I’m a bit of an anomaly. I do diversity training for a living—and I’m an older, straight, white male. In my career of over 25 years, I have seen plenty of surprised looks from my audiences when I walk into the room. How could I possibly speak from experience about discrimination in the workplace?
As I see it, the issue of racism has more to do with white people than people of color. And one of the biggest obstacles in ridding the workplace of discrimination is getting white people to understand what racism really is. Most think that, as long as they don’t harbor any ill will toward people of color, they are not racist. In fact, the standard defense against being a racist is, “I’m not racist, I work with a guy who is African-American and we get along great.”
Here is what I have learned from being a white diversity trainer for two decades. How I personally treat people of color is only one small form of racism.
The bigger part of racism refers to an institutionalized system that favors one race over another. This happens when one race has dominance in the power structure and has the authority to make decisions that create certain advantages and disadvantages based on race (economically, politically, and socially). Technically speaking, in American society, only white people can be guilty of true racism. Undoubtedly in Asia, Africa, or South America, it is the other way around.
What this effectively means is that if you are white in the U.S.A., and you are doing nothing to challenge and reform the system to ensure it is fair for all people of color, you are indirectly being racist (supporting racism by giving tacit approval). Similarly to someone who witnesses any form of abuse but chooses to say nothing, silence is a form of enabling.
So, what can white people do to stop racism in the workplace?
First, form a close friendship with a person of color. Not just an acquaintance, but a deep camaraderie—get to know them (their concerns, their interests), have them over, become familiar with their culture.
Second, empathize with their point of view. Get to know the issues that matter to them and why. Take them seriously when they talk about profiling, discrimination, and injustice. Be open to your own participation in white privilege.
Finally, become an advocate every chance you get. Dr. King once said that the bigger tragedy in the struggle for racial equality is “not the vitriolic words and violent actions of bad people, but the appalling silence and indifference of good people.” Systemic racism will never be eradicated until enough people in the majority take the cause of the minority.
Let’s stop fooling ourselves: neutrality is not an option. To do nothing simply perpetuates racism. Earning the right to honestly say, “I’m not a racist” requires thoughtful activism.