How Should We Address Racism in The Workplace?

By Joyce Odidison

Jul 07

It Will Take Courage for Us To Approach Racism With Curiousity So We Can Learn and Change

As I look at the exchanges and listen to the conversations that have been going on in our world and workplaces about racism and unconscious bias, it appears that we have a lot more work to do. 

How should racism be handled at work? Should we treat it the same as harassment and bullying? How is it different and how is it the same?.

The Victim Defines Racism

The person who commits a racist act is not the one who gets to determine if it was racist. They should be quiet and listen to understand why their behaviour was deemed racist. The Canadian Human Rights legislation says any action that demeans or humiliates a person is harassment. A dismissive gesture, such as a shrug or overgeneralization or minimizing the behaviour is felt and perceived as racism when coming from someone of power and influence.

I have spent decades teaching the Canadian Human Rights legislation to employees in organizations and was extremely disappointed to watch what unfolded in the highest level of the workforce in Canada. Can you imagine what it would be like to go to work everyday with colleagues who chastised you and sat quietly when you experienced racism? This would be classified and an unhealthy work environment. For years I teach employees to speak up if they witnessed bullying and harassment going on at work. Is racism exempted?

The Lens of Privilege

People from racialized groups have spider senses to racism. We can feel it, smell it, and understand it. Do not deny my feelings and experience. Acknowledge it. Learn from it and let us grow from it. Do not tell me with your privileged lenses what racism is. That is an insult to my intelligence.

One of the greatest reasons why racism continues is because of silence. Your silence and tolerance of it permeate the atmosphere. Your silence is another act that perpetuates racism at work. We do not have to turn against each other to grow together.

Discerning Racism

Racism can only be fully discerned by one who has experienced it. It is petty and childish to be wrangling about whether you are racist or whether your actions should be labelled as racist. The louder you defend yourself the more my racialized senses become convinced that you are. Those who portray unconscious biases and are embarrassed by it must engage in learning to change their beliefs and mindset to be more inclusive. They should acknowledge their errors and demonstrate a desire to learn more about how racism is perceived, felt, and understood.

In the same way that harassment is determined by impact so is racism. The harm is done when we perceive and feel racism. Not when you defend yourself. Every time I see or hear you defend yourself; you are choosing to not learn a new way that is not viewed and experienced as racism.

How to Move Past Systemic Racism

To move pass systemic racism, we need to be empathetic and curious when someone verbalizes that an action or behaviour is felt or perceived as racist. We should ask for clarification and seek to understand instead of trying to justify ourselves.

It is not shocking that a white male of privilege would have a quite different understanding of what is racism than a racialized man. We need to move past defending ourselves and our unconscious biases to a place where we learn together and grow up to the requirements of this time.

We need to put on the learners’ hat and inquire where and how our behaviours contribute to this reality. We can note and learn a more appropriate way to communicate or interact because racism is felt, seen, and heard. It is not a matter of intent. One’s behaviour can be racist without a conscious intent to do so. The same way you can kill me accidentally you can be racist towards me unconsciously.

Identify Racism at Work

The Canadian Parliament is a workplace, the highest in our country. If racism is not called out there, what can be expected in other workplaces?

What would calling out racism look like on Parliament Hill? It would be if the rest of the MP’s no matter their parties walked out with the leader that was asked to leave for not apologizing when he encountered a racist act and had the courage to call it out openly.

Leaders must show courage, or we will not move past the racial divide in our society. For centuries others have sat silently and watched as others got vilified and lost everything for denouncing racism, while colleagues turned a blind eye or protect their own interest.

The time to learn is now. The opportunity for change has arrived. Let us take up the mantle and do more to foster curiousity about each other’s experiences, understanding for each other’s perspective and the courage to face the ugly truth of our past as we explore new ways to learn how to develop a more equitable workplace and society for the next generation.

The Fear of Change

It has also come to my attention that many Caucasians are resisting change and equity because they believe people of colour want to displace them or put them in a subjective role. That is far from the truth. The ask is for equitable sharing that will allow us all to grow. Those who share are more richly blessed that those who receive. I don't believe we should take away power and displace another group. I do believe that we should have more open and honest conversations and learn how to co-exist in a fair and equitable way. I am hosting a free webinar on how to coach race relations, wellness and relational well-being. I hope you will join me. Click here to join

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About the Author

Joyce Odidison, MA, PCC, CTDP is a Thought Leader on Interpersonal Wellness and Competency Mindset Teaching. She is a Conflict Analyst, Coach, and corporate speaker/trainer on interpersonal, respect and diversity for 24 years. Joyce helps organizations protect the emotional, interpersonal, and mental well-being of employees and leaders from conflict, stress, and burnout, to preserve their reputation, promote diversity, inclusion, and psychological safety at work. She is a frequent TV guest expert offering relational well-being tips for leaders and employees. Joyce has been featured in the Winnipeg Free Press, Canadian Living, Corporate Wellness Magazine, Thrive Global, Fast Company, and others.She can be reached at admin@interpersonalwellness.com or by phone at 1-877-999-9591.

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