How to Design Racially Safe Spaces in the Workplace
Racially safe spaces may not mean much to some people. It may sound obsolete, archaic and out of date. All the more so in 2017. Afterall, there is no such thing as racial prejudice in today’s times, right?
Well, that’s wrong.
If you are a person who have ever been the racial minority or token person of color in a public space, you may have noticed the effects that it has had on you. From how you behave and conduct yourself in front of others, to even perhaps being overly mindful about associating yourself with certain racial stereotypes.
To feel racially unsafe is to be painfully aware of being the only token person in a room. It means carrying the burden of being sole representation of an entire group. In a completely or relatively homogenous group, such as a business meeting full of white colleagues for example, it can be difficult to feel racially safe when you are the only person of color in the room. This marries well to the example of being the only woman in the room. Although not racial, your gender identity also puts you at risk of feeling unsafe. This is why identities and social privileges can have a deep effect on you and your abilities to be physically and mentally safe in an environment, and thus how you perform at work (or more importantly, how you are perceived to perform at work).
So how can we design racially safe spaces in the workplace, and ensure all members of a team can feel safe in representing who they are?
To design racially safe spaces, what is helpful is to have all members of the team trained to be quietly cognizant about the lack of diversity in the room. Note the word quietly – voicing racial injustices or bringing attention to the only person of color can make everyone in the room uncomfortable, the same way forcing the only person of non-abled body to speak about their experiences, or treating the only person of the other gender in a different way from the rest is unprofessional. I say quietly cognizant, to prevent individuals from altering their behavior or becoming overtly conscious to all injustices or inequalities in the workplace 1. Becoming mindful to racial inequities does not need to be an uncomfortable experience, but a natural life path towards developing your collaborative and communication skills with people from different walks of life.
Racially safe spaces are spaces where each person in the room, regardless of their race, feels safe to express who they are without fear of retribution. This should be achieved, not by erasing the race of every member in the room (an impractical approach) but by being cognizant of our racial identities as a intuitive part of each person’s identity and accepting them as who they are.
When I look at North American history, how racial identities have progressed throughout the years strikes me as very odd. We went from using racial differences to fuel the foundations for capitalism and the betterment of the white race, to banning racism and making it taboo. Racism, essentially, was outlawed overnight. This quick transition failed to teach people how to treat or view different racial identities today in the globalized world. Most of our gut reaction to racial identities other than our own are indeed prejudiced – because the legacy of racism continues on today. No single person can overcome centuries of prejudice that is culturally embedded in our society alone.
We went straight from pointing out racial identities to ignoring race altogether. But your racial identity is a part of you – it is visible. It is one the first characteristic about you that people notice about you, and it contributed to who you are today, just like ethnic, gender, sexuality, class or any other social identities make up who we are.
Starting from a place that acknowledges our history and who we are and how different our experiences are, and being compassionate not dismissive, is the first step into creating racially safe environments in the workplace. The next step is up to you to go out and become educated. To choose more knowledge, not ignorance.
Because addressing each and every inequalities in the workplace is a mountainous amount of work that can only be acheived by everyone’s participation.↩