented in management and executive positions”.

The lack of racial diversity in leadership was a common theme throughout the survey responses.

It’s clear in the legal profession that people of colour are not represented in management and executive positions.

Racial bias in recruitment and leadership are well reported. I’ve personally experienced the hesitation among hiring managers as they weigh up the “risks” of hiring me for a new role. Like many people of colour, I’ve also felt the burden of “working twice as hard to get half as far”. I’ve felt the frustration of persistently being underestimated and having others credited for my work because of unconscious biases around intelligence.

When asked if they feel their race has affected other people’s perceptions of their intelligence in the past two years, one-third of people surveyed responded “yes” — suggesting stereotypes about intelligence still exist. Again all the participants who reported feeling this way are people of colour.

One person said he feels others perceive him as less intelligent because English is his second language and he can’t always express himself as he’d like to.

Another man said: ‘Absolutely. As a person of colour the assumption is I’ve either been given a free pass or must be exceptionally intelligent to warrant a place among white professionals. Both scenarios require me to go above and beyond what white people need to do to prove that I belong.’ (Paraphrased.)

His experience hits home. Like him, I’ve felt the scrutinising eyes of those who wonder if I’ve achieved my position on merit or earned my seat at the table. I’ve dealt with microagressors who’ve gone out of their way to compliment me on my intelligence and articulateness — completely ignoring the prejudices that led them to question my capabilities in the first place. The emotional gymnastics involved in navigating these extremes is exhausting!

Where to from here?

The survey results demonstrate that racism exists in our workplaces, and like the rest of society, we do need to start talking about it.

Senior executives and HR managers need to prioritise racism in the same way they do other forms of discrimination and respond with words and action — rather than silence and apathy. Organisations also need to create safe spaces for employees to talk about and report racism, and also provide appropriate training and support to employees to deal with covert and structural racism (see Winitha Bonney’s recent piece on why anti-racism and unconscious bias training are a bandaid solution).

If we are ever to dismantle racism in the workplace, we need to start the conversation. I have. Have you?

Acknowledgments

I’d like to thank everyone who contributed to this piece, including the survey participants who bravely shared their views and experiences with me, and my peer reviewers Eunice Ching, Marije Dirks and Mike Palmyre. Thank you all for your encouragement and support.

Disclaimer

In this article, the terms ‘work’ and ‘workplace’ are used generically. They do not refer to a specific workplace, company or organisation. This article has been written in my personal capacity. The opinions expressed in it belong solely to me, and do not reflect the views of my employer. They also do not necessarily reflect the individual views of the people who participated in this survey.

*The survey sample includes eight women and seven men aged in their mid-twenties to late-sixties. They represent multiple racial and ethnic groups (including Indigenous Australian, Black, Caucasian, Latinx and Asian) and hold positions across all levels of the public and private sector.

**This survey sample is very small and may not represent the views of the broader workforce. It is not intended to be a quantitive study. More in-depth research is required for a representative sample.

This article was first published on Women’s Agenda.

NOW READ: “Triple glass ceiling”: A Q&A with Amina of Zaria and #ColourFULL founder Winitha Bonney

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